Chennai from Above - In conversation with Robert D. Stephens

Planning Dated:  Feb. 10, 2016
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Chennai City Planning Development

Aerial photographs which capture such contrasts in our cities reveal that we must not simply “Make the City”, but we must “Make for the City.”

About the Photographer:

Robert D. Stephens is a Principal at RMA Architects.  His passions include the art of building and constructing beauty through visual, literary, and cinematic imagery.  In 2013 he co-produced a feature film with India's first You Tube star, Wilbur Sargunaraj, entitled "Simple Superstar." In 2014 his debut solo exhibition, Mumbai Articles, featured at ARTISANS'.  He lives in Mumbai with his wife, Tina Nandi.

About Madras Transit:

Madras Transit is an urban portrait collection of Chennai, featuring 25 color photographs from 10,000 ft. above sea level, capturing the city’s diverse character from the geometric street grids of Anna Nagar, to the banks of the Adyar River and beyond. The photographs were on display at the Folly at Amethyst from August 22nd to August 30th. Accompanying each image is a record of air pollution levels on the corresponding day, as measured by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.  For the exhibition, the Folly also created what was called the "Reading Room"- a collection of rare archival books related to Madras, dating back to the mid-1800’s. Archival quotes are selected from the books, and paired with individual photographs - as a means of gleaning insights into times past, as well as to help one better understand and appreciate the present. The Reading Room essentially serves as an urban history mirror - a reflection of our cities - and a reminder that, while there have been dramatic changes in our urban condition, many of the challenges faced today are the same as those which plagued our cities a century ago.

Air Pollution levels in different places in Chennai
 
Why Chennai?

Unlike Mumbai, which swept me off my feet in a fit of youthful emotion nine years ago, my story with Madras has been like a mature friendship with an introvert, which has developed over years. Slow and steady, most of the time quiet, and at select times bursting with expression.

First encounter with Chennai:

We first met (Madras and I) seven years ago, and have met every two months since as I travel in and out of the city on work. During the course of these visits, she would reveal something new about herself, one or two lines of urban poetry here and there. Over time, this quiet, seemingly simple friend, revealed her true character, that of an inspiring woman, with a rich history and a complex future. One year ago I felt compelled to give visual form to this friendship, to share with others what I myself was learning. The result is Madras Transit: Contemporary Aerial Photographs of Chennai.

Biggest challenge for architects:

One of the biggest challenges for architects in India (or any country or region for that matter) is to work in a contextually and culturally meaningful and appropriate way. To create built environments that are meaningful spaces not only for the immediate users, but which also have meaning for those in an adjacent context – even if they are not the direct or daily users themselves.

Learning from his photographs:

Take for example, Triplicane Assemblies, a photograph, which reveals two major complexes. First, the Parthasarathy Temple and Tank – a place for spiritual assembly, is a series of above ground and underground dis-aggregated structures. The structures not only fulfill their original purpose of spiritual service, but the temple tank collects water, a process that has well documented positive environmental impact on the surrounding micro-climate. In that sense, even those who do not utilize the structure of the temple complex benefit from its existence.

Second, the Multi-Super-Specialty Hospital (formerly known as the Legislative Assembly), a place for health related assembly, a monolithic dark grey structure that towers over its surroundings like a black sheep. As this building copes with a government induced identity crisis, one struggles to find a positive collateral impact the building has on its context.

Aerial photographs which capture such contrasts in our cities reveal that we must not simply “Make the City”, but we must “Make for the City.” And “Making for the City” means recognizing buildings as having influence beyond the immediate footprint, and understanding the impact and potential inherent in this important reality.

How did you achieve such high vantage points?

Through an appropriately balanced combination of thrust and drag, as defined by the principles of fluid mechanics, I was able to achieve the altitude required.

Insight into our city:

“In 1871 Madras had plenty of room for expansion within the limits of the municipal boundaries, and large areas of what was technically the 'town of Madras' must have presented an entirely rural appearance. In the possession of these extensive and largely undeveloped tracts Madras has enjoyed a great advantage over other Indian cities such as Calcutta or Bombay (especially Bombay) where the obstacles to lateral extension have forced a vertical rather than horizontal development. Until comparatively recently, Madras could be accurately described as a one-storied city, and if its immense distances created transport problems, they at least delivered the city from 'sky-scaling' tendencies and the huddled dreariness of the Bombay 'chawl'.”
C.W. Ranson, Studies in the Social Life of Madras, 1938

Chennai City Planning Development

Comments on urban development in Chennai:

On 29 June 2015, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha inaugurated (via video conference) the first service of the Chennai Metro, a modern manifestation of the city's four century old tryst with “immense distances.” At a cost of Rs.40 for the 10 km transit between Alandur and Koyambedu, the Chennai Metro stands alone as the most expensive line in India. While the “sky-scaling” tendencies of Mumbai have not (yet) found equivalent expression in the built urban form of Chennai, they have a hopeful future in the economics of public transport. The “huddled dreariness of the Bombay chawl” may yet find it's place in South India after all – in the daily commute of the lower middle class, whose financial status does not afford the luxury of Rs.4 per kilometer.

His advice to the planners in the city:

Discoveries made over the course of research for Madras Transit have reinforced the fact that Architects and urban planners must engage in collaborative works - partnering together for holistic urban development.

On his future endeavors:

Madras Transit was brought to Amethyst in association with ARTISANS'.In December 2015 and January 2016 I will open Mumbai North at my representative gallery in Mumbai, ARTISANS'. This series will include 24 photographs ranging from Virar to Bandra to Bhiwandi, and will also feature a Reading Room of its own. I am regularly working on an in-progress series called Delhi Birds and dream-storming a series on Ahmedabad.

This Article is part of Agam Sei Volume: 01 Issue: 12.

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