It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!
I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.
Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.
Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.
I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.
Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.
Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.
A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.
To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.
There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!
Making the most out of quick work trips is an art. I’d like to say I’m rather good at it. In the first week of January, I made an overnight visit to Mumbai for a meeting. I was fortunate, since the meeting was in Cuffe Parade, to be out up at the quaint old-world Sea Green Hotel right on Marine Drive.
Bombay, especially the central and southern parts of the city, is a big part of my growing up years and always has the effect of sending into a wave of strong and happy nostalgia. Marine Drive and Worli Seaface are those iconic places in the city that are on every Bombaywalla’s list of favourites. Mine too.
The Queen’s Necklace is regal and sweeping, its panoramic view and feel having the effect of slowing down your heart rate and making you open your eyes wider as you feel your face ease into a broad smile. And so I found myself waking up in eager anticipation early enough to get in a morning stroll along Marine Drive before I needed to leave for work.
From eager fitness enthusiasts, to cavorting canines. From excited shattering tourists to practiced office goers who looked like they had just stepped off the train and were catching their moments of calm before plunging into the madness of the day. And lovers, everywhere. Young couples lost in themselves, their backs to the world, their gazes out at sea. Exchanging gifts and silences. Sharing conversations.
A city of love, a city of excitement and noise and energy, and of poignant silences too. Bombay, it’s impossible not to love you.
Walking back from our Kathak morning at Raahgiri, we ran into a really peppy zumba session. Now, salsa beats never fail to do their thing and I found my feet tapping along of their own volition. Aadyaa was absolutely mesmerized by the energy in the air. With an exchange of glances that signified permission, she darted into the crowd and began to follow the instructor on the stage.
She joined a sea of kids, both boys and girls, ranging from age 5 to people in their late teens. Most of these super enthusiastic youngsters were from economically underprivileged households. You could see that from their clothes and many of them had the typical light brown streaks of malnourishment in their hair. But their energy and enthusiasm surpassed anything I had seen before. They watched keenly and absorbed the instructor’s every move, even his expression and the nuances of his dancing. The workout, as I mentioned before, was based on Latino forms of dance, which are not familiar to most Indians. But these kids had it down pat. Many of them, it appeared, had been at Raahgiri before and memorized the basic steps already. One girl (in the pink sweatshirt) and a young man (in a red tee) stood out in their attitude and total involvement. They, and not the ones up on stage, were the talented artists at Raahgiri this morning!
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.
Yet another article, in the Business Standard this time, highlights the cultural contrasts between the original inhabitants of Gurgaon and its original inhabitants. “The two sets of people do not share public spaces — so vital for a city to become a melting pot of cultures. For example, the city’s sought-after clubs are out of bounds for the villagers because they do not fit the profile,” write journalist Veena Sandhu. Access to private schools is equally difficult for rural children, despite their immense material prosperity. It is a strange situation, by any standards.
I happen to frequent several days a week a space where these two worlds do meet. My gym. Owned by a local, most instructors in the gym belong to Gurgaon’s urban villages. The customers are a mixed bag of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The interaction has helped me look at the young men with a different lens. Often labeled as aggressive and uncouth, the citizens of modern, glitzy Gurgaon would like to dismiss the city’s rural young, avoid them. I, however, see their immense dedication to their bodies, their single minded focus and determination when they work out. I have not once (in several months) seen them ogle at a woman, flirt with one or even come anywhere close without permission. Initially, my attitude was as neutral as possible, perhaps even avoiding eye contact totally. Then slowly, I felt myself relax. Initially a smile would get a stiff response, almost a scared one lest I judge him. Now the regulars will smile back or even have a conversation in the lift. My trainer never introduces me to any of these friends of his by name; that comfort level has not been reached yet. But our distrust is as much the cause for this as the actual cultural divide.
I see spaces like this (and its good to take these spaces even more public than a membership-based gym) as a great opportunity to initiate interaction and sports can be a starting point to evolve a new culture for this city, which is young and in a delicate formative stage. I feel that we are so quick to judge, almost as if someone passing a diktat to allow intermingling will miraculously overnight resolve these issues. And then a woman gets molested, and everything clams shut again, the abyss deepened, trust destroyed.
We need to give this city time to evolve and find its balance. Yes, efforts must be made to initiate those dialogues, and equal opportunity is a good starting point especially in areas like education. Personally too, it is important that we get out of our shells and really open our eyes to the realities, to the ‘human’ side of the people around us.
“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!
I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:
The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.
The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.
Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.
The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.
The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.
The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.
[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I’ve always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to “a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.”. Poor Walt! I’m sure this wasn’t his intention….]
What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context? I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.
A girlie trip to the Punjab. Sounds good? It is good.
Here we are, five of us. Two of whom I know, two others became my friends today. In the cool fresh air of rural Punjab, it’s hard to remember the crazy pace of city life and its easy to let go and just be.
Driving on highways on a Sunday morning ensures a smooth ride and we literally zipped across Delhi and Haryana to land up in Chandigarh well ahead of schedule. Amusing sights like the gate of Jurasik Park that sported two super ugly dinosaur statues, a fiat car adorning someone’s roof in Sonepat and glimpses of two astonishingly beautiful ruined old havelis from atop the elevated highway at Gharaunda were some highlights. Prompted by these and other sights, the conversation flowed. From homes and husbands and children to hobbies, vacations and the dubious joys of social networking. Silly jokes, nostalgic anecdotes from the past. All poured out of us as we bonded. As women are wont to.
And then we reached Chandigarh and got off the car in the infamous Sector 17. Where you apparently go to hang out, ogle at the girls or guys depending on your choice and simply pass time. We girls, on the other hand, were dead serious about our shopping. Or at least two of us were, buying up the place in record time and derailing the time schedule by an hour!
Going back to Chandigarh after years was a pleasant experience though. What a vision Corbusier had in terms of scale for public spaces! I can imagine hundreds of people thronging the square in Sector 17 and it would look right. The tree lined parking, the street furniture, lovely shaded corridors and a large open space make for very nice high street retail indeed. Unfortunately on a Sunday morning and most other times this city does not create the sort of mass that a space like this deserves. Swank showrooms aside, there is a laid back run down quality to this place as well. Of course, that didn’t deter us from shopping, eating and giggling like schoolgirls. Some of whom we encountered in the ladies loo of ‘Girl in the Cafe’, attending to a puking friend who hadn’t been able to hold down her morning vodka!
A short drive from here and we were in the lovely fort of Bharatgarh, the last living fort in the Punjab and the seat of one of the twelve Misl of Sikh warriors. We headed out almost immediately and are just back from soaking in the mesmerising experience of the Khalsa Museum at Anandpur Saheb. But I will wax eloquent about the fort and the museum another day when I can upload the pictures that will show you their surprising beauty.
For now, it’s goodnight amid chit chat and more giggling.