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Art for the power hungry

Architecture is rarely the reflection of democracy that it is supposed to be. In the light of the proposed shifting of the Tamil Nadu legislature and Secretariat, A. SRIVATHSAN discusses how personal fantasies of the powerful masquerade as public policy in the realm of architecture.

The harbour in Chennai as it once was.

ONE of the well-crafted lies in architecture is that it is the most democratic of arts — for the people and by the people. There are only a few examples in the 20th Century where democracy and architecture have come together in a mutually supportive manner. Hausmann's Paris, Stalinist monuments in Russia and Lutyens' Delhi are imperial visions built with corrupt bricks. Nicolai Ceausescu's neo-classical palace in Romania and Francois Mitterrand's spree of monument building in France are examples of architecture in the service of power. These monuments of modern civil society have little to do with the ordinary citizens in whose name it was built.

Personal fantasies of the powerful simply masquerade as public policy and the obsession with building monuments as symbols of personal legacy continues today, as it did in the days of the Pharaohs. It seems that the desire to be immortal quickly follows the desire to be powerful. Architecture endures more than many other commemorative practices. It has a great iconic and cognitive quality that the powerful wish to mobilise and exploit. Architecture appears to be a much-travelled route to immortality, or so it is thought. Unlike the period of monarchy, space and the city are no longer under the free will of the individual. A collective system with a view to a larger public good is the bedrock that governs them. This is the fact we want to and are made to believe. However, blatant and vulgar expressions of power through the appropriation of public spaces undermine our belief in democracy and its institutions. Even an apparently benign project such as building a new capital city is mired in personal vision and is rarely reflective of collective memory or desire. Lawrence Vale's study on new capital cities and capital complexes in South Asia, including Chandigarh, exposes the domination of personal aspirations of both the architects and the governing individuals.

Even when leaders and rulers show some respite, architects and planners appear to unleash their tyranny on a gullible public. From their privileged position as experts, they have attempted social engineering through their work. The history of both avant-garde and international socialist-modern architecture seems to reinforce the scepticism about these experts. Barren environments were passed on to the public as progressive designs while the process itself rarely involved user participation. Many of our public housing schemes will attest to this fact.

To keep public urban projects free from the vagaries and manipulation of the powerful, many countries have passed legislation ensuring public participation in civic projects. France has passed a law on architecture with the underlying mandate that architecture be "in all the public interest". Subsequent efforts ensured that compulsory competitions were held to decide the design of "public buildings, infrastructure and new projects receiving public funds"'. Netherlands too has a "policy for architecture and the environment that surrounds us" and has made it a part of the public sphere for some time. These examples should not be considered foolproof systems or events possible only in developed economies. They reinforce the importance of urban planning and civic architecture and the need to bring them to the public realm.

Queen Mary's College ... now in the eye of a storm.

Compare this with the recent developments in Chennai. In late January, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa announced in the Assembly that a new Secretariat/Legislative complex would be built. The Queen Mary's College (QMC), a historical landmark on the Marina seafront, was later chosen as the site for this project. Even before any kind of discussion about the surrounding environment or the symbolic quality a legislative complex of Tamil Nadu took place, a caveat was issued that the building should be "grander than the Vidhana Soudha" in Bangalore. The details of the proposed design for the Secretariat have not been disclosed, but the suggestion of a Neo-Classical style amongst the Colonial and Indo-Saracenic buildings, which currently exist on the Marina, is likely to be out of place. The Marina seafront is one of the last remaining heritage precincts in Chennai. With the Tamil Nadu Government's recently signed Memorandum of Understanding with the Malaysian government to convert the adjacent Nochikuppam fishermen's settlement on the Marina beach into a "Shanghai look-alike" complex of multi-storeyed buildings housing embassies and offices, the stretch of the Marina would make for deplorable kitsch.

However, arguments about appropriate aesthetics should be set aside for now and debates among the architects' fraternity, about the unprofessional and inappropriate manner in which the design "competition" for these proposed structures is being held, should also be postponed. These distract from the main issues.

The most unacceptable point regarding the proposed project for the new secretariat and legislature is the lack of public discussion about the content, location and qualities of architecture. The aggressive imposition of the idea without any concern for the students of QMC, their education and the heritage value of the current buildings is proof of this lack of public participation. A legislative complex of 8,00,00 square feet is one of the largest and most important civic projects in Chennai. Even by a conservative estimate the project should cost Rs.150 crores — not the Rs.60 crores cost indicated by the Government as reported in the media. How can a civic project of this magnitude and symbolic importance be undertaken without any public debate?

The proposed location, on a T-junction and on the coast, demands that an environmental impact assessment takes place. Further, the Coastal Development Regulations require that this be done for all projects costing more than Rs.100 crores. It must also be noted that a legislative complex will involve a high level of usage and heavy traffic and will have a much larger impact than an office or shopping complex. Would such project and scale fit the Marina's institutional Zone?

Commonsense also suggests that such a huge project located at the present QMC campus would affect the leisurely character of the beach, be a hindrance to the public and completely alter the traffic characteristics of the stretch. Security related concerns would slowly put the beach out of bounds for the public. The Marina is one of the very few recreational and open public spaces in an already crowded city and is currently one place accessible to the poor and other economically weaker classes.

It would be impossible to consider this project as a sign of public desire or a collective will. It will be so closely associated with an individual's wish that it would lack legitimacy as a public project.

Some may argue that the Secretariat and Nochikuppam office/embassy project are part of a larger scheme to develop Chennai as a global city. Visions of Shanghai and Singapore provide seductive images and useful rhetoric. Without economic support, infrastructure, municipal governance and cultural relevance, most Third World cities are parodies of those in developed economies. The images alone become the content. Architecture is then marshalled to produce spectacles that try to aestheticise our deficiencies and anaesthetise our sensibilities and demands for quality city life.

At another level, this vision of a global city skews development. For example, South Chennai is developed as a place for the gentry and North Chennai seems as if it is meant for lesser mortals. North Chennai is now relegated to a backyard — an industrial dump and criminal den of the city. On the other hand, South Chennai is the preferred location and attracts disproportionate investment in terms of infrastructure and institutions.

The time has come for architecture and planning to reflect the essence of democracy. We cannot allow these visions that lack public participation, divide the city into uneven halves, skew development and cause large displacements to become realities.

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