City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Bazaar as Impulse

It is destiny of every public space, no matter how large or grand to begin with, to end up looking like a bazaar and sounding like a railway platform. Visiting the international airport in Delhi after a while revealed that it had turned into a version of the neighbourhood Monday market. Ditto for the domestic section of the Mumbai airport. The shopping area that was once the preserve of large stores set sparsely amidst lavish space was now punctuated with little stalls selling knick-knacks including the mandatory hair-bands. In Delhi airport, there is a section officially called Delhi Bazaar, which looks and feels exactly as the name suggests.

The same phenomenon can be seen in many malls too. They start out as projects in grandeur, that look and feel ‘international’ in that vast empty spaces are allowed to stand, but with time, they turn into a mish-mash of the old and new, local and international, organised and decidedly disorganised. It is as if every space in India demands squatters, entities that carry an air of intrusive intermediateness. Encroachment is more cultural imperative rather than commercial necessity, and is not merely physical but also conceptual in that established and codified categories are disrupted. Kiosks, stalls, booths- call them what you will, spring up with a ferocious and untidy energy and seem to be speak to the Indian buyer in some deeply instinctive way.

The neat order, symmetry and scale of a well designed space seems to cry out for a viral outbreak of disorder and division. The tendency is to fragment to space, to fill it up with the most vibrant and unruly form of life. At one level, leaving space empty seems like such a waste. The purpose of space, it would seem, is to be filled with some sign of activity, preferably human. Emptiness seems to get equated with barrenness, and there is an urge for it to be filled up with something that reeks of energy, even chaos. The default design philosophy seems to be that of disruptive bisection, with any space getting successively bisected with increasingly disruptive intrusions. In traffic, this needs takes on the manifestation of vehicles leaving a whisker’s space between each other, refusing to grant the other an inch of personal territory. While waiting at a traffic light, leaving even a small empty patch of empty space between your car and the one in front invites instant honking from those straining at the leash behind you.

The idea that any space is left uncovered even briefly is seen to be unforgivable tardiness, and invites admonition. The need to cover up all available space is visible at its finest in advertisements put out by the government. Advertising convention, without question originating in the West makes a case for objects to be set in relief, so that emphasis on the important can be provided. This point of view finds summary rejection here, as space is conquered ruthlessly and every inch of it covered up -this is most striking in the case of some hoardings where, regardless of considerations of the nature of the medium which is invariably viewed from a distance and while one is moving, the entire space is covered by text so minute that it could not be read even if a ladder and microscope were to be simultaneously employed.

The interest lies in utilising the available real estate that the empty space represents rather than serving the main purpose of the exercise- communicating to an audience. Visiting cards, invitation cards tend, when designed locally, tend to follow the same principle, that of florid abundance. Similarly, no new colony retains the air of a quiet suburb- that image is too restful to be allowed to remain. Houses with massive areas too contrive to look cramped- the idea of not constructing on space available for aesthetic reasons is deemed wasteful. Builders vie to squeeze out as much space as they possibly can, and when they can’t they make up new categories called ‘carpet area’ and ‘built-up area’ which allow them to claim space that doesn’t quite exist, at least in a way that is material. Space is not only fully utilised, but invented.

Part of the impulse has to do with eking out value from everything. It is also in part a surrender to time, in that there is an acknowledgement that with time, needs will grow as will appetites, and space being finite, will inevitably end up being used. There seems to be an inability and an unwillingness to acknowledge the integrity of any original conception; everything is seen to be subject to negotiation. Part of the reason why all our cities, including all the new spaces within these, eventually end up looking scruffy and unruly is this- no boundary is seen to be sacrosanct and no design inviolable. The modern in India is destined more often than not to look squalid, but equally it is likely to feel more alive.

In some ways, space seems to be equated not with physical presence but with human absence. The amount of empty space is translated in terms of units of human absence, that must eventually be filled. In physical terms too, the human body seems to be the pivot around which the idea of space that is deemed necessary is imagined. Spaces that depart too much from human-sized dimensions potentially create discomfort and even anxiety. The urge to fill up space might have to do with it being seen primarily as a way of accommodating human beings. This is a democratic instinct of a deep kind, for here the human impulse overrides institutional order but it is also a recipe for continuing disorder which subverts the intent to create a neat and shiny future.

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