Urbanscape Cities

‘The private home has done more harm to Indian urbanism than any other building’

Look down from a plane and see fertile, watery landscapes dismembered and replaced by unseemly smudges of concrete.

Look down from a plane and see fertile, watery landscapes dismembered and replaced by unseemly smudges of concrete.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Almost 60% of all cities are a jumble of domestic plaster pretentions that have no coherent bearing on urban values

Just outside Pune is Lavasa, an ambitious new city that started taking shape in the early 2000s. The planners hired a foreign architect to give it a Mediterranean look, complete with stucco buildings and seaside villas. Within a few years, the weathered facades and street grime has turned it into a ramshackle, sad affair.

When plans were announced for Amravati, Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city, all the catchphrases of urban design were tossed about: smart city, IT city, sustainable habitat, green architecture, etc. Then, after an international competition, a foreign architect was selected. Soon, he was dropped. Others were shortlisted, including a famous Bollywood set designer. Finally, an Indian architect was selected. And eventually the entire project was dropped.

Now, in Delhi, plans are afoot to challenge the century-old legacy of Edwin Lutyens and redesign the Central Vista, including Parliament house. The project is shrouded in the sort of secrecy accorded to military operations.

These are just a few examples of the tragedy that is the Indian city — the ease with which architecture is made, misrepresented, manhandled, manipulated, then left to wither and die.

Perverse designs

The Indian city is made — or rather, unmade — by two types of buildings. The private home, expressed as individual bungalow or apartment; and the larger institution or commercial office. Covered in coats of fetish, decorated and desperate to convey identity, the private home has done more harm to Indian urbanism than any other building. It shifts uneasily in its armour and offers its own shamelessly perverse view of design and its owner’s brash reading of architecture. The architect merely a facilitator in this exercise of self-expression.

The resulting incoherence is visible across urban India — whether Delhi and Bhopal, or Bengaluru and Chennai. The city sells land to a private builder, who in turn sells plots to home owners, who will then turn a private wedding cake into public life. Almost 60% of all cities are a jumble of domestic plaster pretentions that have no coherent bearing on urban values.

Look down from a plane above Kochi, Udaipur or Patna, and watch as a fertile, watery landscape of fields or low hills is dismembered slowly, piece by piece, till land disappears and is replaced by an unseemly smudge of concrete. Closer down, the concrete appears scarred and broken, coloured plaster buildings overrun by water tanks, broken roads, and half-built incomplete structures.

The more deliberate architecture of institutional or commercial buildings constructs an equally disruptive picture. Office, shopping, recreation, entertainment — the buildings are merely hermetically sealed enclosures of concrete and glass. Through dust and dirt, near slum and shanty, the new architecture of glass and neon creates calculated distractions — shimmering places built amid piles of rubble and excreta, offering posh public occupancy to a select few.

The glaring contradiction no longer appals or surprises. Seen out of plate glass, the view of pigs in garbage only makes the short distance between rich and poor more impossible to bridge. The fear that urban public spaces may one day actually demand a public dimension keeps the divide firmly in place.

Behind high walls

As a culture, how have we learnt to accept such high levels of ugliness, incoherence and incompetence in our daily life? Where does architecture stop and life begin? It is a question without an answer. When the practice of building is sheathed in so private a cloak that the only work that architects wish to do is behind high boundary walls, then architecture achieves a new level of urban redundancy. When architecture does not support any visual or sensory urban value, or any quality of civic life, is it even architecture? Perhaps a new code is required, with fresh guidelines for new constructions.

If Mumbai’s old Taj Hotel had been lifted up a few floors, it would have opened up a seaside space for public use and earned the city’s eternal gratitude. Instead, Mumbai’s most valuable public face near the sea is reserved for private profit

Let us start by setting limits on private ownership of land. The disparity of two people in a 12-acre farmhouse and 12 people in a two-room hut will always make for an uncomfortable social mix, unless we set in motion long-term correction measures. The size of home must match the size of family. And it should be followed by removing boundary walls and putting an end to gated communities. Accessibility and visibility are crucial aspects for a connected community — a safe neighbourhood built on trust rather than security cameras. A barrier-free city is the first and most crucial cohesion expected of any neighbourhood.

Secondly, a host of parallel architectural initiatives need to be put into practice. Every private building must have a public dimension. A house should be approved for construction only if it provides civic value to the street — a tree, a water fountain, a sit-out, a shaded arcade. The ground floors of houses in Bologna are built as continuous arcades offering a shaded walk for pedestrians. In Stockholm, where apartment residents don’t have access to a public park, private home owners open their gardens to them. Such heightened civility may be difficult in India, but there are numerous ways in which a house can integrate with the neighbourhood and still remain private.

Third, we need diverse residential areas. For this, all professional, economic and ethnic divisions must be abolished. Apartment buildings that successfully integrate the widest mix of diverse people should receive tax incentives and benefits. Building designs that encourage the isolation of cars rather than people should take precedence over luxury buildings with pools and valet parking.

And finally, we need a similar approach to zoning and usage. The ability to provide better, more thoughtful public uses, even at the expense of breaking building by-laws, must be considered. It can help formulate more people-oriented regulations.

In an area of dense office blocks in midtown Manhattan, a builder was allowed to lift his new building an extra four floors if he released three stories of ground space as an open plaza for the public. To allow such a huge variance from local regulations makes for more conscious understanding of urban life than a dogmatic rule-based approach.

If Mumbai’s old Taj Hotel had similarly been lifted up a few floors, it would have opened up a seaside space for public use and earned the city’s eternal gratitude. Instead, Mumbai’s most valuable public face near the sea is reserved for private profit. Luxury for the few needs to be weighed against the architectural benefits they provide for the city at large. This is where architecture that encourages secondary or multiple functions is vastly preferable.

No flights of fancy

For all its large-scale projects and grandiose plans, urban architecture offers no selfless acts of generosity or gifts to the spirit. No surprise gardens hidden behind walls, no water courses or arcades built for no reason at all. No maze where citizens can lose themselves. No urban recognition of seasonal variations, no monsoon greens or summer gardens. No flights of fancy, nothing.

Less than 1% of all buildings are designed by architects but given its parochial approach to design and to the city, it is hard to think of architecture as a profession of any public value. In project after project, it has left a trail of failures, proof of its own unsustainability.

Look at some noticeable public works of the last decade. Housing in the new capital of Naya Raipur is a tedious bureaucratic layout in a vast hive of second-rate assemblies, usurping and desecrating agricultural land. Recent apartment projects in Kidwai and Naoroji Nagar in Delhi abandoned the opportunity to create a model for urban living, with car-less, green homes. Instead, it stayed with the old PWD outlines.

What will remain in memory of all this new work? Will the Ambani residence in Mumbai be remembered for its owner or for its design, the Commonwealth Games for its expenditure or its unmemorable structures? Who cares about the new capitals of Naya Raipur or Amravati the way Nehru did for Chandigarh?

A profession that treats cities merely as real estate opportunities can hardly be expected to influence the lives of people. The failed city, the failing neighbourhood, and failed public works are the failures of a profession that’s entirely detached from civic life. And fast moving to obsolescence.

The dreary state of civic life today is the direct outcome of what is built, how, why, and by whom. Our absence of reaction to architecture is the first sign that something is terribly wrong about our visual culture. Architecture goes unnoticed, art is closeted in galleries, pleasing public spaces are non-existent. Consequently, the experience of the city is neither warm nor intimidating, but an uneasy passing amnesia.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 9:06:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/the-private-home-has-done-more-harm-to-indian-urbanism-than-any-other-building/article30213927.ece

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