Monthly Archives: May 2012

Aurobindo Ghose retired from active participation in the Indian nationalist movement in 1910 after being acquitted in the ‘Alipore Bomb Case’. Frustrated by the slow progress of the movement and his activities fettered, Aurobindo finally sought asylum in French Pondicherry. In 1926, Aurobindo turned over his responsibilities to Mira Richards – ‘The Mother’ – who became the spiritual head of the Aurobindo Ashram. An émigré from Paris, Mira continued Aurobindo’s stated purpose to function as an agency facilitating the evolution of humankind into ‘Supermind’, a sort of divinity on earth.

Mira, however, was not only a yogic Oracle of sorts, but also, it would seem, had a natural talent for organization. Under her aegis the Aurobindo Ashram began attracting people and funds that would promote her ‘dream’ project – a city that would be, in her words:

“…a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord, harmony, where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his suffering and misery, to surmount his weakness and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the care for progress would get precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the seeking for pleasures and material enjoyments.”

In February 1968, with government approval, the utopian community of Auroville was inaugurated. Its master plan – strikingly empty for the moment – consisted of a formal expression of Mira’s vision – that of four arms radiating from a center marking off four zones of activity – residential, cultural, international and industrial.

It has been nearly 40 years since that time, and Auroville’s growth has not been spectacular. The community relies heavily on neighboring Pondicherry and the surrounding countryside for its economic and social survival. However, what has worked as a completed project is the Matri Mandir at the canter of the plan; as well as several innovative architectural projects that are remarkable for their elegance and commitment to environmental concerns.

The Auroville experiment, started as one person’s mystic dream in 1968, is far from complete. Of the projected 50,000 population that the master plan envisions, Auroville has barely 2000 permanent residents almost a half-century later. The community is charged with being elitist, being dependent upon – and exploiting – neighboring villages for its survival, and with exacerbating the divide between Indians and aliens.

To its credit, Auroville has been the site of numerous innovations in architecture and building construction – ferrocement technology, low cost alternatives, and reusing local material and building technique. It is home to a small but effective cottage industry that exports its products worldwide.

It is fair to say that there is little wrong with the ‘idea’ of Auroville – a city that belongs to none, but is home to all. Whether humankind can live up to this utopian agenda is a very personal judgment – what is true is that, once in Auroville, sitting not far from the Matri Mandir as the sun goes down, it is difficult not to feel a sense of awe, of promise, and of hope that at least some of this will have its intended effect. The world is better off with an Auroville – than without.

References you might want to follow up on:

  1. From
  2. Ca se passe là haut, en route pour Madras, sur le haut de la colline. Mother’s Agenda, 1965. pp. 139-147   
  3. Cited in «Auroville Architecture : Towards New Forms for a New Consciousness » PRISMA, Auroville. 2004. pp. 96-97.   
  4. Palleroni, Sergio Studio at Large : Architecture in Service of Global Communities. UW Press, Seattle. 2004.  pp. 70-75

“Auroville Architecture: Towards New Forms for a New Consciousness”. PRISMA. Auroville: 2004
“Auroville: The City of Dawn” Times of India Online, 13th May 2001.
Guigan, Gilles. “Aspiring for Perfection: A History of Matrimandir, the Soul of Auroville”. Samasti: Auroville. 11th November 2002.
Palleroni, Sergio Studio at Large : Architecture in Service of Global Communities. UW Press, Seattle. 2004.
Rangan, Kasturi. “A Utopian Town in India Built on a Dream”. , New York Times. Oct 16, 1971.


Hubble image of Messier 53. It is one of the furthest out of the ~250 globular clusters that lie in the galactic halo and can be seen with binoculars in the constellation Coma Berenices. It contains over 250,000 stars most of which are older and redder than our Sun. This is to be expected as globular clusters are thought to have been formed along with our Milky Way galaxy. However this image shows quite a number of young blue stars – known as Blue Stragglers – which contradict the perceived wisdom that all stars in a globular cluster were born at the same time.   It is now thought that they are old stars which have been rejuvenated by fresh matter falling on them from a binary star companion and their abundance in globular clusters can be used to estimate their age.

