It came to me today that I’ve been traveling for almost 8 years now. Part of the reason for living and working abroad in the first place was to search for a city that would be home. That city that would capture my heart and envelop me like a Portland mist or a Pittsburgh summer night. It would have authentic restaurants, independent films and music. Its residents would speak more than one language. You would constantly want to be looking up and around in wonder, only to find that wonder itself was actually calming. You would want to close your eyes in the middle of the sidewalk to give your other senses a workout. At some juncture, the search becomes moot because the likelihood is that the journey will never cease. The Atlantic published a short piece recently about the English painter J.M.W. Turner. The line that struck me was that he traveled extensively, but in the end he was still British, and more specifically, a Londoner. Typically this is wrapped up in identity politics, but the essential question is now whether the traveling is worth it. And to what end?
Another aspect is the increasing sameness of cities. This is most obvious to me in the United States, where it appears that lowering construction costs holds greater virtue than creating remotely interesting architecture. In downtown Portland, for example, there is an abundance of boxed glass and steel condominiums that should remind anyone of the construction going on in Washington, DC. Correspondingly, the Pearl District, home to Portland’s galleries and “new urban spaces” looks formulaic and outdated. Even the signs and the names speak “trendy!” to the point of nausea. Proponents might argue about the hidden innovations — ecofriendly technologies, unique construction materials, etc., but this matters less to the average person looking at the new skyline from across the river. The difference might be in the details, but some details really aren’t important in the end, let’s just admit that. Does it matter if one coffeehouse charges $0.50 less than another if they both lack any character anyway?
Kolkata may be headed down that same path. The city’s residents, and perhaps even the government officials, boast
of Kolkata’s crumbling British Raj-era charms. And they’re right, the architecture of the 18th and 19th century buildings does provide the city with something other cities in India lack. This is also due to the changing nature of construction itself. The old Kolkata buildings were built using lime plaster on the outside, which depended naturally on a steady supply of limestone. However, limestone resources have depleted and become pricier, so concrete became the cheaper, readily available alternative.
The result? Jamming in ugly structures that may meet the demands of the growing population (doubtful) but making Kolkata increasingly like a slum. Of course, don’t forget New Town, with it’s stock high-rises modeled after some version of Silicon Valley. My kingdom for a coat of fresh, colorful paint!
The irony to me is that I called 1998 “the year of travel”. I was so wrong. Traveling is now one of the defining elements of my life, and Alas, I doubt it will ever really stop. Perhaps this is why I find the most stability and sense of place in airports. For during those times I’m surround by displaced people and we all live in the same home, waiting to leave.