3.27.2009

Rickshaws and Good City Form

There is no more recognizable symbol of urban India than the rickshaws that crowd and crawl through the city like yellow-and-black insects. Although the vehicles themselves are ubiquitous and uniform, each rickshaw has a small hand-painted sign on the back that says "Stop," and this comes in endless flavors — from Retro Bollywood to Arabic Chic to American Graffiti Besides the amusing redundancy (would anyone really not stop?), for me these signs represent diversity within order, surprise within standardization, the organic within organization. Within the regulated urban system that rickshaws conform to, these signs are an element of the unpredictable, something that doesn't quite make sense. Against the uniform structure of the rickshaws, they are individualized and reveal a human hand.

It seems to me these signs say something about good city form: about the need for a well-functioning, utilitarian system to make room for difference within the order, a touch of color and a human scale.

My delight at these signs reminds me of the fascination that many from the heavily ordered environments of the West have with habitats that emerged out of more informal, decentralized processes, of which slums are the most obvious expression in an urban context. It's simplistic to write this off as romanticism. Without minimizing the deprivations that most slum residents suffer, I think it's a natural attraction to places that are designed at a human scale, reveal individual creativity and give a sense of the distinctly local. Although there is clear, tacit order that any inhabitant would be attuned to, this is more organized chaos than top-down regulation. Just like rickshaws squeeze their way through the crevices of Mumbai traffic, space is tight but there's room for maneuvering — and you'd never get anywhere if you followed the rules.

On the other end of the spectrum are environments manufactured at a grand scale, driven by the heavy hands of impatient capital or grandiose master-planning. These are sterile places with assembly-line fixtures and repeating forms, where the human hand is invisible and every movement is predicted by a sign.

Of course, this is an extreme, and the other extreme — anarchy — is equally undesirable. Although they may not carry out their ostensible role in directing traffic, rickshaw signs do give a clue about how to strike a balance in terms of what makes an efficient but rich urban element.

(Photos by Katia Savchuk.)

1 comment:

Peter Sigrist said...

I like this concept a lot. There's a basic structure that can be personalized in so many ways. Very interesting connection to slums as well.

It seems that economic development brings us farther and farther away from this kind of personalization and craftsmanship. Maybe it will start to come back, driven by the limits of uniformity in mass production.

I wonder if stable housing could someday be as customizable as informal housing? Maybe advanced design and production technologies will become more accessible, so anyone can modify a product to meet their needs and suit their preferences. Standards could be set democratically to make sure these products are safe, healthy, etc.

Anyway, thank you for pointing out these signs!