The extraordinary everyday - a hunt for new metaphors

Rohan Shivkumar

3 June 2013

Tracing Urbanism

The city of Mumbai is currently undergoing a rapid metamorphosis. As it seems to be in the throes of transforming from a post industrial city to a city imagined as a hub of financial, entertainment and information technology for the region, its physical form has undergone tremendous changes- often in extremely violent forms. Historical fabrics and environmental systs are ravaged into and new housing districts and glittering commercial buildings replace older neighbourhoods and slum communities. As the new violently rips into the old, as boundaries that connect transform into those that separate, new configurations are formed, new networks created.

The city has over the past few years been overrun with strange machines - reptiles with tentacles and claws that tear into it, making it anew. We see them all over the place moving boulders, dumping mud, drilling rock, erasing as much as they construct, radically transforming our perception of the city and who is imagined as the subject or the inhabitant within it. A new landscape is being created dramatically in alternately exhilarating and tragic form.

Recently, the dramatic growth of the city of Shanghai has been touted as the model for the development of the city of Mumbai. This blatantly disregards the difference in context, history and political climate of the two cities. This image though has been a primary generator of many of the changes occurring in the way that housing, infrastructure and commerce is being imagined.

But what is the form of these changes? The language of form is too often one of order. An order more often imposed than discovered. The discourse that shapes this imagination is invested with the power to make valid and invalid not only aesthetic ideals but invariably tend to affect the lives of ordinary individuals. Notions of an imposed order more often than not exile and banish the idiosyncratic but human in favor of the defined but sterile. The lacuna lies is the mode through which we imagine the city. None of the tools that we have seem to be capable of mapping the nature of the changes occurring.

Language seems to fall way short of capturing these morphologies and instead collapses into inadequate generalizations or dismissals. We need to develop a new language of seeing- one that emerges from images, parallels, gestures that can help us see things in a new light- a light that would reveal aspects unseen by traditionally accepted modes of seeing. Maybe we need to look again at the city; at the landscapes of transformation and try and reposition ourselves, reframe our lenses; to be able to decipher its form.

Lets begin with the here and the now.

 This is an attempt to document and understand the tussle between the imagined and the real in the perception of the city; in the imagination and construction of the new subject citizens, the way in which it modulates their experience through form.

 Here are fragments taken fromtwo roads that embody some of the changes that are occurring in the city- the Western Express Highway and the Andheri –Dahisar Link Road. Both of these north south connections slice through parts of the city that are seeing a spurt of (re)construction. As older slum neighbourhoods and industrial lands on the Highway become Slum Rehabilitation Schemes and luxury housing complexes, mangroves and dumping grounds become malls and office buildings on the peripheral Link Road. A different history leads to a different geography.

 The following fragments follow three loose trajectories; ‘movement and reflection’ considers the body imagined by the new landscape, ‘gardens and surveillance’ at how nature has been imagined and ‘simulating the future, simulating the past’ at the constructs of modernity and tradition in imagining the present.  

 Movement and reflection

 A whirlwind of change is storming its way along these roads. A whirlwind of erasures and displacements removing and replacing the city- relentlessly moving towards making an idealized world.

 What is this place? This ‘u-topia’.. ‘no-place’.

 Who are the inhabitants of this hyperspace?

 Architecture colludes with this beguiling vision - lubricated, reflective and smooth. Reflections abound in the interiors of the monuments of the new city , in the dizzying atria and escalators. The inhabitant here is merely a signifier. There is no density or depth in the body. Only an image shifting across shiny surfaces, shadows disappear as presences on mirrored surfaces. If all architecture imagines its inhabitation, the architecture of the future city imagines the inhabitant as an outline. Light travels through.

 It’s the urge of architecture to be pure- to rid itself of its internal contradictions. Vulgar set theory and arrow diagrams are the tools of planning purity. We group, we connect. The phenomenology of choice is one of emptiness- a minimalism of reference to anything that might emerge out of locality. Instead it is based upon a universal desire for freedom expressed as relentless movement.

