In the short span of time between the end of 2019 and early 2020, the world has seen a drastic shift in the way we navigate space. While less than a year back the public space was assertively occupied by a sea of demonstrators across no less than six continents, we now have been confined to the ‘safety’ of our private homes, in a bid to protect ourselves from the coronavirus pandemic. As our attention moves from one crisis to another, so move our bodies from open spaces of expression, to the restricted boundaries of familiarity. But does such a shift influence the way we engage with issues of social importance? What is the relationship between our critical faculties that help us formulate effective response to any crisis, and the spaces through which these responses are stimulated and exercised?
“…the essence of space is simultaneity: that all of us people, animals and spaces exist at the same time,” responds Architect and Urban Designer Himanshu Burte. “The diversity of these social and spatial backgrounds and of particular personal and social histories makes every place a bundle of diverse trajectories… A direct experience of diversity, and the danger and creative potential of conflicts it implies, is thus crucial for catalysing the critical attitude.”
However, this focus on the public space itself needs to be looked at more critically, he adds. “…we must remember that this discourse is based on a key assumption: that everybody has access to decent private space… Recognising the fact that a large number of people in our cities cannot access privacy is the first trigger for critical questioning: why is it so?”
The conversation dives into these issues while exploring a crucial shift that is needed in architectural and spatial design to lead the spaces of the future.
LILA: Can the way we navigate and engage with public spaces influence our critical faculties?
Himanshu Burte: Let me come at this in a slightly roundabout manner. There are two implicit separations here, often taken for granted, that should be overcome. One is between mental and physical-spatial practice. The other is between public and private space.
Mental and spatial practice first. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have argued that we think with our body; that philosophy emerges from flesh. Much earlier, of course, Michael Polanyi had discussed the tacit knowledge that is coded into our muscles. Put simply, thus, there is a significant truth to ‘gut feeling’. It is also easy to argue that the emotional and the intellectual (affective and cognitive) are similarly intertwined or even impossible to separate – Lakoff, for instance, argues that metaphors and mathematics spring from the same bodily roots. Without being deterministic we can certainly say that intellectual activity, emotional response and bodily practice and experience are actualised together in the everyday spaces of our settlements – whether cities, villages or forests.
Should we focus specifically on public space? Public spaces in Indian cities are well-known to be of poor physical quality, and they are also getting more and more restrictive in terms of what we can do in them. So it is understandable that we may want to think of public space, also because they are where we get to encounter the complexity of social life. But it is perhaps also the case that we home in on public space because it is an ‘international’ topic of discussion. Public space is a hot topic in the West for the past few decades, especially in a heavily privatised society like the USA. Modern urban planning has been blamed for this and with good reason. The anxiety over the erosion of publicness and of the quality of public space is understandable: after all, the accessibility, and quality of public space matters to a large extent to sociality. But we must remember that this discourse is based on a key assumption: that everybody has access to decent private space. This assumption is not true even in the USA. However, it is much less true in our cities where over half the population typically lives in intensely deprived private spaces that are actively dangerous for physical and mental health. So, in a society like India we need to consider private and public space together. COVID-19 has revealed how the crisis of private space is much more acute and is literally a matter of life and death with large families – including old people at great risk – being forced indoors in rooms of ten by fifteen feet during lockdown.
The intertwining of private and public space is also often very visible in our cities, partly because of the large number of people who live, work, and perform bodily functions on streets or marginal and hazardous land abutting public spaces (along natural water courses, and railway tracks, for instance). Recognising the fact that a large number of people in our cities cannot access privacy is the first trigger for critical questioning: why is it so?
This question (why is it so?) is clearly foundational for critical thinking – that is why ‘field work’ is so essential in education! The genesis of the question in our experience of the city points to how its space is involved in the development of the ability (or commitment) to thinking critically. In general, what we see, hear, smell, and touch shapes what we are curious about, what we can question, and even what we can imagine. And these are only matters of what we ‘receive’ from the city world. When we speak to the city – that is, exchange ideas and opinions with autorickshaw drivers, artists or bankers – we think our way into an examined world and life. Across time, these conversations may constitute a virtual multilogue across distracted moments of interaction with the city. When we must make up our minds about a specific issue, the insights from this multilogue are reconfigured against the background of a broader understanding derived from culture – mass media, high art or social theory – and become our attitude. We then either say ‘down with the traitors’, or argue for a right to dissent, or to a need for diversity of opinions.
