Thursday, February 25, 2016


On one street in Jaipur we saw more design and visual abundance than we've seen in all of Sri Lanka these five months. It was pathetic to think about. I asked Janet what she thought. Her one word answer: "war." The best brains, she suggested, were trying to figure how to get their kids out of there. Or they were building walls of personal comfort, wealth, and design to keep themselves insulated. But always in people's faces, she said, had to be the insecurity, worse, the horror of war. Sri Lanka was gutted for the past thirty years. No one was immune. It acted not only on individuals but on institutions. The whole society suffered. 

Where do you go with that kind of phenomenon? Or at least what we assume to be the case based on the many people we've met and the experiences we've had? I've been thinking along these lines ever since we got to India. Jaipur is noisy, crowded, dirty like Colombo. But it's rich. Whole. There is so much here from antique architecture to bangles. It's all here. And so much is made here. The few things Sri Lanka has to offer are paltry, limited, sad. Most of the stuff you see for sale is from China. 

Part of the problem I see has to do with critical thinking. I wonder as I sit in the Shanti Cinema in Batticaloa how the boys there are seeing the bloody zombie film we're watching. It's a hoot for us all. I see it through a hundred filters of film history, film understanding, cultural signals, etc. How about these kids who might have finished high school? Or maybe who didn't? What are they seeing?

But that's not really the example I want to discuss. Yesterday walking the streets of Jaipur we entered the city through New Gate. Like all the entrances we've seen, the road there is lined by raised bazaars, a long line of shops with a long covered walkway. Rising behind the shops are same-age building three or four storeys high, built in the late 1940s or early '50s, just post-independence. Behind them lie the dense narrow roadways or pathways of Jaipur. These buildings that front the roadway are not posh or elegant, but they do project a message of this built environment. They were planned and designed to send this message. 

As we walk further we notice a group of these modern ('40s and '50s) buildings just above the shops. They have varying heights and they also appear to have some depth, a narrow courtyard, a staircase, some of the rooftops just visible. These were built, I conjecture, to represent a Rajasthani village, or to reference the older neighborhoods that fill Jaipur. I have come to this conclusion by noticing dates, layers of age that I can detect, colors, activity, shape and form, and some knowledge of political and social history of this part of the world. The cues I see set off a series of thoughts based on conjecture and critical analysis. I build a model of this city or this part of the city, a hypothesis if you will. I can observe more, learn more, and refine my understanding if I want to. This is critical thinking. 

I had hoped to work on some critical thinking exercises with students at Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka, where I am a Fulbright scholar this year. I observed very poorly developed critical skills among advanced design students there though I didn't comment on this to my colleague. I saw as well that the standards by which their critical skills were evaluated were low, and that the way they were taught (how they interacted with instructors and how instructors interacted with them) did not encourage critical skills. Of course I did not discuss this with my colleagues there. Insulting them would have been totally unacceptable. But I did want to do some work like what I do with my students in Boston to encourage critical thinking skills. The work I had hoped to do was squeezed out because of "scheduling" and "curriculum" requirements--at least these were the excuses I heard. I had wanted to lead students on field trips around Colombo. We would have studied exactly the kind of phenomena I describe here in Jaipur (I also posted on this earlier in an essays on walking through Colombo and making "sense" of the dense Wellawatta neighborhood there). My offers to do this were put off with vague statements of "maybe next term," and "we'll see." Finally, I left. You can lead a horse to water and all that. 

But this kind of rejection of critical analysis holds consequences for the future of Sri Lanka, a place that I see quite well now, has been gutted of culture, gutted of civil society, gutted of creativity. In a sense, gutted of intelligent self-determination. Advanced planning students at Moratuwa are put to work on projects about Galle Fort, a spoiled tourist destination and a UNESCO site that truly does not deserve the appellation. They are encouraged to travel to Singapore and Bangkok, cities that Colombo's leaders and planners would like to emulate in the next decade. There is little appreciation anywhere for the role of Sri Lankan culture or its expression in the vernacular built environment. 

Comparing Galle Fort to the Pink City you get more perspective on this problem and the consequences of poor design thinking. Galle Fort is characterized with expensive tourist destinations, overpriced eating and buying venues, a large military installation, and limited access pedestrian or vehicular access. It is packed with tourists who lend their own consumerist character to the place. It is also subject to the ugly demographic struggles that have come to characterize Sri Lanka since "Sinhala only" (in 1956!) started the ball rolling against Burgher, Tamil, and Muslim minorities. Through a series of land exchanges most of the Galle Fort community is now Muslim, a demographic that is unlikely to change and unlikely to play out in peaceful or democratic ways. There is just too much distrust among the ethnic communities of Sri Lanka for this to resolve equably. And it's not being addressed by people like the planning students at Moratuwa who might, if they were equipped broadly enough, be able to build a platform for positive outcomes. 

In Jaipur, locals outnumber tourists overwhelming. In this relatively heavily tourist city you are unlikely to see foreigners wherever you go. Trade is booming in every kind of trifle from marigolds for offerings to marble statues to plumbing supplies. Wealth is being made here through manufacture and commerce. The vibrancy, along with a good measure of dirt and seeming chaos is incredible to witness. Jaipur is alive. Galle Fort, not so much. 

But future designers for Sri Lanka are put to work at Moratuwa designing another restaurant, exhibit space, or information kiosk for Galle Fort. The big questions about the place, the questions that require a sophisticated perspective, some kind of interdisciplinary critical analysis are missing. 

Galle Fort as an urban space is in its death throes. Colombo is unlivable and becoming worse. The "megapolis"project will add to its woes, not improve the situation. But in academia, the one place where people should have the freedom to observe and question these phenomena, there are no questions being asked. Has Sri Lanka been gutted of its intellect too?

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