 Gardens and surveillance

 On the Western Express Highway homes lie half-eaten on the hills that  resist free vehicular movement. . Soon these fragments will also disappear and be replaced by concrete walls or domesticated nature.

 Car drivers are the ideal subjects of this world, finding pleasure in this landscape with a soundtrack of disembodied music that moves with them in air conditioned cocoons. Speed and stillness collide in a commanding vision of the future where perpetual motion is lubricated by the void.

This emptiness also enables the isolation of a body in space. It allows surveillance of bodies under the guise of security. Everyday life and its contradictions are systematically removed from view. The ordinary is made to be out of place. In this non-place there is a hard white light around us as we lay claim to our legitimacy in the space of the city. And if we don’t subscribe, consider ourselves evicted.

The design of landscape plays another role in this drama. A spatial euphemism for the eviction of undesirable bodies is the obsession with the garden. Someone once said to me, “sometimes trees have more democratic rights than people”.

After all, it is in the myth of nature where we believe lies a return to our pure selves-untainted by the pressures of city life. Nature is tamed by making her behave. It’s a safe form of nature that we can consume though – no wildness - flowers to be plucked and arranged in vases- not fruits that might attract stray animals and other vagrants. Perfectly pristine and pruned planters with dainty flowers that can mask behind them violences unseen.

There is a hardness to the boundaries of the roads. Every part now is more removed from one another than ever before. Under the guise of mutual security a distance is necessary for all parts to believe in an inner peace. The in-between or those who survive on the physical joints in-between are to disappear - exist somehow, but not where they might cause any distraction from an eternal silence that stands for peace. A body lingering purposeless on the edge of the road has no reason to exist.

At Mindscape – a new commercial and high-end residential district built on what used to be a dump yard on the Link Road black clad security guards placed strategically every 100 meters make public streets into a private domain, threatening anyone who might linger too long. They protect planters and empty gardens lush with jogging tracks empty of any human presence under the guise of security. Who enables this privatization, the colonization of public space by a few? Whose city is this? The body is only an imagined presence in this hollow city. It is awaiting inhabitation by an idealized inhabitant who does not yet exist.

Simulating the future, simulating the past

 An interior “street” in Inorbit Mall at Mindspace nearby mimics an analogous market street outside but does not connect to it - a fragment reconfigured from the hazy memory of a medieval city reconstituted, cleansed, interiorized and protected from the pollution that the city might bring. This is simulated chaos – the idea of a public space without the agony of being caught unawares by the unexpected. This is all watched over by cameras- naturally,  – for our protection.

 Hyper City Mall just down the road from Inorbit is a spectacular warehouse- reams of tubelights and ac ducts overhead; a floor that slips under your feet, shelves and shelves stacked with commodities fabulous on the surface and tinny when tapped - the vegetables basking in yellow light on the ground floor as much as the lowest grade DVD player combos on the mezzanine overlooking gigantic windows through which the new landscape of the western suburbs of the city is framed. High rise housing and squat glass clad call centers.

 This is ‘Mind Space’ - more than merely a name for an area – it is also an entire way of imagining retreat from the city into the only space where we think we are safe- inside our heads.

 Call centers glow on the streets here with an inner life late into the night. Glass facades that only reflect the barrenness outside, glass windows that no one is permitted to look out of lest the simulation be revealed. In this perpetual daylight new desires are manufactured, new lives created. We are born again as new people in this world. Time, space and identity are all reconstructed, reconstituted.

 Inside are stories of young people living in artificial light, a world neither here nor there- an artificial construct that bends their minds into imagining artificial desires and wants.

 The disconnection is also orchestrated architecturally in muteness. The spaces in between the work floors buzzing with American accents are hollow ceramic tiled halls that are cleaned by sweepers at regular intervals, white fluorescent light reflecting of polished surfaces and a ghostly silence. In these spaces young men and women live divided lives and relinquish all personal identity; or attempt resistance of complete erasure through irony or denial.

 As against this is the architecture of the home.

