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  • Writer's pictureShilesh Hariharan

Transformation of Madras into Chennai

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

A few decades ago, before the mobile and GPS based guided navigation systems were invented, cities were predominantly places of perception. Navigation through any urban environment was a matter of memory and relationship one has with its built and un-built places housing human activities.

I grew up in this city. The memories of city of Madras seem to be immutable; whereas the ones of the Chennai seems to be getting harder to predict and get connected to. The once British colony of Madras in India is drastically changing in this digital millennium as it becomes Chennai.

My dad ran a small scale industry, and I used to often travel around the city in my childhood. I recollect Madras as a city with a strong identifiable physical definition with a lot of landmarks and unique places establishing a sense of geography and inter-relationship. My memories of Madras are predominantly one viewed from the tank of a bullet that my dad rode, shuttling between factories at the edge of the city and the central business district to buy accessories for his machine

The farthest end of my bullet ride was George town - the black of British Madras is colloquially called as Parry’s Corner (Paari Munai). This is the 2nd oldest business house in India. The business started by Thomas Parry in 1788 which later on became Parry & Dare / Parry & Co built this beautiful art deco building with rounded corner called DARE HOUSE which has become the physical representation of this name. It is clear that built environments creates a continuum of thought, value and lineage which is very critical for the image and strong mental construct of any urban environment. I quote Aldo Rossi, a famous Italian urban designer, who states “One can say the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory”. I would say that this corner building of Parry has subconsciously percolated as a reference for generations.

Growing in the fringes of the old Madras city, I recollect my memory of home as largely green open undefined space with few dispersed buildings at times interlocking interesting large open pockets. These pockets of un-built spaces were my weekend hub - playing cricket with friends, ingeniously adapted to the nature of any open condition. Dominated by voids and few small scale landmarks, these peri-urban areas over years of densification have gone through drastic physical developments which have altered the open spaces and have shrouded the landmarks behind the newly built ones.

After spending a few years in Europe, I came back to settle down in the new Chennai to practice architecture. I also teach Urban design in an architectural college in the city.

No wonder, as I retrospect and understand the reasons for my difficulty to connect with his neighborhood when I returned from abroad. It took a while for me to get connected back with home because all that my mind had mapped was now gone and new imageless fill-in urbanisation had occupied all those memories with no relation to its past.

In a metaphorical sense, I approach the physical logic of a city from quantum physics (my favorite subject). Quantum physics is an explanation of the Subatomic world where every discovered or hypothesized energy field are related or represented by a physical particle. The search and identification of such particle is the quest to unraveling its mysteries. This very much holds good for our cities as well. We have come to understand cities as a very dense networked reality driven by various impulses and forces. Every force over time has its impact on the physical built construct of the city leading to the crystallization of its Morphological evolution.

The strong images of Parry’s Corner, The Ripon building, The high court at NSC Bose road, Kapaleeshwarar Tank, Ranganathan Street, St. Thomas Mount, to say a few, are the strong physical particles of Madras which shore very strong collective memory in the urban field. These memories have percolated through at least two generations, now seem to be crystallising a force of their own. These large particles subconsciously keep in-filling urbanism in a coherent format. Building construction and height of structures might change but the density and ground connections of these areas stay immutable.

Whereas in case of fragmented urbanisation experienced in the expanding areas of Chennai the absence of such strongly perceived image as seen in inner city districts tends to dilute development, which spread without any reference creating a sea of generic volumes with very little coherence. Indifference towards existing potential smaller imageable particles in the urbanity where they were subdued or removed, compounds the issue, causing a sense of undefined in-fill urbanisation that is in a state of constant flux and uncertainty. That is how I can passionately extrapolate the Quantum reality of the city.

I can draw a similar parallel towards the very well planned and largely conceived places like T.Nagar, Anna Nagar, Adyar. Though they are predominantly grid ironed in planning when designed, the major connecting spines over a period of times somehow generate a new life of their own as infrastructure intervenes to create new meaning and networks and in the process generate a strong relationship and an image between built and its shored activities at least at their edges. The opportunities these new networks like Metro provide are also not possible inside in-fill urbanised areas owing to lack of vision and the unavailability of space to integrate these measures which generally follow way after densification - for instance, take the pending connection between the Velachery MRTS and St. Thomas Station. There is hardly a kilometer of connection to be established, but its penetration through a dense residential layout makes it hard to be achieved and untenable for the Government to complete it.

So, in conclusion, since the turn of the 21st century – the era of GPS enabled mobility and pulsating growth rate Chennai as a city has witnessed massive expansion of its boundaries in the form of in-fill urbanisation. These rapid expanding areas lack the most critical requirement of human-environment - the ability to produce an image which can shore memories. The absence of creating imageable environments creates a loose relation to one's surrounding and with it the in-difference to the city and its future. Urban Architecture and Planning, however, can actually create such images and hold them together and therefore it is very critical to have it in a city that generations can relate to and learn to reconcile.

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