Venice Biennale

It is surprising India does not figure in the Venice architecture biennale exhibition, perhaps the most important architecture international event. It is on currently, it opened last month.

With all its aggressive posturing on the Central vista project, the Indian government should have showcased the project to the world.

Even small countries are participating ,ranging from Albania to Uzbekistan. Our neighbours, Pakistan and Thailand, too are there.

The theme of the event is How will we live together ? It takes a sympathetic view of the concept of need for all people to live together in harmony. Perhaps, not too palatable to some people in our governance.

Thailand has a touching theme focussing on the need for elephants, other animals and humans to live in harmony. It deals with an ethnic group which actually lives with elephants in the jungles but is now being uprooted from its surroundings and has to take elephants to towns to earn a living. That reminds me of an award winning Marathi film Aastu , directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, and focussing on human-elephant relationship in an urban environment. Pakistan deals with the theme of Shadi halls for weddings put up by a team headed by Kalim Siddiqui, head of the Commonwealth association of architects which is working on sustainable environments.

Mexico, which can be compared to India in several ways, takes up the theme of displacement of the poor which is so common in India but is not much written about.

China focuses on traditional multi family courtyards.

Bangalore born Manije Verghese and her partner have curated the British pavilion about privatisation of pubic space. Her presentation was selected from entries invited by theBritish Council. Uzbekistan deals with Mahallas which are like our mohallas, lanes in towns.

Coming back to the issue of the Central vista, . Many of our architects are up in arms over the destructive vision of the Central vista in Delhi . And justifiably so but many of them have remained silent over the damage done by builders and so called Modernist architecture in many parts of India, the whole misappropriation of public land, driving out the poor.

Many have also remained silent over the vandalisation of the heritage of the historic cities of Jaipur, Lucknow and Hyderabad by the imposition of Metro railway. The Metro again is a reflection of bloated egos of politicians who want to show that they have done something spectacular when actually they have exposed themselves to extreme ridicule from the discerning public because very few people are travelling in the trains. The whole project is hideously expensive and shows a scandalous disregard for the needs of pedestrians and bus users.

The Metro is being justified in Mumbai with the plea that it will reduce car trips. This is a big lie as can be seen from Delhi where despite the Metro there are more cars and more congestion.

And it is going to get worse. If the Metro is such a solution, why is there such a massive provision for parking for thousands of cars in the Central vista project. Traffic projections in Delhi show that many roads in neighbouring parts of Delhi will have to be widened to provide for increased car traffic.

In Mumbai, the MMRDA’s approach to architecture and traffic can be grasped by one look at its new head office in the Bandra Kurla complex. It is an entirely faceless, box like structure , neither modern, nor traditional, devoid of any character. And the contemptuous attitude towards pedestrians is reflected in its blatant intrusion on the footpath.

These are the people who are imposing monumentally expensive projects on the city which will have little benefit to common people.Everythng is for the upper class. Now there is a proposal to provide underground connections to the Mumbai airport. As if the fancy special flyover to the airport, exclusive to motor cars, is not enough. And all this while boasting that the Metro will reduce car travel.

One of the most disturbing features of the proposed Central vista in Delhi is that the area will be so inaccessible to public protests, pedestrians and to those who could find a little relaxation on the lawns in the area.

So an area which is supposed to constitute the very heart of democracy will become undemocratic.This point has been little written about, the changes are seen mainly in the context of demolition of historic buildings.

Traditionally, areas around the centres of power have been closely associated with freedom to protest. The Washington Mall has been such a site for almost a century, the core area around British Parliament for much longer. And these continue to be major sites of massive protests, the numbers running into lakhs of people.

Tiananmen Square so close to the centre of power in Beijing was a major site of protest by Chinese students in 1989. So the recent book Tinanmen Square Making of a Protest by Vijay Gokhale , former ambassador to China and former foreign secretary, aroused my interest.

It is a highly praised book and its title is very catch but the book has much less focus on the protest itself beyond some observations.

Gokhale was then a young diplomat in Beijing. ‘I recall being woken by the sound of tanks moving down the Avenue of Eternal Peace. It was 5 o’clock on the morning of 4 June. Tanks, APCs and troop trucks were sweeping down the avenue. Citizens ran for cover. Helicopters hovered above. Foreign media claimed that Chinese troops had fired into the crowds with several hundred casualties, he says.

He had a close view of the situation and felt Western accounts of a high number of casualties were driven more by the Cold war situation. The book is much more about economic reforms by a party that still swears in the name of Communism.

As for the Central vista, pedestrians will have to walk through an underpass in a very regimented, closely watched space. It is somewhat like walking to Marine Drive in an enclosed space and while you may finally come out and get some view of Marine Drive, most of the fun is lost.

The whole area in Central Vista will be impersonal, driven by high security, fear of common people felt by the rulers, reminds one of Mike Davis’s influential writing about the militarization of urban space which has received very little attention in India.

As Vivan Sundaram, the noted artist, has observed in an interview it will be a fortress-like area and pedestrians will have to go through subterranean space and through lifts in the neighbouring Metro stations with very little visible accessibility to the outside world.

But there is one point of his one would not be enthusiastic about. He said at present one’s driver finds it so difficult to get parking space in the area . In that context, he said, more parking will be a welcome change.

It is all right from the very limited range of a motorist but in the West even motorists are recognizing that there should be fewer parking spaces and the whole attitude to parking is changing.

The very logic of access to the Metro station means there should be much less need for motor vehicles. But the whole logic is driven upside down by the car obsessed political class.. True , some cars are needed in the area but not in such large numbers.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on public transport


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