This inquiry originates from a very personal perspective. It springs from an endeavour to reconcile three roles I have attempted to play over the last few years. The first role is my full-time occupation as a senior member of a 50-person architectural practice based in Bangalore working largely for corporate and institutional clients. The second role is as a founding trustee and part-time volunteer with an activist organisation called CIVIC Bangalore. CIVIC is an acronym for Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City, and the organisation works towards the adoption of public participatory frameworks for the planning and management of the city, with a particular emphasis on giving public voice to those sectors who do not have it. The third role is as an occasional participant in academic forums on architecture in which the city is a topic of study or discussion. Reconciliation of these three roles became a major item on the agenda because each of these roles demanded coming to terms with a concept of 'the city'. And in each of these worlds the dialogue would seek to describe the city (in this case the city of Bangalore), but the descriptions varied so much that at times they seemed to be about different cities:

  • The world of corporate practice describes the city as a space within which social, economic, and political transactions take place, with society being made up of the aggregation of these individual transactions. Its critique of the city usually centres on the failure of urban infrastructure in being able to support these transactions.
  • The world of activism views the city as that set of spaces within which civic culture and society operate. The critique here centres on marginalisation, equity, and failures in public social services.
  • And the world of architectural academia sees the city as a subject for design, with its critique centering on the poor spatial articulation of place. An implicit assumption is that a proper intellectual and aesthetic framework for the articulation of place could serve as a springboard for viewing the concerns of the activist, the practitioner's clients, and all other stakeholders in the welfare of the city.

The variance between descriptions was more than an instance of special interest or bias which made each perspective construct a partial view of the city or valorise some segments of the city more than the other. These descriptions were so distanced from each other, that on the rare occasions when these different worlds intersected, each one could not even perceive the other. If they could relate to each other at all, it could only be at a superficial general level a level that was so general that it would be more difficult to disagree than to agree. Any attempt to go further into specificity led to a divergence into totally separated spaces.

With such divergence, several questions arise. What is meant by the term 'the city'? How can the city ever become a subject for design? Or one could phrase the overarching question Is there an understandable description of the city that will allow it to become the subject of design?

Chandigarh is one of the milestones of modern history where this question was addressed, and the inquiry typically eddies around such milestones. It has had more than its fair share of critics, even though most critics would acknowledge Le Corbusier's justifiably seminal role as one of the major figures of 20th century architecture. One such critique is a part of the wider criticism of the way in which the architecture of early modernism failed to comprehend the specific spatial conditions of urbanism. The other critique (which has been more popular in India) centres on the issue of exclusiveness. It would criticise Chandigarh as a Western import that is blind to Indian urbanism. It would point out how the city fails to recognise the bazaar, slum, shanty, street hawker, and other non-formal sectors of the Indian city.

These critiques are clearly visible in the case of Chandigarh for it is a city whose origins can be brought into sharp focus. But they are applied, more amorphously, to all cities. There may be more critiques in the field than those applied to Chandigarh. It is not necessary to enumerate all the available critiques. But most of them stem from the assumption that urban failures have occurred because, in each particular case, an inadequate description of the city has been utilised. Priorities are then focused towards making the description more accurate or inclusive.

But is inadequacy of description the real problem? This question is a very loaded one for the urban activist who seeks to represent constituencies marginalised by prevailing descriptions. It acquires an almost unbearable weight when put alongside observations of contemporary cities which show that the gap between our description and reality is continuing to increase:

  1. Recent models articulated by the profession of architecture, which seek to explore the spatial conditions of urbanism, are strongly influenced by an implicit nostalgia for the pre-industrial city. The work of architects such as Leon Krier, Rob Krier, and Aldo Rossi draws on the medieval European city as a source. New Urbanism in America is driven by an imagery of early settler towns. In India, we hear so much talk about seeking inspiration from Jaiselmer, Fatehpur Sikri, Mandu, Padmanabhapuram, and Hampi.
  2. The contemporary city is globalised, heterogeneous, cosmopolitan, and socially mobile to a level unprecedented in history.
  3. When compared to the pre-industrial city, the public realm in the modern city has lost its institutional structure. The palace, fort, temple, mosque, or church, which formed the traditional city centre has been replaced by the central business district.
  4. The size of the speculative commercial block has increased to the level that it dwarfs whatever institutional buildings that still remain. Civic institutions no longer have the ability to control the structure and meaning of public civic space.
  5. The corporate commercialisation of the public realm is leading to a growing interiorisation of civic space. This trend is apparent in the west, and is beginning to emerge in India. The mall seeks to replace the bazaar, the atrium seeks to replace the public street and square, and there is a growing presence of gated communities with an internalised public realm of restricted accessibility.
  6. Critical discourse on the city has become so undifferentiated and marginalised that urban design has become commoditised. Design is now one of the commodities traded in the market.

