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URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999


Where does beauty and ugliness lie?

Jai Sen

The author is an architect and researcher.

Most readers of this article would perhaps agree that cities in India today - and even more so, smaller towns - are something less than handsome, and getting increasingly ugly. Indeed, this is precisely what I was invited to discuss: "The ugly face of our cities shows a failure of master planning. Megalopolises lack basic civic amenities. Buildings are looked at as separate entities, taken out of the environmental context. They lack character. Though there are innumerable schemes for housing loans for the under-privileged, why have these never worked? What solutions can be offered?".

This gives a useful reflection of ourselves and of common attitudes towards cities today, and reveals some of the multiple ways in which we see situations. Precisely because of this, however, this "simple" statement reflects what is in fact a complex subject.

I am not sure I have any ready-made "solutions" to the full subject, but I do think that addressing the subject is useful because it allows us to confront not only why our cities and towns are "ugly" - and, arguably, getting uglier - and what, possibly, we can do about this, but also our ideas about ugliness, beauty, and order.

My first and basic suggestion would be that a lot of what we judge as "ugly" or "beautiful" tends to be formal notions which do not go beyond the surface of what we see, and also tends often to be received ideas; and if we really want to "do" anything about the state of our cities, we will need to go much beyond this level of formalism. When we make judgments about "beauty" and "ugliness", I believe we tend to do so on the basis of what we see - the product, the material reality - and we usually, do not take into account the beauty or ugliness of what has gone into their making. This is so in all dimensions of buildings and of city form: In terms of the material used (and including the impact of their extraction on the environment; though our consciousness is slowly changing now, for instance in relation to wood), of the labour involved, or of the actual experience of construction; or of the consequences of the building being built there. As a result, we are seeing (and judging) what is in effect only the "surface" of what we are looking at: The material manifestation.

Sandeep Biswas

To take an obvious example from history, think, for instance, of the Taj Mahal.

When we "see" and appreciate its beauty - which is undoubtedly stunning, physically - most of us tend not to think of the craftsmen who actually did the work that produced the building, nor appreciate their exquisite and extraordinary skills; nor do we have in mind the conditions they and their labourers worked under, nor give much thought to the feudal nature of the rule that produced that building and of how the wealth that "paid" for it was accumulated; nor yet the possibly apocryphal story of the craftsmen being blinded after the building was completed so that they could never produce something so beautiful again.

We tend, in short, to see only the apparent beauty of what we see in front of us, not what is behind it, and we are also taught that this is what is beautiful (or ugly). So much so, indeed, that we ourselves are often blinded by appearances.

Similarly, when we see a "tall and handsome" modern corporate headquarters building (or a "splendid" palatial mansion from earlier times), we rarely think at that point of the nature of the business that the corporation (or trader) is conducting that allows it to make the profits that pay for such a building. Equally, cities and their form and layout: What is the nature of a "beautiful" city ? How should we judge this ? How related is this to equity, justice, and democracy in society, and to the impact on the environment ? Does it matter to us, when we see the undoubtedly impressive layout of Lutyens' New Delhi, that it was built at the height of British imperialism - and built, moreover, specifically to manifest and demonstrate imperial power and the subjugation of the peoples of India?

How, also, should we see the much-celebrated "new cities" of Chandigarh and Brasmlia, both of which were taken up as projects by India and Brazil, respectively, as expressions of surging nationalism and of building new societies, and which were "dedicated to the common man" - but where, in both cities, the humble settlements of the actual common man, the ordinary labourer, the actual builder of the new cities, were banned, and harshly demolished wherever they rose? What, in short, do buildings and cities mean to us?

Manoj K. Jain

I believe that our cities and towns (and to a large extent, also buildings) are today as they are because they firstly reflect, in a very concrete manner, the extraordinarily plural nature of our society, with a range of pushing and pulling that is unprecedented in history. They reflect and manifest, in short, the extremely turbulent times we are living in today. Secondly, they also reflect the simple fact that a very large proportion of our people are both poor and also in a state of enormous change and development - moving from rural to urban areas, and from one part of this subcontinent to another, struggling to build new lives. And thirdly, and crucially, the conditions of course also reflect the deprivation and inequalities that continue to exist in our society.

Taking the first point first, we often forget that there is an extraordinary range of economic and social forces that are constantly at play in a city - and especially in a country such as India, and which give it its resultant form. Though the result may appear to be a mess, we need - I believe - to appreciate that a lot of this takes place because we live in a relatively democratic, open, and dynamically changing society; a less open and more "stable" society may produce a more even form. We have to choose. Among many others, I suggest that four sets of forces are playing especially crucial roles in the cities of India today, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future: The struggle of Dalits and OBCs for equality, seen within the broader rise of Dalit and Other Backward Class politics in the country; the growing grip of what I call the "dirty economy" over the country; the powerful and divisive thrust of globalisation; and the struggles by women for gender equality. (In this article, I will not even try to address the roles of the better-known forces, the inertia of the babudom that we have nurtured in government since Independence, and the intense corruption in public life that has emerged over the past two decades or so.)

