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Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The Palace, as encountered from the car, alongside the highway, on the way from the small town of Sangareddy toward the metropolis of Hyderabad

Facades of buildings, like faces, can wear masks. They can masquerade as something they are not. Hotel: The Palace, situated on India’s National Highway-65, between the big city of Hyderabad and the small town of Sangareddy, is both and neither of its named components. In the local parlance, a “hotel” is a place to eat, but not really a place to stay. In the south-central landscape of India, where ancient rocks are being eaten by the cement of urbanization, what sits along the highway as it cuts through the countryside has a strange hybrid feel. There are carts offering sugarcane juice and people selling fruit from their bikes alongside larger shops, tented “Himalayan” sexual health clinics, and corrugated metal scrap dealers (kabaadiwalas)—a veritable gallery of wares sitting right alongside vehicular traffic. In this environment, The Palace is also a hybrid: a cross between the quintessential highway dhaba and something more middle-class, but in this case, with palatial aspirations. Its broad menu is mirrored in its broad clientele, including travelers who would have avoided a more typical dhaba, packed with truck drivers on a break from their cross-country journeys.

Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The Palace before opening for the day. Its large sign advertises its key offerings to drivers on the highway.

This hotel, like every other building, has a façade—but just one. Like a highway Sphinx, it has the body of a warehouse and a face smeared with the metaphorical makeup of many architectural styles in a medley that would trouble serious-minded architects. Yet, the “eyes” in the face of the building are downright middle-class Indian: aluminum-lashed, domestic residential sliding windows. It hides its interior by pure pastiche. But if we framed it in a certain way, “installed” in a show for certain artistic circles, it might also be high-order art, a social commentary of its own. As a multigenre architectural artifice capturing the changing landscape, why do we dismiss “remixes” like this as lacking design intention? Places like The Palace that emerge from this type of story are anything but generic; they are culturally authored, “graffitied” art. Should we think of them as ignorant of the norms, or irreverent?

Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The façade of The Palace adorns a basic warehouse; note the metal truss extension that has grown to accommodate space and shelter as it expanded to include new shops.

The beige of the facade is controlled. The aspiration seems to be to play “safe” or play “upper class.” The first few times we drove past this production, we missed the screaming clarity that this building is just sheer façade. The windows on the second floor are more like skylights and only allude to a window. In fact that’s true for the whole of the top floor. It does what an ornament would do: to highlight the wearer. Thrown over the head like a crown, this virtual top floor points to the reality below, which is of an eating place, accessorized by stations selling perfumes and play areas for children. As visual hook, it did deceive;  we did notice the building when driving past. It’s only when we saw the warehouse body that its glaring disconnect with the face, smiling and with sliver shutter lashes, became apparent.

Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The Palace from the rear, its warehouse body onto which is attached the palatial image.
Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The black station for selling perfumes, with a patch of artificial lawn in the front. This opens only in the evening, and the smell of the various perfume testers wafts through the air. These are locally produced and sourced perfumes referred to as ittar, which are quite strong and different from the perfumes sold mostly by Western brands in the large shopping malls in the city.

Taking a cue from them, a close look at the first of the two figures above shows similarly beige façade remixes from apartment towers at Hiranandani Gardens, in the prime and expensive real estate of Powai, Mumbai. While Hafeez’s palatial facades adorn expensive homes, the façade affixed to The Palace is only transitory, offering the promise of temporary lingering in palatial settings, on the way home. Seen from the perspective of the stability of land and property, this place, at its core, seems uncommitted to remain for very long. Similarly, its commitment to making the place convincingly real is limited to the façade, hinging thus on the visitors to play along with the make-believe as if it were real.

Credit: Akanksha Singh
Within the architectural community, while these were being critiqued for being pastiche, their creator, Hafeez Contractor, shot to fame in the 1990s among the big investors and real estate developers like Hiranandani.
Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The children’s play area referred to as the “fun zone” alongside The Palace.
Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
These children’s play areas are present in similar highway eating places that appeal to and project an image of a “family” place as opposed to more male-oriented eating places like dhabha, oriented more towards the truck-driving travelers.

As highlighted by philosopher of technology Paul Virilio, the speed of technological advancements seems to diminish depth. Speed alienates engagement from going deep, keeping it to the façade, to the surface. Ribbon development, used by planners as a developmental tool, but which also sprouts as uplanned malaise, is an illustration of what mobility does to the interfaces along the margins of urban geography. Acceleration, which is a spiraling increase in speed, suggests less time of contact and friction with things on the way. There is only time enough to notice the façade, which, due to the speed of encounter, is more signal than sign. The highway is truly, strictly only infrastructural: a bare surface that provides the least friction possible to movement over very long distances. It is the speed that makes of the place a quickly readable image, a glimpse, that conveys the reassurance and promise of a decent stopping place. And that is quite a promise on the highway, a public infrastructure without any committed stopping places with clean toilets and trustworthy food. The Palace, with its deceptive name and façade, provides a reassuring mirage of a resting place on the highway desert.

Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The frontage before entering The Palace, where it provides a backdrop for dining, meeting, and the hanging out.
Credit: Seema Krishnakumar
The Palace at its most alluring, at night, from the highway.

During our ride back from sampling the evening ambiance and food, we were discussing The Palace as a transitory space, an image responding to the speed of the highway, when Qasimbhai, our driver, turned around and corrected us: The Palace was not just transitory, but was an evening destination for many families from the surrounding villages and even outer suburbs of the big city.

It was more than image, but an actual place to drive to in the evening, especially on weekends, family and all, for a full dining experience. It offered respite and a break from the peri-urban flow of everyday life, a deception made real by the performances of visiting, parking, and dining. In that sense, The Palace is a place with enough investment to continue existing only as a face, at least until it knows whether to grow a body or to vanish altogether because change would be rapid, progress would be swift, and development merciless in its 100 km/hr drive, forcing places like these to emerge, settle, and become part of the land, or just pack up and flee.

Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks to Akanksha Singh, Industrial Design Center, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India, for her timely support, without which the comparative image from Mumbai could not have been included in this article.

Authors

Neelakantan Keshavan

Neelakantan Keshavan teaches at the Department of Design within the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad, India. He is keenly interested in design as the cultivation, preservation, and proliferation of difference and heterogeneity. His research areas are visual and spatial culture, design as a discourse of visions, and architecture as an active search for being at home.

Seema Krishnakumar

Seema Krishnakumar has more than a decade of experience as a visual communicator, documentary photographer, and design faculty. Her research interests delve into the contemporary socio-cultural-political landscape through the language of visual medium. She is currently an assistant professor affiliated to the Department of Design, IIT Hyderabad.

Rajkumar Bejjanki

Rajkumar Bejjanki, a professional fine artist, animator, multidisciplinary designer, calligrapher, and handwriting trainer with several years of experience in crafting compelling multimedia narratives, is currently with the Department of Design at IIT, Hyderabad. His aspirational focus is on designing interactive communications for social change and connecting communities.

Cite as

Keshavan, Neelakantan, Seema Krishnakumar, and Rajkumar Bejjanki. 2024. “Transitory Facades: Architectures of the Middle-Somewhere.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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