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Modernization of lifestyle and modernization of cities: Who is winning?

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Sprint of the sports day, top rank of the class, cut off list of university admission, interview for a job, top rank in the annual performance review, expensive acquisition to announce social stature; we are suckers for competition where there is no second place. Competition has somehow imbibed itself in our DNA to such an extent that we have transpired it to represent the way our cities and towns appear nowadays.


The fact that India is one of the youngest nations in the world may have something to do with it, but being connected globally, physically and virtually with increased incomes have enabled us to a large extent to experience and appreciate the way we now perceive our interior spaces.

Most of our youth spend most of their waking hours in the office space they work in, whether it’s in India or abroad. Architects and interior designers have over the years innovated and refurbished many an office space to ensure comfort without compromise on productivity. Over the years the office cubicles, partitions and cabins have melted away in open work spaces with breakouts, discussion areas, cafeterias, collaboration spaces with open ceilings and state of the art technology all within the arms length of an employee. This has not only enhanced the experience of working but also ably cut down on hierarchy in office culture thus making it a more enjoyable space.

Employees of such new age offices designed on the Google, Facebook, Adobe or Apple office palette carry forward the experience of working in such offices they join or set up in course of their career, thus bringing a vast change in the design of office spaces across the country. This in itself is a large subject but the gist of the matter is the influence it has on the people who work in such spaces.

The same employee, travelling globally for business and leisure is exposed to the modern luxuries of living. They seek the Soho look, the Greek villa, the ultra luxury apartment, the premium residence, and so on as their home when they return from office. Call it as you may like, there is a growing demand and supply of interior spaces which are being designed and built in these palettes across the length and breadth of the country. Such influences can also be seen in the way the new shopping malls, restaurants, pubs and resorts, are being designed and constructed these days. Thereby creating ensembles of pluralist architectural expressions of design and style garnering the common essence of fluid and comfortable living.


If I were to continue in the same breath ‘out’ would be like: paved sidewalks with bicycle track separated by a lawn followed by rows of Neem and Gulmohar trees on either side of glistening asphalt four lane roads, bathed in the morning sun with trees swaying in fresh breeze.

It is actually like this in a few ‘posh’ localities sprinkled across the country within walled premises with high security and laden with facilities, making it a self contained micro township. But in most cases the reality is rather dusty with potholes and tongue in cheek security and environment.

Like male Indian actors who refuse to accept their aging selves, Indian cities are aging badly. From ancient cities like Benaras to the relatively new ones like Kolkata are following a path of slow decay of their urban environment. Planned (new) cities like Chandigarh, (Lutyen’s) Delhi and Jamshedpur have only a radius where planning stops and rest is a surround of dishevelled ensemble of shanties and narrow roads and livelihood on garbage heaps. While people who live and or are responsible to maintain the towns and cities are building palaces within walls, what’s on the outside is allowed to be the result of hapless convolution of population, pollution, growth, greed and mismanagement like a repugnant excreta of an uncontrollably growing organism. The result of not being able to control this organism in infancy is being poisoned by its vile emanation beyond which just leads a city to a point of no return.

Saying no to crackers for one day in a year, dismembering sidewalks to widen roads to accommodate more vehicular traffic, cutting trees to make four lane roads, one day drive to clean rivers, large donations to build wider railway over bridge in the face of stampede are only reactions to the terror in the face of evil.

The outside is mostly shaped by randomness in functional use of space or capricious land use, unstable and changing local regulations, reactionary intervention, and mostly commerce over rationale of urban planning. In most cases, our cities have little or no regard for the pedestrian, thus in general encouraging pollution and overcrowding at tight junctures, where state machinery fails to match the pace of the organism’s growth.

What is noteworthy is that it happens over and over again in cities and towns of developing nations scrambling to react to population explosion like a predestination loop of urban calamity.

The Great Divide

There is an invisible wall that separates what’s inside from what’s on the outside. This invisible facade separates the two worlds born at the same time but have since veered in different time zones. The one on the inside, with its eagerness seems to have dialed the numbers of a time machine and zipped into the future, while the one on the outside has preferred to languish and be reactionary in refusing to rediscover itself with time.

What then is this wall? It’s not the facade of buildings separating the roads from interior of buildings. It is an unrecognised competition between people who build spaces on either side of the wall, one which is driven by desire on the inside and ubiquitous policying on the outside. It would only be apt to share a story to understand people on either side of the wall better.

Somewhere in a city a stretch of four lane road divided by a row of trees was flanked by residential buildings on both sides. There lived the working middle income group of the city in its laid back homely stupor. However, with the intent of garnering more business in the area to acquire higher revenue, the local authorities applied selective bye laws applicable to suit the road width to allow commercial establishments to be set up on either side. As time passed, residential buildings let out the ground floors on rent to businesses ranging from restaurants, shops, offices to swanky showrooms and built upper floors for rent and residence. And in a span of few years the population in the area trebled, with more need for parking which started spilling onto the roads and with time the four lanes became two with the side lanes turned into pedestrian walkways, with spots for street vendors and shop and showroom displays.

The residents who gave off the ground floors on rent modernized their home interiors to luxury residences causing the real estate prices to shoot off the roof in the area. And as the roads became congested and dirty, they complained about the pollution and deteriorating urban conditions. In due course the local authorities reacted to the complaints by cutting the trees in the median and replacing it with raised curb to expand the roads and a few years later replacing the curbs with piers encroaching on the roads to support a raised metro track through the middle of the streets adding rows of auto rickshaws and the rest as they say, is history.

History though has a habit of repeating itself and it appears in different cities and towns covering the cityscapes in its shroud. And the players in the game are always on either side of the wall competing with each other with mutual disregard for the betterment of the city itself. The challenge though is to transform this from competition to fruitful collaboration with the objective of making our cities a better place to reside holistically from inside-out.

However, presently there is only one side of the wall that is winning the competition, the Inside.

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