The historical center of Mexico city is taken over by tens of thousands of vendors. Around 5 million people visit this area every day. The Bazaar extends well over a radius of 15 kilometers. You can get clothes here for as low as 1 Peso a piece.
Much has been made of the need to look beyond built form and architecture when talking of the city. The need to focus on people who use built forms and the need to focus on the ‘soul’ of a building have become well-enshrined objectives in the best of architectural practices. So much so that they generate as much cynicism or alternatively, allow reactive architectural statements to be made all the time.
From green architecture to nomadic shelters, passing through augmented reality, every dimension of the architectural realm is being explored, theorized, critiqued and remixed. It looks like as if architectural professions have reached a level of knowledge and practice never attained before, thanks in part to an advance in technological education.
In spite of this, Rem Koolhaas observes, “Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement…” (2006). There seems to be a deep disconnect between the intelligence embedded in architectural artifacts and the dumbness of the cities we are developing for ourselves.
What if the problem does not lie in the body or soul of the architectural object? What if the uses and abuses of architecture are themselves only symptoms of a deeper conceptual malaise? Should the over-arching concept of the city itself, within which most architectural moments are located – need to be critically interrogated? Would we be able to move to an understanding of urban architecture in a less embattled way?
There is something solid and quantifiable to the idea of the city that allows architectural narratives to dominate our idea of urbanism, and through it, all contemporary life. The idea of the city starts from the fiction of evolutionary growth – from the tribal to civilized man, from the unsettled and light to the rooted and heavy, making the notions of scale, monumentalism, and density, some sort of in-built genetic conceptual pools that dictate the way human civilization evolves. It’s as if they contribute as much to the escalation of urban intensity as does the impulse of urbanization itself. Every civilizational moment that feels it has arrived has its own peculiar notion of evolutionary movement from the tribal primitive to the urban sophisticated.
According to a dialectical conception of history, the urban is superior to the natural in evolutionary terms, or at least, it represents an advanced expression of nature’s evolution. The imagined opposition between the natural environment and the city confers a heroic status to the architect whose practice seemingly consists in extricating tomorrow’s civilization from today’s material conditions.
In today’s endlessly sprawling, densifying cities, ‘savage nature’ that we once believed we had successfully contained, comes to haunt us in all kinds of ways. The new frontiers of our cities exist within. The urban wilderness of American inner-city ghettos or Asian slums for instance clashes with urban planners’ and real estate developers’ aspirations of controlling space and modernizing.
For all their grandeur and pretension, masterpieces of Modern architecture are as many doomed attempts at defying the city’s anarchic expansion. All around the globe, clones of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building are proudly erected, forcing the chaotic city “to look at itself reflected… in the neutral mirror that breaks the city web” (Tafuri & Dal Co, 1979). The dramatic moment when the pure architectural form finally stands and confronts the urban mess around is on some kind of perpetual repeat mode, as if planners and architects have not been able to get over its illusory thrill. However, the mess always wins in the end.
Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe, 1969
New York for instance once again became the city of the future on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers disintegrated back into the city web releasing a billion tiny glass and steel particles that reflected, for an instant, the ultimate failure of the Modern project. The debacle was quickly draped up like a Christo piece. A “work in progress” sign was left in front of Ground Zero and our brains were plugged right back onto the sedative media stream, fed with rhetoric of civilization and dreams of progress.
In our growth-obsessed civilization, destruction is nothing more than an opportunity for construction. The new Freedom Tower was selected and designed with great speed and by fewer people than was necessary to bring down the Twin Towers in the first place. The new Freedom Tower will have an asymmetric shape, which seems to be more in vogue these days. That’s about the only change to expect. Otherwise, the repeat button has been furiously pressed as expected, as if to contain the surrounding urban chaos threatening to spill over into Ground Zero. No time was left for any possible reflection on the bankrupt proposition the Towers symbolized.
Yet, for all their bigness, aesthetic purity, and ‘land-marking’ power, monuments have never made a city. The moment of urbanity lies, in fact, in the surrounding mess they are meant to resolve. To see that, we need to put our architect, urbanist, and activist defences down and experience the city from within. As if it were a giant art installation one could get lost in.
Let’s imagine a city. Not any particular city but rather a mix of cities; a messy collage of Mumbai, Goa, Tokyo, Barcelona, Mexico City, New York, and a few others. An endlessly sprawling global village looking like Cedric Price’s “Scrambled egg city”, where everything is distributed evenly in “small granules or pavilions across the landscape in a continuous network” (Shane 2006.4).
In typical postmodern fashion, this city is composed of disparate architectural elements: an art-deco hotel, a tourist resort, an electronic billboard, a neon sign, a delirious cathedral, mass housing, sun-breaking office towers, and so on. These archetypes majestically come together to produce the skyline of our imaginary city. Spreading over and under, within and between, even spilling outside, the “continuous network” is everywhere. Formless more than informal, it is the glue tying urban elements together. This is what we could call the ‘Bazaar City’ – the city in its raw form.
