The unbuilt city

An artist’s impression of the revolving restaurant in the tower block

An artist’s impression of the revolving restaurant in the tower block

A 65-storied super mall on the Marina, tube train below Buckingham Canal, circular train, and a brand new city on the outskirts… Chennai would have had it all, sported a sleek look, and functioned, for better or worse, as a different place. Many ambitious projects that would have turned around the city were proposed and approved. Funds too were allocated, but they were never built. In certain ways, Chennai is what it is now because of those unbuilt projects.

There would be no Marina promenade to stroll on and gaze at, had the government in 1971 built the tallest super block in South East Asia. The relatively quiet beach would have turned into a shops-infested space. Four decades ago, the State government wanted a building that would be ‘a great magnet for every visitor to the city’ that ‘symbolizes the modern outlook’. It decided to build an 800-ft tower packed with commercial stores, five-star hotel, government offices, dance floors and a revolving restaurant at the top, on the Lady Wellington Training College premises. The details and the grand views of the project were well-publicised. However, many did not like the idea. They protested and ensured that the government dropped the project.

This was neither the first nor the last time that the State wanted to restructure the Marina beachfront. The British wanted to create a spectacle on the beach after displacing fishermen, but were not definite about which way to go — make it an avenue of memorials or institutions. In the early 1920s, the focus was on creating memorials on the western side of the road, but the idea was dropped, and later, Corporation Councillors wanted to pack the area between Santhome and George Town with colleges and make it a student haven. This too was not fully realised. Even in recent times, government attempted to build the Legislative Assembly on Queen Mary’s College premises and later proposed an elevated road along the beach. These projects were not built, and the Marina survived.

Memorials and statues divide the city into two: the beach, which hosts the memorials of the Dravidian party leaders, and the Raj Bhavan gardens in front of Anna University that hosts the nationalist leaders. This spatial division may not have occurred had the government implemented the 1949 plan. After Gandhi died, funds were collected to build a grand stupa on the beach in front of Madras University. Leading singers such as M.S. Subbulakshmi gave concerts for this. The memorial committee delayed the project and finally built a temple-like structure adjoining Raj Bhavan. This paved the way for memorials of other Congress leaders on the same compound.

Political parties also wanted to leave their imprint on the city through infrastructure projects. The Congress government wanted to build a tube train as early as 1966. It planned to close Buckingham Canal, run a train below the ground and use the top concrete surface for vehicles. The project, though controversial, was way ahead of its time and had the potential to change the pattern of the city. This did not move forward since the elections approached. In 1967, the DMK came to power, and it dropped the project only to propose it later in a different place. The DMK government proposed an underground metro connecting Ennore and Thiruvanmiyur at a cost of Rs. 180 crore. It insisted that the metro rail is the solution for Chennai’s traffic problem. But the government did not survive to implement it. In 1976, following Emergency, the DMK government was dismissed. Many years later, the metro rail project came about as a mutilated MRTS.

Chennai would have had even an urban forest. In 1959, the Corporation proposed a three-mile wide green belt west of St. Thomas Mount. The idea was to deter the spread of the city. Along with it, the local body also proposed a circular railway connecting Saidapet and Ennore, a 120-ft wide circular road and a series of satellite towns. The Corporation never implemented these projects and lost the opportunity to create a compact city. Similarly, in 1967, when the government changed, the proposal to build a trade centre in Choolai at the cost of Rs. 1.25 crore, to replace the Kothwal Chavadi market was dropped. Years later, the government built the market in Koyambedu.

The government never concretised radical ideas such as a new city west of Tambaram and an administrative centre south of Thiruvanmiyur. As in the past, it continues to alter or drop key urban projects. The Legislative Assembly on Anna Salai and the shortened network of Chennai Metro Rail are but two examples. The unbuilt continues to shape the city as does the built.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2022 11:49:17 am |