Of UFOs and Futuristic cities

March 24, 2009

One of the most dramatic consequences of the current economic recession in the United States is the physical decline of once prosperous cities. By decline one does not simply mean a couple of run-down streets but the total collapse of neighbourhoods. While the reputed availability of homes in Detroit for less than US $ 10,000 seems like a worst case scenario the reality is darker. Apparently, near Cleveland abandoned homes are being auctioned off at even lower prices and in some cases are being stripped off their relatively more valuable accessories to make reasonable margins.  Even in richer cities over-built spaces that cannot be maintained are being re-used and adapted for other services. Shopping malls are being converted into under-used public libraries (which may not be such a bad thing) but what really disturbs many concerned citizens is the rising tendency of civic governments to cut costs by shutting down or reducing the strengths of schools, public transport and public hospitals. To add to the dystopic scenario one has also come to frequently see the public distribution of free food for the hungry and blankets for the homeless in some big cities.

Of course for countries like India which still live comfortably in two worlds – with starvation and thirst on the rise in the lives of as many people as exist in the entire United States on one hand and a still growing and relatively prosperous economy on the other  – the lessons to be learned are considerable.

There is even less reason to invest in cities that drain energy and are expensive to maintain. Absolutely no reason to invest in a landscape that is filled by the urban equivalent of empty calories – mirage buildings and structures that are fuelled by a volatile speculative economy which pushes millions to live in infrastructure deprived neighbourhoods.  And simply no value in promoting thoughtless real-estate development projects that build on manipulated market realities.

Of course official discussions about the state of the world rarely mention the holy cow of construction related activities and investments as being major factors responsible for heating up the economy in the first place. The fact that these provided a false shield of expectations and aspirations that justified over spending and over-investment is something that cannot be empirically proved in a discussion that is so centred on symptoms. These are usually about financial mismanagement and the presence of what NYU based Prof. Arjun Appadurai  slyly refers to as UFOS – or Unidentified Financial Objects. However as urban engaged citizens we can certainly take the hint and express what we experience.     

What is undeniable is that everywhere in the world all those who have been resisting the whole-sale destruction of neighbourhoods and habitats that were being eyed hungrily by real-estate developers and construction companies are now heaving a sigh of relief. From New York to Panjim, from Mexico to Brasilia, the one thing that even recession hit concerned citizens feel happy about is the temporary respite their efforts have received thanks to the economic melt-down. At one time, money coming from mysterious sources would flow like water into huge construction projects making any attempt at reasonable debate and discussion futile. Now in many cases – especially where the recession has had a stronger impact – there is silence. In countries such as India which are still chugging along, the situation is a bit more unpredictable. Things could go either way.

Yet countries such as India are in a special position to make fresh choices. They simply need to accept the fact that there are several counterpoints to markets connected to the shimmering ethereal one in ’stockland’. There are real energies that flow through the streets of big cities and are energized by ordinary citizens going about earning livelihoods and using resources judiciously out of sheer necessity. They have ably demonstrated their ability to make workable habitats out of nothing. For once let’s trust these energies and see how its users mobilize resources to keep improving their environments and create great cities the likes of which have never been seen before. 

Cooper Union Lecture Series 09′ Thurs 12.03.09

March 12, 2009

Urban Typhoon Exhibition in Philadelphia

March 4, 2009

Urban Typhoon Tokyo: http://www.urbantyphoon.com/2006

Urban Typhoon Mumbai: http://www.urbantyphoon.com

Output of Urban Typhoon Mumbai: http://www.dharavi.org

URBZ User Generated Cities: http://urbz.net

Delhi Turns

March 2, 2009

Recently Bollywood has been producing a spate of movies set in Delhi. Not just set there but with unmistakably Delhi characters and often with the ancient city itself playing out a fairly animated role. While Mumbai has always paid cinematic acknowledgements to Delhi, (Chashme Baddoor is a notable ancestor of Khosla Ka Ghosla), its only recently that you see the city emerging with an urban cinematic identity that is its own.

Not urbane in the way Indian cinema used the grand cosmopolitan colonial settings of Calcutta and Bombay but through a more honest and grittier acknowledgement of its surrounding rural context. In Oye Lucky as well as Dev D, you see a Delhi that has all the rough-edged brashness of small town north India which rejects the sophistication that an older urban sensibility demanded. For someone like Pankaj Mishra – the celebrated archivist of small town Indian crassness (see Butter Chicken In Ludhiana) – Delhi may well turn out to be the ultimate urban nightmare. But there is reason to believe that such a Delhi may well represent a more honest and heart-felt urban sensibility for India. Which may not be such a bad thing, if we distance ourselves from colonial aesthetics for a bit.

The new cinematic representations of Delhi go straight to its underbelly and expose its twin connections with neighbouring small-town ferment and global aspirations. The city emerges as a cross-section of several highways; ancient trade routes, modern tourist pathways, caste mobility, continuous urbanization of its villages and a major point of international connectivity as well.

The consequent moral uncertainty, competitive politics and crass consumerism allows for much more creativity, open-mindedness and experimentation than relying on more conventional urban indices – Manhattan-like landscapes which our Mumbai-based films love showing when telling their moral tales of fashion and the media industry. Just portraying a glamorous story against a backdrop of tall buildings does not make for a truly urban fable.

The unfortunate fact is that more established (and relatively sophisticated) cities in India are full of parochial political parties, moral policing and goondaism. It is Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai which see more demands to curb dancing, drinking and having fun compared to Delhi. Of course – Delhi’s cities remain dangerous, especially for women, thanks to the same blurring of boundaries that makes it such an edgy place – its cops are as notoriously corrupt as any other in the country and the city’s infrastructure is still nowhere near completion – not withstanding the metro success story.

Yet – Delhi seems to be at an exciting time of its contemporary history. In fact it is located at the same historical point when Bombay, Madras or Calcutta were still making themselves over at the turn of the last century – when people came to them from all over the sub-continent and could still make those cities theirs since no one had yet written the rules.

The contemporary urban vacuum that existed in Delhi all this while – which made Mumbaikars and other colonial city wallahs turn their noses up at its village and small town characteristics – is being filled in by a rough, gritty edginess that makes any city alive. An urban quality that paradoxically comes with the freedom of not being urbane and sophisticated in a contrived way. As long as Delhi can keep its moral police at bay, as long as it can yield stories that are genuinely rebellious, as long as it transcends parochial politics, it can be a real inspiration for the new emerging urban India that is more firmly connected to its rural and small town roots. As Mumbaikars we hate saying this – but that’s the way it is!