Independence Arcade : Feels like a white elephant


Independence Arcade is the hottest thing in Colombo when it opened. I finally got around to going there in October 2014. It felt like visiting another white elephant. A wound from one more politically connected racket. Its a nasty of me to say. I don’t have any evidence to verify evidence of illegalities. Its just a strong subjective feeling that goes beyond the whiff of corruption.

Visually the place is clean and lets admit it, beautiful. Even if lunch time on a week day is not the best time to go. The place is devoid of customers. Packs of school boys roam the hot corridors. They are not out to buy Tommy Hilfiger. Maybe to ogle the occasional couple trying to grab a quick smooch in an archway. The fountain with the lions is a magnet for group selfies. The posh shops are empty. In more than one, bored staff are lost in Facebook on their shop’s computers.

I came wanting to be impressed by the place. Feel the pride, if not the impressed glow, others emit when they talk about the place. All I found was the feeling of entering a familiar empty sham. The easy explanation is to blame on the time of day, my cynicism and a subconscious revulsion to consumerism. Yet life is never about easy explanations of anything.

I’m also not much of a “mall” person. Whether in Sri Lanka or any of the countries of my exile. “High end” shopping in a messy third world setting. An imitation of what first worlders take as high end. It always felt empty. Masks of prosperity too thin to hide anything. Something nameless felt – dare I say it – wrong.

An honest look at “problem” is not about ideology. I’m neither a socialist nor a consumerist. I just cringe from acquiring/buying stuff. Which means you have to put up with more things. More things lead clutter. Clutter create the hassle of having to constantly reorganise junk you rarely use but can’t dump “IN CASE” you need to use it.

Worse, buying one thing creates needs to spend more time dealing with other “needs” it creates. “Accessories” are a classic symptom of this plague. Buy a TV and you’ll be hunting for furniture to keep it on. Things break down. They have to be repaired, replaced – DEALT WITH. I have enough priorities to spend time sort out other competing priorities. All on a tread mill of increasing complexity.

I prefer to wait till something needs to be replaced. Then ideally find a way to do without the “need” the thing originally fulfilled. If that failed, buy something that lasts. Take for instance television. While in exile, my TV set died on the day George Bush Jr invaded Iraq. I happily lived without a TV for years. Despite having one now, I’ve managed to avoid turning it on.

My aversion to acquiring stuff must come from being a nomad for too long. Where one more dish, book, thing means one more to pack and lug. In the process I came to dislike the ugliness of defining oneself by the things you buy. The madness of self identity through brands. The need slather oneself with logos to claim some sort of silly identity/affiliation.

All things to think about when you looked back at your new year shopping.

It could be that this dislike of gathering stuff applies to retail spaces. By extension the Arcade. Which make me sound like an ungrateful arty snob. I don’t care if I am. It’s certainly not promoting retail economic activity. Good thing my nutty personal preferences have no influence on the matter.

I think if I was more relaxed about these things, I would see the place as the YAMU review did. The easy parking, the clean wide spaces didn’t do much good to my view of things.

Has anyone felt this away about the place ? Or is it just me?

Wish you all a belated prosperous non consumerist new year.

9 comments

  1. Foot traffic there is pretty bad, I am told, although maybe a bit better than the Race Course.

    The Race Course is a clear whit elephant, I know people who manage shops there and the traffic is bad – the main reason is that the mix of shops is not right – all were allocated first to cronies and then to a few others at exorbitant prices. The architect involved (whose ideas I believe are what were mostly used for the beautification of the city) disassociated himself from the Race Course (and all other projects) because he was not happy with the way shops were allocated.

    There is a science to this – one or two “anchor” tenants that attract large crowds and then the right mix that keeps drawing people through the place-the architect realised that allocating it to cronies would result in the place becoming a white elephant.

    The arcade mix is much better than the Race Course but is also lacking in a proper anchor. The high rents mean that the prices charged are unaffordable to the vast majority, but it was just right for the crony elite of the previous regime, rolling in cash and wanting international brands to shop for and a similar environment to lounge around in.

