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- 27 04 2002 - 19:20 - katatonik

Out for a talk

“Unfortunately, in India today, architecture is no longer seriously considered by planners as an instrument for the structuring of the urban landscape. This has partly to do with the attitude of architects who have not engaged sufficiently to influence city policy, which in turn implicitly determines what they can build. In fact, architects have almost no “policy sense” and this is perhaps endemic of a larger cultural problem in India where there is a slightly non-empirical bent of mind. As a result of this, far greater premium is paid to symbolic action – represented often as policy decisions endorsed and legitimised by politicians. In V. S. Naipaul’s book An Area of Darkness, he touches upon symbolic action when he describes the sweeper who sweeps the corridor in his hotel and at the end of the day, it is dirtier than when he started sweeping. A symbolic action whose result is contrary to what is wanted – a tendency to go off into abstraction by creating a symbolic gesture to solve a perceived problem.”

Rahul Mehrotra, “Making Indian cities”. Mehrotra gave a talk today, at the workshop accompanying the exhibiton “Kapital & Karma” on current Indian art (Kunsthalle Vienna). What he outlined as characteristic for South Asian cities was the stark contrast between, and uneasy co-existence of, what he termed “static” city, the formal and planned city, and the “kinetic” city, the informal, unplanned city of slum-dwellers, bazaars, and street vendors. He demonstrated, with several concrete examples, how these two types of city could be made to interact better. One of them was the remodeling of the Fort Area, on which Mehrotra also published a guide (together with Sharada Dwivedi, here’s a brief review – scroll down). Also together with Sharada Dwivedi, Mehrotra authored “Bombay: The Cities Within” (India Book House).
Here’s a review of a film presented by Mehrotra, “One City, Two Worlds”, based on the same distinction between the two cities. The reviewer was not pleased with the film’s handling of brute facts such as population figures as well as predictions, as well as with its allegedly uncritical appraisal of the kinetic city at the expense of denouncing the desastrous social consequences that current economic developments in Mumbai will have on those millions of people engaged working in the declining manufacture industry (“celebrate the spirit, bury the statistics”).

Not being that much into architecture and urban planning, I couldn’t follow all of Mehrotra’s enthusiastically presented examples and arguments. What stuck, however: The trend, observable also in other cities around the globe, that the rich colonize the outskirts of the cities and build fantastic country-houses there, has in Mumbai the added poignancy that these houses usually have English colonial-style names. While the official, public town renames itself from Bombay to Mumbai, while street names are now Indicized on a large scale, private resorts built in colonial style carry names such as “regent resort Bombay”, or “Wilson creek Mumbai”. I was reminded of an experience I had in Calcutta about ten years ago. In a coffee-house, I befriended a group of elderly men who took me out to a party at the Calcutta Cricket Club, a typical Indian-style party with tents in the garden and lavish food, against the backdrop of the colonial clubhouse on whose walls you could still see the photos of the proud British club founders in their army uniforms.

What also stuck was a barely noticeable byline of Mehrotra’s main argument. Globalization may mean that things increasingly look the same all over the world, but this does not mean that they are the same. I don’t remember now how he connected this seemingly trivial insight to his deliberations on architecture, but I took it as an appeal not to let oneself be fooled by visu al resemblances. Again, I was reminded of something: how often did the mere visual resemblance of Japanese cities to others that I already knew lure me into believing that life in Japan would on the whole not be different from life elsewhere, that social customs and everyday beliefs were the same here as everywhere else I knew. Perhaps it is because of this delusional potency of the visual that Europeans in Japan often seek out visually marked environs, what with old Japanese houses and such? Because there already the visual alerts them where they really are, just so they don’t forget?

Bombay photographs from before 1948, Tasveerein – The Mumbai Album (heaps of digicam pictures), “Picture Mumbai: landmarks of a new generation” (project of the Getty Conservation Institute: teenagers in Mumbai were asked to take pictures of what they think are landmarks in the city), Mumbai panoramics (panorama shots),

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