In India’s capital cities there is not even a single landmark development, either as a monument or a precinct, which symbolises the spirit of the country

Civilisation literally means living in a city. The word is derived from the Latin word ‘civitas’, which means city-state. Urban renewal is a term that describes ways of constructively dealing with the problems that growing cities encounter. Beyond infrastructural provisions such as housing, hygiene, transport and basic amenities for populations, this constructive engagement also includes generating livelihoods and addressing the needs of the vulnerable. Culture-based initiatives built into the master plans and goals for the cities of the future have devised universal indices that position their rank as creative cities. Libraries and museums as reference centres, festival squares and galleries, and spaces for performing arts and events including those for deprived precincts, are as important as funds for city artists, designers and architects to develop art and a creative environment in the public domain.

Boosting local economies

‘Culture’ and ‘the arts’ are often mistaken as an expendable resource as administrators look for ways to tighten their budgets. They are far from expendable; initiatives using the two have often assumed key roles in boosting local economies, renewing urban areas in decay, and promoting the type of active citizen whose pride and self-esteem is an asset to any community. To commit to these activities as an economic and social strategy is a smart form of investment for a nation state.

The regeneration of human settlements is at the core of India’s future. It is part of a long-term strategy where business, technology and heritage interact with one another.

Consider President François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets (Grand Project) for Paris — which included the construction of the Opéra Bastille (the New Opera), the Arc extending the axis of bold vistas, neighbourhood multipurpose institutions such as the cross-cultural Arab Cultural Research Center, the iconic renovations and additions to the Louvre, and the revival of the inner city with bold new agoras. This was a grand international strategy to ensure that 21st century France would remain an international hub of creativity and imagination. With a united Europe, the goal of Mitterrand’s strategy was to make this ancient city a hub of interest for the residents as well as its growing number of visitors. The President stated clearly that business and technology were the means to achieve this multi-dimensional goal for a cultural connect.

Surely there is inspiration here for South Asia’s premier capital, New Delhi, and for its state capitals which imitate one another. Amid the glass towers and glitzy malls that are spreading like cancer, is there a single big idea in India today that can change the dreary urban scape?

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” said Daniel Burnham, the visionary Chicago architect. Winston Churchill declared inimically, “While we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Rajiv Gandhi began the much misunderstood ‘Apna Utsav’ festival in the 1980s to attract international tourists while presenting the multi-disciplinary skills of indigenous communities from around the country. The audience composed largely of migrants. Hosting imaginative world events, bringing art to the public domain, building cultural complexes, and reinventing the city can help overhaul its economy. The renewal of Barcelona, Paris and Bilbao as world-class architectural spaces; the construction of Chandigarh and Brasilia by new design or the rejuvenation of inclusive precincts like Potsdamer Platz (Berlin), the Lincoln Center (New York) or the Smithsonian Institution along the National mall (Washington) celebrate people’s engagement with culture.

In all the above examples, local and outside populations have played a pivotal role in reviving depressed economies. Conserving decaying monuments while creating a new vocabulary is recognised as a critical attractor — it sparks popular imagination, generating both confidence among local residents and bringing in influential visitors. The Centre Pompidou in the middle of Paris did precisely this. It also had the courage to invite an Englishman and an Italian to design its revolutionary concept that brings more tourists to the city today than the Eiffel Tower. Another example is Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’, which has given Chicago an icon that can be instantly recognised by the world.

A visionary plan

In India’s capital cities there is not even a single landmark development, either as a monument or a precinct, which symbolises the spirit of the country. Delhi covers 1,486 square kilometres; yet hardly one kilometre is reserved for celebrating our cultural heritage. Our historic monuments, increasingly being subsumed by illegal growth, are more fragile now. What can be done to convey the dynamic living force of an emerging nation, linking the old with the new, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Over the last 20 years, a visionary plan — the South Asian Design Arts and Technology Kendra (SADAK) — has been growing in the Delhi Development Authority that could excite the imagination of the whole subcontinent. This design-led cross-disciplinary enterprise could become a centre of excellence. The master plan includes the setting up of national museums of architecture and design, museums of photography and visual image, and institutes of textile and fashion technology, amid a clutch of unprecedented world-class facilities along the public-private partnership model. SADAK is a pivotal concept seeking redevelopment of a precinct, an area however derelict, with innovative and indigenous rejuvenation. Its sensitive implementation will of course involve concerted engagement with neighbouring countries, ministries, and more critically, the corporate and NGO sectors. An appropriate and clear site in the heart of the city would not be difficult to find. Maybe a new government will dust the SADAK file and take it out of the hands of an apathetic bureaucracy.

The South Asian subcontinent needs to critically redefine its own concept of civilisation. India’s overemphasis on the expansion of its towns and cities without questioning their failings, and ignoring their inherent qualities, is a peculiar process of urbanisation. Tourism as a subset of culture is a growing field that employs millions of people. It will have to articulate an integrated view of changing demographies and diverse communities living together. Urban India, a vast network of neighbourhoods which link rural migrants to a resurgent and vibrant countryside, is a large part of our future as a nation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking from a western perspective said: “I wish for rural strength and religion, and city facility and polish. I find with chagrin that I cannot have both.”

India is in a unique position. The synergy of its past and present can help it accomplish both.

(Rajeev Sethi is Chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation.)

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