Why does brazen excess define Delhis new landscapes?
Three architectural memories of a Delhi childhood remain firmly etched: a peeling decaying city of low plaster walls,a beige Ambassador car that stood on a porch,and a dhoti-clad gardener,forever on his haunches,arranging clods of earth within borders of inclined whitewashed bricks.
I grew up in the Delhi of the 1960s,in the restful bougainvillea-smudged landscape of low compound walls and old bungalows. Architecture was visible only as a low flat-top building close to the ground,extending shadowed passages and verandahs into lawns and flower patches. Shade was the eternal feel of architecture. And though the house was perpetually peeling and staining with the monsoons,its recesses were shielded by jaffreys of jasmine. You could hear the quiet hiss of the summer lawn,and at the end of the hot season,when I saw my father rubbing his soles on wet dewy morning grass,I knew winter was not far.
Reminders of the past are few these days. Certainly,there is a gratification in the gloom of a Mughal tomb,and pleasure still in the sequence of gardens that surround it. But now the experience tantalises by contrast. Todays Delhi is a place of momentary temptation,not of lingering pleasures. There is space in it for the fast-food restaurant,not the scented Mughal garden; the enclosed cinema,the hermetically sealed restaurant,the basement bowling alley,the flourescent commercial centre,the air-conditioned flat. The urban fabric that surrounds the old garden is a parasitic concrete growth,a whiff of greatness in a choked,doomed place. Like the scent of a forgotten moment still lingering in bed but between soiled sheets.
The change came in the 1990s when an open economy enlarged the coffers of Indian business and industry,and created the demand for large-scale construction projects. This was Indias revolution,Indias century. And it was meant to generate new and casteless buildings. The rooted,static and measurable qualities of old buildings were discarded,and in their place grew an uninhibited classless landscape. The Indian architect was ready to comply. He created three-dimensional graphics of space,giving quick expression to the surging economy with new shiny symbols. No longer merely a smudge on the horizon,architecture suddenly felt the urge to be heroic,interesting,relevant,meaningful,and informative,all at once.
Travel anywhere in and around Delhi and youll see the difference; even the now decaying Commonwealth Games structures stand apart from their ramshackle surroundings. Against a hot white sky,they rise in steel and glass and brushed aluminum,glinting,reflecting and mirroring,newer,shinier forms,whose juxtaposition against the horizon is meant to create frissons of delight and make you think: Yes,we are after all better than animals.
In West Delhi,malls and office complexes made from acres of plate glass and polished steel throw unexpected reflections across hallways. The difference between office,home and commerce realised earlier through distinct architectural identities is now blended into a singular mass of building,an architectural type centred on an atrium,soundproofed,air-conditioned,with underground parking. And creating a single moment of revelation,a sudden amplification of the senses,what architects call the ah moment. It doesnt matter that traditional qualities of familiarity,containment and enclosure are altogether missing,and the glass office,residential tower or mall all look the same. It doesnt matter that the balancing act of building and culture belongs now to the builder and the interior designer. What matters is that architecture has become increasingly visible. Yes,we are better than animals.
In the formless,classless world of Gurgaons office complexes,similar distortions in plate glass and stainless steel are the only reminders that you are around buildings. Sometimes the sheer emptiness of places meant for crowds is itself a statement of the utter banality of architectural experience. Along the endless stretch of MG Road,architectures reflective megalomania creates a visual squalor so brazen,by contrast,it reminds the older residents of the placid settled farming community of earlier days,with its humble union with the landscape.
Throughout Delhi and the long arm of the NCR,every aspect of architecture and urbanity is tending towards an increasing isolation of the population. More flyovers,longer expressways make movement possible,but isolation is the unfortunate byproduct of too much mobility; it destroys links to immediate neighbourhoods and familiar social order. The traditional street and square of Chandni Chowk,and the neighbourhood parks and mohallas of Jangpura and Lajpat Nagar have given way to Golf View Apartments and the poolside barbeque in florid suburban complexes.
People with a common lifestyle purpose are herded behind high boundary walls in gated communities to share the spoils of private enclosure: pool,sauna,private parking,tennis club and golf course. A disjointedness in exclusion,in a private landscape of seduction,with all the facilities that say: Private. Tresspassers will be shot…
The new architecture contemplates a complete control of life within the boundary,and residents of these luxury transit camps are caught in the relentless cycle of commerce,forever moving with the flow of money and material. As unseemly appendages,the housing complexes can exist anywhere,regardless of the urban reality around them; the absolute privacy of enclosure pointlessly teases and mocks the society that enables their survival. Even the names give no clues to locale: Carlton Estate,Malibu Gardens,Essex Towne,Beverly Park,the hankering is for a California life,buttressed by the history of Ye Olde England.
Such architecture represses the real in order to preserve appearances. It contaminates ordinary life with excess,promoting the illusion that consumption is the only resolution of architecture. The new resident of the estates also lives in a material gullibility. A spectator in his own home,sitting before a screen to experience the promised joys of domesticity. Consumption becomes defined by lifestyle,lifestyle by income.
The self-consciousness of the branded life extends into every aspect of daily living. The type of home,the make of car,the choice of school for children,the width of the TV screen,the number of servants,the employ of a security guard,a driver,the number of air miles,the seating capacity of the dining table,the upgrade of home appliances,the make of the mobile,the flash of the laptop an endless tyranny of labels and measures. The sheer weight of the social values of architecture and all its minor appendages carry class consciousness to new levels of scandal. In a growing economy with increasing numbers of middle-class aspirants,the prejudices of excessive choice,which were once limited to a miniscule elite,are spread in a shamelessly blatant way.
Everyone must not just consume.
Everyone must not just appear to do so. Everyone must indulge in a daily statement of their differences. It is the new way,the Indian way.