I was asked to participate in Storefront for Art and Architecture’s “Letters to the Mayor” an exhibition which “presents fifty letters written by international architects to the political leaders of more than 20 cities around the world. Each letter provides a space of reflection for the architect to present ideas and methodologies and express some of the concerns and desires that might contribute to action within political spheres. “
As a non native Venezuelan with British impurities who grew up and currently works in India I decided to write mine to the Mayor (Chief Minister) of Delhi. Here it is:
To the next Chief Minister of Delhi, whoever you may be
Good luck, may you last longer than 49 days*.
During the last few years I have lived in Delhi I have come to detest the increasingly ubiquitous shopping malls that scour the landscape. Aside from the practical damage caused by these large, socially homogeneous, air-conditioned monoliths and the horrible aesthetic they demonstrate, what they represent leaves a sour taste in my mouth. These buildings are a physical manifestation of global capital and the huge amounts of money that fly around our planet, and land in our urban landscape without an appreciation for their context. They aren’t just emblematic of bad city but also bad capitalism.
Their design language aspires to be that of “high architecture”, “signature buildings”, and “world class cities”. But there is nothing world class about them – they are empty, vacuous symbols of short-termism, consumerism, insulated from all local context, incubators of paranoia, and pods of gentrification. Such architecture is part of a process which is selling a western dream that is even now failing in its birthplace.
It is too simple just to see Delhi as divided between opulence and poverty, yet the form of city-making represented by the malls does stem from a vision of the metropolis as an elite discourse. It is a manifestation of a place divided by extreme physical and visual inequalities, where modern economics and development have forsaken empathy and inclusion.
Your office has more or less given up the responsibility of projecting an idea of the city, and social transformation. Whatever happened to the vision symbolised by post-independence projects like Chandigarh, for example? Today your office is concerned with fly-overs, highways, and airports; yes, these are all useful for a metropolis to function, but city-making without the burden of facilitating citizenship or place-making, does not provide a recipe for building a “real” city.
The task that lies ahead of you is very simple, and extremely complicated. It is to close the gap between “marketised” systems of government administration, service provision and planning, and the increasingly marginalised populations which are integral to these systems – and simultaneously excluded.
To help you with your task here are some suggestions which I give to you, not so much a manifesto, but a series of talking points:
Love public transport more and cars less.
Listen more to the less powerful.
Listen to the city to build the city: invest in people.
Stop promoting gated communities: safer cities are integrated cities.
Value the intangible heritage of this city.
There is not one solution to your problems: you need a range of paradigms.
Your master-planning process is detached from reality. You can start fixing this by mixing work, living and leisure; breaking up the love affair with single-use zoning which favours singularities, a simplified revenue-stream that is all about profit and not about value.
The problem of housing is not a numbers problem. It is a people problem. So stacking humans in an architecture determined by an Excel spreadsheet is the right solution to the wrong question.
Favour rich, differentiated, and inclusive topographies: Help organically, unplanned, low-rise, and hyper-dense neighbourhoods iterate (the ability to reinvent through repetition). The difference between a slum and an Italian hill town is the number of iterations they have had.
Most of your city has been formed outside the formal planning process and is thus strictly speaking, “illegal”. So rethink what is legal, or legitimate! And don’t do this with Dubai as an inspiration!
Neither that city nor Shanghai are metaphors for your urban growth. The farce of the “world class city” is a sop to global capital. What you need to do is build a city which is about civil society, where access is expanded for its citizens to a basic, vital, infrastructure.
……Oh yes, and give me a call, so I can help you build some sewers and waste-management systems because Delhi is sinking in its shit.
* The last Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, a protest leader who was vaulted into the top post of Delhi’s city government after a startling electoral victory, resigned from his seat after just 49 days in office, saying his flagship anti-corruption initiative was being stonewalled by legislators from India’s two well-established parties – BJP and Congress.