Pothole city

Work done during the Art and Architecture Residency at Khoj between 20 November 2010 to 20th December 2011.

Pothole City

Pothole City as a metaphor

Pothole city is a metaphor for the ‘unplanned city’. Its logic is located not in the rigid grid of the masterplan but in the madness of multitudinous claims that make this city. In doing so, it also becomes a metaphor for Khirki and Khirki extension, (where Khoj is located). Khirki, in bypassing the master plan has allowed a much more lively urban form to emerge than the master plan would allow. My friends from Mumbai, Yogita and Nilesh, who have settled in Delhi, chose to live in Khirki because the area gives them the feeling of neighbourhood and security that a dense urban conglomeration affords[1] and of course also because the rents are much lower here.

The roads in Khirki are all potholed. This apparently is because of its unauthorized status. A large part of Khirki extension is supposed to fall into the ‘green belt’ proposed by the master plan. This is the reason that the authorities have never made the roads. It seems like there are only two alternatives in the planning imagination of Delhi. The first is well-paved roads for vehicles to ply with green belts, shopping centres and residential enclaves. The second one is to label areas that do not conform to these standards as ‘unauthorised’, refusing to provide any services. By this logic the ‘potholes’ become devises for this lively conglomeration to exist, because the reverse of that would be a highly panoptic green belted master plan.

A series of potholes then become an allegory to frame a different logic away from the master plan.  Solly Benjamin points out in his description of his journeys in similar areas in Bangalore, “as you drive say on Loni road (as we did some months back, to Abdul Fazal colony) or when I do now every day near Austin town/ Infant Jesus church and it’s bazaar-like interstices, the potholes emerge as a continuation of the rich texture of the bazaar as it shapes and wraps around the infant Jesus church and on to Austin Town, not far from where Lawrence lives. We drive there slowly – the body language of the people crossing is very different, assertive, as I mentioned to my fellow car-pooler, we are driving through a lot of people’s living rooms”.

Pothole City as an urban design model

In 1939 Norman Ben Geddes designed the ‘Futurama Diorama’, a General Motor’s conception of the future urban/suburban city for the General Motors pavilion ‘Highways and Horizons’ exhibited at the New York World Fair. Futurama was General Motor’s way of selling the idea of a federally funded highway system to the American public. It sold the social benefits of the automobile to the visitors and claimed to make a slum-free society, raising standards of health, hygiene and cleanliness. The city envisaged by Ben Geddes and General Motors was clearly divided into pedestrian areas and vehicular areas and clearly zoned residential and industrial enclaves with large landscaped green belts and public parks.

Futurama Diorama, people on a conveyor belt watching the miniature model of the future city made of highways, greenbelts and residential enclaves neatly separated from workplaces and industrial zones.

In 1941, their efforts fructified when President Roosevelt paved the path for the implementation of a massive highway system that would span the country. History[2] has shown us how highway planning went hand in hand with urban renewal, producing the most unsustainable cities. Highways cut mostly through poor neighbourhoods and destroyed existing vibrant community structures. As a historian in the documentary Divided Highways notes, “The interstates gash their way through existing rural landscapes, farming communities, small towns and in many cases it just destroys them. You drive down the interstates passing through farms which are old family farms going back to the 19th century and the farm house is on your left and half the fields are on your right and the farm family that now has its land split in that way if it keeps that land has to commute 2-3 miles with its tractor to get to the other side of the highway to keep farming its land. That is a ripping asunder of old relationships that were present in the landscape and there is a kind of shattering of community that comes with that”.

Today, we seem to suffer from a historical amnesia. Our methods of planning cities it seems haven’t changed much as seen by the massive Shanghai Urban development model, which seems to be influenced by the Futurama diorama. This vision is not too distanced from the Delhi Master plan or the Mumbai Vision Plan.

Shanghai Urban Development model

Pothole City is contrapuntal to Futurama, to the bigness of cities and to the mega infrastructure projects proposed here. Can there be another future? One that draws from the madness of the city and not from the logic of the grid? Pothole city, in locating itself in a pothole is not simply a counter to the master plan. It exhorts the urban planner and the activist alike to step back for a bit to understand claims, desires and agencies prevalent in cities. As an urban design model it alludes to repair, collage, memory, play, dream, love, rather than complete anti-septic urban renewal.

Pothole City in the courtyard of Khoj

Pothole city is located in the courtyard of Khoj. This is not an activist-led community project. It thus distances itself from the real street outside and refrains from giving any ‘solutions’.  It is an attempt to open up a discursive space for urbanism (like the Futurama did in its own way). The installation is a miniature city in a pothole. It is made of cement, a material used to repair and plug potholes. It makes references to Khirki through details such as the Khirki mosque. Some of the blocks reflect the actual footprints of houses in the village. But other blocks are cast from daily utensils, children’s toys, and the detritus from my friend’s house in Khirki. This miniature city could be any of the hundreds of unauthorized areas in Delhi. The model is deliberately not a rehashing of an existing situation. It is not mapping the real city. It is in most parts fictional. Fiction takes away some of the violence of facts and the power of the fact-finder. Some of the forms in the city are erotic, speaking of the desires and aspirations of thousands of its people who the antiseptic master plan does not accommodate. In addition to the Khirki mosque, there is also a miniature water tower as part of the ensemble of buildings. This alludes to the need for a decentralized infrastructure. The mosque and the water tank in some ways are both city infrastructure; while the water tower is physical infrastructure, the mosque is memory as infrastructure.

The trope of the miniature works at multiple levels. The miniature, as pointed out by Gaston Bachelard in the Poetics of Space, allows a childlike wonderment to persist. Cities are incredible places that allow for situations and spaces for the imagination. They are places of multiplicities, of conflicts, of overlaps and of fluidities. Are our urban designing efforts then erasing these spaces of wonderment towards the creation of boredom, monotony and singular claims? Pothole city is not a vision, but an attempt to look for another way of thinking of the future of cities. Pothole city in exalting the unplanned city is perhaps antiutopic.    

[1] Jane Jacobs has written extensively about the importance of places like this and the phenomenon of ‘eyes on the street’ that provide a sense of security and neighbourliness thus avoiding the need for the use of a police force.  

[2] See the documentary film ‘Divided Highways, the Interstates and the transformation of American Life’ by Larry Hott and Tom Lewis