What do we see? The formal or informal?

How do we read cities? Like the State or like the people?

What is the agency of design? An exercise in activism or authority?

This blogpost is the first in a series that explores ways of seeing and consequently of thinking and designing. The first part deals with formality, the second part with informality. Though such a binary may be oversimplification- a black and white to understand the blurry greys, it allows thoughts to coalesce to form the question that prompted my Dissertation ” The Future Role of Architects in Society and Building Industry” How can architects in India make themselves relevant?

More often than not, public schemes, plans and government reports exclaim with numbers and statistics. They rely on quantitative data that is simple to understand. And for the purpose of gathering that data, the State is always trying to make the society legible. The Census is nothing but a detailed administrative stick for control and monitoring of a population. But there is always a gap between the data recorded and the reality one sees on ground. Why? Because the only slice of society observed and represented is that which interests administrators, which is easily read (legible) i.e. utilitarian facts. And what can be administered with ease?  The more static, standardized and uniform part of a population i.e. the planned, the formal, the legible. The more legible it is,the easier it is for the State to intervene- whether it be for plunder or public welfare.

It is no surprise then that nomads, tribal groups, pastoralists, squatters, and homeless are pushed into a kind of illegibility which the State sees as problem for administration (ease of taxation) and control (prevention of rebellion). Repeatedly and with fail, the State tries to permanently settle these mobile people.

James C. Scott in his book ‘Seeing like a State‘ traces how the Pre-modern State lacked information about the people’s wealth, location and identity and hence could only make crude interventions. As a result, last names, standardized weights and measures, standardization of language, design of cities and organisation of transportation were used as attempts at legibility and simplification.

He makes a case against imperial hegemonic planning mentality that excludes necessary role of local knowledge and know how. (informal processes, practical knowledge, improvisation in face of unpredictability )


Talking about exclusion, Rahul Mehrotra in his article ‘Making Legible City Form: A case for Urban Design‘ mention how our image of the city excludes the poor and underpriveleged. We imagine our cities to be clean and devoid of the informal. So much so that, they are invisible to us. When taking a written account of a place for instance, are we not automatically trained to filter this informal sector out and note only what we usually see on official maps? The fruit and vegetable vendors, roadside chaatwala, pavement shops or for that matter the ‘illegal’ house extensions and transformations or electricity wires hanging from poles are filtered out. We like to think of how things ought to be planned and formalised. And that somehow excludes the majority of lives and lifestyles that actually make up the city and keep our lives running.

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. (Scott,1998)

Disorderly looking cities with streets at varying angles and having no overall abstract form might seem highly illegible to an outsider such as the State. If one needs a local guide to navigate, that is a good sign for the inhabitants because local knowledge gains prevalence over outside knowledge. This lends a sense of security to inahibitants from control by outside elites . For someone who has grown in a street in that settlement, each corner, each tree is perhaps associated distinctly with a memory growing up or other cultural logics and patterns and hence makes the settlement highly legible and familiar. Such was the case with Medieval towns like Bruges in Europe or our very own Chandni Chowk in Delhi.

Layout of a city, developed without an overall design or lacking geometric logic does not mean illegibility for inhabitants but for the authorities. (Scott, 1998)

As architects and planners, our professions have to work with  both: the real ground as well as with its simulations on paper and miniature models among other discourses. When design interventions are based on the quantitative (selective information), there arises a gap between paper and reality. It thus becomes a failure of design if there’s a failure of diagnosis. If we are to understand qualitative aspects and the city’s real whole image with the overlaps of formal and informal, quantitative and qualitative- the following piece by Italo Calvino from his book “Invisible Cities” opens up some ideas. To me, it opens up ideas such as: we see only what we want to see, we read what we can identify i.e. signs we already know, our mind forms patterns between those knowns. It does become important then that we first learn to identify multiple layers in a city and avoid selective reading of formal patterns.


Q: How does simplification for control and order by the State translate into design of cities?

A:The mighty grid. And the might of planners and architects to translate the State’s authority onto the ground.

Paris was transformed by addition of broad avenues by Hausmann on orders by Napolean, for controlling any further revolts by the people. What is popularly called ‘Hausmannisation‘ and associated with the beautiful boulevards, gardens, facade control etc. of Paris was in fact an exercise in authority and control over the people via the built form. This is what legibility from without looks like.

  1. It is order not at street level, but from outside: a God’s eye view. (architects design in plan, with miniature scaled models)
  2. The grand plan is not experienced by the residents. (absence of street life, intrusion by hostile authorities, no neighborhood feeling)
  3. Lots and blocks are a convenience as a standardised commodity for the market.(suits the surveyor, planner, real estate speculator)

This mentality of  treating the city like a machine and people like numbers by the State and city planners has been raised as a concern by Rahul Mehrotra. He conveys that the city is more like an organism and people are complex and three dimensional. As the number of people in cities is exploding, the social responsibility and need to look at qualitative aspects to decipher the illegible has escalated.

So, whose side are you on?

I hope this post helps acknowledge (if not dissolve) certain filters we apply on our mind’s eyes. 🙂

I just finished my 7th semester and the learnings have been immense. Through my Dissertation, Experimental Housing Studio and Theory of Settlements course, I have a newfound clarity in my own inclinations and a better understanding of the immediate reality. I’ll probably elaborate on this soon 🙂 But briefly put, it’s here

In fact, it all started here. (Check out my first blog post: “Who is the architect?”)

* The header image relates to easy surveillance by the State by simplifying people, buildings, trees among other things to numerical data.*


Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C.Scott

Making Legible City Form: A case for Urban Design by Rahul Mehrotra (an article in Architecture+Design magazine Sept-Oct 1990)

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Check out:

Theory of Settlement 2016 Blog https://theoryofsettlementsyear4.wordpress.com/