Saturday, February 26, 2000

An Indian’s view of America
By Manu Kant

FOR most Indians, American architecture as symbolised by the Empire State building is an astounding feat of architectural engineering. For first time visitors to New York, to get a panoramic view of the otherworldly town of Manhattan from atop that building is a must. The entire soul of the East Coast America is concentrated in that 57 sq. km, which forms the base of many of the world’s tallest "Cathedrals of the Skies".

The rest of New York from Brooklyn to Jamaica Avenue is worse than Chandni Chowk. Outside the dreamy confines of Manhattan, is the world of tired people going nowhere; it’s a prison house of unfulfilled ambitions; a lost paradise populated by schizophrenic ‘immigrants’ who, when weaned away from the breast of the ‘lady of justice’ find themselves staring endlessly at the slot machines; it’s the world of filthy alleys and derelict buildings in need of care but sadly left to their fate.

  American architecture is functional and dysfunctional at the same time. To the down and out immigrant, it is functional because it gives the illusion of grandeur and wealth for which he forsake his motherland. Dysfunctional, for the reason that its gigantic scale is beyond human comprehension, and for that reason alone, a secret weapon of repression. It has to be admitted that a building is the first constructed form with which an alien comes into close contact. The impersonal babu, who will scrutinise his plea for asylum, and, therefore, his fate, comes only next. Unknown to the lonely man in NYC, it is ultimately the architecture which condemns him to lead a life of an eternal refugee.

American architecture is the architecture of challenge — a clarion call in stone form to the non-white world to come and judge the Judaic-Christian civilization, and surpass it if they have the guts. It is a tribute to the white woman, and a covert warning to the black man not to touch this woman. It is an architecture with strong undercurrents of both masculinity and sublime femininity.

At a yet another level, be it the architecture in downtown Chicago or Los Angeles or Philadelphia, the business centres of the 20th century are places where essentially one comes to make money by way of work. So, utmost has been done to design an environment where the ‘working man’ remains in perpetual motion, day and night.

What has happened in America is that, that working environment with the architecture in forefront has been carried right to his place of rest — the home. The post-modern structuralism and beyond it assemblage of buildings is a conscious attempt to impose alienation on man. The only escape from this ‘architecture of fear’ is either more work or refuge in some cozy cafe’ or bar in Manhattan.

The architect by going for the ultimate in stone has killed all intellectual activity. All buildings, be it the neighbourhood library or the public school or community hospital are poetry, literature, theatre and cinema in stone and steel.

American architecture has dismally failed to harmonise with space. Many jarring notes are visible — like the superhighways that run along the untamed yet scarred wilderness.

The American architect has basically and sadly failed to construct the American continent. Perhaps, if one journeys across the length and breadth of America on Amtrak, one would realise that it was never decreed by the ‘higher power’ to be overrun by aliens — the European and Asians. It was the single greatest act of injustice ever perpetrated by man on nature’s divine creation.

The rare exception is the West Coast, California. The prime example being, the little town of San Jose, barely an hour’s journey from San Francisco. It’s a valley town, surrounded on all four sides by bluish green low mountains still retaining much of their abundant tree cover. The little, compact houses and sprawling, low roofed restaurants neatly gel with the natural colours. But again, it’s a town conceived by the whites, and for the whites.

However, there is a deep and spiritually symbiotic relationship of the man with nature. And of nature with man. The thought always rankled me that the skyscrapers, were perhaps a silent condemnation by the American architect of the whole ‘civilising mission’ of the pioneers.

The Capitol, is again one of the prime examples of how buildings and constructed space in America has been used to convey a powerful but subtle message to the minorities that the white power structure in the country is sacrosanct and inviolable. The building, perched on a hill is deliberately separated from other buildings of the U.S government. The horizontal elongation along the elevation that is kept at a distance from the road gives the notion of divinity of law and the American constitution — one, which is at odds with the actions of the successive American Presidents.