Thursday, December 29, 2011


One of the most imageable structures in Chennai is the Chennai Central railway station. This edifice built by the British is an example of the so called Gothic Revival style. Designed by Henry Irwin, it was constructed in 1873 & later expanded in 1900. The large central clock tower along with the brick red facade is one of the first images that comes into the mind when one thinks of Chennai. This stretch has some of the famous structures erected by the Raj, which have over years turned into landmark structures, in part due to the lack of legible, sensible public architecture buildings since independence. The mediocrity of the present day public architecture tends to highlight furthermore the older structures that have come up during the Raj and acts as a sore reminder that there is almost no seriousness about the public architecture that is being built.

 On the right of the Central lies the highly impressive Victoria Memorial Hall, which has been recently restored to its former glory & a bit further lies the Rippon building. To the left lies the headquarters of the Southern Railway, a grey edifice which is a blend of European & Dravidian styles. There are octagonal columns with capitals supporting a modified stone beam, almost a stylised derivation of the simple post & beam structure. These sit alongside the domed cupolas which crown the corner & central towers, creating a very formal composition. The remarkable thing about this building is the marked restraint so evident in its architecture, yet, one which doesn’t take away the grace of the structure. One only needs to turn & look on the opposite side of the road to see the horrible government hospital building which stands out glaringly as an affront to architecture - a horrible marriage of unrelated elements & colours, which vociferously reinforces the callousness with which we treat architecture today.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


On a recent visit to one of the innumerable gated communities that have sprouted all around Noida & Greater Noida, I had a chance to experience firsthand both the pros and cons of these new building typologies. A lot of debate is happening whether these communities are beneficial to society, whether they increase the gentrification & fragmentation in our societies. I must say that I had been bowled over by the sheer scale of the development & the amount of investment required to develop such massive facilities. The said project consisted of a group of 15 to 20 apartment towers, all averaging 20 floors in height, which are organised around a huge central open landscaped area. The built spaces are pretty typical of the present concept of apartment block - tall towers with 3 apartments per floor. Nothing unique about the vocabulary or spatial planning.
The central space is a huge lawn with hard & soft landscaping done to create a comfortable serene ambience. The scale of this space is massive, being surrounded on all sides by tall apartment towers like sentries standing guard. There is a lot of planned vegetation, bamboos, palms and shrubs, creating a beautiful natural space. Towards the centre of this space, the land gradually rises to form a small artificial hillock. There are pergola covered platforms on the top. Below this artificial hillock are the common areas, the billiards rooms, the common gym, the lounge, the recreation hall etc. In front of this space on the lower level is a quaint little swimming pool, complete with wooden decking and reclining chairs and surrounded by vegetation. Yet, there is no privacy here, surrounded as it is by tall built blocks all around.

The advantages to the occupants of such communities are many. A 24hr dedicated facilities management team takes care of the maintenance of all the common spaces. The landscaping and lawns are properly maintained & clean. The security is taken very seriously. All vehicles are screened at the entry, vehicle number & time of entry noted. There are guards everywhere, from the entrance lobbies of the individual towers to the common gym & swimming areas. There is an underground parking in addition to the surface parking. There is 24hr electricity & water supply with a generator backup. The recreation needs are taken care of inside the gates itself. One only needs to splurge money to be able to afford to own a unit inside. Of course, all these maintenance facilities come at a price, a compulsory monthly amount in addition to annual subscriptions. But the customer is happy. He is free of responsibility. Today, people are willing to let their purse strings loose as long as they don’t have to be bothered with the mundane chores.
One of the things that stuck me was how our concept of a social space has changed completely in these gated communities. Here, the underlying & overlying sentiment is the need for privacy, the need to keep social interactions to a minimum, a need to be nameless, a need to be aloof. I could not but wonder how much it is a contrast with our traditional notions of space and community, the vibrant fabric which has held us together for ages. In a span of a few decades, our rich social fabric is being rapidly replaced by an unfamiliar concept of anonymity. It is just like the debate over the virtues of foreign multibrand retailers versus the neighbourhood kirana stores. There, again, the question is that of anonymity versus social face to face interaction.
The huge expanse of the lawn in the centre of the built towers offers a veiled sense of anonymity. People in their track suits walk briskly past each other, often even without glancing, with earphones plugged into their ears. Or in the rare case, a brief glance and a nod. There is no pause in the gait, no time to talk. Only the senior citizens bother to interact with each other, nostalgic of a time when social notions were completely different. 

It is pretty amazing that other than the central lawn and the common playing rooms, there are absolutely no spaces even for a pause, let alone for interaction. In the ground level of each tower is a bland entrance foyer with a uniformed guard, which leads to the lift lobby, a space with no natural light or ventilation and one which is cramped, undoubtedly to reduce the common area to cut down on the cost for the builder. The same is the case for the other floors as well. One enters into a narrow corridor, which leads in different directions to the different apartments. No space to pause, no space to meet or talk.
The individual apartments however, are spacious, even well lit and ventilated. There are balconies which lead out from the living room as well as from the dining. The bedrooms are spacious and well finished and so also the bathrooms. Yet, because of the stand alone nature of the towers, each apartment is an isolated entity, a vertical mass without any connections. You don’t have neighbours; you don’t even have balconies which offer scope for any interaction. Your only source of interactions is the ‘social networks’, the virtual world with online friends, game request and what not, far removed from the immediate physical reality. But then, that is what today’s generation want - virtual interactions as a substitute for physical interactions. Our norms of relations are changing; our patterns of behaviour are changing. Children are most affected. They become unable to interact effectively with the outside world. But no one seems to mind, especially the parents who need to ne genuinely concerned.  Thus, it is only natural for the builders to develop spaces which cater specifically to this new reality and, in the process, make a handsome profit. The impact of these built masses on our society and sociological patterns do not seem to be the concern of either the developer or the architect who has designed the space – money and only money matters.
The main criticism of such gated communities is that they are exclusive, that they create further divisions in an already divided society. One only needs to visit one of these places to realise that there is a lot of truth in that argument. These spaces are exclusive zones, islands in our social fabric. There is no give and take with the surrounding communities and people, no dialogue, no interaction whatsoever. That is their USP which brings all the rich clients to buy apartments in these communities. But from a social & spatial point of view, there are a lot of undesirable issues which arise. The sense of community is lost, outside the gates usually the areas become deserted, roads become less frequently used by pedestrians, there are no neighbourhood markets or shops as all the inhabitants prefer to shop in supermarkets and malls. People go out of the gates in cars only. Foot travel is rare. The result of all this is that most often, the surrounding area becomes unsafe and deserted, especially after dark. Cases of theft & waylaying of people are common. Urban character and quality is lost.
Class boundaries are further accentuated and formalised. Inequalities become glaringly obvious. There are often complaints of cornering of services like water and electricity. The people outside become more resentful and suspicious. Our societies lose their cohesiveness and character. Yet, with more and more such communities being developed and with demand increasing from an ever affluent middle class, the phenomenon of gated communities is here to stay. Only time will tell how our society and spaces will evolve positively or negatively reacting with the gated communities.