It is this history of ‘ground level urbanism’ that we want to evoke here. It is a simple way of getting out of the body/soul discourse of architecture that dominates our reading of cities today. How exactly did we arrive at this observation? What is the connection between urbanism, the bazaar, and the need to see cities beyond the issue of architecture in any dominant form? How does the bazaar tell us that urbanism lies not in the architecture at all and how does the bazaar help us understand this by never really dismissing the architectural moment? How do we keep architecture in its rightful place – body, soul, and whatever – and how is it always one step below the energy that really creates a city?
Chor Bazaar: Mumbai is the ultimate bazaar city.
History reveals that tribal and peasant-driven markets were the real sites where diverse identities, goods and artisanal skills were exchanged – always as part of larger networks of trade across the globe. However, contemporary accounts of urban history only focus on the eventual manifestation of these exchanges in the form of power centres. The bustling markets and habitats within or outside forts and palaces that nourished kingdoms and were the primary generators of wealth have slowly faded from our imagination. Only the shells remain. They offer the blueprints for modern societies to imagine the highest forms of civilizational aspiration through a partial version of the past.
These blueprints are imagined to be the nodes of kingdoms and empires, dense with people and physical structures – the earliest examples of urban spaces as we know them today. In reality they constituted only the tip of the human civilizational iceberg.
Seen in totality, civilizations were composed of the flows of wealth, goods, people, and culture, across vast spaces beyond these centres, following trade routes over land and sea. These may never have produced robust structural expressions but were full of intense urban moments.
Lets transcend the idea of urbanism as a kind of physical manifestation (or even as urban density in terms of scale of population aggregates). Instead, see it in those moments of interaction, of movement, in weekly or seasonal bazaars and flea-markets, that feed the political and economic nerve centres. What emerges is a different notion of urbanism. One in which, it does not matter if twenty people set up shop at the edge of a forest or two thousand on the outskirts of a kingdom. Urban intensity lies in that moment of buying and selling. Not just that – the context of exchange showcases many other things. The thrill of meeting new people, the excitement of discovering a new object, forging friendships and simply enjoying the thrill of crowds.
It is this moment that contemporary urban life yearns for. It is this simple moment that is regenerated in billion-dollar cities with heavy and expensive architectural legacies. Contemporary cities yearn for the thrill of the bazaar, but instead of creating appropriate contexts where its natural energies can be expressed, they produce contemporary translations that loose the subtleties of the moment. The most dominant urban spaces today – the shopping malls – reduce the idea of the bazaar to its bare minimum – shopping.
Universal and ubiquitous, the bazaar, according to Dipesh Chakrabarty, is “obviously an abstraction of certain structural characteristics” – it is an organizational principle based on the most instinctual human propensity to trade and exchange. It is “a meeting point of several communities”. The bazaar is necessarily “unenclosed, exposed, and the interstitial outside.” (Dipesh 1991)
No wonder the bazaar is making a comeback in post-industrial cities: farmers’ markets, music festivals, and the like, are appealing to an increasingly cosmopolitan and bohemian generation that constructs its identity in a way similar to how we constructed our imaginary city in this essay – with bits and pieces from here and there. The remix and collage culture that drives today’s ‘creative economy’ relies on spaces of exchange where the new can be made out of the old.
The eagerness to reinvent one’s own ‘cultural self’ is nowhere as apparent as in urban Japan, where a growing segment of the youth is rejecting older generations’ lifestyles and values, which include, among others, a respect for ‘patriarchal order’. The bazaar, for such radical denizens, becomes an outer space of socialization where another world is possible.
This vernacular style building in one of the hippest neighbrohoods of Tokyo, Daikanyama is used by the Japanese designer brand Okura. On the right side is the entrance to the very trendy Bombay Bazaar restaurant, serving curry on Japanese rice.
A makeshift bazaar aesthetic is making a comeback in Tokyo’s fashionable neighbourhoods, as exemplified by the Bombay Bazaar in Daikanyama in Tokyo. This restaurant is part of a new group of venues that have adopted a slummy-looking vernacular architecture as a fashion statement. There is no signboard announcing the place, just an old table with empty Coke bottles, a few metal sheets on the walls, and a ‘handicapped’ sign. As is typical of Tokyo, one could never find this venue, unless taken there by someone in the know. Its interior is resolutely bohemian with heteroclite second-hand furniture chosen with taste. A dreadlocked woman eats curry rice in the corner and a French couple drink lassi served by a cute hippieish waitress. In the same building, a store sells casual-chic cloth. Further down an Italian brand tries hard to ‘look ghetto’. 20 metres away, Bonjour records is packed with collectors items and features a deliberately low-key front. Tokyo’s low-rise high-density urban fabric and small-scale architectural structures allow all kinds of independent shops, small-time retail outlets, food joints and bars to flourish.
The bazaar city spreads all over the world, beyond national and cultural boundaries, with its continuous network of streets and shops. There is a fascinating continuum from the streets of Tokyo’s Daikanyama or Shimokitazawa to Ingo’s Saturday Night Flea market in Goa. where a diverse set of ‘global people’ are engaged in trading trinkets, weed-smoking pipes, high-end and low-brow cuisine, wines and local intoxicants, art and fashionable clothes, and shoes, from a thousand tiny stalls made up of bamboo and cloth. This spectacle frames the moment of pure bazaar, simultaneously evoking ancient tribal traditions and futuristic global cosmopolitan fantasies.
Read the full article in the current issue of Art India magazine available in all good bookstores in India, Europe and the US.