Prioritising aesthetics: Cities need to be ‘art smart’

Despite having a master planning system, the implementation often leaves much to be desired.

Written by P S N Rao | Published: June 4, 2016 2:18 am
Architecture, urban planning and public art need to combine in an urban design to evoke a sense of delight. (Source: AP) Architecture, urban planning and public art need to combine in an urban design to evoke a sense of delight. (Source: AP)

Over a third of our population lives in cities, away from nature, in a built environment, with stresses and strains of a mechanical life. How can we make the world of the urban citizen more delightful? How can the ‘commons’ become more vibrant, colorful and enjoyable? Can the built environment be more visually attractive? What is the role of art in the public realm? These and many more such questions find answers in a public art master plan for our cities.

Aesthetic of the ‘commons’

A city is the built environment created by man to house himself and all his activities. Whilst some cities across the globe are shaped with a conscious effort, a vision, an objective and based on certain principles, most Indian cities are products of organic outgrowth, apathy, greed, neglect, nonchalance and disrespect for the ‘commons’. Far from being a delightful and joyous experience, walking in the city, commuting, living and working have all become menacing and depressing at the same time.

The haphazard manner in which hoardings are placed, walls defaced with graffiti, footpaths strewn with litter, roads without markings, streets without lights, parks without plants, bizarre buildings, neglected monuments and chaotic activity mixing, all reflect our scant respect for the visual aesthetic.

Architecture, urban planning and public art need to combine in an urban design which can produce an aesthetic which evokes a sense of delight in the visual experience. However, far from the renaissance, we are today in the new industrial age. Urban planning and architecture hold a different meaning for us today. The poor state of the urban aesthetic is often attributed in India, to various compulsions; be it large scale poverty, lack of civic finances or lack of sensitive governance.

Be that as it may, we have a master planning system in our country which makes every attempt to plan out the city in a structured manner and bring some urban order. However, the outcome of its implementation often leaves much to be desired. Aesthetics often gets a low priority in the master plan. In such a situation, is there a way out?

Need for master planning art

Most of the developed world has a master planning system. In fact, we have heavily borrowed the master planning system from the west. However, cities in the developed world have gone beyond mere master planning; they have created for themselves ‘art master plans’, where the city aesthetic becomes the paramount subject and object of priority.

Art master plans aim to provide a fillip to the modern environment of the present day which relies more on the utilitarian value than the aesthetic value of the public environment. India has a long and hoary past tradition of art and craft. India also has a heritage of architecture and construction building arts; be it the decorative motifs on the tribal huts or the stylization of building elements.

What it can do ?

An art master plan articulates policy, defines objectives, sets goals and methods of achieving the same. It outlines a plan of action, a methodology of implementation and a system of governance identifying zones for display of various types of art to specify codes, colors, materials and measurements on the one hand and generates opportunities for creation, celebration and confluence. It provides incentives, mandates, penalizes and provides for free experimentation and at the same time, bringing order in its expression. It enlivens public spaces, brings about more awareness of our own culture and diversity, enhances the urban visual and provides a pleasing city experience.

A good art master plan needs to carefully blend the different elements of the city so that art, architecture, urban planning, technology and nature seamlessly juxtapose, where the past and the present can both co-exist in continuity. An art master plan encourages artists, genres, styles and movements. It engages the community, elevates the higher mind and provokes the thought process for enhancing the value of the ‘commons’. Art in the public realm often acts as a balm, to soothe the urban rage and calm the agitated mind. It encourages plurality and promotes tolerance.

Art master plans world over

The Public Art Master Plan in city of San Diego in California makes a commitment to sustaining a vibrant cultural life by establishing, by policy, a discretionary City Council appropriation consisting of 2 per cent of selected eligible Capital Improvement Project budgets for public art, requiring, by ordinance, a 1 per cent set-aside for public art enhancement in private development. It provides support systems for local artists who work in the City’s Public Art Program to enhance the City’s urban design objectives by using public art to animate the city’s public spaces.

Similarly, the Kingston Public Art Master Plan in Canada aims to provide a framework needed to develop and maintain public art within a municipal context and support activity in the community and create consistent standards for public art in public realm, civic initiatives and private sector projects. The consultation process for the Public Art Master Plan involved 15 City staff in 6 departments, 13 external arts, design and development stakeholders, 100 attendees at the Public Art Forum, 8 local artists making 5 interventions across Kingston that engaged more than 3000 people, 300 children plus their caregivers at Art Zoo and 217 respondents to the public survey!

Recent Indian initiatives

With the passage of time, patronage for art in the urban public realm has declined. While there has been a proliferation of statues of prominent public leaders at roundabouts over the last six decades, their disproportionate representation often makes a mockery of the underlying spirit.

Efforts to revive the role of art in the public domain through the Urban Art Commission have borne some fruit though. A statutory mandate has been in force for about a decade now in the national capital where the Delhi Urban Art Commission ensures that art work in public buildings is implemented. The same has also become a part of the newly notified Unified Building Byelaws in Delhi. Voluntary artist groups have been trying to play a role. Their sporadic and random works in Mumbai and Delhi had led to the emergence of the Lodhi Colony Art District. Transport hubs have emerged as major centres of public art. While installations in the Mumbai and Delhi airports have put art in the public arena at a high point of visibility, albeit in the elite world, art works in the Delhi Metro stations have brought art to the common man. The proliferation of art galleries and exhibitions have also contributed, but in a limited sphere. Nevertheless, all these efforts have created awareness, but still have a long way to go.

Delhi is the first city in India where a statutory public art mandate exists and is being enforced. Delhi is also the first city to get an Art Master Plan which is under preparation. Hopefully, with this initiative completed, the road to more such structured initiatives would open up in urban India.

(The writer is Chairman, Delhi Urban Art Commission)

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