Asia Program


New Dreams/Old Cities: The Presence of the Past in India and the United States

March 14, 2005 // 2:30pm4:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Urban Sustainability Laboratory

The Asia Program, Division of U.S. Studies and the Comparative Urban Studies Project sponsored the symposium to compare the way in which public or cultural memory (both state-sponsored and private) has shaped urban architecture and design projects in Chennai (Madras), Oklahoma City, and New York. How, the participants were asked, has public memory intersected with and molded civic life and the politics of urban design?

Mary Hancock explored the discourse of development in Chennai. Of particular concern was the Marina Beach area of the city, which has become a site of contestation between competing historical narratives and developmental visions. Hancock outlined the tension between the municipal government, which is seeking to transform the waterfront into a formalized and increasingly globalized space designed to attract investment and enshrine official public memory, and the indigenous fishing communities, which are asserting a narrative of preserving heritage and generational rights. She argued that the tensions about urban landscapes that have become apparent in Chennai are indicative of more universal trends in which public memory emerges as a concern of urban areas as they are increasingly incorporated into the global economy.

Edward Linenthal also stressed the contested nature of public memorialization by comparing the Oklahoma City bombing site and the post-9/11 World Trade Center memorial in New York. He discussed common narratives of "civic renewal" that follow catastrophes, as well as the peculiar American concern with lost "innocence." The myriad political, personal, social, and cultural considerations that must be navigated and negotiated in creating memorial forms and architecture in the two U.S. cities are similar to those discussed by Hancock.

Commentator Veena Oldenburg drew upon her research on colonial Lucknow in India to draw together the themes of disaster, development, and competing narratives of domination and resistance. She emphasized the multiplicity of narratives present in every urban landscape and also noted that the process of erasure and forgetting is another critical process in urban design and architecture.

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