A recent report issued by Cushman and Wakefield recounts the position of New Delhi’s Khan Market as among “the world’s most expensive shopping streets”, assessing its economic parity with more fabled international high streets in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, like most of its counterparts in Indian cities, this once modest “refugee resettlement market” accommodates a variety of shops within the white plastered walls of a three-storeyed arcade. Bookstores, chemists, kebab shops and ‘chaatwalas’, utensil and crockery shops, drapers and tailors, butchers and bakers, a candlestick seller, a ‘kabariwala’ and a charcoal vendor, a bicycle shop, jewellers, a nursery, a pet food store, a veterinary clinic, doctors’ offices and opticians are all present. Banks, taxi stands, a sporting goods store, toy shops, stationers, fruit sellers and florists, a dentist and a dry cleaner dwell there, too.
A small central lane, a quasi-private passage threaded through the more public perimeter, serves as the entry for the duplex flats above the shops. Designed around a central courtyard on the first floor, the once-residential flats have panoramic views of the market from their terraces. Khan Market’s rapid gentrification, coupled with New Delhi’s aggressive demands for “prime commercial space”, irreversibly altered the equation for the original residents. Their exodus has spawned other commercial outlets in these flats. Despite recent security alerts and bomb scares, the vitality of this market asserts itself as a confident and essential antidote to the tribulations of our times.
Moments in a mall
One could argue that the rise of the shopping mall is an appropriate reflection of the aspirations of the rising middle class. Indian consumers seem to favour the climate-controlled comforts of browsing within glass-fronted facades. Ample underground parking, gleaming corridors and clean public toilets undoubtedly contribute to a better shopping experience. And yet, with very few exceptions, the architecture of these new buildings appears hermetic—intent upon excluding the city and its textured landscape from the space within. If the open bazaar presents a democratic public domain for all citizens, the mall demarcates a precise economic zone for the empowered. And an optimal architectural typology for modern Indian retail remains elusive.
Reviving the street
A parallel urban struggle between the traditional bazaar and the shopping mall occurred in mid-20th century America with the rise of suburban housing developments. Greater vehicular mobility eroded the significance of the neighbourhood commercial market as the traditional hub of community life. Instead of strolling to nearby stores, thousands of families began to drive longer distances, routinely commuting several kilometres to shopping malls. Familiar social relationships, established over years of interaction between shoppers and shop owners, were supplanted by automated product scans and impersonal credit card swipes. Several downtown retailers were forced to shut or relocate.
Marketplace: The middle lane of Delhi’s Khan Market. Harikrishna Katragadda /Mint
The recent revival of the American downtown owes much to the escalating environmental and social problems associated with suburban sprawl. Civic agencies, working in partnership with citizens-advocacy groups, worked to revive urban “downtowns” with better intra-city transportation and public services. American citizens are once again discovering the pleasures of city life where affordable living, working and shopping destinations are all within a short commuting distance.
The bazaar as anchor
Functioning as an arena for multiple modes of interaction and exchange, the bazaar thus remains a catalyst for energizing city life. The success of the traditional bazaar owes much to its unrestricted vision of commerce and its proximity to residential colonies. Serving multiple economic strata with an array of goods and services, the bazaar creates a public realm defined by the ordinary and everyday needs of urban citizens. Even as municipal agencies neglect the urgent necessity for civic infrastructure, and a handful of patrons nourish the cultural and intellectual life of our cities, the market continues to act as a dominant community anchor. In creating a sense of place and promoting historical continuity, the bazaar compels citizens to extend their civic responsibility to the public domain.
Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller are partners in the firm vir.mueller architects and are currently based in New Delhi.
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