If you take the subway downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge stop in New York,
it is very likely that you’ll be mesmerised by your very first sight out
of the subway tunnel. For right there before you is the most celebrated
piece of American history — an extraordinary structure that carries you
from one side of the East River to the other. A stretch of cables and
Gothic towers that has been photographed, filmed, engraved, embroidered,
and eulogised in words and paintings more often than JFK and the
American flag. More often than even Marilyn Monroe.
The bridge’s magnificence stems from elevating the simple act of moving
across a river into an experience much greater — something that involves
time and space, the city and the river. I’ve been on the bridge as
driver, cyclist, and pedestrian and — in each instance — the structure
unfolded newer perspectives along its length. As you cross, the
experience engages you completely, leaving you informed about sensations
of movement, height, scale, the colour of the water and the order of
other man-made and natural things around.
India is today the second largest construction market, after China, with
an estimated work exceeding Rs 500,000 crores in the year. Just last
year, 42 New Municipal Corporation buildings were built, 34 new railway
stations established, over 400 bus terminals constructed. Yet all
buildings, whether in tribal Madhya Pradesh, sandy Rajasthan or wind
swept Himachal, were of standard government designs. Whatever the
peculiarities of climate, terrain or vegetation they all looked the same
— brick walls, plastered in yellow, firmly sealed with a concrete flat
top. Court houses looked like fire stations, schools like hospitals,
hospitals like prisons.
That was but expected. Design concepts in India are not based on
innovation but conformity. If a particular bridge design — however
outmoded — has worked successfully once, it will be repeated across
every culvert, nallah, ravine or riverbed regardless of location, or
size, if an architect builds a house with a Spanish façade, ten new
houses in the neighbourhood will come up with the same façade. If it is
the way of the PWD, it is the way of India.
But why? Don’t people notice buildings?