Building an ugly india (article in HT)

By Gautam Bhatia

Design concepts in India are not based on innovation but conformity- If a particular bridge design — however outmoded — has worked successfully once, it will be repeated across every culvert, nallah, ravine or riverbed regardless of location, or size, if an architect builds a house with a Spanish façade, ten new houses in the neighbourhood will come up with the same façade.

If you take the subway downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge stop in New York, it is very likely that you’ll be mesmerised by your very first sight out of the subway tunnel. For right there before you is the most celebrated piece of American history — an extraordinary structure that carries you from one side of the East River to the other. A stretch of cables and Gothic towers that has been photographed, filmed, engraved, embroidered, and eulogised in words and paintings more often than JFK and the American flag. More often than even Marilyn Monroe.

The bridge’s magnificence stems from elevating the simple act of moving across a river into an experience much greater — something that involves time and space, the city and the river. I’ve been on the bridge as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian and — in each instance — the structure unfolded newer perspectives along its length. As you cross, the experience engages you completely, leaving you informed about sensations of movement, height, scale, the colour of the water and the order of other man-made and natural things around.

John Roebling, and his son Washington, spent more than half-a-century working on this single piece of construction. The Brooklyn Bridge is to the Roeblings what a Kashmiri carpet is to its weaver. You start one piece of work in your lifetime, and let your son finish it in his. What’s remarkable about the bridge though are not the statistics, or the time span of its construction, but that even a century-and- a-half after its conception, this engineering endeavor still stands as one of the truly magnificent works of humankind — somewhere between Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Moon Landing. I personally feel it’s better than the Ninth (only because I don’t know Western classical music); but I’m sure if Ludwig were to walk across the bridge, he’d feel the same way.

Some years ago while on a visit to Patna, I asked a friend what people did for excitement in the evenings. Without batting an eyelid he said, “Why, visit the new Patna bridge of course, what else.” As if to say, what could be more thrilling in Bihar than a public project that actually gets built.

In a place with the largest brothel in Asia, I still wondered why anyone would consider a drive to a bridge as the high point of his evening. But I had visions of the Brooklyn Bridge, and so, after dinner as the evening drew to a close and tension mounted we drove to the river. Hundreds of cars had already pulled up for what was a celebration of the Bihar PWD’s most engaging monument — a mile long row of concrete pylons that supported a roadway and connected two riverbanks. On the road tarmac families milled about between ice cream and pappar vendors in an obvious mood of gloating admiration.

Why the celebration. Nowhere in the sightline was a hint that the structure had in any way extended the art of engineering into the realm of aesthetics. A visual _expression so monotonous and repetitive, the bridge attracted only by its tedium. The experience only left me wondering how it was possible to build a structure so banal that its motorable convenience was in fact a form of environmental degradation? The Bihar PWD only confirmed Ruskin’s view that any act of man was always less than the setting of which it was a part.

India is today the second largest construction market, after China, with an estimated work exceeding Rs 500,000 crores in the year. Just last year, 42 New Municipal Corporation buildings were built, 34 new railway stations established, over 400 bus terminals constructed. Yet all buildings, whether in tribal Madhya Pradesh, sandy Rajasthan or wind swept Himachal, were of standard government designs. Whatever the peculiarities of climate, terrain or vegetation they all looked the same — brick walls, plastered in yellow, firmly sealed with a concrete flat top. Court houses looked like fire stations, schools like hospitals, hospitals like prisons.

That was but expected. Design concepts in India are not based on innovation but conformity. If a particular bridge design — however outmoded — has worked successfully once, it will be repeated across every culvert, nallah, ravine or riverbed regardless of location, or size, if an architect builds a house with a Spanish façade, ten new houses in the neighbourhood will come up with the same façade. If it is the way of the PWD, it is the way of India.

But why? Don’t people notice buildings?

I once overheard a friend giving directions to a wedding venue in South Bangalore. He described a right turn at a Pepsi hoarding, a straight run past some unfinished government flats, then a left near a public urinal. Veer right near a garbage dump, he said, till you see mounds of earth and unlaid concrete sewers, and then take a left at a corner pan-shop. At no time was there a reference to a historical or modern landmark, a mosque or tomb, or any building of note. And I was left thinking of places in ones own life that come to mind in daily encounters with the city — all built before my birth. Victoria Terminus in Bombay, the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta, the tunnel on the Kalka Simla line, the Gol Ghar in Patna, Connaught Place in Delhi — the list is endless. None of the decaying structures of the 1982 Asian Games figure in the list. Would the structures of the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

Sadly, in our own midst there is nothing. Nothing that has evolved locally, made by today’s hands, in a moment of pride. Every time a BBC correspondent stands before India Gate to give his report, it fills me with quiet dread. Not because here’s an Englishman standing before an English landmark in my city. No. Only because it gets me wondering how in the 70 years since India Gate we still haven’t produced an architectural symbol of lasting value. Something that may generate civic pride. If anything comes to mind as an architectural icon for Delhi, it is the acres of housing projects — self financing schemes, decaying, peeling, chipping and staining — bureaucratic citadels that stretch indefinitely on undeveloped wasteland to the end of the horizon.

Is this the new public face of India? Just look around. No more Mahatma Gandhi Chowks, Satyajit Ray Margs or Aurobindo Stadiums. Only Ansal Plazas and Raheja Towers. Builders commemorating then own actions in their own lifetimes. How laughable. How utterly a taste of India.

source: Hindustan Times, December 18, 2005

http://www.hindusta ntimes.com/ 2005/Dec/ 24/181_1576337, 00300006. htm

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~ by Dharmesh on September 9, 2006.

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