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Peter Rich strolls down vehicle-free S M Street with designer Naseeb Mahmood for company. Photos Sajan Nambiar

A stroll, without the dread of a vehicle ramming you, through the historic S M Street is any shopper’s delight. It becomes doubly delightful when one is fortunate enough to have as a walking companion the guru of modern African architecture and urban planner Peter Rich. The Afritect, who was in Kozhikode on a teaching trip, sauntering along the bustling heritage street on a Saturday evening exclaims: “You have gold in your hands.” He was speaking on the commercial possibility of converting the shopping street into a heritage pedestrian district incorporating its environs. But it requires administrative commitment to respect the natural environment and preserve places that are steeped in legacy, according to him.

He has been in Kerala on five occasions and was in Kozhikode a year back. Peter had then walked down the same stretch with architect A K Prashant. So this time he returns as a discerning observer of the beautification work nearing completion. Designer Naseeb Mahmood, whom Peter hails as the brainy inspiration behind the Gujarathi street revival project, is accompanying him now.

legacyPeter is articulately unhappy at the erratic manner of the change happening on S M Street. “Shopping is a walking experience. And if doesn’t provide walking space for the shoppers, where is the fun in shopping?” Decisions on managing public space must be made collectively. The opinion of all stake-holders should matter. The community might have good ideas and it would be wise if architects, planners, administrators, bureaucrats and politicians pay heed to the talk in the street. For by consenting to go along with the proposed renovation local communities and shop-keepers have risked their lives and businesses trusting in the wisdom of those who advocate change.

Pedestrianisation of just one street is not solution. The entire city centre radiating out from S M Street including adjoining streets upto Town Hall should be made traffic-free so that people can saunter. The feasibility of taking traffic underground needs to be examined. Vehicles can be parked at a minimum distance of 300 meteres from S M Street. Istiklal street in Istanbul, which has 30 lakh pedestrians over the weekend could be an inspiration. There are good precedents in Spain and Italy.

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Architect turns shutterbug to preserve an image of the heritage area

Terraces with balconies overlooking S M Street should be developed, which should integrate with the design of the proposed canopy. It should provide proper cover to the threshold of shops below. Access stairs too will be needed. They should have their own toilet facilities. The canopy should be compatible with all seasons. It should have a special colour in harmony with the rest of the street. Lighting and hanging greenery needs to be integrated with the steel structure.

He advised that the services of the most talented designers who understand how to capitalise on the eclectic diversity to reinvent and sort out the signage mess. They should also establish a uniform lighting theme not only for the central street and canopy, but also in the lighting of shop entrances. Peter was vehement in his opposition to white light, instead advocating the usage of warm lighting which will flatter both customers and products.

At intersections beautiful ledges for sitting will enhance the appeal of the street, which should also have spaced out central seating at intervals. Similarly, small stalls in the middle would yield more shopping options. Fruit shops with fresh juice would be a refreshing change, especially in our hot climate. At intersections with alleys paving should have tiles with colourful rangolis.

Posing for the camera against a throng of shoppers

Clean well maintained public toilets serving the needs of traders and shoppers should be clearly sign posted in alleys. Refuse bins need to be located at regular intervals along the street. Peter mooted a responsible street cleaning program planned in tandem with traders.

His suggestion at monetising the heritage value of the street is to establish Bed &Breakfast accommodation in the top floor of shops and in the empty courtyards down the alleys. This will attract backpackers.

Places of worship and shops of long stading have to given extra care and funding. A transparent consultative process by both the City and the architect involved with stakeholder participation would foster in traders a sense of ownership of the street.

Peter said that traders might have constructive ideas to put forward, which should be heeded on merit. They deserve better return on investment. Studies of similar successful pedestrianisation projects world-over needs to be shared with them to allay their fears. Interactive design workshops with the trading community might also help. The next step of the new shopping district is to evolve a long-term plan. With the co-operation and efforts of all concerned, he is optimistic that it will succeed.

The Afritecht nails a thought in Gudhaam Art Café, Gujarathi Street

He was equally eloquent with suggestions on Gujarathi Street. The renovation and renewal is the brain child of Naseeb, whose design flair, passion and initiative made it happen. Most of the start-up tenants are creative people who share his vision and see themselves as custodians of the street. As such they wish to be part of the team working on the Master plan for the whole area with professional architects and landscape designers entrusted the responsibility of renovating the public space of the street. The resident architectural team contracted by the authorities should engage investors in a transparent series of interactive workshops dealing with issues of designing. The design of the proposed flea market also has to be discussed with the investors.

