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Beautifying Amritsar: Development or Disneyfication?

R Ramalakshmi and Surabhi Shingarey (info@samvaddesign.com) run Samvad Design Studio, a research-based architecture practice in Bengaluru.

The revamped road leading to the Golden Temple is a hotchpotch of kitsch—revealing our monument-centric, ahistorical and elitist approach to architecture.

On 25October, Punjab’s deputy chief minister inaugurated his pet project, the ostensible beautification of a 500-metre road in Amritsar from the Town Hall to Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple. Costing ₹250 crore and executed at a feverish pace of eight months, the project was touted as one of a kind in the country, one that has given a facelift to more than 170 buildings in the lane. A closer look reveals an altogether different picture. The media and Opposition questioned the project’s intent and timing, coming as it did a few months before the state assembly election. Indeed, civic architecture and monuments seem to have become part of our political rhetoric.

More fundamentally, however, there is a misplaced notion of what heritage is. If we walk down this Disneyfied stretch, from the Town Hall to the Golden Temple, the quotidian,traditional, centuries-old bazaar has been replaced by new façades that, ironically, seek to create an illusion of antiquity. These are a hotchpotch of cosmetic elevations resembling Lucknowi havelis, Rajasthani palaces, Mughal jalis, Doric columns and English Renaissance elevations. These façades carrying non-local references are a surgical alienation of the street: on the one hand, they construct an imagined history recalling politically powerful regions or periods, and on the other, lead to a simultaneous erasure of a living social history. Does any part of this staged façade evoke an Amritsari past more than the informal sector, which has been an intrinsic part of urban memory but has now faded behind the screens? What constitutes history and what defines the public?

The vibrant Hampi bazaar, for example, was stripped of its vitality when hawkers were evicted. In a 2015 article in this journal, Morgan Campbell attributes the demolition of this bazaar and the “destruction of over 328 homes and livelihoods” to the misplaced understanding of cultural heritage by the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, which presented the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority Bill in 2002. “Nowhere in the object … is the term culture used,” he writes. “Perhaps it is ... assumed that cultural heritage is in fact only the archaeological property within the WHS (World Heritage Site). In no instance does the bill recognise that Hampi is a living heritage site and that entire villages are included within this heritage boundary. Hampi is defined according to static monuments and static boundaries as opposed to fluid and dynamic exchanges between people and landscapes, natural and built environments … Heritage is about people, place and time; boundaries of tangible and intangible elements must be addressed in a thoughtful, inclusive manner in order to arrive at holistic, long-term sustainability of the WHS and those who live within it.”

The same goes for the Bandra Bandstand Promenade, where the jogging public got precedence over the panipuriwala. There is a deliberate imposition of a certain idea of the public, one that is a myopic exercise of reducing history to a generic heritage look, which follows a hegemonic ideal of who comprises the public and which identifies only built heritage as worthy of conservation, not intangible heritage and social history. This literal absurdity does not stop at mistaking the organic nature of the bazaar for chaos, but extends to installations and memorial designs. The Jallianwala Bagh memorial statue in Amritsar, for instance, contains traumatised faces of men and women, symbolising the victims of the massacre, as well as the names engraved. This stands in contrast with Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, United States, and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin in Germany’s capital, both of which engage with complex discourses about loss, repression and grief. Both Libeskind, through his angular, distorted building form for the Jewish Museum Berlin, and Maya Lin, through her expansive landscape intervention for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, use architecture’s spatial qualities to convey the immensity of loss and grief, instead of adopting the literal strategies ubiquitous in Indian memorials. The literal installations of B R Ambedkar’s statue standing on a miniature parliament, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s equestrian statue and sculptures of Punjabi folk doing giddah and bhangra, like the uninspiring floats of our Republic Day parades, are bereft of metaphors, robbing the audience of a rich experience that commemorative monuments can deliver.

Governments that set out to create “the world’s best” street, square, precinct, etc, are misguided. In the Vatican City, cardinals shot down a proposal put forward by fast-food giant McDonald’s to set up a kiosk in St Peter’s Square. The cardinals regarded the move as “perverse (and) … disrespectful to the architectural traditions” of Rome, according to a January 2017 report on Fox News. On the 500-metre stretch leading to the Harmandir Sahib, however, the outlets of the McDonald’s and Subway fast-food chains have not only been allowed to open but are also exempt from having the standard signboards that civic rules require local shops to use in order to minimise visual clutter. At the same time, we hide our thelawalas in a bid to “beautify” our cities and make them appealing to foreign and non-resident ­Indian tourists.

To ask fundamental questions, why should Amritsar have the world’s best street and what is the benchmark anyway? Religious centres are first and foremost sacred places. Hence, any plan to promote pilgrimage or religious tourism, which may include both believers and casual travellers, must retain the sanctity of these centres. In Amritsar, wide, hard-paved boulevards with palm trees on street dividers, loudspeakers and LED screens akin to those in Times Square, New York, as an official himself was quoted as saying in the Tribune in January 2016, and the architectural hotchpotch have combined to compromise the sacred nature of the area. Sensitive urban development ought to add value to the existing character of a place and not indulge in architectural gimmickry.

Across the world, civic architectureis a rigorous pursuit. In our country, however, we award urban projects to multinational or local firms with little transparency or public discourse. This is borne out by the fact that we do not have public projects that have stirred people’s imaginations, apart from a few exceptions, such as Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Charles Correa’s Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Whether it is a project that aims to create a so-called “heritage look,” one that strives for a modern feel or, like the proposed Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in Delhi, one that wishes to achieve a traditional yet modern ambience, why should our approach be merely visual and stylistic and not driven by ideologies? Why can’t design dwell on ideas of historicity, such as I M Pei’s design of Louvre and the Pompidou Center, both in Paris?

A constant challenge for architects striving to build in historical context is whether to continue the architectural vocabulary of the original buildings, which may be anachronistic, or to break free from it, which may lead to inconsistency. Pei’s design for the Louvre’s extension seeks a golden mean: the major gallery areas are underground but a glass pyramid above the ground acts as a skylight for the basement. The juxtaposition of the 20th-century glass pyramid with the 16th-century Renaissance façade may be attractive to some and incongruous to others, but presents one way of addressing the historicity of a place through architectural design. As for the Pompidou Center, in his 1997 book Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete Works, Peter Buchanan writes that “the basic intention behind the design of the ­Pompidou Center was to define a new relationship with culture. No longer elitist, culture was to come off its pedestal and enter the mainstream of life. Instead of being shut away in a temple or a mausoleum-like building, it was to be presented in a new sort of public forum, a bazaar of intense interaction between people and arts.” Why can’t we in India similarly aim to engage in the polemics of architecture instead of trying to replicate Times Square and Italian piazzas?

Urban revitalisation projects in living heritage precincts cannot be monument-centric pursuits. They must acknowledge the constant interaction between people and their living environments. The Disneyfied stretch at Amritsar is a far cry from an inclusive strategy of urban revitalisation, which ought to have aspired to celebrate and facilitate the culture of the everyday, both tangible and intangible, not just an exalted spirit of antiquity.

Updated On : 21st Apr, 2017

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