A mirror of our lives?
Taken at Casa Batllo in Barcelona
Architect Antonio Gaudi
Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!
Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.
The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.
What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).
Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.
Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.
On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.
Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!
Some snapshots from my iphone6.
As promised yesterday, here are the set of images from Aadyaa. She was 4 when she clicked these. I’m completely biased here, so I won’t venture my opinions at all. Only wan to say that the finger blocking a bit of some of the frames is so cute!
Would love to know what y’all think though! Please, please write in.
(Psst…she’s all set to start her very own art blog now, so your comments will only encourage her!)
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a huge conference, with several parallel sessions and I could obviously attend only one at a time. Even so, I was exposed to multiple facets of geography and it was particularly interesting to see various research methods being used in the world of social science.
The use of visual methods for research is a particularly exciting field now and I noticed it was a recurrent theme in several sessions. Film and photography in particular are gaining ground as legitimate means to document how humans experience spaces and situations. Combined with interviews, focus groups and more traditional methods of qualitative research, they promise to take research a step ahead certainly.
I’d like to show you a glimpse of a piece of research presented by independent researcher Silvia Sitton, who is based in Modena, Italy. She set out to study the way Italians in London lived. Without visiting London herself, she did this through a system of self-reporting by participants using photographs of their home, living space and neighbourhood. Silvia supplemented the visual documentation with skype interviews to create profiles of Italian people in London city and understand their experiences. To me, as a researcher interested in migration and housing, her work appealed instantly. She had been able to capture how they felt about their adopted city, how they used space, their daily routines, their challenges and high points as well.
The website she built to house this information (screenshots below; to visit the site, click here here) is in Italian, but its stunningly simple and Silvia told me she would love to replicate this sort of research in other geographical contexts. The value of gathering data without the bias of the researcher is immense here, isn’t it?
I didn’t want to be the tickmark tourist on my recent visit to London. Of course I still ended up doing a bunch of touristy things, of which the most fun was our Saturday morning spent exploring Portobello market. We had been advised to get there real early if shopping was on the cards, but too much wine and excellent company the previous evening ruled out that possibility. So we ended up strolling out of Notting Hill Gate tube station mid morning, eager to experience the famous Portobello all-day market. Here’s my quick run-down of what I loved about it, with some of the zillion pictures I clicked that day!
1- If you’re a crowd hater, don’t go! I loved the hustle and bustle, the jostling… and even the irate look on the face of a well turned out Londoner that had “Bah! Tourists!” written all over it!
2- The colours of Notting Hill and Portobello are so not London. It’s like being transported to the Mediterranean in the middle of England! Pastels and bright colours on building facades make me smile indeed! And the random details too…
3- The antique market is the best bit here, in my opinion. I bought an original map of India, circa 1820 for 40 pounds, quite a steal (Tip: Cash begets discounts)! And just pottering around this section made my day!
4- Food haven, indeed. From crepes to paella, there was quite a spread if you had the appetite!
5- The sheer length of it. Portobello is never ending or so it seemed. Lots to see, lots to do, if you have the patience and the spirit. And if you’re not here to buy, it’s all the more enjoyable with that pressure off!
I had pre-booked our visit to the famous new dome built over the Bundestag in Berlin. Designed by Norman Foster, this was my must-see in the city from an architectural perspective and I had been warned about the need to pre-book and be there on time by fellow travel enthusiasts. And so, on the morning of our appointment, my travel anxiety kicked in full swing. I was impatient with the kids and Rahul, urging them to get ready fast and walk fast. We reached late and had some difficulties finding the right entrance to the building. For a while, I really thought we had missed our slot. I was a dour and unlikable person until we actually stepped into the premises of the Bundestag (also known as the Reichstag), when I finally permitted myself to breathe easy and smile!
This is where the German Parliament works from, the seat of power and a powerful symbol of democracy for a nation that has seen a tumultuous recent past. Moreover, the building burnt down during the Nazi regime (1933, blamed on Communists despite little evidence) and the open space around has been the site of many protests and political gatherings. Truly a witness to Berlin’s ups and downs, the new dome designed by Foster is perceived as a symbol of unified Germany, one that has given the building a fresh lease of life and a sense of joy and purpose.
I was very excited to be here, and once I was in, it was my relationship with my camera that took over, as Rahul and the kids faded slowly out for me (they were busy with their own audio guides, which were so excellent that even the kids could independently explore the dome for over an hour!). So many aspects of this magnificent glass dome are fascinating- the way it channels light into the Parliament hall below, the double helix ramps that take you to the top, the opening at the top that let the refreshing summer air in along with some raindrops when we were up there, the clarity of the glass that offers the most fantastic view of Berlin….I could go on and on, but I’ll let the pictures tell you more!
I don’t know about you, but for me travel is as good as the company I keep on the road. The weekend trip to Dhanachuli stands out in this regard. The fresh mountain air, the breathtaking views, the lovingly crafted properties we visited and stayed in, the delectable food…all these experiences were greatly enhanced and in fact, indelibly etched in my mind by the stimulating conversations we had.
Moreover, I rediscovered the absolute high of meeting new people and finding common ground in a very short period of time; the thrill of being in the company of creative minds that work differently from yours and yet feed into a similar sensibility; the calmness of not being judged and not judging those around you.
For this and more, my thanks go out to Te Aroha and Sumant Batra in particular, whose brainchild this Blogger’s Meet was. To warm up to the exciting series of posts I have planned about the fantastic weekend, I’m including these portraits I clicked of all my new friends. As fellow travelers, their names will crop up often in my ramblings about Dhanachuli and as I said before, they are as much part of the story as the frames taken by my camera’s eye and the words forming in my head!
And Aaditya of course. All my pictures of him are blurred and my strongest memory of him is of squinting keenly through the camera, in love with the idea of capturing a frame. The sharpest observation powers I have seen in a while… as far as company goes, AA was certainly the icing on the cake 🙂
Oh wait! I did find, a very apt, pic of him!
After a long time, I am back to the addictive A Word a Week Challenge
Despite tight deadlines at work, I find it hard to ignore this week’s theme because it is irresistible to an ‘arch’itect. Have put in a whole bunch of photos taken on travels in India and abroad, resulting from a quick 10 min glance through my iphoto album! Enjoy the arches of various periods, cultures and from a variety of buildings.
Its night time in Koh Samui. We drive around the island in a pick up truck. I am cozy at the back, wind blowing my hair, a one-year old Aadyaa asleep on my lap. And these are the pictures I take.
I find them magical and I return time and again to my iphoto folder to see them. They were taken 4 years ago. Thought I’d share them today, on a night when I feel lonely and these are enough to bring me cheer.
A mirror of our lives?
Taken at Casa Batllo in Barcelona
Architect Antonio Gaudi