Nebulous clusters form the basis of my next graphic notation….work in progress…

The forgotten work of Howard Ebenezer

Similar to the very important work of Dr. Ward Richardson around 1918 (source-Richard Hobday The Light Revolution. Health, Architecture and the Sun 1998) Howard Ebenezer attempts to convey the importance of managing certain aspects of humanness and life to prioritize long term solutions and sustainable methods. Health and wellbeing are a matter of individual interpretation however there are many fundamental stabilities which must be provided in order for the expression of individual approaches to be successful.

Dr. Ward Richardson insisted on the micro-management of everyday life, describing a utopian society in which everything from the development of domestic housing, transport, factories, waste management, energy was to be managed with the overall health of the city’s citizens in mind. Access to sunlight was the main consideration declaring it a basic and necessity. Sunlight was understood to maintain health through its sterilizing action on the air, synthesis of vitamins on the human skin and effect on peoples mood. Richardson’s project embarked on the architectural feat of planning a city in which everyone had equal access to light, space thus health.

Howard Ebenezer, instead of focusing on the structural aspect of our places and spaces, wrote at length on the level of engagement required for the successful development of societies. Interestingly he makes the point that there are natural differences and inclination of people to involve themselves in matters of the common good, noting that it was the responsibility of those more inclined to raise the general standard of engagement for all. (Ebenezer Howard, garden Cities of tomorrow)

Place identity seems to be something implicit, a psychological structure which, in the course of our everyday life is largely over-looked. Our place behavior and “sense of being in a place unfolds, for the most part, without conscious reflection. However, at times of change or transition, when bond between people or place are threatened, the significance of place identity comes to the fore. The sense of belonging therefore, is undoubtedly personal, as it emerges from autobiographical experiences which are hinged on distinctions of outsider and insider, my space and their space. A comforting sense of being in a place may be constructed by the realization of presence or absence of others as well as general historical, cultural, ethical, familial dynamics.

Notwithstanding the conceptual, methodological and epistemological tensions that complicate (and enliven) place identity, it is possible to discern a core set of processes. It is generally agreed that place identity is forged around a deep-seated familiarity with the environment, a sense of bodily, sensuous, social and autobiographic ‘insideness’ (Rowles, 1983) that arises as the result of individuals’ habituation to their physical surroundings. Human geographers have used terms such as rootedness (Tuan, 1980) and existential insideness (Relph, 1976) to capture important dimensions of this intimate, often unreflec- tive, knowledge of the environment.

David Harvey stresses that social relations are always spatial and exist within a certain produced framework of spatialities and that this framework consists of institutions understood as “produced spaces of a more or less durable sort” (Harvey, 1996, p. 122). Such spatialised institutions range from territories of control and surveillance to domains of organisation and administration, creating institutional environments within which symbolized spaces are produced and attributed meanings. In line with the dialectical framework, specific places must furthermore be conceptualised in relational terms.

Henri Lefebvre, among others, has recognized the importance of the production of space through spatial practices.

Spatial practice thus simultaneously defines: places—the relationship of local and global; the re-presentation of that relationship; actions and signs; the trivialised spaces of everyday life; and, in opposition to these last, spaces made special by symbolic means as desirable or undesirable, benevolent or malevolent, sanctioned or forbidden to particular groups (Lefebvre, 1974/91, p. 288).

According to Lefebvre (1974/91, pp.73 and 191) the fundamental assumption of a cultural sociology of space is that analysis must deal with the dialectical relations between socio-spatial practices and the symbolic and cultural meanings that social agents attach to their environments (these two spheres are separated analytically, not as an ontological statement). That is to say, we need to con- ceptualise socio-spatial relations in terms of their practical ‘workings’ and their symbolic ‘meaning’. This dialectical perspective means that the spatiality of social life is thus simultaneously a field of action and a basis for action.

Assuming that we all have equal rights to public space, the implication is a necessary construction of specific regulations which must collectively be shaped and navigated. Public space in this regard, behavior within in it at least, is a measure of the level of greed and agreeable behaviors which sustain the notion of public space and public being.

