Irrationalism in city planning

It is better to go back to the drawing board in designing Amaravati

September 18, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has reportedly sought further improvements to the design by the international architectural firm Foster + Partners for the Amaravati start-up area. It is further reported that he has suggested certain changes and favoured the direct interaction of the architects with film director S.S. Rajamouli to seek his inputs to give finishing touches to the plans.

No explanation is to be found of the suggested “certain changes” or “finishing touches”.

There are two issues in the Amaravati city project — one of professional integrity and the other of public interest. Both are important, and the reason that they are interlinked in this article is that the lack of the former has made possible irresponsible and improper administrative action of major public expense and serious consequence.

Many changes

To summarise the murky happenings of the Amaravati city project: In March 2016, Maki and Associates were declared as winners of an invited competition for the Amaravati capital complex. The competition was adjudged by a jury of professionals but the jury’s report on shortcomings or strengths of the winning design has not been made public.

When the design itself was made public, it was harshly criticised on several counts — that it was similar to the public buildings at Chandigarh; it was too futuristic; it did not display any Indian characteristics, etc. Maki and Associates claim they had made extensive design changes to meet the new demands, but in spite of that, the government decided to reopen the competition and remove the firm from the project. Complaining to the Council of Architecture (CoA) in December 2016, the principal architect of the firm, Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, questioned the motivations of the Andhra Pradesh government committee, alleging unfair practice, a lack of transparency and his firm’s ‘fraudulent’ removal from the project.

Whether the CoA has recognised and taken any action on Mr. Maki’s complaint is not known.

The ‘Baahubali’ factor

In December, the State appointed the U.K.-based Foster + Partners along with Hafeez Contractor as the new architects for the project. At the same time, it announced that the project would be assisted by three film and art directors of Indian cinema. The reason was that the three had done extensive research on history, architecture, and culture for their films and their inputs were likely to be of enormous value in giving a native touch to the design. There were indications that the powers that be wanted Amaravati to be modelled on the lines of the fantasy city portrayed in the film Baahubali .

The city of the film is neither contemporary nor ahead of its time. It has been set in an ancient kingdom, the form of which is, at best, drawn from mythological stories and depicted in children’s comic books. There is no authentic representation of such cities to use as a reference.

Amaravati itself had earlier been criticised as an ‘ultra-mega-world-class-city’ that was being rushed through by destroying thousands of acres of prime farm and forest land. Proper environmental impact assessment had not been done, and the Prime Minister was criticised for participating in the foundation stone-laying event.

The State has consistently disregarded criticism of its fair approach regarding architectural design consultancy and also to the conditions imposed on architects that make a mockery of evaluating city planning issues sensitively. As architect A. Srivathsan has written in The Wire , “What is of concern are the frequent and opaque changes, the lack of professionalism and accountability. The real danger in the Amaravati story is that a serious, positive planning process has been turned into a flight of whimsy and that public projects remain captive to state caprice.”

It is hardly surprising that things have come to a head again. This unscientific and irrational approach to city planning and architecture displays the extent to which the malaise has spread. Public money is being wasted on political hubris and nonsensical notions of public architecture.

It is time that all right-thinking citizens, especially professionals, condemn this situation and demand a more rational, transparent, open and fair process in the design and construction. It is better to go back to the drawing board now than to suffer the impact of senseless design later.

Tara Murali is an architect

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