ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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On the Aesthetics of Public Spaces

Tapas Mitra ( is an architect and urbanist. He heads the Department of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal.

A panel discussion on tradition and modernity in cities leads to insights on public good and the role of urban design.

It all started at a panel discussion hosted by the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal. The discussion was about the ideas of tradition and modernity in the context of our cities, specifically Bhopal. The panel, of which I was a part, like most other panels, was a motley assortment of the academician, the practising planner, the archaeologist/historian, the political ideologue, and the ubiquitous bureaucrat who would bring disparate views to a common platform.

As is customary in public debates and discourses, the panellists spoke about private memories and anecdotes to consolidate their association with the city of Bhopal. They were thus following the “tradition” of public debate only to be interjected once in a while by the moderator, who was giving a summary of the discussion hitherto in general and holistic terms, to the extent that the discussion went into the domain of the abstract and remained politically non-committal for the benefit of everybody. The panel drifted on from this “intellectual” and neutral stand and started dabbling with the idea of sacredness and the historic nature of the city, and how modernity is being ushered in by the “Smart City” agenda.

It was said that the Smart City agenda is based on the concept of “area-based development” (ABD), which is supposed to inform and trigger the growth and development of the entire city through design. While the other panellists were throwing around ideas about smart cities and modernisation, and information loaded with minute details from their city associations, I thought I should speak about cities and traditions in a broader sense, since I have stayed in the city for only 10 years. I came here merely to make a living and haven’t yet had the leisure to indulge in aimless strolls with the “unselective curiosity” to quote Thomas Mann, to be able to internalise the city as my colleagues had.

I quoted from T S Eliot’s 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” “We seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence.” I said that one could turn to the Mahabharata to seek some insights into the tradition of this country and presented the conversation between Yudhishthira and a Yaksha (in the disguise of a crane). When Yudhishthira is asked who a happy man is, he says: “A happy man is he who is not in exile, who doesn’t have debts and cooks his own humble meal at his humble home and has his meal [Sakanna, a frugal meal, as stated in Buddhadev Bose’s commentary of the Mahabharata] at the 5th or the 6th hour of the day.” To explain this idea of frugality in tradition with an urban example, I cited the case of Bharat Bhavan, the multi-art centre in Bhopal, designed by the late Charles Correa, which represents this “richness of frugality.” Bharat Bhavan can be seen as a non-building. The architect brings to the project the tradition of built and unbuilt spaces (the relation between which is also at the core of the design idea of Fatehpur Sikri) to achieve harmony with nature and respond to the terrain where the project is sited, which rolls into the Upper Lake of Bhopal. An urban artefact, this work is frugal in its tangible form and profound in its richness of synthesis of building traditions in the tropical regions.

The discussion went into the domain of safety and aesthetics of public spaces, and questions were raised as to why entire cities can’t be aesthetic and safe public spaces as Bharat Bhavan. There are quite a few safe and aesthetic public spaces in many cities, but not all citizens can access these. Our “public spaces” are gated, and one has to pay an entry fee to be part of such spaces, pretty much like one pays an entry fee to enter a casino. Fee or not, there is a threshold which comes in the way of the public-ness of the place. It is this threshold that makes Bharat Bhavan exclusive. Can all such gates and walls be brought down, could all such thresholds be done away with, and could the city be a whole, a continuum, rather than an assortment of exclusive parts?

In Bhopal, parks have been converted to urban forests under urban forestry initiatives and thus retained. These are unrestricted public spaces, albeit gated, but are unfortunately rarely visited in this age of the networked society, and this is not specific to Bhopal. It is worthwhile here to talk about Sharon Zukin’s idea of “submergence” of public space in the urban mix of the private and the public. Malls, for instance, are unrestricted public spaces if we were to consider them such. In our country, we hardly give any thought to whether or not such commercial spaces submerge the aesthetics of a public space. In this connection, the idea of cordoning off public monuments as a measure to “protect” them should also be questioned as this suggests an utter disregard for everyday urbanism (where spaces are improved by appropriation and not worsened) as well as a perverse desire of ownership and consequent denial of the right to the city.

The concern for the wall-less city and public space continuum is a design idea that falls within the territory of urban design. Through its interdisciplinary nature, it can integrate various prescriptive structures of urban planning and transcend them to achieve universal public good. I see urban design making urban planning policies operational in a liberal and aesthetic way by taking into account their impact on the form and meaning of the urban environments produced. But, I would refrain from being emphatic about achieving public good through urban design, since I know how an institution, instrument or, in this case, discipline can assume a tyrannical nature. Albert Camus famously said, “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.” This is also true about the Smart City initiatives across the country—labelled as large-scale instruments to effect public good—about which, like the Sphinx, we happen to know so much and yet so little.


Updated On : 31st May, 2019


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