City City Bang Bang, Columns

The new public spaces

Using paper towels in a toilet at an Indian airport feels surreal to those who have grown up in another India. There is a wholly unfamiliar sense of crisp hygiene that accompanies its use and one can only imagine how many illnesses have been prevented by this one simple facility. The filthy communal towels of another time spring to mind, when we swapped germs with each other with cheerful impunity.

Growing up, a visit to a public facility of this kind was a battle between two primitive urges- the pressing need to relieve oneself against a fervent desire to protect one’s senses from olfactory assault. Toilets in these spaces were filthy, smelly, and did not concern themselves even remotely with the question of hygiene. The problem for women was infinitely worse. Public spaces of all descriptions- airports, railway stations, markets, stadia, public lavatories, offices- were unself-conscious repositories of the sights and smell of our collective lives.

This has begun to change, particularly in many public spaces in the larger towns. And clean and well-maintained toilets are only part of the story. New public spaces increasingly have a new aesthetic, with order and cleanliness being key pillars of their design. Although their origins are by no means organic, having been transplanted from global sources, with time, modernity becomes contagious as one public space influences another. The change seen is in proportion to the affluence levels of the users of these spaces- malls and airports lead the way, while the railway station shows modest signs of change. Platforms have started getting escalators but the toilets in trains continue to deposit their fertile produce on railway tracks across the country.

In many cities, the difference between the three cities- the old, the intermediate and the new is becoming quite pronounced. The old city created spaces where the dominant presence is that of people, for these are spaces designed for close human interaction. Barring a few cities, where the older part of town is being reconfigured as a consumer product by converting it into a touristy simulation of itself, in most cases the old town has simply stopped being the centre of business activity. Designed to be navigated on foot, it still bustles, but more out of habit than need.

The intermediate city, was modern once, but over the years has achieved the run down and highly lived-in look that most Indian spaces eventually start tending to. Unlike the closed nature of modern public spaces, the intermediate city is full of structures that are open- markets in colonies, public parks, schools and colleges of newer vintage, being some examples. Modernity here is signified by a basic level of organisation, and the presence of some rudimentary common facilities.

Today’s modern city creates spaces that begin by cutting themselves off from the environment around them, and constructing an artificial internal habitat that can be built from scratch. The outside world ceases to exist, and a climate-controlled bubble where time and space lose texture and shape is created. Commerce is at the heart of most of these spaces; the idea of development involves more opportunities to consume. In a branded environment, even familiar names feel like facsimile reproductions- extensions of choices made popular elsewhere.

The coming of these new kinds of spaces has meant that over the last few years, urban Indians have had to retrain their eyes. While the new aesthetic of the public space can legitimately be described as derivative, it succeeds in achieving its primary goal- replacing the messy and chaotic with surface visual order. Glass is everywhere, and straight clean lines are the new standard that is aspired to. If the palace was the ultimate visual benchmark earlier, today it is the mall.

As our eye changes, so do our homes. The desire to unclutter our living spaces, and to wear a veneer of slickness can be seen in the way the new apartments are imagined. The use of glass and marble, the growing popularity of modular kitchens, and the popularity of veneers of all kinds point to the overflow of influence from the public to the private. Shape is becoming imagined more fluidly, and the home is beginning to speak on behalf of its residents more deliberately.

It is also true that the overhauled public spaces are for most part not truly public. Only a certain section of society gets access to these, either on account of affordability or by virtue of being from the wrong social class. Genuinely open public spaces where people from all sections of society can mingle are rare. Modern public spaces achieve their modernity in part by becoming less public.

The new public spaces of today emit an absence of a message that is striking. The use of glass as a sign of modernity is an admission that modernity does not need content; its aim is to signify nothing more than its intention to be modern. It gathers no references or allusions in its fold nor does it speak of the place or the people it is meant for. By being a line of demarcation, rather than an instrument of communication, it serves as an inarticulate monument to itself. It is not the past, and the future that it represents is one where there is little to touch or feel. But the stickiness of a past that would not let go is being successfully shaken off.

With time, perhaps public spaces will evolve from merely erasing the past to creating more enriching experiences. Mumbai’s new airport is a great example of using a public space to create a stunning gallery of diverse artistic experiences. Here space is infused with meaning. It is eloquent and distinctive. Today, it would seem that the choice that needs to be made is between order and diversity, when it comes to designing new public spaces. Perhaps, letting go this of this binary might be a good starting point for creating more meaningful and enriching modern spaces.

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