Thursday, January 10, 2008

The aesthetics of Calcutta's public spaces



by Madhumati Dutta

You pave paradise, put up a parking lot ~ Joni Mitchell.

Middle class Kolkata is happy to have at last joined the international consumer club. Whilst our common facilities ~ roads, urinals, water, electricity, public transport and so on ~ remain poor, enormous retail chains are springing up, so are flyovers, food multinationals, entertainment parks, and so are millions of cell phone shops, cyber caf├ęs and STD booths.

Come, let’s admit it, we all like the fact that we don’t have to ask our cousins in America to get us non-stick pans. But whilst we celebrate our new consumerist status (and I’m not going into “how much a person should consume” a la Ramchandra Guha), I want us to think a bit about the sorts of public spaces we want.

If we assume that malls are a must, let us at least get architects with imagination to make them. Let them be out in the open air instead of in closed, air-conditioned holes, with trees and water bodies, and places to sit and chat, have tea.

Right now, the City Centre (Charles Correa) is an exception. Most of the malls are walled in, and some older ones can kill hundreds if a major fire breaks out.

Less said about the post-independence public buildings, the better. Most of them are unimaginative boxes, and many of them, most pathetically, have ugly protrusions in the front that succeed in concealing the windows (I never knew windows were an ugly sight).

Sometimes exceptions (like Rabindra Sadan with its unnecessary flourishes) can be worse, and I marvel at how the ugliness of these buildings is accentuated by a combination of wall paint (blue, brick red, yellow, lime green, off white, white, plus a design in mosaic in the case of Rabindra Sadan) that just doesn’t gel.

Can we not at least imitate the amazing architecture of Laurie Baker, Revathi Kamath, Vijay Matai, Kamal Mangaldas, Gautam Bhatia and many others, which is, at the same time, at one with nature, open, balanced, inexpensive, easy to maintain and indigenous?

Baker, for example, has used simple exposed brick structures, with traditional black cement or red tile flooring, arches, corbels, double walls to keep the buildings cool. His ornaments are the sloped roofs and large windows, small water tanks with lilies, interesting steps, arches, local woodwork and greenery ~ none of which look out of place, and most of which have an utility.

The divide between the haves and the have-nots has become more marked with the presence (or absence) of air-conditioning ~ glassed enclosures keep in the fortunate whilst heat and pollutants are let out into the streets for the benefit of the unfortunate masses. A few people are keeping cool at the cost of global warming, which will impact their as well as others’ children.

One cannot wish away air-conditioning, but perhaps we should try to avoid it through more carefully planned structures. Large windows, cross ventilation, more open spaces, double walls, hollow bricks on the roof, various types of insulation (for example, thermocol), canals around the building and similar methods should be explored.

In fact, we (or rather our contractors) say that we can no longer afford the thick walls and high ceilings of the past ~ but have we made an honest calculation ~ where we take into account the direct and indirect costs of air-conditioning over the entire life of the building? Grills are a huge favourite with Kolkatans. They keep thieves and birds out, of course, but they appear to have gone far beyond their utilitarian purpose. Not only are they everywhere, but they also insist on your attention with their elaborate curves or geometry.

Much of the house-builder’s creativity is invested in creating his/her own unique grill design, which sometimes ends up strongly resembling the white alpana that young girls use to paint on floors for festive occasions. Yet grills and alpana are not the same. Grills are made of iron, and they keep you and your vision in. And so minimising them is the best possible course of action. They impose the least when the gaps are maximised and the lines are straight. One can even do away with them if one doesn’t keep much money or valuables at home. Even if the city planner cannot do much about the individual Kolkatan’s taste in grills, he/she can set an example by simplifying the grills in public spaces ~ railings, dividers, traffic police sit-outs and so on.

The attention being given to the city’s public greenery is far from adequate. There are not enough trees, and the parks are very run-down. Dust collects on the leaves; the grass looks like the sparse hair on a balding head. Some of the open areas are suddenly blocked by monstrous structures like the green-walled swimming pool on Southern Avenue’s central boulevard which, if it can continue to exist, makes the road one of the prettiest in the city.

I find it difficult to understand how somebody could have thought it necessary to build something on a green space in the middle of a road that many consider to be the city’s loveliest. I fear the tasteless whims of one corporation boss after another. I fear the cuts that are going to be available from one construction project after another.

Another space that one may call semi-public is the office ~ private as well as government. Those who run these offices and even those who occupy them usually have a very limited idea about the service that these offices should provide. In their view the home is where we need to be comfortable and the office is for work, and work does not require any ambience or physical comfort.

Thus toilets are a preview of hell, the furniture and equipment is laden with dust, the walls have a generous spattering of betel leaf juice, gaudy calendars, cobwebs and nothing much else, and the floors look uncared for. The food, provided by grimy canteens or roadside shacks, is often unhygienic and unhealthy.

Yet many of us spend the major part of our lives in these offices. If anyone talks about unsanitary toilets or puts up paintings on the walls, he/she is laughed at. The mindset is such that attempts to make the office a more attractive and comfortable space is considered “feminine” and there is no room for “femininity” in a place that deals with the big bad world. This mindset has to change.

The office may not be a place for leisure activities such as watching TV, but making it cleaner and visually attractive, providing facilities for physical health would only enhance productivity and encourage employees to spend longer hours there. Customers and clients would also be more comfortable. Making the office a better workspace does not, by the way, mean disposing of all the old furniture and fittings.

I have seen the disposal of beautiful wooden furniture in exchange for plastic and synthetic cloth, for example, which is artificial, non-biodegradable and non-lasting. Old mosaic floors have been covered by garish red vinyl, which, over the years, turns maroon with accumulated dirt. Disposal has to be done cautiously, and not with the sole purpose of filling the pockets of contractors.

I have dealt with a few issues ~ there are many others ~ like the need to have flyovers and their negative visual impact, the amputation of trees to accommodate hoardings that block the sky to promote consumerism, temporary structures that are ugly and obstruct movement (but which also represent employment in the unorganised sector), disappearing or ill-maintained water bodies, the indiscriminate disposal of waste, and overflowing garbage vats.

All these issues are contentious, none of them have easy solutions, but we have to start giving them the importance they deserve, and we can, at worst, find compromise solutions.

I love this city. And so I want it to embrace change without losing all that it already has ~ age, culture, character. And I want it to be choosy about the direction of change. Let it not take up change that breeds inequality, that encourages consumerism and that is not environment friendly. Let change be, in every sense of the term, aesthetic.

The author is Professor of Economics, Bengal Engineering and Science University, Shibpur, Howrah.

1 comment:

LinaS said...

I find the city is retreating behind grilles. There are very few verandahs and terraces that do not have grilles installed.
In trying to keep thieves out, the people are imprisoning themselves.