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A ‘brutalist’ China Town and the Parisian ‘bo bun’

It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.

I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.

IMG_4400IMG_4409IMG_4408IMG_4407IMG_4401IMG_4396Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.

One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

A birthday weekend in Chandigarh, the city of beautiful, open spaces!

I turned 37 two days ago. On that day, I was in Chandigarh enveloped in the warm love of dear friends who have been, for the most part, closer than family and the lucky recipient of the unadulterated affection of my two most wonderful children. Considering I was born in that city, I could not help thinking that life keeps coming back in full circles, again and again. These were the tree lines beautiful avenues where I spent the first few years of my life. Despite its inevitable expansion, Chandigarh retains its laid back feel and its vast, accessible public spaces give it a special charm. No other city in India that I have visited comes close to Chandigarh in the sheer amount of green open space available to citizens to walk, play and lounge as they feel fit. Those who live here are cognizant of the huge advantage they have and are reminded of their luck each time they leave town, so I am told.

We stayed the weekend with Nupur’s sister and her family in Sector 30 and the park right next door to her home became our first port of call. Naturally, for Aadyaa is an ardent park lover. And if the park has swings and jungle gyms in it, no force on earth can keep her away! As soon as we dumped our bags at home and gulped down our evening tea, Aadyaa has dragged us down there and passed her infectious enthusiasm to her brother as well. Nupur and me spent an hour watching the kids go up and down the slide over and over again, make friends with the local children and also observe interesting turf wars with them, fortunately none of which ended in fisticuffs!

Next to the slides, a group of young men were playing soccer. They seemed to be members of the local RSS Shakha, a thought that was confirmed when I was woken up the next morning by the chants and shouts of their weekend morning lessons! Mothers sat on park benches nearby, while others watched their kids from inside their homes while they cooked dinner. Men played cards in a corner, some people were engaged in a brisk walk around the park. I heard from didi that the sector had mixed income residents, living in employee housing for officer level as well as Class 3, Class 4 workers from government departments. The mixed income character is critical from the point of view of the usage of public spaces. The sheer vibrance of the neighborhood park Aadyaa chose to play could not be compared to the rather bland nature of the larger, better maintained sector park nearby that boasted some decent walking paths and a musical fountain that played Punjabi music!

Other highlights of the Chandigarh visit were the Rock Garden, Sukhna Lake and Sector 17 market (sataara, as Udai correctly picked up!) and I will blog about those experiences as well. The first evening spent soaking the the green open spaces and the fresh nippy air was, however, the best of all!

Stunning spring colors- the adenium in Meeta didi's roof garden

Stunning spring colors- the adenium in Meeta didi’s roof garden

Peek a boo!

Peek a boo!

 

Park next door...

Park next door…

Making new friends...

Making new friends…

 

Sibling love

Sibling love

Aadyaa antics!

Aadyaa antics!

Dramatic skies and the incongruous fountain!

Dramatic skies and the incongruous fountain!

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