While My City Gently Sleeps

by Ar. Gita Balakrishnan

Being one with the silence as the sky moves from darkness to light is powerful. Watching the first rays of the sun gently wash over the maidans, ponds, tree tops and buildings too makes for a perfect start to a day. I watch many pay obeisance to the sun as the city stirs to life. I hear clang of pots and pans as shops getting chai nashta get ready for their customers. Smells of masalas being fried for the traditional Luchi-aloo waft into my nostrils. As I walk, I admire the nifty innovations people have contrived for storage, for securing their spaces at night, for making the most of the meagre space they have- low-cost or no-cost interventions – I am inspired! I marvel at what common-sense and a little thought to design can do. While these are attempts at jugaad-design, it brings my attention back to the power of design in bettering the lives of people at large.

As I walk through streets, I feel I am in a time warp- graceful buildings from over a century ago juxtaposed both horizontally and sometimes vertically with swanky buildings of now; gnarled roots and trees growing out of structures so dilapidated that a gentle nudge can bring them crashing down. Mansions with large gardens next to hovels on the road. The level of the road, sometimes higher than the floor level of the adjoining homes, reminds me that I am walking on layers of history.

I am reminded of the many cities Italo Calvino describes in his book, Invisible Cities. Cities over cities, Cities within Cities. Cities in your mind, City that stays awake. Silent Cities. Cities for those not living. Cities with no garbage. Cities of garbage, Cities with no air or sky. Ethereal Cities. I see them all around me in this one city of mine. I wonder how many more cities will get amalgamated into these cities over time.

Most of our cities began organically and may not have been planned to start with. These are usually the older parts of our cities- which without a doubt throb with character even today despite the chaos that reigns in them. The planned cities developed around these old cities and it is in the burgeoning outer layers there is evidence of a lack of understanding of urban design, a lack of empathy in design and even greed. The lack of empathy in design results in a distinctly different lifestyle lacking in warmth, compassion and a connectedness. As I meander through the different parts of the city the transformation of people from those who exude warmth and sensitivity to those who are uncaring and self-centred hits me. I feel a chill run down my spine as this realization dawns. Is design responsible? Is design in fact that powerful?

Architect Gita Balakrishnan has spent the last 20 years of her life bringing together students, professionals and industries working in the built environment sector through her initiative, Ethos.

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