Such observations justify the recent emergence of a much more radical critique one that questions the very possibility of constructing a description of the city. It is this radical terrain which I wish to explore here. Being fully aware that one is a citizen before becoming a professional, this inquiry is consciously framed within the context of the modern libertarian quest for an ethical, equitable and secular democracy. I present this exploration in the form of a sequenced set of eight propositions:

Proposition 1: It is not possible to arrive at a working description of the city

How does one comprehend the complexity of the city at a level at which one can construct a working description? Any historical fact exists simultaneously at two levels. At a macro level it is a totalisation, which consists of the entire infinite set of events which occur at that particular moment - the complete and complex buzz of experience, including the proverbial fly on the wall. At the micro level it is an internalisation, which is a consciousness made within an individual psyche. The understanding of the historical fact, however, is subject to a paradoxical relationship that exists between the amount of information that exists regarding any concept and the extent of comprehension one can have of it. It is only at the level of totalisation that a historical fact exists in its entirety, but at this level there is far too much information for any comprehension to take place. This information has to be reduced so that the historical fact can be comprehended by internalising it within the mind. Thus, to comprehend is to be selective, and the process of selection is arbitrary and not rational. To be rational, understanding is a prerequisite to rationalising, whereas this act of selection is a prerequisite to the first level of understanding itself. This gesture of selection is highly meaningful, for it implies that the historical fact does not exist, but is constituted by the mind. The historical fact is a representation. What does this mean to the city?

I quote from James Donald: To put it polemically, there is no such thing as a city. Rather the city designates the space produced by the interaction of historically and geographically specific institutions, social relations of production and reproduction, practices of government, forms and media of communication, and so forth. By calling this diversity 'the city', we ascribe to it a coherence or integrity. The city, then, is above all a representation. But what sort of representation? By analogy with the now familiar idea that the nation provides us with an 'imagined community', I would argue that the city constitutes an imagined environment. What is involved in that imagining the discourses, symbols, metaphors and fantasies through which we ascribe meaning to the modern experience of urban living is as important a topic for the social sciences as the material determinants of the physical environment.

The city is therefore a space of continuously competing representations, which will always elude stable descriptions.

Proposition 2: There is no such thing as 'the public interest'

Given the multiplicity of possibilities for viewing (or imagining) the city, each of these possibilities tends to view itself as the best possible paradigm, and competes with the other possibilities for recognition and dominance. Rather than being driven by a societal consensus on the public interest, democratic politics is driven by competing private claims for the definition of the public interest. Typically, the claim that is most economically dominant or politically organised wins the day, and is accepted by the political system as the wider public interest.

It is not even safe to assume that public interest is served in a democratic society since the winning view is that held by the majority; as John Allen Paulos shows in the following analysis of gun control in America. Every opinion poll shows that a large majority (in the region of 80%) favour stricter controls on guns and gun owners. However, this majority view has never been adopted by the political establishment to the point that legislative change has resulted. The reason is that of the 20% that oppose gun control, three quarters of them (15% of the electorate) oppose it so fanatically that they will make their voting choices based on the candidate's stand on the issue. But the 80% who favour greater gun control do so as a part of a larger spectrum of ethical humanistic issues. Only one twentieth of them (4% of the electorate), who might have been victims of violent crime, will make their voting choice revolve around this single issue. The differential of 11% of the vote is large enough to swing most elections, and becomes the determining influence on the 'public' decision.

Therefore, it is not so much of how the majority aligns itself with a specific issue it is more a case of how the debates gets structured; particularly those that tend to coalesce around fundamentalist single-issue positions.

