Most of us living in the city centres and belonging to the so-called middle class aspire to move to the suburban outskirts of the city and own a bungalow in one of the “Housing Societies”. Such a move has become synonymous not only with upward social mobility, but also with a sense of freedom from all the evil that the city centre has come to signify. Freedom from congestion, noise, pollution etc. In comparison the suburban outskirts is seen as open, green and quiet and therefor more desirable. Many families, who have been living for several generations, in Khadia or Bajwada have complained of a strange and indescribable uneasiness after a few years in the “Society”. But often this gets brushed aside as an inevitable price to be paid for freedom. The younger generation of course adapts but I have yet to come across an older parent who is totally free of nostalgia for a life lived in the city; warts and all. These Housing Societies have become so much a part of our urban landscape that we do not realise that this particular form of urban housing is not integral to our culture at all. It is as much a gift from Uncle Sam as the Blue Jeans. But unlike the Blue Jeans, this one does not seem to fit us so snugly.

I have been thinking about this and have come to a startling conclusion that this may have something to do with the very notion of freedom with which we associate this housing. This may come as a surprise to many but the very roots of our suburban housing societies lay in the values of “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” enshrined in the American Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Constitutional Assembly and later third president of United States, who is credited with the inclusion of this as a fundamental right of an individual. Incidentally, by profession Jefferson himself was an architect of considerable repute and even today his buildings are cited by historians as some of the best examples of Colonial architecture.

In time, the American House became the physical manifestation and acquired the status of a symbol of this zealously guarded freedom of the individual. It was an object magnificent in its isolation surrounded by open space. It seemed to say, “I am free and the space of my freedom is limitless and determined only by the extent of my enterprise”. Thus more enterprising, and by extension richer, the individual, more grounds he can command around his house. A very seductive idea indeed.

There was only one problem though. This freedom was absolute and had very little, if any, room for the idea of a community, a community of equally free individuals. Thus, while the free individual found expression in the isolated house and the open space, no such physical expression could be devised to symbolise the community. Cities became collections of such houses joined together by roads and not ‘streets’. A street is a place with a spatial dimension; a sort of a room without a roof brought about by the buildings that open onto it. A road on the other hand is only a link between so many front gates and has no spatial quality.

The point is this; the choices about how buildings and cities are laid out are informed more by ideology than by utilitarian considerations. In this case it is the notion of freedom and the place of an individual in society. However, these subterranean ideologies are rarely talked about. For example, when in the early fifties and sixties, when our own planners were looking for a way to deal with the growing pressure on cities, the experts, Western or trained in the West, may have presented the idea of the isolated houses as a perfect solution to dense, overcrowded and unclean cities. It was openness vs. overcrowding. Green lawns vs. unclean streets. Framed thus in terms of simple and visible contrasts, the choice must have seemed clear cut.

But our cities too had an underlying idea about the relation between the individual and his community and this differed fundamentally from the Jeffersonian model. This idea has been evolved as a result of centuries of experience of a people to settle down and built towns and cities. From the pre-Aryan settlements of the Harappa civilisation to the construction of Jaipur in the 17th century, man in this subcontinent has spent considerable energy and thought on the subject of cities. In this idea the individual is always acknowledged as free but his freedom is not without its limits. The limits of one’s freedom are to be negotiated with other equally free individuals. Thus when you walk on a city footpath today, you enter into a silent, but nonetheless potent, negotiation with the hawker who wants to spread his wares on the sidewalk. As a result the sidewalk, the public arena, is bartered away to the mutual satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of both the pedestrians and the hawkers. While in the West a public space is sacrosanct and cannot be appropriated by any one, our idea of public space is that it belongs to every one and therefore may be used by all provided you negotiate its use with all claimants. It is in this negotiation that the freedom is expressed; for only free individuals can enter into negotiation with each other. It means that I am free only to the extent that 1) I ensure the freedom of others and 2) I ensure a space for the exercise of this freedom. In other words, I am responsible for the creation and maintenance of the public arena. We are by nature street people.

This street has many names; Pols, Khadkis, Chawks, Mohallas or Chotras are all expressions of the same thing. They are made by buildings that do not stand apart but come together and join hands, as it were, to define that which belongs to all. Their facades may be different. They may be ornate or simple as an expression of their individuality. But they are complete only to the extent that they help complete and animate the public space. Thus elements such as “Otlas” and “Jharukhas” (and many variations in different parts of the country) complete the buildings as much as they complete the street. They are as much a part of the architecture of street contributed by the buildings. I cannot imagine an “Otla” in a typical Gujarati house without a street for in no other context it has any validity.

I contend that it is the loss of this Public Arena, so much a part of our cultural psyche that bothers the older generation now living in the societies. They mourn the loss of the street and the unending drama of life unfolding there. The problems of congestion, pollution and overcrowding are not unreal and must be addressed without being romantic about our past. But the question is; in doing so, what are we going to hold on to with our dear life?