In developing New Delhi, imperial architects made a decision to reveal only the buildings of pomp and ceremony on the civic horizon. Domesticity’s ordinariness and privacy were to remain low and hidden below the tree-line. Since then, urban India has steadily used the city to reposition its junk—phone towers, metal foot bridges, high-rise parking, multicoloured lights, flagpoles, and the like. Across rooftops, masses of entangled steel phone towers sit along with plastic water tanks. Stainless steel bus stops vie for attention alongside broken plaster urinals.
Civic space is a junkyard exploding with add-ons, a free-for-all where national pride mixes with domestic utility, chaotic commercial signage with random street furniture. Ugliness so profound, it is inexplicable, unmeasurable. Is this just ad-hoc add-on ad-lib city or is there a deeper plan beneath the mess?
Certainly, the city lights are brighter, lit by white light, always on full beam; but the imagination is dim. The more we try to design the city, the more abandoned it looks, the more bereft and forlorn. All around, new constructions appear as regular distractions—a fake Japanese garden under the flyover, an artless sculpture on the sidewalk. In parks, selected national heroes rise on stone pedestals—Bhagat Singh, Jhansi ki Rani, B.R. Ambedkar—not as works of art, but as symbols of free India, the park as a history lesson. All across the country, the faces of well-known monuments glow in the tricolour combination. India Gate, Victoria Terminus, Char Minar, forts, palaces, railway stations and other large public buildings together project a luminescence so bright it is hard to mistake the full force of the intention. Every possible lighting technique, projection technology and animation is used to proclaim: This is India, big, bold and bright.
Besides such gigantism, the crucial problem with ugliness enlarges when it straddles incompetence and incompleteness—two marked characteristics of objects and places in India. Examples of the badly furnished and perennially unfinished are everywhere—buildings with broken tiles and plaster, flyovers that have been under construction for years, sidewalks dug but unpaved, drains unlaid. After a while, everything about the city, its streets, architecture, graphics, restaurants, food, offices, commerce, industrial design, cars, products, even landscape, turns a dreary grey smudge.
When the visual world suffers such a complete failure of engagement and execution, it only promotes the growing insularity of private life—houses hiding behind boundary walls, friends only on Facebook, social life on the computer, commerce on the internet, and a work life from home. Curbing all desire to look outside the bedroom, existence is nurtured in space 12x12, and a screen on perpetual blue light glow. The sunlight on the stair goes unnoticed, the wild grass on the pavement, the overgrown neem tree in the garden, are no longer moments of daily punctuation. The narrowness of the 21st century gaze pushes them out of bounds, beyond private perspective.
Such absences pose no danger but their replacement seeps through the dark: Office buildings are artificially lit, or natural light is beamed down through fibre-optic cables. In dark sunless rooms and basement offices, an app allows you a continuous view of the changing sky, conveniently projected on the ceiling. In the wired environment, architecture loses relevance and the occupant, remote in hand, and remote to the world, knows nothing but his sedentary exclusion.
Vacation too produces the same lazy corollary of convenience. It is as if ugliness can now be carried with you from the city to the hills and beaches, with the building of a “holiday home” or “second home”. You carry not just your bag and change of clothes but also the kids, the recognisable furniture, the fridge, the food, and every known wreckage of your daily life and reassemble it to keep the new and unknown at bay.
On remote picturesque windswept ridges of Himachal, across river-edges of Rishikesh, along Goan beaches, the second home appears a concrete sentinel of private presence, unused for most of the year but a reminder that nature can be easily bought, occupied and used. Such indulgences become possible only as side effects of money spent, just to let you know that the high cost of beauty must be paid for and seen.
Where do you go with a country that turns a blind eye to the collective ugliness of its surroundings? The answer is not even a plea for modesty, or public anonymity, or ecology, or sustainability, but for something else. Goodness, completeness, for a public life whole and well made. Certainly, the future view lies in somehow eradicating the aesthetic discontent of our own wakefulness, the despair of all that’s visible. When the visible becomes ugly and real, the eyes must unlearn and forsake responsibility.
Or is it merely a case of visual contradiction that when a place gains in affluence, the poverty of its visible landscape increases? How can places with increasing populations and growing technological complexity ever acquire the unchanging gaze of a relatively elementary environment?
Obviously, local governments and municipalities are not expected to create policies on civic beauty but in the larger picture, only they can be held responsible for the quality of public life, what people see and experience daily. Perhaps the solution lies in a return to a submersion of city services away from the sight-line; mostly in the belief that some form of non-building may provide more tangible and long-lasting resolution. Maybe the time has come not to imprint the presence of humanity on the earth’s surface but to reassess, realign, even relinquish some current city patterns for a smaller footprint—in the hope for a more restful place.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.