August 18, 2008
Pondicherry Black City Pondicherry is well known throughout the world for its historical French Quarters and more recently for the amazingly successful community of Auroville, which is gaining global attention for the new greening, farming and redistribution models it is experimenting with. Somewhere between these grandiose realizations lies the Black city, which was named in opposition to the pristine French Quarters. The street manages to hold its own against the elegant white-washed art deco structures and the quaint and cosy streets that a colonial legacy has bestowed on this slice of what was once Francophone India.
The Black city responds at once to the frozen elegance of the White city and the elitist utopianism of Auroville. It absorbs these models along with a many others and regurgitates everything cheerfully in a unique mix of styles. This article explores Pondicherry’s Black City brand of mashup architecture.
The streets of the Black city are in turn creative, imitative, beautiful, kitschy or ugly but at all given points of time they are highly personal and expressive. Yet – just as each individual is as much a holistic entity as a confluence of varied histories and backgrounds, influences and experiences – their individual self-expressions inevitably produce complex archetypes.
What makes the Black city stand out is the diversity of idiosyncratic architectural styles that it features. Individually and collectively, the homes are a riot of colour and shapes, making unexpected references to decontextualized histories and sentimental nods to nostalgic memories. They take the flourishes of the white city and mold them into something quite extraordinary – at once building on the principles of art-deco’s plasticity and running away with it. Like many aspects of popular culture they do not claim to be original and in fact deliberately use a copy-pasting strategy, building up the new out of the old.
Art Deco mashups.
These structures use and abuse every possible existing architectural style to the point that one can even wonder if it is not a new architectural gender of its own, one that could be called “mashup” in reference to the rapidly spreading Web practice of integrating various systems and languages to create new features and modes of operation.
This remix culture is eminently contemporary. Celebrated today as postmodern it has always been the driving principle behind most collective creative productions. For example, Indian popular cinema is nothing but a collusion of styles and an open-ended pursuit of originality constrained only by the ever-changing tastes of the public. Our street is popular culture at its best. An explosive expression of the Indian vernacular that provides a fantastically graphic illustration of the way traditions, colonial architecture and global influences have been digested and processed by a segment of the population.
In many parts of India colonial enclaves have similarly inspired desi architectural versions. So-called Portuguese villas in Goa have spawned a thick-set, local variant that litters the lush country-side. The British Bungalow from the cantonment has inspired a variety of architectural responses all over small town India.
Each house in the Black city seems to have a unique history, which as difficult to map as it is to recollect a dream – the very same dream that may have allowed the house to be constructed in the first place. A piece of a fragmented fantasy, seen on travels to Asia or the Middle East, could have got grafted onto a memory of a childhood home, which in turn must have been spiked by the fire of social aspiration to produce a genuine South Indian streetscape.
While one debates whether desi variants of dominant trends can be referred to as styles of their own – one cannot deny that there is a process in place which guarantees constant creative output. A process that is expressed by the main initiator, conceiver or the inhabitant of the house. The ordinariness of constructing each home is balanced by the ability of each builder-inhabitant to play out his fantasy. Global influences, local histories, familial obligations, available technology and skills come together in the singularity of the moment. The subsequent crystallization produces a dynamic architectural flow that connects this street to millions of others on the sub-continent while at the same time being absolutely unique. The quality of its uniqueness is a testimony to the coming together of all these forces in a special way. What connects it to its other country cousins is the fact that similar forces operate everywhere to produce these unique expressions.
The aesthetic component of the production process is very similar to those of other popular cultural artifacts. Take Indian movies for example. Whether Bollywood can be called a “style” or not in view of what it produces, is open to debate. However, one cannot deny that there is a certain process in the Indian movie industry that at the very least allows the production of Bollywood movies to happen in a special way, especially through the willingness to surprise the spectator or through a profound disregard for stylistic categories. If we had to say what thing is common to all Bollywood productions, we would have to say that none of them tries to consciously fit in the genre except through broad nods to inherited conventions. With the ever present possibility of finding a movie that denies those conventions as well – or at least attempts to do so. The same is true for Black City. Seen by itself, each home may not have much to project outside of loud melodramatic statements, but as a street, each home consolidates with the other to garner all the power and force of an energetic popular text.
New Pakistan mashup.
These homes are interesting only thanks to the fact that they exist next to each other, encouraging each other’s wilderness. They explode in your face with a loud bang that seems to come straight out of a comic strip completely exaggerated, but never embarrassed by their shrillness. Just as in the comic book each frame competes with the previous one to call the attention of the reader, in the Black city each home seems to rejoice in its palatial projections. At the same time it only seems to take itself half-seriously, as if a hint of irony had been tastefully added to the mix.
At one level one could simply call these homes kitsch and join in their celebration of diversity of form. It would reflect the democratic mood of the times. But they do not allow such simple projections either. For tomorrow – they may just auto-destruct with the next inhabitant, a new dream and flow down another stream in some other direction.
After all their collective diversity simply emerged as a result of creative freedom from architectural conservatism. Black city is to us a celebration of self-expression and collective identity – a true resolution of global influences into localaesthetic.
Article published in The Indian Architect & Builder, Summer 2008.