Monday, February 19, 2018

The Exclusionary Aesthetics of Our Cities

When Aesthetics Are Meant to Exclude (courtesy, Economic Times)
India is obsessed with cities in extreme forms - one part is in awe of it, while the other is completely aghast by what is happening. Smart city, heritage city, sustainable city, green city - so many terms are flying around these days without an inkling of the significance of these terms, their implications and any modicum of an execution plan being put into place. Even the rationale of why we want city a certain way seems to be missing from the discourse - we want something, but are unable to explain what it is, and even more hopeless at understanding what we want. What constitutes a city is clearly a matter of conjecture to quite an extent; in any case, any city cannot have an exact bullet by bullet powerpoint presentation of what its smartness, its resilience and its adaptation will mean. However, with all of this raging discussion, we seemed to have forgotten to discuss important points about the make up of such a city that will probably come in and replace pre-existing ideas of what cities comprise.

James Howard Kunstler often talks about how a city should feel and look like to its residents. This aspect of aesthetics and its ability to include people of all walks of life in a democratic manner, where elements can be shared between people of different backgrounds and categories, has been often discussed. Aesthetics of course can also be exclusive in nature. While in the Cold War era, much was made of the brutalism in architecture that we had witnessed en masse across the world, including in new cities of the time such as Chandigarh, there was a lot of discussion how the architecture made people felt disconnected, left out by the architectural world, trying to make sense of their presence in an unknown world. Somehow, despite having very little in common with the Soviet Union, not once could the global travellers make much difference out between democracies and Communist nations - after all, everyone seemed to be aping the boxes and container like confinements that buildings, institutions and law and order officials cooped up in modern penhouses. However, with the new urbanism wave, where we are witnessing a rash of glass facade dotting our landscapes, dotting tall skyscrapers are turning out to be another variant of the brutalism wave. Calling it neo-brutalism, we can see how this new wave, inspired by architecture of land space optimization, we seem to be creating urban towers that no one feels they belong to either.

Neo brutalism is creating havoc on our idea of what constitutes our society, and is toying with our conception of who we are. In a country that has such wonderful perfection in resilience, adaptation and inclusion that appeals to our culturally rooted mindsets, we are creating a new wave of cities and urban landscapes in the name of modernization that seems to have nothing in relation to our identity or sub-identities. Looking at Lavasa, an attempt to create a modern day Turin that no one sees any better than a weekend Europe like getaway, the imprint of Maharashtra, especially the glory of Pune region is totally missed out. Amaravati is a new city named after the old city that glorified the rich Telugu cultures of the Satavahana era; however, a summary glance of the assembly designs that came up for a public voting contest left one puzzled - what is it that makes the city a new city? Will it be jazzy glass facade buildings; tilted cuboidal designs; or will it be the ethos of the people and the city aesthetic ability to exclude people, making them feel left out?

The power of aesthetics is not democratic in its exclusion - vulnerable sections easily find themselves left out, wondering where they belong. Urban centres where old people and small children remained confined and cooped up like cattle in their barns, moaning the loss of their connections with the middle generations, who are nowhere to be seen or heard, caught up and bound in mental fetters in fancy towers jutting out of the ground in unusual shapes. These towers are not necessarily public transport friendly but for a few bus stations that are thrown far away from sight, seen as an inconvenience much like acne that comes up stubbornly on the face of a teenager. The poor just walk past these buildings, wondering whether they belong in that area - in India, we do not have any New Yorks, where they poor can loiter around these buildings or its backyards, and rummaging through the waste and refuse runs the risk of repercussions unlike those cities, which at least tolerates their poor.

An aesthetic sense of being tends to not be reflected in our buildings today. This in turn is shaping who we are as humans and as a collective, a society, and it is turning more and more dysfunctional. Isolation, depression, mental diseases, physical ailments, disease are common in these settings. Their proliferation is even worse - just look at how avian flus of the world seem to congregate in such towers so easily. Sunlight becomes a pain or a luxury, but never seen as a necessary friend, which can keep you healthy. Ventilation systems are artificial - the feel of the afternoon breeze from the open window of the house will probably be not felt ever again by scores of generations, struggling without air conditioning or heating of any kind. Instead of building in resilience in to our society, this neo-brutal urbanization of today is making us ever more vulnerable - to earthquakes, to floods. Stuck in a building for days because water ensured you could not go anywhere, and pavements and drains cannot support these levels of rainfalls. A sense of security always remains under threat, knowing not when the new 9/11 will strike you, or when vertigo may lead you to collapse and fall.

Modern urbanism has to break from this mould of brutal craziness that seems to impress, and get a sense of relatable aesthetics back into their fold. Unless that happens, the decay of societal set ups cannot be arrested in India. We admire cities across the world that seem to have excellent infrastructure, but only because those cities have also managed to cultivate a sense of aesthetics. A Jardin des Tuileries in Paris still helps people to relate to their sense of belonging, reminding them of their past, their heritage. Even in new cities like Tel Aviv, the ability to create structures and modernity that people can own and feel they belong to is strong. We want to be a Singapore or a Taiwan, but our civic sense cannot come in like them, for they are driven by fear, and not a sense of responsibility. In contrast, despite modernization, Japanese cities tend to retain a strong sense of their place in the world, where citizens share the burden of ownership and responsibility, as they realize sub-consciously how they are responsible and have a role to play in ensuring the pleasantry of aesthetics of their landscape and its interlinked civilization. It is these that we need to be connecting ourselves to, not some random broken European or American ideas that have been cast aside by their own proponents with time. Unless the city’s organic nature is not captured in its aesthetics and the feel of it, a city remains nothing more than a forced agglomeration of fancy structures that hold little more than utility. Gurgaon is not seen as a city; rather it seems like a strange wonderland with a dark side to it that none should be ever exposed to. With this model coming up in other experiments, we can only hope for the worst.

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