The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Flaneuring on the marble: what are these malls that are Delhi's new public spaces?

While middle-class residents resist new shopping malls in their own neighbourhoods, they are happy to enjoy their clean, white environments elsewhere in the city. What exactly are these places that are becoming proxies for public space, an otherwise rare commodity in Delhi? Letting no detail escape his eye, Yorim Spoelder goes flaneuring in the mall.

Yorim Spoelder

Yorim Spoelder

Cities: Delhi

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Poverty and inequality, Architecture and urban design, Global cities

Last month I wrote about a protest against the construction of the Alaknanda mall in South Delhi. Despite their resistance, many of the protesters admitted enjoying malls in other parts of town. Yet their obvious nimbyism does not undermine the fact that the emergence of such malls threatens to erode the "publicness" of public space in the city. In the past decade mall culture has taken root in India, and its physical manifestations in the urban landscape are visible reminders of the advent of the consumer middle classes. Yet how public are these retail environments that increasingly pose as an alternative to traditional public spaces such as squares, promenades and parks?

We like it smooth, clean and comfy

Whereas the typical 19th-century Parisian flâneur, immortalised in the writings of German essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin, enjoyed botanising on the asphalt, the rapidly growing middle-class population in Delhi can today only dream of a central urban environment in which it is pleasant, safe and feasible (distance-wise) to wander unhurried past shopfronts, boutiques, galleries or public monuments. Apart from the universally unpredictable weather conditions, a Delhi flaneur would have to face a number of hardships that usually only poets or travellers seem willing to endure. The list of annoyances that would discourage even the most intrepid flaneur include the visible presence of beggars and homeless people and the discomfort they cause, the incessant noise of honking drivers and the proximity of traffic, the air pollution, in many places the smell of sewage and garbage, and the lack of security, especially for women.

Taking these factors into account, flaneurie should have no chance in Delhi were it not for the existence of the shopping mall. The mall creates a nostalgic image of a clean and safe town centre. As one enters the Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj one is struck immediately by the almost sterile cleanness of the environment. The white marble floors are permanently swept and mopped by a large team of cleaners who work frantically to keep all floors spotless and shining. The suffocating air pollution, the dusty hot wind, are all conspicuously absent; the temperature is kept at a scientifically determined optimum for human comfort. There are no beggars and the hungry street-children pulling your shirt for a couple of rupees have been replaced by well fed toddlers holding on to massive McFlurries or generously filled plastic cups with the newest flavour of frozen yoghurt. No noise is heard except for the Western party music whose upbeat rhythms add a celebratory ring to the spending of large sums of money. Young, modern-dressed women feel empowered and shop, snack and wander without fear of harassment or the need for a male companion after dusk. Indeed, one feels hermetically sealed off from the unsanitary and unsafe outside world, and the lack of any windows or ceilings through which daylight (moonlight?) can come in gives a sense of spatial and temporal displacement.

Making the mall look public

Three of the new malls in Delhi — Ambience Mall, DLF Promenade and DLF Emporio — share an architecture that is imposing, solid, and makes an epic, almost monumental impression. Indeed, these huge vaulted spaces are more suggestive of a sacred-liturgical or secular-civic function. In all three there are round white-washed columns with lamps reminiscent of medieval torches hanging from the walls between the shops, and in DLF Promenade huge lotus-shaped chandeliers embellishing the ceiling. In all, sofas, benches, groups of potted plants and the occasional fountain try to break the harsh, uniform interior and bring "nature" and the rural aesthetic inside. These soft-scapes with interiorised palm trees, well maintained plants, fountains, benches and coffee terraces symbolise the communal and reflect a conscious attempt of the designers to recreate the social liveliness of the street, under conditions of absolute control and permanent monitoring, on the white marble avenues of these capitalist temples. The evocation of the metaphor of the playful, free and sociable flaneur is also evident from the naming of the malls, such as Promenade.

There is more evidence that the design of the malls is an attempt to evoke the notion of a public, civic space. Taking the exit on the far right side of DLF Promenade, one enters a sort of piazza which in itself constitutes the entrance to one of the most luxurious and expensive malls in India, the DLF Emporio. The central feature of this piazza is a crescent-shaped basin from which fountains sprout a colourful choreography to entertain the kids. It provides at the same time a focus for the different restaurant terraces, the sloping, terraced grass pitch and the small, rounded benches that flank the water on all sides. The circular pattern on the pavement surrounding the basin enhances this sense of concentration and the overall design of the piazza reflects the ambition of the mall to emulate the traditional market square where the fountain functions as a central meeting place around which informal social interactions take place. In a Delhi where there are barely any collective public spaces designed on a pedestrian scale, except for a few public parks or the arcades of Connaught Place, these malls might indeed function as a suburban alternative for a decaying downtown.

