India - On Architecture, Place, and Culture

I've passed the halfway mark here in India so I figured it's high time I scribe a post about the one thing that I am perhaps most suited to review: architecture and place. With those two things comes culture so this post will dabble in all three and will use Delhi as the springboard. My Delhi trip was the place and time that I finally made sense of what this country feels like to me beyond smells and warm air. Don't hold your breath waiting for something profound because I'm not expecting these comments to be anything along those lines! Also, don't expect great pictures. I saw a conference room and a mediocre hotel for 90 of the 96 hours I was in Delhi.

On our drive into New Delhi I immediately noticed differences from Mumbai. This was expected. One sentence history lesson: Unlike Mumbai, which grew organically due to its geography, (New) Delhi was deliberately infused with urban planning by Lutyens in an effort to impart some British order on pre-existing Indian chaos. (Bonus, just-learned fact via Wikipedia: The new Capital was...inaugurated on February 13, 1931by British India's Governor-General Lord Irwin. Love the surname!)

Seeing that roads were wider and straighter, medians big enough to be useful, and signage visible quickly indicated we were not in Mumbai anymore. When talking urban circulation, Mumbai is to Boston as Delhi is to DC. DC ain't great for getting around, but it least it's got some sort of grid.
Evidence of urban planning forethought continued to crop up during our drive. In the shot below you're seeing the street entrance to Delhi's metro system. I can't speak from experience but it appears to be a rather extensive network and the lines are both elevated and underground. If Mumbai tried to pull off a subway we'd all have to sport scuba gear for the ride around town.

Delhi doesn't have a fully developed highway system like what you see circling any major US city but it does have a pretty decent set of major thoroughfares where you can actually reach a cruising speed. The same crazy traffic rules are still very much alive here (like, pretending your car is Pac-Man as you drive over the dashed lane lines rather than between them) but the city is organized enough that I felt like I had my directional bearings in short order.

Woven into the urban transit fabric are true pockets of development. Mumbai has hotels next to office buildings next to apartments next to industry next to office buildings next to shopping next to slums next to schools next to... you get the picture. It is a giant amalgamation of building types and there is absolutely no zoning to speak of. New Delhi, on the other hand, has clear residential areas, business districts, shopping meccas, and the like. While the segmentation was nice, I soon decided that things were perhaps too siloed. Check out the concrete sea of housing below. You're seeing the same multi-family home model go on for blocks and blocks.

Upon closer inspection you can see that masonry construction rules in India. Everything is made of concrete, hand laid brick, giant slabs of marble or granite, and enormous blocks of sandstone. Everything. Hard surfaces abound. Geometry is rigid, for the forms bow to the materials. Windows are small to fight the beating sun and roofs are flat or slanting to one side, shed-style, because it's not like you need to worry about snow or much rain accumulating up there.

Now here's where it hit me. I felt like suddenly all of this was very familiar. (Yeah, yeah, deja vu again.) I think I seek analogies to more common things in an effort to make sense of all of this. And forgive me if this is juvenile, but I've concluded that what I've seen of India makes me feel as though I'm living in a sci-fi storyline. A Disney movie and/or young adult fiction, to be exact.

The sights of India's metropolises stir up imagery from the movie Wall-E. The themes and sense of time are of the Bradbury ilk, where something can be both outdated and from the future, where warning signs of bad things to come get channeled through archaic symbols. I'm talking about you, ubiquitous seashell radios in everyone's ears that hinted at iPods and Bluetooth!

Being in India is like watching a civilization simultaneously rise and fall.

Not long ago TATA introduced a car for the masses and with it they provided new ranges of mobility for people who previously could never get out of their villages. I think about this in the context of my work - building hospitals. Now people can get to doctors and hospitals but those cars don't have mandated car seats so babies die on the way to their pediatrician's office. The cars don't have super regulated emissions so the air is giving you asthma while you're picking up new drugs from the pharmacy. Traffic lights are merely suggestions so your ambulance, a new-ish concept, might not make it to the hospital because of a traffic jam. These are all true stories that have been in the newspapers since I've been here.

And it's not just car emissions that make the air putrid and choking. The pollution is out of control because of other factors, too, like fires burning everywhere. Fires burn all day as signs of factory productivity. Stuff is being made so stuff can be sold so stuff can be bought so incomes can rise so lifestyles can improve. But fires also burn to keep people warm, to make food, and to provide light against the dark of night. All at once you have fire in its most primitive functions and its most powerful.

And let's not forget that fire also burns trash. There is more trash here than people really know how to handle. Trash is a source of income for some people while its a source of disdain for others. When I see trash all over I can't help but think, "Is it just that they don't know any better, that they haven't learned how to mitigate environmental impact? Or are they so far beyond such things that India is actually foreshadowing what is to become of the rest of us? Is this what the landscape will look like in another 20 years? Overcrowded with sparse vegetation and full of crap, in every sense?

Honestly. I couldn't see across the bay today the smog was so bad. And with all that perpetual smog (or "smoke" as weather.com calls it) everything takes on a brownish tint. Buildings are filthy. It's difficult to tell if a building is 5 or 50 years old because the smog ages it so fast. It's also difficult to tell a building's age because the upkeep is shoddy. Do people not know enough about building maintenance or have they already advanced to the stage of, "Eh, don't worry about sustainability, we'll just tear down and start new"?

Buildings are also clues to life inside the city. Shopping malls and megamarts are popping up all over the place. The younger generations love the new convenience of supermarket grocery shopping while the older generations still haven't bought in. I contrast this with what's happening in the US, where farmers' markets are all the rage and we spend twice as much money to buy locally sourced produce. We are valuing the handmade and the small boutiques. Indians are fawning over the prospect of Ikea and Starbucks coming to town. Who's really riding the wave of the future?

To bring it all back to what the heck I'm doing here, consider the following, because these thoughts run through my head daily:

  • These projects include obstetrics wards that will serve mothers who are the first in their families to have babies in a hospital. Some moms will make it to the hospital but their babies won't. In the US, many moms are determining that modern medicine and hospitals aren't the safest ways to have babies and instead are staying home.

  • These projects also include tuberculosis wards that will serve tons of people who never had access to TB treatment, or other vaccinations, until it was too late. In the US, vaccinations are so common and so accessible that people have no problem opting out and letting others take one for the proverbial team.

  • These project also include designing medical and nursing schools for the growing middle class that is full of young adults who will be the first in their families to get a professional degree. In the US, people are opting out of medicine and nursing because it's not as lucrative as it once was.

  • We've been hired as thought leaders who can share the best practices of first-world medicine. In the US, people are fighting over how to solve the worst practices of first-world medicine.

It's been said that India is one of the next big countries and populations to watch. At the risk of getting a little deep for a Tuesday night, I'll toss this out there and then get off the soapbox: are we supposed to watch them to see how a country grows up or are we supposed to watch them to see what will become of us?

This is a bizarre place to be.

1 comment:

fromthewest said...

I am really enjoying your insites on India.:)


Related Posts with Thumbnails