Struggle in Barcelona

This conflict dates back to 1985, when a local program of urban development (the so-called PERI) promised to improve urban life conditions in Santa Caterina, one of the old medieval neighborhoods in Barcelona’s historical center (Busquets, 2004). The program would involve new housing, civic facilities, and public spaces for the long-time impoverished population of the neighborhood (Ajuntament de Barcelona, 1989). However, the works started as late as 1999 amidst an atmosphere of suspicion on the part of the local inhabitants, who argued that the Town Council had deliberately left Santa Caterina to deteriorate in order to gentrify the area, thus forcing the traditional lower class inhabitants to leave (Mas & Verger, 2004). Gathered against a city model perceived as a threat to local residents, a group of neighbors followed by social movements and groups of squatters claimed for a green public space such as the one foreseen in the original 1985 proposal.1 To do so, they occupied an empty space in the middle of the neighborhood that remained following the demolition of buildings. Through territorial appro- priation they planted trees, laid flower-beds, and installed self-made benches and urban furniture. This first space was called “the Hole of Shame,” a symbolic name that denounced the institutional idleness towards the place, and was destroyed by the diggers after a violent police raid in 2002. One year later, neighbors and social movements literally knocked down a wall of concrete built by the local administration to impede access to the space. The “Park of the Hole of Shame” was created in 2004, embodying a political neighborhood strategy of resistance to gain a public space for the local citizens. From that moment, the institutional powers (the Town Council and the developers), on the one hand, and the occupants of the space, on the other hand, struggled for the territorial control of the place (see Codina, 2005). The former aimed to redevelop the space, whereas the latter were determined to maintain the place as a self-managed public space protected from institutional commandeering and urban speculation. Adding to this tension, a third party in the dispute was a platform of local entities opposing both the official development plan and the spatial appropriation. Finally, after a participatory process the occupants of the space were evicted by the police and the Hole of Shame was redeveloped in 2007 according to official standards of public space design.

During the eight years of open conflict, the Hole of Shame case became a paradigmatic protest against local development programs in Barcelona’s urban scene broadly perceived as benefitting private investments and tourism, against the needs and demands of the local citizens. For research purposes, the case was selected for three reasons. First, it gathered in one single urban setting the main politically connoted controversies linked to contemporary public space making (e.g., Jackson, 1998; Mitchell, 2003; Smith, 1996; Sorkin, 1992); second, it provided rich empirical evidence to explore the role of space discourse in shaping psychological representations of citizens’ normal and deviant behavior in public, along with their rhetorical value (Dixon et al., 2006); and third, it was a unique opportunity to examine embodied enactments of the right to the city linked to politically contested views of citizenship belonging and status (Shotter, 1993; Staeheli & Thompson, 1997).

Lifestyle centers, Urban villages, walkability, livability.

Although some marvelous architecture was created in the 20th century, we are still playing catch-up in the area of public space. Earlier eras seemed to understand the need for places were people would enjoy gathering and circulating. And they developed some great precedents for us among countless parks, plazas, boulevards, public gardens, arcades, and railway stations which still provide pleasurable experiences for people all over the world.

Public spaces must act as places with permeable boundaries allowing ownership by all, thus preventing the creation of territories.  The commitment to developing the public realm must result in an improvement in the lives of those communities adjacent to the site.  If not, we end up with commercial centres with no sense of place and which bring no benefit to the disadvantaged communities on the periphery e.g. the commercial and economic development.

As suggested by Andrés Di Masso University of Barcelona, research in social psychology has stressed the fundamental role of space, place, and environmental categories in the constitution of subjectivity and the regulation of social interaction (Aiello & Bonaiuto, 2003; Bonaiuto & Bonnes, 2000; Dixon & Durrheim, 2000). Mostly assuming a discursive epistemological framework (Billig, 1987; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter & Wetherell, 1987), this emerging trend encompasses a varied set of approaches interested in the social construc- tion of space. The main topics investigated include the normative meaning of morally connoted spatial discourse regulating neighborhood relations (e.g., Stokoe & Wallwork, 2003); the language of place as a system of rhetorical warrants reproducing ideologies of racial exclusion (e.g., Dixon & Durrheim, 2004; Dixon, Foster, Durrheim, & Wilbraham, 1994); the role of place-discourse in women’s narratives of identity (e.g., Taylor, 2005); or the value of landscape rhetoric in the construction of nationhood (e.g., Wallwork & Dixon, 2004). Building on a well-known idea in environmental psychology and human geography, according to which personal experience is unavoidably located (Proshansky, Fabian, & Kaminoff, 1983; Tuan, 1977), the main point made by the bulk of these studies is that our individual and shared interpretations of space and place-behavior are also culture-bound discursive resources that accomplish functions in larger sequences of social (inter)action, often echoing broad ideological processes.

