Interactive interventions in cities across India impart life into public spaces through creative use of colours, oil tins, tyres and recycled waste. These are some of the thoughtful and meaningful ways in which students have sought to interact with their cities, and reclaim public space for the people.
Commuters travelling via the Andheri metro station in Mumbai are met by a colourful surprise – a plethora of murals on the walls that portray life in the city – stories of its migrants and dabbawalas, rickshaws and taxis; depictions of overcrowding and space constraints. A particular wall here is painted by third year architecture students from NMIMS BSSA, who won this canvas in the ‘Majhi Mumbai’ competition floated by Mumbai Metro One Pvt Ltd.
One of these students Shriya Sanil expresses in an Indian Express article,
In a city where almost every second vacant wall is stained with paan spit marks, political and movie posters, and stickers, advertising jobs or the occultism of tantriks, the murals will at least make people think twice about defacing the walls.
Besides generating civic sense through art, the murals also revive a sense of colour.
Sanya Gupta, an alumnus of the Academy of Architecture, Mumbai, laments the preference for colourlessness that dominates today’s aesthetics. “The colourfulness of Indian society is being lost in this development-oriented city,” she says, “And along with it, the ability to appreciate spontaineity, art and life.” These observations motivated Gupta to initiate street art interventions in the city. Talking about the many obstacles she faced in organising the same, from the authorities and people alike who epitomised an ‘urban blasé’ attitude, she says,
I was trying to find ways to increase people’s participation with their neighbourhoods. Chembur used to have a sense of community. Today people living in vertical towers are detached from what’s around them. To find a means whereby people could come together, and bring back some colour, we initiated art interventions during the Chembur Festival.
Several examples surface around the country that have, likewise, taken on the task of transforming dreary surfaces into humorous or empowering messages, through a dash of colour.
These artworks also become backdrops for people to interact with.
As seen in the above photographs, the culture of the ‘selfie’ here has the potential to lend itself to some positive interpretations. Students of CEPT University, Ahmedabad, decided to revive a public place in their city by utilising this very potential. They noticed that a traffic island with a public toilet lay unused owing to the stink generated because people urinated on its wall (instead of in the toilet!). As a result people hung out on the road, blocking traffic. Transforming the wall of the toilet into a ‘selfie wall’ by painting it, helped in attracting people to the island and preventing them from urinating on it.
Taking this idea of colour further, another group of students chose a spot on the lively IIM road to generate interactions with the wall and floor. Both these experiments were undertaken as part of a course by Mehrnaz Amiraslani, ‘Practising Social Spaces’. The process of acquiring permissions from the police was easy and they were apparently quite excited by the idea of introducing colours into public spaces – in fact encouraging it, unlike their big city counterparts!
Revitalizing public spaces
Meanwhile, a group of enthusiastic Planning students in CEPT have initiated a movement to celebrate the vibrant spirit of Ahmedabad. They set the informal ‘kitli culture’ of Ahmedabad as their core focus, and started ‘I Belive, Amdavad’, an initiative in revitalizing public spaces that will promote and highlight the city’s street culture.
IBA’s first intervention on IIM Road was removed by neighbours who perceived the improved social space as a nuisance and went to the extent of lining the parapet with jagged glass pieces, reminding one of similar inhumane ‘people repellents’ installed world-over. Learning from this, the students enrolled the authorities in their next intervention so as to formalize the process more and ensure its continuation.
The police and AMC were very co-operative – in fact, they asked us to do something to improve other public spaces in the city! We also realised that people were not using the dustbins that we placed and so an overall educational campaign would have to be initiated alongside these interventions.
Presently, we are looking for volunteers and sponsors to expand this initiative. In the future, we imagine an ‘I Belive’ framework evolving and reaching other cities, localising itself to the core cultures elsewhere.
While authorities and students alike seem to identify the street culture as a key aspect of Ahmedabad, paradoxical interventions of clearing the city of life, no doubt leave one bewildered as to society’s illusory notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘identity’.
Another striking example of what a simple intervention can do for a public space is exemplified by the White Wall Project in Lapod, Rajasthan, by first year students at the Academy of Architecture, Mumbai (2011-12). Anuj Daga, a faculty member who accompanied them on this study tour, explains,
We intended to carry out a social experiment. Our desire was to activate an otherwise silent space. […] We prepared plans to mobilize the village community through the medium of cinema and further build a stage in the heart of the village – the chowk – as a platform for expression.
