There are many things about new India that fills me with despair and very high on that list is our apparent inability to build a nice looking building. It’s difficult to find a city in India that isn’t going through a building boom, especially if it is prosperous. But try finding an example of contemporary architecture in India that is pleasing to the eye. They’re all monstrosities, hideous towers with shiny façades, soulless monoliths made of steel and cement. Can you tell I’m not a fan?

I went to Hyderabad recently and it was properly depressing. The newer parts of the city are ugly and filled with slab-like buildings. The old city is crowded. The hotel I was staying looked like an asteroid that had crash-landed in the middle of the city. It was all dark and metallic. After dark, the building would be lit up so that from miles away, you can see this hunk of a hotel gleam like it wants to be the lovechild of a disco ball and a neon hoarding. First cyan, then red, then green, then yellow, then blue… ribbons of neon light circled the building and they flashed their colours to let everyone know this was a “happening” hotel.

I almost gagged at the sight of it when my taxi approached the hotel in the dark.

And then, at night, something unexpected happened. When I turned off the lights in the room, it turned strangely beautiful. The party-hard neon light slipped in through gauzy curtains. Suddenly my room felt like it was in Tokyo, not Hyderabad.

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As I watched the lights, it struck me that if the building didn’t look so tacky on the outside with those damned lights, there wouldn’t be this soft beauty inside the rooms. I could imagine a hundred stories, a thousand cinematic moments in this fragile light, in this characterless room in an ugly hotel in what felt like an insipid city. (Yes, yes, I know the last bit is unfair since I was only there for a day.)

Not that this means I hate what passes for modern Indian architecture any less. Die, Hafeez Contractor, die. Or at the very least, retire. (He didn’t design my Hyderabad hotel but he is responsible for some of the most frightening bits of architecture in Mumbai and elsewhere.)

5 thoughts on “Neon Charm

    • That’s a deep enough observation for me to not delete a repeated comment. I didn’t come anywhere near close to thinking of that metaphor business.

  1. Wow, you must have read my mind or something. I so frequently think that our generation(s)/age are characterized by not much aesthetic architecture. There will be nothing for future generations to see and admire from our age, like we admire early Mughal, or even late British structures. Of course, it’s a debatable point whether our structures will even last that long!

    P.S. Long comment, and heartfelt. Ignore any grammar slips. 🙂

    • Alice, that is one of my favourite daydreams: future generations excavating cities like Mumbai and trying to make sense of these warren-like structures.

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