"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


eleven. Chandigarhhhhhh…
… like the exhale of the first breath of truly clean air I’ve savored in awhile…except…my last morning in Old Delhi as I wandered the market-maze, I stopped at a perfume shop and was doused in rose oil. 3 days later in my 60 degree room in Chandigarh, this odd garden-scent on my well-traveled shirt remains. it’s been raining non-stop, turning dreams of cycling the whole city into bittersweet busrides, damp bicycle rickshaw rides, & wet muddy walks.

first noticeable difference: it is impossible to get lost in this town, which is set up like an orderly fractal of squares in which footpaths lead to small roads lead to larger roads lead to big roads lead to huge roads lead to roundabouts (or vice versa, depending on whether you’re an inhabitant or visitor). the only non-rectilinear lines are to be found in 1) said roundabouts 2) Corbusier’s plastic architectural monuments and 3) the subtly illicit & informal addendums citizens have made to the backs/fronts/aboves/betweens of the concrete housing and shopping areas. square signs of ‘rules’ abound, and yet, if this sounds like a checkerboard hell, everyone whom I’ve spoken with loves living here. I can see why, and it is not because of that which we learn about in school, the Capitol complex itself feeling largely devoid of vital resonance (although the High Court IS beautiful, and the Temple of Shadows an evocative ruin...)

walking or cycling the sector streets and meeting people is the way to understand what makes Chandigarh work, and more than any other place I have been, strangers here (including the numerous requisite guard-guides at LC’s monuments) are eager to talk and quick to help. here, many assume that I am an architect, and not a wealthy shopping tourist, which is refreshing and a testament to Chanigarh’s relative lack of a foreign tourist scene. this is coupled with the town’s morphology; unlike Delhi or Mumbai in which a lot is squeezed into a little, here it is an effort to create spatial niches, and where they happen they tend to be minute and impromptu, like the arcade outside my hotel where the local (i.e. sector-wide) rickshaw bicycle drivers bed down for the chilly nights under thin blankets. this city is too spatially dispersed for all of one anything to collect in one place, and every sector or two has its own local & small scale economy, some more thriving than others.

where city-wide aggregation does occur it is heavily planned, which gets back to Chandigarh’s fractal organization. every sector has its own above-mentioned shop area, which becomes vaguely aligned with adjacent sectors’ shopping districts, which all more or less channel into the citywide motherlode shopping center which runs, well, right down the center of the center sector (17). small sector schools foretell the numerous state government sponsored institutions of higher education, which are largely over near sector 12. rickshaw drivers pool around bus stops, as they know that for many who ride the bus, home might still a hefty stroll away. the city is at once pedestrian friendly and a walking hell: great for leisure walking and untenable for foot transport. car ownership is the highest per capita in India (about 600,000 for a population of 1.5 million), and discussion of reinvigorating public transport is at best, vague. the bus system is well organized and easy to understand, but frequencies and operating hours leave something to be desired. so the rickshaw wallahs, even more than the cabs, fill the gaps, and get a hefty workout in the process, occasionally being used to transport not just people but enormous loads of cargo, or families of 4 or 5.

as a success story I think Chandigarh is more palpable as a self-sustained suburban typology. the automobile is indispensable, and the city “centre” is primarily for retail, leisure, and government, lacking the (socio&)economic diversity of a more pulsating urban organism. however, if regarded as a town for the automobile and single family home or duplex, it works well; the sector-specific shopping areas become neighborly gathering places, with a healthy degree of informality, and walking on the residential streets is a pleasure, as they are wide, quiet, and green. compared to the U.S. suburb, housing, while not high density, is certainly more efficient and communicative with immediate context of yard, street, and neighbor, with directly adjacent units still maintaining a legible autonomy.

it is a testament to something that here, for the first time in awhile, I have indulged in long nighttime walks without trepidation, even though many streets are more empty and dark than in other cities I have been. I haven’t traveled enough of India to know whether this is a regional difference or whether it is specific to Chandigarh.

a day or two later… I’m sitting on the domestic flight from Chandigarh back to Mumbai. it is sunset to the west, and from my window there is a thin ribbon of intense orange lining the horizon before it quickly fades into yellow-green and indigo. although it is a clear night the lights of Mumbai below are muted through haze. I am so excited to be returning to this effervescent, chaotic place…

but a few more words on Chandigarh, which I experienced by bicycle yesterday, followed by a chat this morning with one of the head architects in the city’s planning department. the future of this city is fraught with political complication, as there is Chandigarh the shared capitol of 2 neighboring states (Punjab/Haryana), and then there is Chandigarh the city itself, which is administered by its own governing body independent of said neighboring states – understandably generating disagreements re. land use & encroachment of growth into Punjab and Haryana. LC dictated a 10 mi. wide radius of allowable growth around the city but with a population increase of 40% per decade coupled with the relative low-density of peripheral development, it’s easy to imagine Chandigarh spilling inadvertendly into the surrounding empty land, ‘absorbing’ urban villages as it does so, and as it has already done as in the case of Attawa or Bural. these villages are allowed to remain as is, organic pockets of serpentine alleys and shops, a mind-boggling contrast to the gridded streets within which they are bound. since the 90’s Chandigarh has been in Phase 3 of its development, and yet the city still lacks an updated comprehensive master plan – potentially disastrous for its growth rate. its success is its curse; IT and biotech industries are booming, attracted by the relative success and quality of life of the original city center and its academic institutions; yet these booms are precisely what is putting strain on the city that attracted them in the first place.

regardless, from my bikeride through more recently-built sectors (the 40’s and 50’s) the periphery is swelling somewhat sadly, with a heartbreaking combination of renegade slums (the only land affordable to low-end service workers such as rickshaw wallahs) and cold concrete apartment blocks that resemble housing projects. the zoning codes regarding green space and road layout is still respected on paper but is oddly bastardized, such that the common green areas in these outlying sectors are currently empty fields of wet mud and dead grass; perhaps with time the trees, jungle jims, benches and plants will come?...there seem to be attempts to stretch the infrastructure as fast as possible; even one of the most informal slum areas had water pumps where people could fill buckets, and bus routes have multiplied to reach outlying areas. supposedly slum inhabitants will be rehabilitated to leased dwellings, free of charge but sans ownership, a different strategy from earlier own-for-fee policies which allegedly resulted in re-sale of said meager properties at phenomenal profits and a subsequent return to squatting.

re-reading this entry I find it rather dry. perhaps more than what I say about a place, the way that I write about it might perhaps communicate more?...

Chandigarh snapshots…
…little kids in the rain ride the ‘bus,’ which is really a bicycle-pulled wagon that fits 8 or 10 munchkins, who get dropped off at their quiet homes in the residential sectors
…the secret life of bicylists: suddenly I am one which means navigating ferocious roundabouts (which take the place of traffic lights) and becoming a target for ‘conversation’ from one friendly (and thankfully, unusual) fellow bicyclist: “hello….america? sex? sex?”
…cold climes call for amazing sweets and lots of liquor? “bakery/sweets” and “wine/liquor” shops in abundance.

1 comment:

Ben Mullins said...

Yuki - reading about your journey is fantastic for me.

I remember in Delhi going into a barber shop and getting a shave from a guy with a straight blade. I was 23 and barely had much of beard but it was the best shave I have ever had. :) Sort of crazy to think about now.

Thinking about you out there!