Proposition 3: Any attempt at a single paradigm of the city leads to a 'leader-of-the-band' scenario

It is logically and ethically impossible to claim that the dominant, winning paradigm can cover every member of society. Therefore, the powers-that-be seek to legitimise their claim by portraying this paradigm as a 'leader-of-the-band' whose march can lead society forward. Perhaps, at the beginning of the day, every person is not a member of the leader's retinue. But the march of the leader leaves a stream of benefits in his wake, and by agreeing to follow the leader-of-the-band, every member of society can avail of these benefits. It is assumed that this flow of benefits all round the joy of experiencing the same music is an automatic element in the process. Structural barriers, which prevent the flow of benefits to all sectors, receive insufficient attention.

An example of this is the current attempt to portray Bangalore as the technology capital of India, which leads India into the twenty first century through the growth of the software and information technology industries. The clean modern imagery that goes with this paradigm has led to Singapore being the model that is most often quoted. High technology industries tend to draw workers from the two extremes either highly qualified professionals, or the lower rung of drivers, cleaners, maintenance personnel etc. The fact that such a paradigm for Bangalore is leading towards a large alienated mass of workers from the middle of the spectrum who cannot fit into these categories is hardly given consideration.

Proposition 4: The 'leader-of-the-band' scenario leads to a geography of marginalisation within the city

The spaces that serve the dominant paradigm receive attention that is

  • the commercialised centre
  • the industrialised periphery
  • and the residential spaces that directly serve the power structures of the above two categories

Many spaces in Indian cities do not fall into any of these classifications, and therefore receive little attention. The role of the non-formal sectors of the urban economy (such as hawkers, peddlers, construction labour, and domestic servants) receives no recognition or support from official policy. Everyday language recognises the term 'slum' as a unique urban condition specifying a quality of life that can never be deemed as acceptable. However, the recognition of this condition finds no place in city land-use plans. Where the slum occupies land designated as another land-use, it is the officially designated land-use that is documented in land-use plans. I am not getting into the argument justifying squatting (that is a wholly different issue). I just seek to point out that in most land-use plans in India, the existence of anything from 10% to 40% of the population is not recognised. The Indian slum may be an extreme example, but it is likely that a mapping of per-capita spending (direct and indirect) in many major cities in the world would reflect a similar pattern.

These marginalised sectors fall outside the paradigm of representation that constitutes the publicly stated identity of the city. They are therefore devalorised, and described as backward and undesirable. This devalorisation is evident from the metaphors typically applied to these areas, describing them as being in need of being 'cleaned' or 'cleared'. In India, these terms are often applied to the strategy for dealing with slums. In Bangalore, the official body created to deal with the issue of slums is called the 'Slum Clearance Board'.

Any attempt to represent the interests of constituencies affected by this geography of marginalisation leads to one of two possible positions:

  • The elite, who situated within the margin. The architect typically serves this segment, through a system of client patronage.
  • The activist, who seeks to represent constituencies left out of the dominant paradigm, and is therefore situated outside the margin.

In some cases, the architectural elite, through governmental intervention or support, works for the marginalised constituencies. The gap between the spheres of representation typically surfaces here with the architect adopting design strategies and project delivery methodologies normally applied to the centre. The subsequent high rate of failure, attendant with high rates of alienation, crime, and exploitation of women and children, becomes one of the primary causes of urban blight.

Proposition 5: The activist's position outside the margin, while yielding short-term benefits, is futile in the long run

The activist, by taking a position outside the margin, develops a gaze directed towards the centre. This leads to two problems.

Firstly, the language of the centre is used, and the gaps in representation systems result in models of scarcity developed by the centre being used to articulate the problems of the margins. Income is equated with jobs, and the problem is defined in terms of the lack of economic growth in the formal sectors. The informal models of entrepreneurship that exist on the margins go unrecognised, and do not receive the infrastructural and financial support systems they need. Alternative paradigms (such as the financing model of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) are slow to gain wider acceptance. Education is equated with schools, and the problem is defined in terms of the lack of resources for new schools and teachers. The informal methods of learning on the margins go unrecognised. Health is equated with formal medical services, and the problem is defined in terms of the shortage of doctors and hospitals. The informal methods of healing on the margins go unrecognised. And shelter is equated with the construction of mass housing, and the problem is defined in terms of the shortage of new land and financial resources. The potential of self-help incremental improvement of existing housing situations goes unrecognised.