Our solution was to intervene with a medium of reflection – a projector for the village. A projector that projects an alternative life. As architects, we studied that the village does not have enough dialogue, there are far too few mediums for people to interact with each other. A program such as an open theatre, an open cinema hall would bring the community together to a common space.
The next day, hesitating children built up the courage to perform. Their parents felt proud. The white wall became a backdrop to display the drawings children made in a workshop we conducted.
[…] In the daytime, the subtle plinth of this stage could be appropriated by various people, since it offers a cool shaded space in the otherwise open chowk.
As with any intervention, one wonders about its ‘lifespan’ and acceptability in the long-run. Was the White Wall Project successful in this regard? Says Daga,
Some educated teachers and wise men of the village questioned the appropriation of the chowk, which was essentially public space.
Questions like “whom does this belong to”, “who can intervene”, “how can one intervene in such a village space”, were raised. We did not really answer them.
Perhaps we left the temporal stage to decay on its own.
While the ‘lifespan’ of these interventions cannot always be predicted,
the process of making them is often more important than their expected outcome.
A similar example of a plain white wall being transformed into a stage for human discovery, comes from Trivandrum – a heartwarming initiative by Young Indians Trivandrum in association with architecture students from College of Engineering Trivandrum – in reaching out to autistic kids through the playful act of painting.
Playfulness as a means of interaction takes on further creative avatars in some slums and schools in Mumbai, in the form of play spaces. Students of Rizvi College of Architecture and SEA (School of Environment and Architecture), have made a bunch of play-forms using recycled materials and bamboo in collaboration with Anukruti, a foundation run by Austrian architect Martina Spies. Looking to further collaborate with students in the country and install elsewhere these ‘Urban Flowers’, as she calls them, Martina explains,
Small urban, semi-private and public spaces are urgently needed! That is why I founded Anukrutione year ago to create small little playgrounds and gathering spaces within urban slum pockets, leftover spaces and neglected slum school courtyards – mainly in Mumbai. Why? Because all children should have the right to Play! And I strongly believe that playgrounds boost children’s health and also stimulate their creativity.
While engaging with kids through paint and play prove to be rewarding initiatives, photography as a medium for the same cannot be underestimated either! Students of CEPT University, Ahmedabad, learnt this when they installed a photo booth at Gulbai Tekra, replete with colourful props. This fun intervention enabled engagement with the children. In the process of interacting with the community informally, they were able to understand their needs.
Stepping out into the city to actively engage with the people and hear their stories generates novel experiences for all people involved.
These experiences were sought to be portrayed through performance, in a workshop called ‘City as Theatre’, held in CEPT University by Samir Parker. The workshop aimed to engage with ideas around the subversion of public space and the creation of urban myths. Says a student,
We spent many days in the old city of Ahmedabad exploring the places. After talking with many people who were living in pols – the elders, grandparents, housewives, merchants, kids – we tried to excavate some hidden stories related to their area, their opinions on the old city, and the culture that they live in. Finally we gathered some common stories and presented it in the city, in the form of small acts and poems.
Uncovering myths and narratives of old cities remains an ever-alluring process.
Three students of SPA Delhi have been so taken by this process that they initiated Delhi Dallying in 2011, to ‘converse and engage with the city through writing, talking, walking and design interventions’. They explain,
As practicing architects and graphic designers, our work is informed by our academic learning about the city. […] Mostly, we like telling stories about that grey bit of magic that emerges when people, places and their histories come together.
We communicate this information in the form of walks and workshops that we put together, sometimes even sourcing information during these events. We find ourselves constantly exploring newer ways to engage with the city.
Loving one’s city creates the grounds to develop a civic sense, whereby a sense of ownership can be generated that extends up to public spaces.
The present government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is such an attempt. But exactly a year before this Abhiyan was initiated on the national level, a group of students in Ahmedabad were planning a city-wide cleanliness drive. Rushil Palavajjhala, a young architect from CEPT University, and member of ‘I Lead India Youth Brigade 2013′, explains how architecture students from CEPT transferred their passion for painting walls to help generate civic sense in the old city. R.K. Lakshman’s endearing cartoon of Gandhi leaning down to sweep the floor, was arguably popularised in Modi’s Amdavad through the student-run cleanliness drive, a year before it came to be associated with the national Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
This is perhaps an exemplary case of how small scale student-driven interventions can garner larger momentum and meaning with time!
Seen or worked on an intervention yourself? Have something to share? Feel free to email me!
(Note: Although the title says ‘architecture students’, for the sake of specificity and punch, a lot of students from different disciplines have been involved in these initiatives which makes them doubly awesome.)
This article was first published on Campus Diaries.