A particular strand within this set of studies has more recently been concerned with “the political significance of people’s psychological representations of space,” accepting that “these shape people’s understandings of who belongs, the rights and freedoms that people may claim and exercise, decisions where we feel ‘at home’ and ‘out of place,’ where we may move to, or avoid, and much more besides” (Hopkins & Dixon, 2006, p. 174). According to these authors, places are relevant not just because they afford and shape psychological experiences, but also because such “psychological constructs” may be socially deployed to provoke particular political effects aligned with people’s individual or collective interests and demands. This justifies Hopkins and Dixon’s claim for political psychology “to recover the micropolitics of people’s everyday constructions of place and space” (p. 174). This task involves both acknowledging the representations of place which imply psychological notions of who we are, where we belong, and to whom we are committed, as well as the discursive processes that make place-representations work as symbolic devices with a political value.

This twofold political and psychological value of place representations is particularly clear when applied to the public space, “the stage upon which the drama of communal life unfolds” (Carr, Francis, Rivlin, & Stone, 1992, p. 3). Public spaces are the natural arena of citizenship, where individuals, groups, and crowds become political subjects. They are sociophysical settings where public life occurs on the basis of open visibility, scrutiny, and concern, supporting public interest and citizens’ well-being (Brill, 1989). In streets, squares, parks, and loose urban spaces, society renders itself visible as citizenship finds in them a place to be enacted and demanded (Borja & Muxí, 2003).

Some architectural, urban and landscape designers who have worked towards improving public, social, urban spaces are:

Laurence Halpin, Isam Nagouchi, Hideo Sasaki, Paul Friedberg, Roberto Burle Marx, Dan Kiley.

The idea that public space has an intrinsically political significance seems to be widely supported. Following Carr et al. (1992), “it is impossible to understand public life and the spaces in which it takes place without recognising the political nature of public activities” (Carr, S., Francis, M., Rivlin, L., & Stone, A. (1992). Public space. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 45). Public life importantly depends on social and political contexts that make public spaces work for the common good. The public space reflects social exchanges between individual and collective affairs, featuring personal rights that are both politically and spatially grounded, such as the “right to the city” (Lefebvre, 1968; Mitchell, 2003) and freedom of action in the urban open space (Rivlin, 1994).

However, freedom and rights in public space are limited by safety requirements, private inter- vention, and cultural standards of moral order and decorum (Dixon et al., 2006). Hence social life in public spaces is informed and regulated by a value-loaded political tension between liberty and control. This tension frames democratic life in the city, both enabling and constraining the citizen’s exercise of “free” right to the city.

(Urban Space issue 3. John Dixon ) et al.’s (2006) recent study of everyday attitudes towards street drinking as a morally connoted incivility sheds light on a number of topics that are pertinent in the study of public space from the perspective of citizenship. These authors interviewed 59 Lancaster citizens in the town’s most central public space, exploring attitudes towards drinking in public in light of a recently introduced ban on such behavior. The results of their discursive analysis showed how people’s responses constructed street drinking as an infringement of civic entitlements and as a form of visual defilement, breaching the established meanings of the place and generally supporting an ideological tradition of public space that promoted “sanitization” or “purification” (Sibley, 1995), meaning the removal of certain kinds of people not conceived as legitimately belonging to the “public” category (e.g., people drinking in the streets). The study highlighted also an ideological opposition (Billig et al., 1988) between freedom and control in public spaces and contradictions in the category of admissible publics.