Thursday, September 11, 2008

Concerning the aesthetics of living

Its a quiet summer afternoon in this posh locality. It had been sunny and hot earlier, and the road, slightly shaded by the tall thin Eucalyptus, was no place to linger. School children have been collected and restored to their homes, maids have scurried into houses for afternoon cleanings, and few vehicles use this colony lane. The houses are large but cramped, filling out into their allotted space like middle age paunches. Some have been demolished to make way for builder flats three or four storeys high. Balconies overhang the lane, showing the only sign of activity as ladies and maids scurry to pick dry clothes from washing lines in the increasing wind, afraid of a heavy drizzle.

The roads here are narrow and congested, the government flats designed without any thought for space, sunlight or ventilation, blocks upon blocks of standard little rooms built with the increasing bulge of official satin lined pockets in uncounted years. The occupants have tried to fit their life into these boxes, but increasingly illegal construction activity appears with ascending affluence and expanding family sizes. Balconies are enlarged and covered, and irregular jutting cabinets or roomlets appear where a little space permits. The daily washing is strung out on strings attached to window grilles, or the stairwell banisters left open.

Looking out of the running train, with the window closed and the A/C functioning, there is no residual dirt on your face at the end of the journey to show for the hours you spent next to the window, eagerly watching one picture postcard scene of rural life after another. Nor are your hair in a tangled heap from the rushing wind, powdered with suet from the engine stack. The bellowing of cattle, the sweet cacophony of parrots gathering at dusk, the screech of peacocks dancing in the rain, the bells of bullock carts waiting at the crossing are no more. The hay thatched mud houses with the tulsi plant in the courtyard, guarding washing strung on lopsided poles or mango trees and the odd goat or two, are still there.

Three little sniplets of life. Three little windows into someone's life lived in four walls, unseen by the visitor who lingers outside, save for the washing strung out to dry. Flapping merrily in the wind, or dripping morosely onto the pavement or the balcony below, clothes drying outside are a common scene in India. As common as the cows on the streets, or the families doing balancing acts on a scooter made for two. All sorts of clothes get their time in the sun and wind, from the mewling babies' diapers to the designer shirts of the dapper bachelor who runs his washing machine once a week, on free days. Outerwear and delicate undergarments, big bulky sweaters and small hankies, fancy clothes and torn dusters share this space alike, jostling for the best view. A painter I respect once said that she found this display of your wardrobe unseemly and unsightly, that clothes were better hung indoors somewhere, out of the view of passerby, who could revel in the perfectness of the facade so presented.

To her, and to all others who think alike - I know there are many - this is my answer.

I could say that in a country like India, with sunlight all year round except the few months of monsoon when rains for more than three days at a stretch leave houses smelling mouldy and unsanitary, it would be criminal to not take advantage of this abundant energy source. That sunlight acts against bacteria and other pathogens, and it would be a waste to instead dry clothes indoors under running fans and rising humidity. That the machine dryers are ecologically no match for clothes hung out to dry. That when space is a premium for living, when families are cramped in one room apartments, clothes are better outside than in. That even for those who could just afford to buy a dryer, to make space in the house or the budget for its daily electricity consumption is difficult. But these are logical reasons. Many reasons why this doesn't make sense, but not the one reason I feel about the aesthetics of living. Life is in living, not in showing. To me, a line of clothing hanging outside is a sign of life, of families loving, eating, sleeping, washing. A sign that all these houses are inhabited by living people, who have their own worries, own joys, own tensions, own successes, own lives, and are a part of this world that I also live in. Looking at blocks of balconies with the triumphant pennants of life waving to me feels like opening a book of short stories.

Why shouldn't we embrace this sign of life with joy rather than compare it to the architect's design table diagrams?

P.S. To say that the Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou is a popular place would be somewhat of an understatement. About six million people visit it every year. And whether or not they go to look at the outside rather than the museum or theater or library inside, the exterior of the building designed by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, assisted by Ove Arup & Partners is always a talking point.

The designers, trying to free up space within the building, located all the utilities, including the elevators, outside. And the world still talks about it.

But, what about the aesthetics of the building? Does this mess (even if well ordered mess) of pipes and scaffolding and elevators add to the spartan, functional modern appearance, or does it detract from what would otherwise have been a well polished smooth exterior? What do you feel about it?
Is the building unique, modernistic, aspirational, whatever-positive-adjective-you-can-think-of? Or is it an ugly blot on the neighbourhood?

P.P.S. The image is from the website of Centre Pompidou, and is linked accordingly.

P.P.P.S. The homecoming of the G.I. by Norman Rockwell, long considered to be an iconic painter of the quintessential American life. Image from; click on it to go to the relevant page for a larger version. Note the washing hung outside - would you prefer a sanitized version of this emotional painting, sans the washing?

P.P.P.P.S. Today I am going to divide the post into two parts cleanly rather than clubbing the two together as an experiment. Which is better?

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