Tuesday, November 07, 2006

India aside: Strip villages


There is a pure and ubiquitous form of strip mall that springs up along northern India’s village highways, particularly the roads built prior to the year 2000. These roadways are two-lane affairs, littered with potholes and filled with traffic of all sorts; camels pulling carts, impossibly laden rickshaws, intercity buses, brightly painted trucks and white Ambassadors all negotiate the little usable asphalt. The combination of lack of surface and abundance of transport means that nobody gets anywhere in a hurry. Even speedy new cars can only average about 30 m.p.h. on the major roads. The staple architectural result of this pace is the standardized concrete garage strips that gather in bundles where a highway passes near a town. They are mostly single story with hopeful fingers of rebar sticking up at the roof or terrace level, waiting for enough money to move to the second story. Every now and again a unit will have added a second floor that resembles a snaggle-tooth in the gums of the village. How old and/or prosperous a village is can be determined by how many second floor units there are.

The buildings are set back about fifty feet from the road to allow for parking, temporary stalls and display. Each unit measures about twenty feet deep by fifteen feet wide, and will often snake in collections of four to six. They all face the street, like monastery cells with garage doors flanking a courtyard of traffic. Every third unit or so, a thin shared staircase will lead to the roof/terrace, where storage and drying away from the dirt occurs. The less frequent second floor additions will usually have a balcony, also facing the street. Surfaces are painted and festooned with signage; advertisements are the only decoration, at least which can be seen from 30 m.p.h. These strips will continue for as much as a kilometer or two, depending on the size of the town. Between the strips traffic moves slowly as people, animals and carts shuffle among the shops, rendering it akin to driving through a pedestrian mall.