I recently read a very well written article about Mumbai’s new Chhatrapati Shivaji airport Terminal . It drew comparisons with the city’s rail terminus with the same name and pointed out how the rail terminus ferries the expected ANNUAL passenger count of the airport in just 11 days. Despite this, the rail terminus must do with 83 individual toilets and the airport gets 101 toilet BLOCKS. Wow! Talk about putting things in perspective! Before this turns into an obsessive third post on public toilets, here’s what also caught my attention in that article. Apparently, the airport is also home to India’s largest arts program- 7000 pieces of art assembled under one roof- which would have been stellar news if not for the entry fee required to view it- an international air ticket. This is also sad because having bought that ticket too, there is no way anyone can do justice to those 7000 pieces in the 1-2 hours that one would max at the airport after stressful security checks, immigration clearances and a trip to the duty free. Unless… the flight is delayed.
So, for the arts to be an inclusive experience, where CAN we house it? Art galleries and museums, yes; but it’s common knowledge that the foot-fall at these places is an insignificant percentage of a city’s population. In other words, art galleries and museums haven’t been very successful in their public outreach (or haven’t tried at all) and the arts have therefore remained with a niche interest group. For the rest of urban India, the definition of visual arts starts with ancient sculptural art seen in religious abodes and seems to end questionably with movies (at over a 1000 movies produced each year on an average in the country , one could argue that there’s enough to take in right there!). Which brings me to another question- does urban art need to reach out at all? Personally, I think that’s a moot point because I believe that in an inclusive city even the art scene needs to be inclusive. Whether the general public wants to soak it in or not is only secondary. Thankfully, on a merry escapade last week, I found a reinforcement of that belief albeit in the most unexpected of places- a shopping mall.
Phoenix Market City, a shopping mall that opened in the suburbs in 2013 is Chennai’s latest populist destination. Everyone has been there. Everyone is there. The shopping mall typology is a tricky one… it’s usually designed with a singular purpose- consumerism MUST greet you at every corner. As a result, most malls bore me to death after the first visit. But Phoenix was different. It is tastefully designed to imitate a shopping street with scaled down atriums that act like nodes on a street; some of these ‘nodes’ even have a cafe and seating! There is ample opportunity for lingering and schmoozing. The public realm outside too is uncompromised with a children’s play area, a fountain and more cafes and more seating. A few full canopy trees would have made it perfect but nevertheless a laudable effort. Phoenix Market City however gets a 100 brownie points for playing host to an… (drumroll)… urban arts program!
On my first visit a few months ago, I was thrilled to see a few art installations in the mall. The more sculptural ones were placed in atrium spaces and lift lobbies which were more contained and not too brightly lit housed video installations. The video installations were mostly ignored, I felt, but visitors were happy to have their pictures taken with the sculptural pieces. Last week, I visited the mall again with a friend to find that they had formalized the arts program with the help of a city-based non-profit called ArtC. As we entered the mall, we were given a brochure that laid out the floor plans of the mall and the location of all the art installations. We walked around the mall fervently trying to locate all the installations and squealed with joy every time we saw one by a familiar/ favourite artist. We read through the artist bios and the concepts behind their art on the plaques that accompanied each piece. At the end of 3 hours we had finished seeing them all, discussed them all and had chosen our favourites. We then picked a cafe that was closest to our most favourite installation and as we sat down for a cup of coffee, we realized that in all that time we hadn’t stepped into a single shop or even noticed any of the window displays. We laughed about that. My friend was reminded of and amused that we had sort of reenacted, in our own way, a French & Saunders comedy clip  in which they visit the Tate Modern Museum in London! That’s when it struck me that the art in the mall had so completely yet beautifully subverted the standard shopping mall experience.
The privatization of our city’s public spaces is a reality that is creeping up on us everyday. As in the case of the two Chhatrapati Shivaji transit facilities, which may be a heightened example, there is abject neglect towards equitable distribution of funds for public infrastructure in most of our cities. Chennai too is guilty of this crime. Barring the beach which is more of nature’s endowment to the city, there is a complete lack of truly public spaces that people of all ages and abilities can go to for an unwind- free of charge. Malls have struck a cord here for a number of reasons ranging from increased disposable incomes, the big brand feel-good factor, the rising foodie culture fueled by numerous food and beverage units found in malls but mostly, in my opinion, because malls are cleaner and visually less-overwhelming than the public realm outside and there is air-conditioning and there are toilets. As urban designers, we like to loathe the mall because its our job to aspire for and design public realms that will pull people out of those privatized containers. And these aspirational public realms are also where urban art ought to belong.
But until the priorities and status quo on the distribution of funds change, malls are here to stay as the new typology of public spaces… simply because malls are able to provide what our existing public realms fail to do- a clean, comfortable environment to spend a few joyous hours with family and friends. Having said that, despite the irony of an inclusive arts program housed in an edifice of capitalistic consumerism, I think the urban art scene in Chennai has found a worthy home at Phoenix Market City.. a home where everyone is welcome and where everyone feels good. Better late than never. Better there than nowhere.
Photo credits (unless otherwise mentioned): Vidhya Mohankumar