The walls thinner; the architecture stylized; entrances common; the views assigned; amenities listed, the landscapes curated – what was only omitted from the launch sale is a neighbor. Ironically, if proximity is the yardstick for a neighbor then why is the idea so distant. Neighborhood is not about being nearby, accessible or being social, it is about accidentally becoming a community.
Peeping out of the window while commuting, or glancing above your shoulder while walking through any INDIAN metropolis - chance is that you are greeted by large hoardings bearing clichés such as ‘grand’, ‘luxury’, ‘affordable’, ‘possession’ and other marketable terms selling the idea of aspirational housing. Take a moment, pause and admire these hoardings - you will realize that there is something very uncannily common to all of them. So, what do these hoardings portray – let us focus on the imagery here to begin with. “A grand view from a balcony of a distant horizon; a laughing family with a pet rolling on a mound; even better - a child in a cricketing uniform!! - (what that has got to do with housing is least puzzling) – or at best a pristine shot of the interiors with an uber cool couple enjoying a cup of coffee.” All these pretentious images look distinct at once, inevitably, but look a little closer – each seems portray an individual pattern of living – either the family is spending time indoors, the time spent in the lawns is just with the family member and even the view from the balcony is also a private frame. The personalization of spaces for aspirational housing is of course the more apparent denominator, but the more diluted commonality is that of the missing representation of a neighbour – of the neighbourhood. Notice, you will realize that no measure of aspirational living signifies or even sheepishly markets an image to represent ‘two strangers standing across a balcony to enjoy coffee, or a group of differently aged people engaging in a talk, a few children aimlessly running around’ – as if the word neighbourhood now remains only in literature and no more in living.
In recent years, with advent of globalization, the world is supposedly come closer. Yes, indeed it has, but closer to a degree that is has shrunk between thickness of walls, is something that is apparent but often overlooked. Paradoxically, tele serials – which by far constitute the most common living room décor is the best reflection of this shrinkage in space. In the late 1980’s, tele serials aired like Nukkad – addressing everyday issues of a group of individuals sharing a common space – was hinged on the concept of people, neighbourhood and community. On the other hand, the early 2000’s witnessed soap operas such as Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki - to give a gist of which is quite redundant - was a focus on relatives, family and the society. The shrinkage of course is apparent in two fronts – one from representing a neighbourhood to that of focussing on a singular (yet complexly large) family. The other in terms of social representation- bearing the idea of community to that of a society. One may dismiss the comparison because characters such as Guru, Kaderbhai, Teacherji from Nukkad are not comparable to Om Agarwal or Parvati Agarwal in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki (notice that the former has no reference to surnames) due to
difference in class and income groups - but that is precisely the question – what has neighbourhood must do with the affordability of living? In fact, a comparative testing between sitcoms such as Shriman Shrimati and Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai (notice again the emphasis on the family name) would reveal the same results.
The floor lobby of the Sarabhai had four doors – remember? Did anyone notice the name of the neighbour? Was there ever scene scripted that the Sarabhai’s were on the balcony or the curtains drawn out to give a glimpse of the neighbourhood? This is not merely an attribute of the class of people represented but that of the changing lifestyle of the INDIAN urban diaspora that has changed beneath the comforts of our living room. We have shifted ever so tenaciously from the socialist to capitalistic tendencies that we commodified not only our habits but also our way of living, being part of a community, associating with a neighbour and the adjacencies of neighbourhood.
Why the notion of neighbourhood is no more in the dictionary of the residential sector is best possibly answered by the masters of business administration but that it has serious consequence on the spatial making of the urban skyline is fairly evident. Let us again peep out of the window and glance over our shoulders - do you now see high rise dwellings dotting the urban landscape? Look closer - do you see verandas – a series of them – with some colourful differently sized clothes drying – a uniform dotting of DTH dishes? – do you see any human occupation? any single one? – let alone one each in opposite verandas? Now, walk into any one of them and focus on all the so called ‘common areas’ - you will be introduced to carefully crafted amenities, a plethora of functional spaces, detailed landscapes and designed lobby interiors yet revealing the same hollowness as one would have experienced from a distant looking at the typology. This emptiness one perceives is not escapable. It is a spatial condition churned out primarily due to the curious case of not identifying with a neighbourhood – not being conditioned or the loss of basic human behaviour to be able to connect and interact with a neighbour. Not just in apartments, it is an urban emptiness one can perceive across the length and breadth of the society – in evert public space you witness. Neighbourhood interaction is not merely about the proximity or people or the measure of how populous a place is – neither of crowds hanging around in flocks in shopping malls, markets and pubs - it is just more about engaging as a community – by chance in the basics way of living. Way of living – also known as urbanism.
Are we then being overcritical just on the idea of an apartment – no, but the reflection is on all the housing typologies that are being conceptualized as “communities” by the design professional. So, if we one was to design better would that force people to change their current lifestyle and appreciate neighbourhood? Again, the answer would be an emphatic No.
Design professionals or so termed as architects and planners by act of making better design cannot possibly influence a change in lifestyle – lifestyle changes are a resultant of complex socio – economic processes – but it may encourage albeit, unknowingly to allow for a neighbourhood pattern. A quick glance across current space making would reveal an obsession of assigning amenities and function to all spaces – that are not for individual sale. This act of designing for functions and amenities restricts the very of idea of neighbourhood. If one were to really experience a neighbourhood, one would often relate to experience such as accidental meeting, encounters, interactions, chanced collisions - all an outcome of spaces that are not defined by programs by human behaviours. To be able to articulate space that may allow people to shape the usage without merely fulfilling its function may lead to the embedded experience of curating a neighbourhood and encourage the sense of a community. It is the attitude to space making that needs a shift, not the process and product of design. An attitude to open space planning and design and to a certain extent architectural expression not just within limits of residential property but extended to the public realm that allows the essence of neighbourhood and the idea of a neighbour to survive within the capitalistic ventures.
Regaining the idea of neighbourhood, will not set in just by mere design of spaces, nor by expressive art, neither by reading literature, what it needs primarily is recognition. To begin with, it is important that we realize this constantly diluting idea of neighbourhood, only then maybe we could address and communicate the idea effectively to eventually evoke a change in lifestyle. The recognition is critical as the manifestation could then be a coalition of expression within various institutions of art. Through narrative forms of journalism, curated public graphics – like the evocations represented by Mario Miranda, the design language of space, the background of tele serials and even in screenplays of motion picture. This recognition is a demand or else a few decades down the line one would never be able to discuss classics like the Padosan and the famous lyrical “Ek Saame wali khidki mein” – and that would be huge burden to live with, what say, neighbour?