While for work we choose futuristic science fiction to stay in orbit, for homes we look to forge an alliance with the aura of Greek classicism. Housing colonies manufacture dreams of palatial dwelling by regurgitating images catering to a fascination for an aura of the historical.

It’s the machine that is still the metaphor for the city – this time in a new form. The machine no longer produces tangibility; instead it now produces images of safety and security - the appearance of docile tamed pleasures. A ‘myth machine’ making a science fiction landscape - a world of unrelenting movements forward, to an unknown destination where identity and history seem nothing but a haze of misinformation and fetish.

This aura satisfies our desire for stability by an appearance of solidity. Nostalgia for a pure past is where we find our center as the city shatters all sense of purity. History is a spectacle, a manufactured fiction serving as reactionary rhetoric. It is a simulacra far removed from the history as lived.

The extraordinary everyday : the search for new metaphors

 All cities have grown. As time has passed layers have been added on to existing fabric. Space has been negotiated. The new city does not need this negotiation. Block by block an erasure of the existing is necessitated. Brand new buildings. Fast. Slum rehabilitation projects instead of slum upgradation, anonymous high rise entities instead of the rough ridden houses of the poor. This is conveyer belt architecture. Once you get on it, it is hard to get off unless you are willing to fall- or run backwards real hard.

 But the city lives at different velocities. Slowness collides with speed. Negotiations are inevitable and necessary. This is a city perpetually under construction.

 Cricket matches are played on half finished roads with the central divider of the highway serving as a boundary.  When the Link Road cuts its way through the slum of Iraniwadi the first slice leaves the organism bleeding fluid. Everyday life spills out on this artery with barber shops, markets, video parlors. What was once hidden is now brutally exposed. Soon these lacerations will be healed.. or at least appear to have been healed by covering them up with bandages born in the handbook of the city beautifiers.

 But till then, the everyday acts we find on the roads are celebrations; they are surreal encounters with the people of the city maneuvering between the lines drawn on drawing sheets. They are busy making city space their own to live their lives.

 These methods of conceiving, building and inhabiting space are all but illegible to the current ways in which we image the city. They find themselves exiled and ostracized from the new city and its sense of order.   Unfortunately these notions of order arise from imaginations of cities that have little to do with our context. The results of these are apparent in the gentrification of neighbourhoods, the covert and overt surveillance of supposedly public spaces and the imposition of infrastructural ideas completely irrelevant to the greater public good. To be able to decipher these forces shaping the city it is imperative that both the unabashed embracing of the imagination of a global city and also a reactionary retreat into the construct of a pan-Indian identity be discarded as futile. While the first pretends that history is merely an obstacle on the path to technological progress, the latter reconstructs an idealized past to counter the anxiety of the present. Neither is able to de-layer the processes at play in the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ that are shaping the contemporary city.

 Perhaps then we can emerge with a new structure of seeing- neologisms and new metaphors that can decode the forces working within the contemporary city, that can reveal the colonizations, the territorial claims and patterns, the mutations and hybridizations of form and space, and the new forms of order that exist in the contested spaces of the city.

 But where do we look for these metaphors? Critical thought in architectural and urban pedagogy is subsumed by the triumphalist rhetoric of a marketplace that is expanding relentlessly. To resist these, or to imagine an architecture beyond the vicissitudes of the marketplace is seen as reactionary and unnecessarily obstructive in nature. Yet, new methods of seeing are imperative if we are to confront the apparent chaos of the transforming city. This apparent chaos needs to be disassembled. Language will collapse as we begin to decipher it- and it should. It has long been insufficient to describe the city. Analogous images and ideas might emerge from the most unexpected places instead to help us. These might be novels, experiments in art, biological systems or methods borrowed from sociology and geography. In paralleling these to the experience of the city the images will also undergo transformations. There is more than a small dose of the poetic in this process.

 A new language will be formed; a new language to help us understand, new forms of representation will emerge and thereby perhaps a new, relevant architecture for this city. 

Text by: Rohan Shivkumar

Photography: Rohan Shivkumar and Avijit Mukul Kishore