Cityspeak: Between the Architectures of Exclusion and Subversion

How do cities contribute to the creation and propagation of the ideas of exclusion and inequality?

Architecture is a language insofar that it communicates, through its form and spatial quality, how a structure or device may be utilised for specific purposes, even as it reflects the aspirations and lifestyles of a people. Architecture of places have evolved over time, accommodating diverse factors such as local customs and traditions, climate, availability of building materials, influences of other cultures and so on. Cities and villages are ossified narratives of our social, political and economic customs, and so they also encapsulate the diverse and sometimes perverse nature of our societies, from economic disparities to race- or caste-based segregations. That is why we seek to understand long-gone civilisations through the traces of their settlements.

Since the advent of modern architecture in the early 1900s, architects have sought a break from the past, a tabula rasa that could help them script new cities and a new classless society. The old classical city was associated with all the evils of the feudal past while modernist architects like Le Corbusier envisaged a new egalitarian society, based in new cities built around the needs of the modern man. A new minimalistic aesthetic devoid of ornaments and references to the past, and based on interdisciplinary collaborations, emerged. The Bauhaus school formed in the 1920s by architects like Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe, along with artists such as Moholy Nagy, Kandinsky and many others, is an example of the convergence of art, architecture and other allied fields.

Bauhaus building in Dessau, built in 1925-26 by Walter Gropius. Photo: Alan T. Kohl, Flickr.

Modernism in architecture was a utopian project that naively assumed that the physical erasure of our feudal past would lead to a more egalitarian future. What it didn’t envisage is that human systems of organising labour and capital from time to time would triumph over any simplistic attempts to resolve the complexity of our societies. So, even as modernism proliferated, there was a resistance to the spaces it was creating, denuded as they were, of any past cultural significations. Resistance came from several quarters, ranging from the films of Jacques Tati such as Mon Oncle and Playtime that were satirical critiques of the modern neighbourhoods and lifestyles that were proliferating, to the works of theorists such as Jane Jacobs who actively fought for the preservation of the old fabric and neighborhoods of the American cities. It was in this environment of disenchantment with modernism that a new postmodern architecture emerged, which privileged the role of architecture as a language meant to communicate and not merely function.

Even though the role of architecture as a mode of communication was long understood, it was only in the 1960s that structuralists such as Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes sought to define architecture as a means of communication with its own system of signifiers and signifieds, parallel to a formal language. This structuralist approach was seen as the basis of many cultural processes of humanity. The work of linguists such as Eco, Barthes and others to understand architecture of the city as a language joined forces with the discontent that was brewing against the architecture prevalent at that time, and its minimalist logic.

American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown took these propositions forward in their seminal work, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Seeking to make the communicative role of architecture explicit, they and other postmodernists eschewed the purported directness and simplicity of the modernist glass structures for a more layered, nuanced and playful architecture that referenced the rich past, often through visual cues and by using architectural features symbolically.

Today, we no longer have the naive optimism of the modernists who believed that physical erasure of our past inequalities can lead to a more equitable urban space. Nor do we have the cynicism of the postmodernists who unquestioningly embraced consumerism and the dominance of imagery as necessities of the human condition. The cities that we inhabit in these times are a sum total of the vestiges of the classical cities of our past and the forays of the last hundred years or so of rethinking our architecture and our cities. The architectures of our cities no longer have a cohesive visual language. In the movie Bladerunner, the residents of L.A in the postmodern future speak a street language that sounds gibberish, a combination of Spanish, German, Japanese and myriad of other influences. Our urban fabric, similarly, is a cityspeak of various architectural traditions from the classical to the contemporary. It is no longer a cohesive visual language, but rather a cacophony that defies comprehension.

The world today is increasingly skewed in its economic disparity, with a minority of the world’s population controlling the majority of its resources and wealth, and our cities reflect this reality. The more unequal a society is, the more unequal its cities are. If there is an architectural meta-language in our cities, it is increasingly the language of capitalism, consumption and production, for, architecture has become a capital-intensive activity requiring not only money but also land. Even in the western cities, with their tradition of sociable public spaces, there still exists an undercurrent of how spaces should and could be used. An entire language of hostile architecture has emerged, from anti-homeless spikes to benches that deter loitering. Larger swatches of the urban space are becoming private, leading to the creation of pseudo public spaces. Yet, this language of hostility remains subtle in those western cities that still have a semblance of homogeneity in their urban lifestyles, and a more equitable distribution of wealth compared to countries such as India. 

In India, the second most unequal region in terms of wealth distribution according to the World Inequality Report 2018, the city becomes a contested territory between the haves and have nots. Our cities speak two languages, the language of exclusion, and a counter language of appropriation. The formal architecture of our urbanscape becomes the language of exclusion, a device to sequester space that can be consumed in private, whether as malls, hotels, gated communities, high rise condominiums or even private residences. This creates a city that is parceled into zones with varying degrees of restricted access. The movement of a person through the city is determined by his economic position and the city either denies or allows him/her to use space in a certain manner. While the language of the privileged few becomes a language of exclusion and hostility, the architectural language of the disenfranchised becomes the language of appropriation and subversion. Spaces below flyovers, road dividers, and the sides of railway tracks become sites where the rest of humanity is squeezed in after the privileged minority has had the lion’s share.

Living on the street in New Delhi. 2008. Photo: denisbin on Flickr.

Our urban space has thus become an uneasy dialogue between two languages, one seeking to exclude and the other seeking to appropriate and subvert in order to merely exist. One is the language of glass facades, porticos and colonnades, a veneered skin of stone and metal,  and conditioned spaces that may visually reflect the whole gamut of architectural history, from the minimal to the maximal. The other is the informal language of encroachment and infringement, where materiality itself is a pidgin dialect fashioned out of the detritus of the formal city such as waste plastic and metals. An architecture that has been derided and exoticised in equal measure.

The city hence becomes an archipelago of privately controlled and owned space in a sea of crumbling infrastructure and unfettered growth – a dichotomous landscape, one part speaking the language of defence; the other, the language of defiance. If the city has to be resurrected from this conflict, a new language has to emerge, a language of reconciliation and inclusion. This architecture of inclusion would not merely be a visual language that smoothens the contours of urban disparity, but rather a strategy that tries to reconcile the dichotomy. Whereas the realm of private spaces will continue to proliferate and we can have little control over that except through a drastic change in the laws of the land, the realm of public spaces can become more inclusive, and can cater to the needs of everybody, from the street hawker to the pavement dweller. Only when such urban strategies that incorporate the aspirations of the dispossessed are enforced can the city start speaking a common language that everyone can relate to.

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