Secondly, by focussing towards the centre, the activist is driven by a desire to replace the centre with an alternative paradigm that could be considered more equitable. However, by succumbing to such a desire, the activist also falls into the same trap s/he proposes another single-paradigm model. All that is achieved is a new face for the leader-of-the-band. This problem is almost inevitable with any position that is taken outside the margin.

Proposition 6: There is potential in a new position, which is neither inside or outside the margin, but is situated on the margin itself

Such a position would examine the politics that network of relationships by which the margin is defined. It would then seek to re-work these relationships, or create new relationships, thereby changing the position of the margin. It would be an ever-vigilant position, constantly seeking a new politics, a new public ethic, a new governance, and new institutional structures.

David Korten identifies this trend by defining four generations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The first generation was the charitable organisation, which was subjected to the critique that it compounded the problem by developing unbreakable relationships of dependency. The second generation sought to enfranchise its constituencies by working to increase their economic and social independence. The third generation, realising that such efforts do not function in isolation, has focused on policy issues (structures of representation?). It is the fourth generation that has major potential for change, for it attempts to achieve institutional redesign through networking.

At the international level, this new trend has already received publicity. At several international governmental forums, the NGOs have come together to hold parallel forums to highlight alternative representations of the problem. This new articulation has begun to affect the international agenda on human rights and the environment. But such articulation is taking place at the local level as well. Local neighbourhood associations are getting together to agitate over city-wide issues. On some issues, one sees stakeholders from varying constituencies rallying jointly over a single cause.

These new coalitions create new civic institutions. The potential of these institutions does not lie in any ability to replace the centre (and there is the real danger of their being co-opted by the centre). The true potential lies in the fact that by reworking relationships, that set of relationships by which the margin is constituted, is brought into the foreground, and such a foregrounding facilitates a shift in the position of the margin. This politics is not the politics of the centre, nor is it a politics of the marginalised it is a politics of the margin. It would not seek to be dominant paradigm for it would recognise that:

  • It owes its existence to the margin
  • In a heterogeneous society with multiple structures of representation margins will always exist
  • And a margin implies the simultaneous existence of the centre and the marginalised, and therefore, the simultaneous existence of multiple intertwined structures of politics.

It is a politics that accepts a radical heterogeneity.

As architects, we have to be alert to the new institutional forms that emerge from this process, and ask: What are the new civic spaces that these institutions need?

Proposition 7: The city offers a physical spatial opportunity for such a position

Every modern cosmopolitan city physically reflects the failures of a single-paradigm model. Typically, the spaces served by the dominant paradigm possess a stricter spatial definition. But large gaps in the urban space continuum can always be observed large tracts of no-man's-land, sections of wasteland, slums, and undeveloped land. It would be interesting to map these areas of a city and look for the Gestalt in the spatial pattern.

The activist-architect would not seek to displace the inhabitants and structures of these urban gaps. Any attempt to do so would seek to revive the traditional strategy that has come to be known as 'urban development' a violent attempt to demolish variations from the dominant paradigm, and re-structure them in an acceptable form. Rather s/he will seek to explore, in as non-disruptive manner as possible, the new spatial potential, the new alternatives for inhabitation, and the new relationships with the city that might lie dormant in such gaps.

This would call for a new strategy for urban design. This strategy would not seek to replace the central paradigm. It would not look for an overarching paradigm of the city. It would recognise that the dominant paradigm exists, can look after itself, will therefore always receive the attention of a large segment of the design community. This would be a parallel urban design strategy, recognising that only a set of parallel strategies respects the true heterogeneity of the city. The effort would be seen as a series of incremental acts, continuously skirting, but at the same time questioning, the dominant paradigm. These acts would overlay one another, and each individual act would be an attempt to heal the portion of the city that it touches.

Proposition 8: There are new critiques emerging which have a lot to offer to the politics of the margin

Two major critiques come from development theory and feminist theory.

The first critique would deconstruct the term 'development'. This term originally comes from biology, and describes a process through which the potentialities of an object or organism are released, until it reaches its natural, complete, full-fledged form". The transfer of this term into the social and political sciences masks its semantic loading which envisions a process that is always aimed at a final natural stage. Thus the use of the term 'underdeveloped' is applied to countries by the 'developed' countries who thus claim their own condition as the one that should be desired as a final natural state by all other countries. This deprives the so-called 'underdeveloped' countries of space to self-consciously come to terms with their own condition without being subjected to teleological pressures.