Class games and the illusion of public space

Yet when I try to take a picture of the fountain, a duo of tough-tongued security guards come scurrying over and remind me that it is strictly forbidden to use a camera in this area. While its architecture hints at a more public function, the mall can in fact at best be called a pseudo- or illusory public space. The old architectural wisdom that form follows function has been applied with such perfection that the ultimate capitalist incentive is omnipresent and yet hidden behind the surface of an "imagineered" microcosm of the traditional public space.

Think of the technologies of security and surveillance, both linked to the notion of private property, which are essential features of the mall environment. Inherent to the notion of property is the right to exclude and refuse entrance to those individuals not considered by the mall owners to be members of what can be called the "approved community". Since the sole function of the mall is to generate profit, those considered marginal or even detrimental to commerce, can be refused admittance by members of the security team who guard every entrance and subject every visitor to a routine body check upon arrival. As such, beggars and lousy- or seedy-looking individuals are structurally excluded from the mall, and even if a financially less capable person somehow makes it inside, cameras and security personnel present in every shop will monitor and notice every move, forever ready to intervene whenever the "appropriate codes" of consumerist conduct are violated.

Another, more subtle strategy to keep out the "vulgar masses" is the location of the Vasant Kunj malls along a major highway: the appropriate mode of approach is the car (there are safe, convenient and spacious parking places available) or at least a taxi or auto-rickshaw. The other simple but highly effective device keeping out the lower classes is affordability. There are no cheap restaurants or street vendors from which a relatively cheap snack, small lunch or drink can be obtained. In the "public space" of the mall, participation is consumption, and only those who can potentially spend may loiter on the marble floors or roam the promenades in the fashion of a flaneur. The absence of the seamy and seedy side of public life facilitates spending because there is not the typical moral confusion that the confrontation with social difference might provoke.

This pervasive class bias is even visible within the mall complex itself, especially when one walks from the crowded DLF Promenade into the DLF Emporio where a large, excited and typically young middle-class audience is replaced by the select few who, superbly dressed, elegantly sip their 300-rupee cappuccinos in the luxurious sofas of the Emporio entrance lobby while listening to a live piano performance or leafing through a fresh international newspaper. That the mosaic-inlaid marble floors of DLF Emporio are not meant for flip-flopping young folks in search of the latest round of sales and discounts is evident from the very moment one enters the mall, whose slogan "Experience Luxury" is not misplaced. Even the toilets (all Western), with their decadent golden Aladdin-lamp-shaped taps, soft toilet paper and luxurious interior design have more the feel of a five-star hotel than a suburban shopping mall. Yet that is what it is, albeit an extraordinarily exclusive one.

A new aesthetic regime: Delhi goes global

The creation of mega-mall environments cannot be seen in isolation but must be appreciated in the light of macro-level trends. Economic liberalisation policies in the 1990s worked as a catalyst for a shift to entrepreneurialism in urban governance. The new world-class city talk led to the re-envisioning of the city and the purposeful creation of an attractive urban imaginary. New investment opportunities and privatisation produced a retail boom. The development of modern infrastructure, high-end residential apartment complexes and malls, transformed the landscape of India's capital. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed a continuation of these trends, and the 2010 Commonwealth games were used to launch an ambitious metro rail extension project, and accelerate a process of "spatial purification" in which close to a million slum dwellers were displaced to less valuable lands at the edges of the metropolis to make room for new shopping mall complexes and more aesthetically appealing residential areas for the middle classes.

These attempts to enforce a new urban aesthetic that matches the vision of Delhi as a world class city soothes the aspirations of investors and the increasingly affluent classes, while poorer segments of the city are excluded from participation. This is nowhere more obvious than in the shopping mall, the new "public" space. In the end, the shopping mall is a controlled, enclosed and meticulously planned, total retail environment that runs on the basis of a neo-liberal logic. All is about consumption and the "public" elements of its architecture are there to make it accessible and sociable, but only insofar as it facilitates consumption. There is nothing spontaneous about these pseudo-public entities: the mall is not a political space where the civic is built, but rather a self-enclosed, idealised city centre where those who belong to a certain economic class can rub shoulders and celebrate their new affluent lifestyle as if no other India exists, as if the streets are not there. Those who enter the seductive microcosm of the Ambience, Promenade or Emporio take in visions more reminiscent of global consumerist culture than any local cultural tastes or realities. Indeed, the shopping mall blocks out the light and the view from outside, both literally and metaphorically.