Under my byline

Smokestacks are hot

Posted in Architecture/Design by Rrishi on 11 June 2009

Electricity pylon, Adrian PingstoneBS blog 5

Surveying the local skyline, such as it is, from atop my favourite local pedestrian railway bridge, one thing is clear: smokestacks are hot.

Looking southeast towards the Yamuna, I can see a variety of official buildings: the University Grants Commission (UGC), the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the police headquarters and its neighbour the CPWD building, the DDA’s Vikas Minar, the Engineers India building, a slice of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, the glass-box office building Metro added to its Pragati Maidan station, Indraprastha Power Station, and so on.

Not one is a pleasure to behold, from the childish, blocky INSA to the ridiculous olive-green PHQ (crowned with a fuzz of antennae like some giant bread fungus) and the scabrous DDA tower. Yuck.

But in the interstices of all this urban blight are a few pure and soaring forms which lighten the heart and thrill the eye. They are: smokestacks and electricity pylons.

In the evening each chimney wears a crown of diabolical slow-blinking red lights, and its head trails a long smoky mane. If the gray tresses tumble away towards the east you know that the wind is blowing in from Rajasthan and it’s going to stay hot tonight. If the heavy curls trace westward, however, you can hope that the Uttaranchali breeze will trim the temperature and ease your sleep — and indeed, the air will already be cooler upon your face.

Meanwhile, behind DDA and Metro the pylons lift their patient shoulders and march away towards East Delhi. Their burden originates from the Coruscant-like jumble of shiny metal and tubing that is IP power station, which stands out against the gray of atmosphere and building and the dusty green of treetops.

Given the opportunity to produce important and long-lasting public buildings in the ITO region — one of the civic cores of Delhi — every one of these architects (PWD or private) has instead made a monster. Unwittingly, these foolish buildings embody the flaws rather than the best purposes of their institutional residents, and make those flaws permanent.

But mere engineers, obeying mainly the rules of utility and rationality, have created functional artifacts which achieve nobility in every element.

Where the big institutional buildings confuse, alienate and disorient, the smokestacks and pylons sharpen the mind by making sense, and the eye by being simple yet iconic in form. Gone is the 1920s-60s notion of buildings as sculptural elements in a rational landscape, which at least produced visually arresting and intellectually provocative results.

Think of big, concrete structures like Chanakya cinema, the State Trading Corporation building, the NDMC tower, and many more which, even if they are not beautiful, are like the smokestack or pylon in that they have a distinct form that is related to their practical or propaganda purpose and does not aim to disguise it. Now, on the other hand, most architects seem to forget the big picture and just give us agglomerations of small units, in which the whole never rises above its parts.

I think this “architecture by numbers” leaves us consumer-citizens oppressed and stunned by all the untended, infernal variety. That used to be what intelligent architects did in big civic projects — consciously distill and represent our civic self to ourselves. Now they do it without thinking, and the result is both sad and revealing.

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