Delhi, The City of Edges

by Aneesha Dharwadker (MDes ’12)

There is a wall in Delhi being swallowed by architecture.

Whole, like the prey around which a snake’s jaw unhinges. It is the encroachment of the volumes of one epoch onto the edge of another, as if mass had overcome surface as the primary urban component. Surface was the original sign of the city, at a time when cities required tactile boundaries to survive. Since the 11th century, the wall has been Delhi’s evolving but fundamentally stable urban form, the line dividing city from hinterland. The space delineated by the wall was both a mountain in the desert and an organized container in the wilderness. Conceptually, the wall split urban from non-urban and city-dwellers from villagers; materially, it defended Delhi from foreign invasion, particularly from present-day Afghanistan.

Delhi is full of highly complex, and very old, urban forms that today stand cheek-by-jowl with the modern city fabric. It is a city that has not been adequately discussed or even explored in the design disciplines, in large part because the existing paradigms of discourse cannot accommodate it. It is not possible to totalize Delhi, either historically or spatially; there is no single defining system, as with Chandigarh, Barcelona, Brasilia, or New York, and there is no predetermined geographical edge, as with Mumbai or Calcutta. It is unproductive to expect that the kind of analysis that makes one city’s character emerge (we can think here of Rome also, with its distinctive Nolli Plan and over-photographed urban façades) will somehow work for another place, time, and history. Thinking about cities through their unique characteristics allows us to acknowledge the differences between places, and to translate those differences into place-specific forms of analysis.

What Delhi requires, in this regard, is a method of analysis that highlights both its simultaneous conditions and its highly fragmented state. Snippets of Delhi, small scenes and confrontations, are what make it urban. This thesis attends to the specificity of the disparate urban pieces in Delhi, which collected together reflect what is best be described as the ‘urban imaginary.’ This imaginary, which oscillates between abstract conception and material realization, is a constitutive aspect of the city that has been left out of an otherwise voluminous bibliography.