ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Space as Political Text

Urban Coherence and Dissonance in the Politics of Beautifying Colombo

Taking space and its transformations as a political text, this article looks into the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion as well as the manner in which space is implicated in memory. It engages in this exploration by focusing on the process known as the “beautification” of Colombo implemented by the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka as one of its most iconic political programmes.

This article is based on the keynote address delivered at the third International Conference on Cities, People and Places (ICCPP 2015) on the theme, “Towards a New Urbanity: Places for Urban Coherence,” organised by the Department of Architecture, University of Moratuwa, in Colombo, Sri Lanka in October 2015.

In contemporary times, several influential theories on urban planning and architecture privilege “order” and “coherence” as crucial parameters for urban construction. This thinking is also seen in South Asia, at least in the dominant discourses of state-funded and privately-funded urban planning and housing initiatives, if not in the actual urban habitation practices and behaviours of people. In a sense, this brings to mind the uncompromising attitude of the modernist architect, Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead (1943). As Stuart Sim has argued, for Roark and for others who think like him, their “constructions are absolute in their demand for recognition,” which do “away with individualised nooks and crannies, the idiosyncrasies of clutter, in the name of purity” (Sim 2001: 79). Purity, in this context, is a gloss for order and coherence.

This emphasis on order and coherence is not limited to the margins but is very much at the centre of powerful discourses at the level of both, the state and citizens. Many ordinary citizens in Delhi, Colombo, Kolkata, Dhaka, and other urban centres in the region, with whom I have informally conversed over the last seven years on issues concerning urban living, also take these assumptions for granted. In addition, there is remarkable coherence in the thinking of the state and large cross-sections of citizens when it comes to this aspect of urban habitation. In Colombo, such assumptions have reached almost a national consensus, particularly among many middle-class individuals. But, how are these ideals actually achieved on the ground and how do they then manifest in people’s subconscious? What, if any, casualties would result from such an all-encompassing emphasis on enforcing order and seeming clarity upon built environments and in the uncharted terrains of our collective subconscious?

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Updated On : 23rd Dec, 2018
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