    People used to ride the hobby horse that the Galle Literary Festival was “elitist” and catered only to Colombo’s “smart set” – the real elitist stuff is in the glittery malls, shopping arcades, night races and all the other nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As with many of these attempts to emulate the symbols of ‘western’ success, if the majority of the population doesn’t have the basic standard of living to support such schemes it will fail.

    The reasoning has been, for a some time now, that tourism will support almost every aspect of the economy. Why build roads or bridges for rural children to get to school, when you can build roads for toursist to get from one ‘religious’ tourist site to the next as quickly as they can?

    It will take a very long time for badly thoughtout places this to be bustling with commercial activity – it will need people to have electricty in their homes, roads to get to school, a decent healthacare system, and jobs that pay a decent wage.

    Your post reminded me of an article I read about such architectural follies that were built in various newly independent African nations: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/01/african-modernist-architecture

    And it reminded of something I read very recently about the best age, place and gender to feel happy and why: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/28/female-over-65-and-danish-the-three-keys-to-happiness

    “Despite being pipped to the post in the latest World Happiness Report, most Danes agree they have got it pretty good. They may pay some of the highest taxes in the world but they are rewarded with generous public services and a world-renowned welfare state.

    “This reduces extreme unhappiness and lowers stress by making sure that everyone has a roof over their head, job security, access to healthcare and the opportunity to send their children to university – no matter what their income,” said Wiking. And Denmark’s well-developed work-life balance allows Danes to pursue a career and have time for family and leisure activities. ”

    But lets build shopping malls, airports and more 5 star hotels instead because that stuff above, that’s really hard!

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      • I thought about this post recently when I got hold of a copy of the July-Sep. issue of The Architect magazine (Vol 116, Issue 3 – available at all good bookshops right now, Rs 400!!).

        The entire issue is devoted to the idea of ‘democratic space’. There are articles from architects from all over the world, and any one of them could be used as a criticism of this stupid building – which I saw again last month during an all brief visit.

        The one that struck me most – although I haven’t yet read the whole magazine – is from British-Nigerian architect David Adjaye, page 115.

        (Forgive the long quote – and the bear with the formal architect speak)

        He discusses the need to go beyond the “generic, staid and overly prescriptive visions of democratic space” as they tend to “result in restrictive views of democratic space,wherein certain features such as large public greens and proximity to legislative buildings come to represent ideal conditions to be replicated uncritically in a variety of formats.

        Problematically, these forms and their relevance across the globe is therefore inconsistent. This approach inevitably breeds spaces such as Freedom Square in South Africa, which, despite its legibility as a democratic space thanks to its conformity to a prescribed form, often lies empty because the space lacks relevance for its surrounding communities.

        These standardised forms are predicated on a preference for uniformity over difference. They are designed around a notion of consensus….organised around Habermasian ideals, attempting to engage all its users as a singular undifferentiated group. However, as Chantal Mouffe has argued, consensus of this form is always illusory; it always depends on the exclusion and invisibility of dissenting groups and repression of dissenting ideas.

        Instead of of selecting designs that engage specific groups directly, this concept of democratic space relies on the modernist crutch of of using formal idealised forms to signal universality. As we have consistently seen, this ultimately results in space that serves pre-existing or already legible communities, rather than those capable of initiating new ones through diverse modes of engagement.”

        I said the building was stupid because it fails on every level of public engagement, and even as a shopping mall. May be it will be used to store paddy like that other folly down south?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Quite a few public projects are just monuments to crimes – specifically of the public fund those projects were set up to steal

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  3. Wow..JP and Chamiramira certainly said a lot between them, and I too agree.

    The focus should in fact be towards the development of rural areas, and giving such people a fighting chance in MR’s circus. Hopefully, that fiasco has ended and while not totally abandoning the ongoing change in Colombo, some more development has shifted towards upbringing the lifestyles of people outside main cities.

    The rapid change which took effect in Colombo, isolated the common man even more. Though we talk about uniting a nation regardless of colour and cast, we’ve begun to maintain more distance between people due to these changes which took place in the capital.

    Just doesn’t seem right, when one doesn’t hesitate to buy Egg Hoppers for Rs.200/-, while another goes through hell to earn the same as a day’s living!

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    • Insight full valid comment. Sadly I fear “development” is just another activity aimed at milking cash for cementing even more unaccounted political power.

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