Western civilization, in particular, has long had a love-hate relationship with cities. “People come together in cities in order to live,” wrote Aristotle. “They remain together in order to live the good life”. It's no accident that the term ‘civilization' comes from the same root as ‘city' and that those who pictured ideal societies often located them in cities. Yet throughout the ages cities have also been seen as dirty, corrupt, and as evidence of the debilitating effects of ‘soft' living; more recently the industrial city has been characterised as dehumanising and alienating.
Perhaps something of this ambiguity regarding cities can be sensed in Auroville. In the early years, a number of the people were drawn to Auroville through seeing pictures of the Galaxy model; some even arrived here expecting the city to have been built. Yet very few – if any – saw themselves living in one of Roger Anger's multi-storey ‘Lines of Force'. Somehow the concept attracted them more than the reality.
In truth, the city was not a big topic for early Aurovilians – they had more pressing concerns and, anyway, city planning was more Roger's province. But some of the early Aurovilians did have major reservations about the Galaxy plan and this was partly tied up with negative images of urban life. It was never clearly verbalised, but somehow cities expressed everything that was wrong with modern civilisation: overcrowded, artificial, mechanical, lacking in true human contact. Indeed, in one sense the initial tree-planting project in which so many Aurovilians took part was like a cleansing, a renewal, a return to Eden (sores and all). So it's not really surprising that the Galaxy languished on the drawing-board.
Fast forward to the late 1980s. As the forests grew up and the pioneering edge softened, a different breed was attracted to Auroville. Unlike the early Aurovilians, many of these newcomers had had professional careers, they had financial means and didn't seem to share the same hang-ups regarding urban life. Meanwhile the situation on the ground had changed; much more land had been acquired in the city area. So it was, after some agonising reflection – there were still Aurovilians who felt nothing should be built in the city area unless it conformed to the ideal forms of the Galaxy model – that the first urban communities began to be constructed. ‘Urban', of course, is a relative term. While all of the new settlements were located within the city zone, Surrender with its individual houses and gardens had more the feeling of a suburb. Arati, Invocation and Vikas are all apartment buildings, but that is about all. They lack the urban context, the density and variety of activities which make a city so dynamic. Nor were these new apartment blocks necessarily an advertisement for relatively high-density living. The Prarthana apartments, for example, had such poor acoustic insulation that it was possible to hear the tinkle of your neighbours' teacups, to follow every twist and turn in their convoluted relationship, while sitting comfortably ensconced in your armchair. Vikas began with a set of rules for community living which made it sound rather like an army boot camp before the residents revolted and settled down to nuclear living.
No doubt these teething problems were one reason why people still continued to regularly turn up in the Greenbelt prospecting for a place to build their dream house. (“I need only a very small space, like between those trees over there. Well, maybe one or two of the trees would have to go…”)
Today the next phase in city construction is well under way. Over the next few years, at least six new apartment blocks and other urban settlements will be built, providing many new residences. A substantial number have already been purchased or allocated. Partly, no doubt, this is because the present policy discourages the construction of individual houses in the city and it is difficult to build your dream home anywhere else. But it may also reflect a seismic shift in how Aurovilians view the city and city living.
For example, some of those who have signed up for the new apartments are gnarled old-timers. As one of them put it, “it's time to move to the centre”. Why?
Well, there comes a time in life when the pleasure of living on three acres with two cows, a broken biogas plant and a small army of workers begins to wane; when a neat little labour-saving apartment which can simply be locked up when you go away becomes increasingly attractive.
But perhaps it's more than that.
For the centre, at least potentially, provides a richness and diversity of experience and interactions not available in the boondocks. Then again, as the Greenbelt is progressively nibbled away by developers and outsiders building farmhouses, spas and guest houses, there's a feeling that the centre is better protected from such ‘dilution'.
At a much less mundane level, many are convinced that building the city is bound up with the raison d'être of Auroville, that Mother wanted a city here and it's time we began living it. And then, of course, there is the Matrimandir. It's difficult to know how many Aurovilians visit it regularly. Yet even those who visit it infrequently seem to feel that the centre of the city has a different presence; as one of them put it recently, “the air is different here”.
So could the movement to the centre signal something deeper than a mere longing for lazier living and the city ‘buzz'? A realization, perhaps, that it's time to return to essentials? That the real work of building Auroville is about to begin?