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Bangalore moves back to the future

Subir Roy | July 23, 2003

How does a city like Bangalore, which is so distinctive, come to cover itself with so much of faceless glass and concrete? Landmark buildings disappear by the day, to give way to huge edifices that do not even try to replicate some of the old graciousness.

A visiting friend recalls how he loved to stay at the Victoria hotel and sit on its terrace. The hotel, right in the heart of town, opposite another distinctive building, Mayo Hall, is gone, soon to be replaced by a massive shopping mall.

Those who have an interest in the past and care about the future have different theories. V Ravichandar, marketing consultant turned member of BATF (Bangalore Agenda Task Force) which is trying to give the city a new kind of distinctiveness by making it more liveable through public-private initiatives, prefers to begin on the solid foundations of economics.

There would not have been so much of glass in the software construction phase of the city's life from around the mid-nineties if technology had not changed.

Saint Gobain made the right kind of glass available in the first place by building a modern factory in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Then came half a dozen firms like Alufit, which produced aluminium structurals that kept the large glazings in place.

Close on their heels came a new readymix concrete industry led by the likes of Fletcher Pioneer. A whole set of architects were ready to use all this and another set of builders to put their ideas into shape. And bingo, you had a glass and concrete boom riding the crest of a software boom.

This explains why it could happen so easily but Sathya Prakash Varanashi, consulting architect and critic, seeks more comprehensive answers from within the architecture mainstream and the social cauldron that give shape to what we build.

He recalls that the software boom was led in large part by Brahmins, Iyengars and parts of the middle class that had a lot of international exposure but without a strong local perspective. Hence, they adopted an international look and feel readily.

Particularly missing in their make-up was a "national" perspective, which the city had acquired through the post-independence public sector construction and emergence of big government, best symbolised by the massiveness of the Vidhana Soudha. Glass also went well with central air-conditioning.

And before you knew it, shops were copying the office buildings in the liberal use of glass. You began to have entire shop fronts made of glass. To him the disappearance of bungalows is but a part of the story. The other part is that what replaced them had no reference to the past.

But more fascinatingly, Sathya Prakash sees a new trend already emerging. Today not everybody is happy with just glass. So we see a change, an attempt to acquire elements from the past, if not to recreate it but to link up with it.

He sees two early examples of this right along the central M G Road, which can be called both the heart and the spine of the city -- the Bombay Store and Prestige Meridian Buildings.

Bombay Store has a red brick look and Prestige Meridian, controversially greyblack, has decorative motifs right on top. He also sees the same going back to the past after ignoring it for a decade in the Seesh Mahal building in the Basavanagudi area of the city.

Sathya Prakash will not be surprised if in five to ten years' time something fairly deep takes root. In the pre-nineties elements specific to Bangalore predominated.

The nineties, which can be called the decade of globalisation, gave the city a universal or undistinguished look, if you want to put it that way. Now some of that distinctiveness which earlier set Bangalore apart may come back.

What was that speciality? It was above all a pleasant place where people did not rush around either to quickly arrive (Delhi) or to simply look busy (Mumbai) for the sake of it. If you want to return to the idea of globalisation, it was like a melting pot.

The interesting thing is what happens after things have been put in the melting pot, what comes out of it?

We chop time according to our theories but so many trends overlap. Take the Windsor Manor hotel. Clearly it was a pre-nineties attempt to recognise the colonial origins of the city.

Then look at the post-nineties Leela Palace hotel, which seeks to link up with the national antecedents, ignored in the middle, by acquiring bits of the looks of a Rajasthan palace. Or take a straightforward and unabashed return to ethnicity as in the Ganjam Mandapa on the Bull Temple Road.

The higher-end users are getting out of glass. One example of this is Wipro's new corporate headquarters on Sarjapur Road. Spread out, red brick, not very tall buildings surround landscaping that uses contours of the land and has artefacts placed all along it. And the buildings have just enough glass needed for large windows, which make the interiors full of light.

So friends of Bangalore, take heart. Architecturally it may well succeed in retrieving from the past a part of its longer term identity after globalising. And if Ravichandar and his colleagues at BATF meanwhile make the city a little more liveable, then tomorrow will clearly be better than yesterday.


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