Thursday, September 09, 2010

NY Times - Managing the Future to Keep the Past

September 9, 2010

Managing the Future to Keep the Past

PONDICHERRY, INDIA — This town is really two. To the east, facing the ocean, is the White Town, or La Ville Blanche as it was known in colonial times, when the French ruled this corner of India. To the west, on the other side of a covered canal, is Black Town, or La Ville Noire, where the natives lived for much of French rule, which ended in 1954.
La Ville Noire is for the most part crowded, dusty and overwhelming. Ugly modern buildings, decked out in tinted glass and neon-bright colors, have taken the place of old tiled houses. Commercial streets are noisy and suffer from unregulated construction.
La Ville Blanche has an altogether different feel. It is dominated by wide, tree-lined boulevards, high-ceilinged villas, and a shady park that extends outside an imposing mansion, the official home of Pondicherry’s lieutenant governor. Commercial development in this part of town is generally understated: small hotels, tasteful boutiques and French restaurants, many operating out of renovated villas.
La Ville Blanche is something of a rarity in the urban landscape of India. Few Indian cities are as attractive or peaceful, and few retain as much of their original character. With a small number of exceptions, most cities are an agglomeration of modern concrete blocks.
In his 1990 book “India: A Million Mutinies Now,” V.S. Naipaul lamented the neglect of heritage buildings in the country. Modern Indian architecture, he wrote, in his characteristically dyspeptic fashion, “spoils people’s day-to-day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that can flow into many different channels.”
Mr. Naipaul was perhaps overstating the case. But there is little doubt that, for a country so proud of its ancient history, Indian cities are strikingly indifferent to the past.
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