Struggle in society is of course taking place at many levels, and in many dimensions. In urban areas the most obvious manifestation of this, in the Indian context and in all countries of the so-called "South", is the existence of "slums" and "squatter settlements". As is well known, something between a quarter and a half of the populations of our towns and cities live in such settlements. These are the people who are today being relentlessly displaced by the large projects that the Nation is building in the name of development, or simply in the course of their villages being swallowed by burgeoning cities. The "meaning of life" for such peoples in India today, has been reduced to relentless struggle - to survive / to try to make ends meet somehow, against all odds / to equally relentlessly lose their children to disease, to exposure, to crime, to prostitution / to live in the world as best they can, with the only capital they have, their bodies and their labour, and their communities.

What is less well known, however, or less discussed, is that the vast majority of those who are forced to live in such conditions, are Dalits and OBCs, and Muslims to a degree disproportionate to their numbers in Indian society. Those who are consigned to such conditions are precisely those who are the most disprivileged in Indian society, and who have been historically deprived and oppressed. Turned around, however, this also means that their struggle to live in the city - and for a place to live - is only a continuation and part of a much longer and deeper struggle - and in particular, that it has to be seen in relation to the rise and assertion of Dalit and OBC politics in the country today as a whole. This political reality tends to get lost in the welter of secular statistics, but it is crucial to recognise that while it is true that the conditions "the poor" live in are a manifestation of the oppression they suffer, their settlements also constitute the site of their struggle to gain dignity and security, and to win small victories.

It is commonly said that it is the politicians, the bureaucracy and the police, who encourage such settlements who encourage migration into cities, who promise "protection" to the people who live there, and who build the local mafias which terrorise and criminalise these people. But the other side of the coin is that this encouragement is also again a reflection of the growing importance of these people in politics and where this reality is of course today being powerfully, if still crudely, demonstrated at state and national levels.

Ajay Lall

To repeat, this is not to be content with the resultant "mess", but to recognise its nature: that what we see is not a single phenomenon but an interplay of forces.

We need to specially recognise and appreciate the fact that although the result is what seems like a mess, most of us enjoy a degree of openness and space for thought and action that few societies struggling to emerge from colonialism ("developing countries") have - here, as in public debate. In a way, what we live in is a kind of functioning anarchy - and while this idea may be worrying, we need to remind ourselves that the space that allows this is something we too easily lose sight of, and take for granted: For even today, there are all too many otherwise well-meaning people who, in their concern about the state of our cities and a desire for greater clarity ("beauty"), clamour for a return to more centralised government, to ensure "proper planning" and more "decent" urban form.

In recent years for instance, one of the better-known urban administrators in the country, who was the vice chairperson of the National Commission on Urbanisation and also known as a liberal, wrote an impassioned tract on "urban planning and environmental consciousness", pleading for more centralised control in planning and administration as the only way out of the mess we are in; citing among other things, the medieval city of Jaipur (in its original form) as an instance of a desirable future for Indian cities. (M N Buch, 1993 - Environmental Consciousness and Urban Planning, Orient Longman, Tracts for the Times, No 2.)

Given the nature of the times we live in, it seems highly unlikely that we could, even temporarily, regress to such a situation; but history is full of surprises. I personally believe we should be wary of such positions in a society and at a time when something like the demolition of the Babri Masjid can so easily, and so relentlessly, take place. Even more particularly, we need to also recall the rise of Sanjay Gandhi and the "city beautiful" phase that the country was put through in his hands and those of his entourage. Anarchy, even if functioning, can easily become the context for the sudden rise of authoritarianism, and even fascism. The most unexpected people become votaries.

My second aspect, the consequences of the demographic and social changes taking place today, are perhaps largely self-evident and need little elaboration. But a couple of observations may be useful to make. First, the fact that large parts of our cities appear as "unfinished construction sites" is the case because that is precisely what areas inhabited by immigrant lower-income people are. Though this situation has begun to change a little, I do not agree with the claim that "there are innumerable schemes for housing loans for the under-privileged". For the vast majority of people, the act of building homes (or shops, or small factories) is a very gradual process of accumulation and expenditure, with the minimum of financial capital at hand - and within which there is also plenty of setback and failure. Multiplied to a city scale, it should not be surprising that things look half-finished and therefore "ugly"; but I would like to suggest that rather than deplore this character, as many do, we should instead appreciate and celebrate the enormous struggle that is involved in this unfinished enterprise.

Ashim Ghosh/ Fotomedia

On the other hand however, what is a tragedy is that in this manthan that is India today, people are - as they migrate - shedding the traditions that their own communities had of building, and instead as they build their new lives, copying what they are given to understand is "the urban building" - the faceless boxes of various shapes and sizes that too much of our cities are now made up of. Much of this, to boot, also violates whatever building and planning law there is, precisely because so much of it is forced to be done outside the law.

