The shape of our cities: On Ranjit Sabikhi’s latest book, A Sense of Space

Architect Ranjit Sabikhi and (right) a snapshot of the book’s cover   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For the last 60 years, architect and urban designer Ranjit Sabikhi has worked on designs that celebrate the relationship of buildings with their surrounding spaces. From shopping malls and housing complexes to office buildings and large urban design projects, Sabikhi has done it all. In his recent book, A Sense of Space, he explores why this relationship has not featured in the official plans of cities, what traditional architecture is all about, and what could make for meaningful solutions to India’s urban crisis.

In the 70s, Sabikhi was Head of the Department of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, and has also been a Visiting Critic for the Urban Design Program in GSD Harvard University and at School of Architecture in Washington University St. Louis. He did a two-year stint with Chamberlin Powell & Bon in London where he worked on the Golden Lane Housing project and early concept designs for the Barbican.

The skyline at Rajiv Chowk, New Delhi

The skyline at Rajiv Chowk, New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Kabi1990, Wiki Common

Excerpts from an interview:

1. If you had to break down the book into three broad categories, what would they be?

l A study of the indigenous development of space in our cities over time, and its relevance to planning and urban design in the present context.

l The growth and development of New Delhi over the last 60 years. The introduction of development controls with the 1961 Master Plan for Delhi, followed by the Master Plan for Delhi Perspective 2001, and the Delhi Master Plan 2021. It is a record of the gradual deviation of actual development from Master Plan land use stipulations.

l The parallel study of space and change in some of our own projects implemented over the last 60 years.

2. The design of our cities has changed tremendously over the years. What led to this?

The change in our cities has been influenced by a number of factors. Firstly, the steady growth of people migrating to the cities in search of employment. As rural migrants settled and increased their incomes, they developed permanent homes and brought in their families. This upward mobility brought about a process of steady change in the demand and nature of settlements.

Overall economic growth also brought about change in the profile of cities with the development of infrastructure, transportation systems, etc.

3. What are the major changes in design you see from then and now?

To a large extent, changes in the approach to design have been conditioned by economic factors. When we started our professional practice in the early 60s, building resources were limited — in terms of the choice of materials available and the systems of construction too. Most projects were carried out by labour contractors, and there were few construction companies with adequate infrastructure. As a result, we had to keep track of these constraints and still ensure our designs were inventive.

It was a challenge to design buildings with such limitations. We used load-bearing brickwork and limited the use of reinforced concrete. We used concrete only for structural slabs as it was expensive. Similarly, houses did not have air conditioners, only fans, and sleeping areas were either in balconies or on rooftops. It is only over the last 30 years that lifestyles have steadily changed.

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh   | Photo Credit: Akash Malviya

4. What were your major findings while writing and researching for the book?

The book explores how cities like New Delhi and Chandigarh have grown over time. The study of Chandigarh reflects the changes on-ground and the impact it has had on the original plan conceived by Le Corbusier. Researching for the book made me realise that cities are dynamic organisations that steadily change over time. However, the general approach to planning is the static putting together of buildings and space without a proper provision for inevitable change, which happens as spaces evolve with change of use.

5. How can planners and architects work on the design flaws of cities.

Cities don’t have flaws. Their residents adapt spaces to meet their needs. It is the planners and architects who tend to consider buildings as their aesthetic creations, as objects to be looked at and admired, not as objects designed to accommodate use and change. This particular aspect (of design flaws) refers to the space around and between buildings, which (depending on how they are used) tends to define the character of cities.

An arial view of Hauz Khas Village

An arial view of Hauz Khas Village   | Photo Credit: Sounak Sinha

6. What are the positives you see in our cities?

Dynamic public spaces constitute the major positives in our cities. The sharing of schools, health centres, community halls, open spaces and parks and interactions with people from different walks of life are all representative of the features that cities have to offer.

7. What can one learn from the treatment of spaces in your building projects?

I look at the creation of urban space as an important component in many of the projects I have worked on.

In New Delhi’s Yamuna Apartments, the space between and around the buildings reflects the interaction between residents, converging on the central meeting space which holds the complex together. In Agra’s Mughal Hotel, the large landscaped central court — with the swimming pool surrounded by guest rooms — helped define a new way of looking at hotels.

In the District Centre at Janakpuri, the open courts winding between the office buildings, shopping arcades and pedestrian plazas have made it an important public space. The courts and open spaces in the capital’s August Kranti Bhawan reflect a similar approach to a complex designed to accommodate a variety of different uses.

Published by HarperCollins India, A Sense of Space

is priced at ₹1,499 and

available on

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 1:39:02 AM |

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