The second powerful critique comes from feminist theory, and to illustrate my point I specifically drawn attention to the work of Dorothy Dinnerstein. The condition that both men and women are subject to is that they are both born to and generally nurtured at first by the mother on whom they are completely dependent. The initial experience of dependence on a largely uncontrollable outside source of good is focussed on a woman, and so is the earliest experience of vulnerability to disappointment and pain. The fact that we are bonded to this condition is associated with femininity, and women are therefore made the scapegoats for the human condition. The male, who detaches himself (an option that is not made available to most women), claims a description of liberation - the achievement of a higher plane. This bias towards detachment, has driven intellectualism, and has created a consequent tendency in paradigms for society to blind themselves to fundamental aspects of ground realities. The feminist movement has two major directions it can choose from. It can embrace the methodology of self-assertion, and through this seek the kind of liberation that men have achieved. But this can also be a message from the male ranks saying We will give you power, but only if you agree to be like us. The alternative direction is to not use detachment as the model, but to seek empowerment from a position of attachment. In this case, the feminist perspective not only provides the impetus for the empowerment of women, but it also provides an extremely valuable perspective for viewing the human condition itself.

The fundamental message that these two critiques provide is that urban aspirations do not have to be driven by abstract intellectual constructs of the city. While such intellectualisations do have their value, there is danger in over valorising them. They tend to gravitate towards homogeneity, blind us to the heterogeneity of the city, and therefore create representations of final causes which cannot connect to ground realities. Rather than pinning our hopes on the strategies of detachment that theory has prided itself on, we need to seek conditions of attachment attachment to the specific rooted contextual conditions of the margin in the city that one is operating in. The first critique to be made should be the critique of what is directly in front of your eyes.


I do not seek to plead a case that all architects should become activists. The attempts to define itself in the terms of other disciplines have weakened architecture enough. But in following on the path that the activist has begun to explore, we may discover something new about our cities. We may avoid the trap of homogeneity contained in overarching paradigms for the city. We may learn to explore the untapped potential in heterogeneity, and recognise that the city offers the best territory in which to make such an exploration. This potential was identified many years ago by Robert Park (and how visionary his observation appears given that it was made over eighty years ago), when he saw in the heterogeneity of the city the potential to foreground the moral range of deviant behaviour. Our task is to make the commitment to continuously venture into these unexplored territories of normative value.


  1. See Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1969), app. D. pp. 503-517.
  2. James Donald, Metropolis: The City as Text, in R. Bocock and K. Thompson (eds.), Social and Cultural Forms of Modernity (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992), pp. 417-61, p.427.
  3. I am not trying to make a case here that there is nothing in the city that is tangible. Tangible objects (facts?) within any field of study prove to be of value when their existence can be perceived with a degree of stability that is relatively independent of the discipline. When this does not occur (as is the case in most of the social sciences), the discipline tends to constitute its own tangible references. Perhaps, we wind up with a situation analogous to Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty in quantum physics. One cannot know the mass and velocity of a particle, because the attempt to measure mass affects the velocity, and vice-versa. Therefore, one can only make partial measurements and accept a level of uncertainty about others. Cities seem to behave in a similar manner any specific study produces effects in areas that were thought to lie outside its boundaries.
  4. John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper (Anchor Books, New York, 1996), pp. 67-68.
  5. I am not in a position to identify which is cause and which is effect, but it is interesting to note that along with the model of Singapore being much talked about, real estate investment from Singapore has begun to enter the scene in Bangalore.
  6. See Saskia Sassen, Analytic Borderlands: Race, Gender and Representation in the New City, in Anthony King (ed.) Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital, and Culture in the 21st Century Metropolis (Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 1996).
  7. David Korten, Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda (Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1992)
  8. See Christopher Alexander, Hajo Neis, Artemis Anninou, and Ingrid King, A New Theory of Urban Design (New York, Oxford University Press, 1987).
  9. Gustavo Esteva, Development, in Wolfgang Sachs (ed.) The Development Dictionary (Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1997), p.11.
  10. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (Harper, New York, 1976)
  11. ibid. p.28.
  12. Robert Park, The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behaviour in the Urban Environment, American Journal of Sociology (Vol. XX, 1916).