How to make our cities beautiful ?

It needed the whole industrial revolution to gather the insight that  the beauty of our cities and the system of governance are intimately related and influence each other. I shall deal with this in a broader way in another post and will present few pre-conditions that seem to be generally applicable for all beautiful cities :

First, two images :

 

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Pont-du-Gard (Roman Aqueduct)

This is not built for beauty or for some work of Art. It is actually a piping system to carry water. Built some 2000 years ago. Many people pay money and spend time to watch this utility item in France.

 

 

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A railway bridge built in North East India somewhere in 2015

 

This is built for a purpose – an utility – to carry a train safely and securely.

 

 

 

 

 

There is the new paradigm in India now – called building “smart cities” but my question is whether these cities will be beautiful ? Is there a fundamental conflict between being useful and beautiful ?

The Roman Aqueduct as above is a 2000 year old protest and answer that there is no conflict between being useful and beautiful at the same time.

When Europe was waking up from the slumber of Middle Age, politicians and artists of Florence, Italy went far back to Rome and Greece for the inspiration to build their cities. When Venice was built replacing the marshland of Nature, human creation did something better than Nature

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Venice waterfront – mentally remove everything of human creation in the image and ask : what is more beautiful ?

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Contemporary Smart City – mentally remove the building and ask your self – “Did I remove something beautiful ?”

After this visual tests, I go straight to few concepts that are fundamental to make a city beautiful. Our architects of smart city will do them a favour and will not be considered un-smart if they do so :

I. The Beauty Test :  A city will need room and will displace Nature. One must ask whether the city adds something more beautiful than what it replaced.

2. The Boredom Test : Is the city boring ? It is like a geometrical pattern repeated regularly without any chance of being surprised ?

3. The Order Test : Is the city chaotic ? Does it feel like navigating in a chaotic universe with no order and symmetry ? Does it feel like being lost completely ?

4. The Intimacy Factor : Does any building in the city make us feel dwarfed, little, insignificant ? Most of the cities make us feel like insects because of their size, arrogance and unmasked power. Does the city feel intimate ? Imagine walking in Wall Street and in a Roman forum – what is the difference ?

5. The Height factor : Any building of residence, business or in other words without any aspiration (see below) above four stores will make us feel psychologically distant and aloof.  Greatest architectures understood this fundamental fact. Observe Parthenon.

6. The Width Factor : If you sit in a park and cannot be heard at the far end or being seen while waved, it will create distance. Hence very large parks are fine but this must be designed with meadows, walk-ways, artificial hillocks, ponds. Trees must be placed in precision within our cognitive tolerance.

7. The Mystery factor : We sometimes like to be lost in a city. It is a great delight to get into a small alley and then finding something strange vista starting like after a lone and narrow alley, suddenly it opens into a colourful bazar or a public square. Rome is a perfect example of this. There are certain areas in Old Delhi where this effect can be seen.

8. The Activity Factor : If you observe our business districts while walking in the sidewalk, you most often have no idea what people are doing inside those office spaces. Cars hoosh and huush and you find copies of the same door-entrance-glass-steel enclosures. Now imagine lanes of a small town where you can see what is happening inside : someone getting a shave, a girl checking a book , a customer having a coffee, a beauty saloon working with those strange chairs and so on… You feel surrounded by human activities within the reach of your senses.

9. The Trap Factor : It has been rightly told by historian Toynbee that if you cannot cover a city on foot, it is a trap. The size is important. Most of our metropolitan cities are traps – trapped by distance, traffic, security concerns, tiredness. Most of the great cities know this and that is the reason why tourists like to spend time in some cities and some cities, however useful they are or powerful they are, remain a piece, rather an oversized piece of utility.

10. The Highest Tower Reflects Highest Aspiration :  Refer to 5. The beautiful cities know how to reflect our highest aspiration with the tallest buildings. Our most magnificent buildings, the highest, the most powerful must reflect what we consider to be our highest aspirations, the way value things most : God, Knowledge, Law, Order, Beauty, Love, Art, Science, Creative Impulse, Life, Death.

In a subsequent post, we shall discuss practical issues to implement them in our time.

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