Gujarathi, Portuguese and  Chinese heritage and history should be reflected in a contemporary and unique way in the DNA of proposed design for the street. Rangolis have to be part of the paving design opposite key entrances. An original thinking with pebbles for paving the street in multi-coloured wavy patterns would creatively complement the presence of the nearby sea. Moreover, pebbles suggest joy, unlike cobbles, which according to him are dull. In the matter of lighting, Peter is vehemently opposed to retro, favouring  anything contemporary and delightful, which should also appropriately  reinterpret the eclectic past. Greening of the street and its edges too is  important.

Peter, whose Johannesburg-based Peter Rich Associates had won the World Building of the year Award in 2009 for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, was here on the invitation of ‘Avani Board of Design’ to give a lecture on “Drawing as a thinking Tool and Analytical Tool” to the students of ‘Avani’ in their Thamarassery campus.

According to him architects need to develop an additional way of seeing. Emphasis should be given to sketching instead of photography. Sketching demands total concentration of the mind focused on the subject under observation, compelling an immersion in it, which leads to a revelation of its essence. In comparison, in photography it is merely a matter of composing a frame in the best possible light.

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Peter Rich framed against the skyline of S M Street. Photo Bijeesh CM

Peter says he came to India for several things. Certain things are unique to this land. The fecund diversity of cultures, belief systems, tastes and colours are perpetual attractions. He says that God exists in a drop of water and in manifold nature too. His advice to all is to be true to one’s self. There is no point in aping alien concepts and adamantly trying in vain to adapt it to local culture, for it will not work. An avid researcher of indigenous tribes Peter says we so engrossed in becoming somebody unlike us, throwing common sense out of the window.

He is particularly scathing on the intrusion of mobile phones and attendant social media. We have forgooten the art of talking lost in the welter of texting. Ten minutes without an alert or a beep from the mobile makes most suicidal. Family relationships are getting disrupted by the ubiquitous cell phone. The answer is to use it in moderation.

It is here that Peter says that India has a lot to offer. He enumerates Indian contribution to civilisation, including the concept of zero, surgery, astronomy and various sciences. He recounts how Jagdish Chandra Bose had actually invented the telephone much before Edison, because the colonial British had a way of suppressing indigenous genuis. Hence, in history, Edison is honoured by default.

He is all praise for the work being done by a young generation of architects here. Their ingenious designs facilitating optimum air flow in buildings facilitates minimum reliance on air-conditioning. To him, this is a great way to curtail wasteful expenditure, conserve energy and comply with green protocol. Air-conditioning need be resorted to only in conditions of extreme heat. Green architecture is the way to go in future.

Peter is not a great fan of shopping malls, which he accuses of killing cities. They are artificial. In street shopping, options and choices are plenty. Shopping in a normal environment involves intimate interaction and movement of people. Matching action with words he purchased a belt from a shop, without much haggling. To Naseeb Peter jocularly observes that the belt might also suit his pair of Bermudas.

Peter Rich is all ears as designer Naseeb Mahmood makes a point in S M Street/ Photo Bijeesh CM

The proponent of public transport cites the example of America, which has realised the folly of giving the right of the road to cars. According to Peter they are dismantling expressways and reclaiming the streets. In contrast to China, drowning in an orgy of cars as an explosion of a new found consumerist impulse, he extols the example of Barcelona. Its revolutionary 'Superblocks' model aims to reclaim the streets from cars and return it to pedestrians. Superblocks use the pattern of existing streets to create a bigger new block where cars are largely restricted and roads are re-purposed into public spaces.

Peter lauds the example of Rwanda, which to most of us is a backward land steeped in violence. In Kigali the streets are squeaky clean, with not so much as a candy wrapper in sight. It’s illegal to litter. On the last Saturday of every month, all citizens, including President Paul Kagame, hit the streets, as part of a community cleanliness drive ‘Umuganda’. And unlike here, it actually works. Peter rates it on par with Switzerland in terms of cleanliness. Plastic bags, which are banned, are confiscated on arrival.

He narrates bitter experiences which should fill all Malayalees with shame, and our policy-makers with an added sense of dread. In Jew Street, Mattancherry, the street has been elevated without incrporating a slope at the edge, which drops sharply. The unwary tourist intent on sight-seeing will stumble and if lucky twists an ankle, or at worst breaks a bone. Next is the lack of urinals or the presence of one, which is filthy beyond words. Peter Rich articualtes on behalf of all tourists on our callousness and unclean ways: “Please continue the way you are. We will head to Sri Lanka.”