As many thinkers have noted, the essence of space is simultaneity: that all of us people, animals and spaces exist at the same time. Doreen Massey notes that each of us represents a trajectory that is different from that of the other, at least partly as a result of where we come from (socially and spatially). The diversity of these social and spatial backgrounds and of particular personal and social histories makes every place a bundle of diverse trajectories. Space thus is fundamentally the realm of diversity.
A direct experience of diversity, and the danger and creative potential of conflicts it implies, is thus crucial for catalysing the critical attitude. It shapes what we can think about, dream about, what we question, and how we test the multiple answers that are worked out in the apparent privacy of our heads.
LILA: Today, as the crisis of space is becoming increasingly pertinent, how do we visualise spaces of the future?
HB: We must agree on what the crisis of space is first. To me, minimally, it is the crisis of how land, especially urban land, is allocated. In other words: who gets to own, occupy, ‘develop’, ‘improve’, and exchange which land, for what purposes, on what terms, and how? And who does not. This crisis is old. For instance, the spatial crisis involved in COVID-19 echoes that of the epidemics of Dickensian London – incidentally, the latter triggered a policy response that became the profession called urban planning. Space is not reducible to land and its occupation, of course, and includes the politics of connection, services, social value, and other qualitative dimensions. Crises along each dimension are entangled with the crisis of land, though they also have their own dynamics. But without engaging the land aspect of the crisis of space, it may be very difficult to think or work towards a space for a less crisis-ridden, more just, and nurturing space of the future.
So, how to visualise such a space? The best way of visualising spaces of the future is to not visualise them. In one sense, both visuality as well as visualisation are part of the problem especially because they dominate our imagination and therefore our actions in making space. Henri Lefebvre notes that the visual, or optical dimension, has proved to be an important ‘formant’ of oppressive and alienating space under capitalism. (Interestingly, he sees the ‘geometrical’ and the ‘phallic’ as the other two mutually reinforcing formants of oppressive spatiality – he was speaking of a fully realised high modernist plan of ‘state space’, but the insight is very useful for thinking about spatial justice through broadly humanist, as well as ‘difference’-centred lenses in our context too).
The best way may well be to design the right kind of processes and abjure the finality that ‘design’ smuggles into our plans for the future. These processes would progress on a track opened up by practice values – values that guide the practice of creating better spaces for the future. These values need to have been developed and adopted democratically – in the best sense of the term – and also be open to refinement, reformulation as the situational demands of responsive practice require.
LILA: What could subsequently be the future of spatial design? Is there a methodology for the contemporary times that can promote the design of such spaces?
HB: Two things are important: a) the political organisation of decision-making that will decide whether spatial design of the city yields equitable results or not; b) the institution of a ‘design’ attitude in the panoply of processes through which spatial production occurs, will decide the quality of the spaces produced, private or public.
Decision-making is highly centralised today with the state governments deciding the plans for cities. By contrast the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992, envisages that decisions should be devolved down to the ward level. Decentralisation is essential, as is adequate political representation and voice for marginalised sections (whether women or dalits, and the urban poor generally), if our urban spaces are to be just and of high quality. All of this is implied in the idea of participatory governance and design.
As for design, we actually do not have a system of decision making that has a ‘design’ attitude in relation to the shaping of urban space. We have a very schematic urban planning practice on one hand, and a technically and bureaucratically fragmented mode of creating streets and open spaces on the other. They are both organised around general principles and procedures whose concrete implications for each place are never considered through a ‘design’ attitude. These together produce our urban space.
What I think of as the ‘design attitude’ reconciles general principles and situated challenges and opportunities. It is attentive to empirical realities. Moreover it entails ensuring through detailing of policy or footpath that the design has the best chance of actually working as intended. It also includes learning from outcomes and modifying the theory as you go along.
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