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In new city, no sense of place

Filled with guilt about our degraded towns, every few months, bureaucrats, politicians and civic authorities announce some grandiose package...

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
January 25, 2006

Filled with guilt about our degraded towns, every few months, bureaucrats, politicians and civic authorities announce some grandiose package of urban largesse. Global cities, world class airports, international standard highways, metro rail systems, Euro II pollution controls — are the picture postcard incentives tossed at citizens regularly suffering municipal failures. When electricity fails, taps run dry, sidewalks become housing for migrants, garbage wastes on pot-holed streets, and ancient monuments swim in plastic bags, the antidote is an air conditioned shopping centre copied from Californian models. What better way to tackle the crime rate than to channel energy into the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

The new city, the city of tenements, overwhelms, swallowing the past in an uncontrollable spasm. Wheat fields sprout apartments; hotel facades rise up in compositions of fake Mughal arches. In parks, overlooking mock Tudor balconies of private houses, early morning defecators line up behind the bushes; smoke from suburban factories settles on gladioli blooms tended on the city’s roundabouts. A demographic explosion is in progress. An anonymous mass of people is shifting residence from town to suburb. Vast residential tracts are reclaimed with newer marketing strategies for greater profits. Mass production and insistent messages, words of persuasion on billboards, television, newspaper centrespreads: come to Greenfields, Own Your Villa in Lakewoods, Live Life Again in Beverly Park.

The messages of dereliction are more noticeable in small-town India. Moradabad in UP, for instance, is the largest manufacturer and exporter of brass objects in the country, with an annual turnover of over Rs 42 crore. Yet despite its supposed richness, in urban terms, Moradabad is the armpit of the world. Treeless, filled with rivulets of effluents, unmade roads, stagnant pools of water, with a roadside poverty to rival any small town of Bihar, in the city’s public life there is not a hint of its industrial affluence. And yet, along its eastern edge lie some of the city’s grandest houses. Pink sandstone, brass balusters and Italianate pediments — ostentation in indirect proportion to the surrounding blight. Around them the urban life of the city seethes with decay: permanent rivulets of purple slime; rotting carcasses; plastic bags blowing in the wind. Carefully fenced bits of ornament in a sea of grime, the houses sit smug. They offer a frightened response to the surrounding blight, to the tarpaulin shanties and sewer pipes that lean against their own boundary.

How can you live in a destitute, orphaned town? Whenever I move out of my home, I am filled with a sense of dread. I wonder, at times, why I am so repulsed by the places we live in. It has nothing to do with poverty, disease and malnutrition. The dread is related to the places of ordinary life, the public building, the house, the market and truck repair shops. A dreary mass of broken plaster and flagging spirit, they are like parasitic accretions, slowly sucking out the simpler enthusiasms, the quieter life of early days. And there is no getting away.

Is the city not the most vivid symbol of how a society sees itself? Traditionally Hindu or Islamic towns gave pride of place to religion, the way present towns glorify commerce. The differences in the architecture of Lucknow and those of Trivandrum were the differences in the climate, people, and lifestyles of the two places. Because the relation between material life and symbolic expression was the same, a visitor’s identification with building was immediate and unmistakable.

In today’s experience of a city, even the understanding of architecture as something heroic, interesting, relevant, communicative, or even essential doesn’t hold anymore. At one time we preserved and extended into memory the symbols that sustained us — the living structures that invested our lives with meaning. The Ajanta caves, the Rashtrapati Bhavan — in each, a reflection and recall of places once made, and still with us. But in an age of shopping malls, cineplexes and motels, the works of men like Akbar, Shahjahan and Lutyens — Fatehpur Sikri, Taj Mahal, Viceroy’s House — have become today’s great follies. Like the houses of Moradabad, they can be seen as nothing else. As momentoes and tourist attractions, their presence in the surrounding landscape only enriches the evidence for the need for a public architecture, the notion that ordinary building can provide a sense of place and cultural equilibrium lacking in our lives.

Today’s architecture pretends to influence, yet it influences nothing, touches no one. You can now talk of revolving restaurants and prove that their architecture has come from Mughal minarets; you could give reasons why parking lots are the only pure forms of architecture, even support the thesis that roadside paan shops are an important urban phenomenon. In a country without its own architecture, anything is possible.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and author

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