Spaced out

August 13th, 2009

Crowded and bedraggled as it is, there’s something uncommonly pleasing about Darjeeling. Having spent a few days there recently, I was able to meditate on how beautiful views and cool weather offer ample compensation for narrow, slippery walkways, running drains, taps running dry, and damp and poky accommodation.

Being a condemned Delhiite, my thoughts turned inevitably to the home city. Here in central Delhi are umpteen ministries housed in awful Socialist-style blocks, crammed full of peons and paper and divided up into a warren of cubbyholes and passages — while outside is the open sweep of the so-called Central Vista. No wonder you see lower-rung civil servants taking extended lunch breaks on the grass. Is it possible that this cramped architectural perspective has some relationship with the cramped policy thinking that came out of these edifices?

Newer government buildings to house new or newly expansionist ministries and departments, however, offer a different paradigm. These state-funded monoliths can afford to have what no privately developed office building can: plenty of space, both within (i.e., broad corridors and chambers) and without (i.e., lawns, which furnish the necessary setback for the appreciation, from the citizens’ street level, of the vertical acres of tinted glass and imperial pink sandstone). They also start with the paper-limiting advantages of computerisation. Could it be that this lavish gift of space will contribute to a slight opening up, a greater responsiveness, in official thinking?

(To give one small example, when the post office once housed in the generously proportioned Eastern Court on Janpath was shifted to a cramped and dingy single room opening onto the unlovable middle lane of Connaught Place, the friendliness and helpfulness of its workers — the employees moved with their office — took a palpable dip.)

The new defence buildings — administrative offices, officers’ clubs, hospitals, research headquarters — offer by far the most promising prospect. There, the tradition of “the commanding officer has the last word” is an asset, because, paradoxically in a military setting, it preserves the potential for an individual’s ideas to have a visible effect on the final outcome. That element of quirkiness, sometimes even downright bad taste, is actually rather attractive in a government building.

Of course the military has always had spacious institutional quarters — like the cantonments. But now, for the first time in a long time, it is building itself significant new space. Concomitantly, there’s a hint that there’s some new thinking also going on — slowly, painfully and creakily, of course. Is it possible that the two go together? out digg:Spaced out newsvine:Spaced out reddit:Spaced out Y!:Spaced out