Among the many things unique to architecture school, one of the most anticipated experiences every year was surely the annual field trip. As we drew closer to October, the discussions became very animated and intense, I remember students attempting to convince the professors about the architectural merits of Goa with feigned innocence and earnest faces. 

Indeed, the field trip was not all fun and gamesit was a week of intense documentation, research, and data collection, the blurry party nights where college students did not have families to answer to were just a bonus. The idea of being in a new city with your peers and professors is in itself quite exciting for various reasons. 

One, it is an essential lesson in the need for collaboration and group work- tackling and navigating a city in a week is no mean task, and documenting it requires coordination that brings you a lot closer to your peers. Two, it is a shared experience. Forty architects researching a city are bound to create conversations like no other, it was very interesting to hear peoples’ opinions about the city and have them manifest in their designs much later. And finally, the memories. I would not trade my time on these trips with anything else, I know I made friends for life.

The City of Pondicherry | Turf War

One of those annual field trips that we went to was Pondicherry. For the uninitiated, the city of Pondicherry is like no other: the town is primarily split into French and Tamil quarters, with the Tamil quarter being further subdivided into Hindu, Christian, and Muslim parts. Much to my excitement, I was part of the two groups of four who were to study the French quarters. 

The French part of Pondicherry is not short of a dream itselfthe neighborhood boasts of tree-lined streets and avenues, a seaside promenade, quaint houses with ornate shuttered windows, bright yellow facades, and ivy ridden walls with thatched roofs. Our group was to study the ‘Rue Suffren’, one of the four primary streets that made up the heritage walk of the French part of Pondicherry.

When Amateur Architects Caused a Mini Turf War
A typical shuttered window in Pondicherry_©Varun Sethi

Measuring Tapes Mean Business!

A lot of the documentation we had to do over the course of the field trip was at an urban scale. We were to measure the right of ways, sidewalks, pedestrian flow, congregation and public spaces, quantities of people, institutional and public building locations. On the other hand, the building scale research made us look at the contextual response, facades, and the exterior detailing among various other things. 

The groups of four made it quite easy, we split the tasks in a way that two people would measure, one person would draw it out, and the last person would photograph everything; by the end of day two, we were like a well-oiled machine that would move further up the street as we took our observations down. I distinctly remember when it first happenedwe were almost up to the end of the street where it met with the next one, and I was measuring a sudden change in the width of the sidewalk. 

At this point, a vendor who was selling bananas on the street walked up to me and stood gingerly, suddenly hesitant. On prompting, he asked me if we were going to be widening the sidewalk in a low, quiet voice. I smiled and said no, and he hurriedly left without further conversation. Not putting too much in store with what had just happened, we continued our work for the day.

It was mandated by our professors that the group share their day’s work with other students in the class and we were given time for this before dinner. As we moved about the room to see other students’ documentation, a conversation among the other ‘French’ group caught my ear:

“…and so I told him that we won’t be making changes to your house, this is a school project…”, my friend was saying. On inquiring, he told me that a man had come out of his house while they were doing their drawings, and he had wondered what four architects were doing outside his house with measuring tapes and cameras!

It was day four of the field trip and we were back on our spot early morning with our equipment. As we walked up to the end of our street where we left the day before, we saw a group of about eight people in a small argument. We saw that the four students who were measuring the neighboring street were also almost done with theirs, and had reached the point where the two of our streets met. We didn’t care for the commotion and quietly got down to the task at hand with our measuring tapes. 

The group of people who were talking had suddenly gone quiet. Slightly perturbed, we noticed that they had started walking toward us! As they got closer, I realized that the vendor from the previous day was one of them, and he was the first to speak. The vendor had brought three of his friends who were selling goods on the same street and wanted the sidewalk to become wider for them to have enough space. 

The man they were arguing with was a homeowner on the same street, had brought his neighbor, and wanted the sidewalk to remain just as it was to have more driving space. We listened to them squabble for five minutes and tried to tell them that we were mere students in school, but they just wouldn’t have itthey were convinced that eight architects meant a construction project! By this point, someone had informed our professor who came and dealt with the matter a lot more convincingly.

I was a young architect on a field trip in undergraduate school when the above incident had transpired. However, I know that I have realized two things. One, architectural intervention creates conversationthe width of a sidewalk is something that planners are always concerned with, but the reasons that the vendor and the homeowner gave were basic grass-root problems. 

It was a lesson in the need to engage the community before design and to have conversations with the people involved in a project. Two, architects and designers have the ability to change lives. We shape the built environment, and by extension, the way people behave. These ideas seemed obvious as I progressed with my architectural education and career, but to have experienced it first hand was essential.


Varun is a Masters in Architecture graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an architect, he is passionate about good design, interactivity with architecture, walkability, and dense cities. When not working, he tries to find time for sketching, going for a swim or reading architectural theory.