In short, the impact of the dirty economy is crippling and debilitating - literally and metaphorically - the future of half of urban society. In order to make ends meet this also forces all but the more secure to taking on double jobs, or putting out children to work - often illegally. And this is quite aside from the hard fact that the distended market forces so many people to pay or accept "cash" for dwelling accommodation - and thus willy-nilly to again take part in the dirty economy.

The dirty economy has other impacts too. The poor, in particular, are driven into the control of gangs and mafias which control most of the settlements in which they live, and the price of gaining a foothold in the city can often be extremely high, in money as well as in terms of life itself. Though this has perhaps not yet happened in India, in some countries - among others, Colombia and Pakistan - it is said that large sections of cities are today controlled by new feudal lords, "liberated" from governance by the state and civil society. The physical manifestation of this kind of distortion is usually not obvious; and indeed, serious observers have even reported that the degree of social welfare provision and mutual aid in such areas is sometimes far higher than in the "normal" parts of the cities, and the general atmosphere more positive. "Order" and "beauty" therefore, for the inhabitant, may not always accord with legality or civility, and may even be quite invisible to the outsider. This sort of perverted, inverted situation thus forces one to ask: Which, then, is the ugly city?

Moving to the third aspect, I agree completely - that one of the most important forces giving shape to our cities is the deprivation and inequalities that exist in society. This condition is what drives, forces, nearly half the population of our cities to living in marginal and technically illegal settlements, criminalising themselves involuntarily simply because having a place to live is absolutely essential, and also making themselves vulnerable to exploitation in every possible way. But in regard to this I would also suggest that what we see as "deprivation", needs to be seen for what it is: As part of the wider struggle that is constantly taking place in our society between different sections. In terms of cities, this struggle occurs over the control and use of the basic material resources of human settlement (land, building materials, and water, and also fuel and other essential elements of the common good - which in cities are called "services"); struggles over social and political power - power over these resources and their allocation, which is in turn, and more generally, a part of power in society as a whole and a reflection of it at any given point in time; and more broadly, struggles over meaning: Over our map of history and what our major icons are, and should be, over what our present and the future should be about, over what our cultural norms should be and what the meaning of life itself is, and should be.

In short, what we see as deprivation - and as privilege - is a manifestation of the balance of power in society today; and so if we wish to change the physical conditions, it will require us to participate in the struggle that is taking place in society. As I understand it, this is the real nature of the practices of architecture and of city planning. If you do not consciously take sides, you end up taking the side of the powerful.

Manoj K. Jain

The compulsions of liberalisation have contributed heavily to the deregulation of urban land market, including more recently the lifting of the Urban Land Ceiling Act as one culmination of this drive, and consequently - and quite contrarily to the declared aims of the proponents - to a sky-rocketing of land and housing prices in the years immediately following 1991; from which the wealthy and other vested interests profited heavily but where the rest of society was further straitjacketed, and where the poor sections were even further driven into so-called "illegality" and the dirty economy. Since housing and land are key factors in the dirty economy, several steps have been taken as a part of liberalisation to allow dirty marketeers to launder their money, including through investment in urban land and housing and related bonds - and have thereby served to only legitimise the dirty economy and illegal wealth. Several similar "liberal" steps have been taken to attract NRI investment; the very meaning of "liberal" has been appropriated and distorted. All of this has contributed to a deepening of divisions in society - the now super-wealthy have been encouraged to build and to move ever more deeply into enclaves. The very fabric of our cities is being ripped apart and reshaped in this process. Liberalisation is widely reinforcing and expanding the "ugliness" that social marginalisation and the dirty economy are responsible for.

These are only some of the powerful forces that I believe are shaping cities and city forms today - and will be, in future - and which I believe need to be taken into account when judging what our buildings and cities "look like" - and when deciding what one might do about this. While not disagreeing with the proposition that our cities look "ugly", I believe that we have now moved into a new phase of history where we have to find new parameters to make our judgments.

In this new context, it should not be surprising if things look chaotic, in the sense of being unfamiliar and in that sense, of being even threateningly so. We need, I believe, to come to terms with the dynamics of the chaos, and can only have an impact if we recognise the nature of its flow. As I see it, we are today in the throes of the emergence of what will in many ways be a new society.

Of the four forces I have listed above, two are manifestations of extremely important and positive changes in society. Even if unpredictable in terms of what they will ultimately bring forward, and almost unprecedented in human experience, I would venture the possibility that at a deeper level, they possess what we can and should regard as a "beauty" and power of a different order. We, therefore, need to support them in every way possible. On the other hand, I suggest that the other two forces are having equally deep, but profoundly negative, effects on society and social life: "Ugly" in the much deeper sense of the term, disfigured, distorted, unnatural, and gross. And we, therefore, need equally to fight them.


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