In search of the best designer

State governments must commission public and infrastructure projects through open competitions to get the most out of the country’s urban planners

September 29, 2023 03:23 pm | Updated 07:27 pm IST

A giant heart art installation and selfie point at Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad. 

A giant heart art installation and selfie point at Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad.  | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

India is in the throes of a major urban transformation, an endeavour that promises to reshape our nation’s future. The past few years have seen a slew of large-scale urban development and public infrastructure projects commissioned and/or completed in our country, which include the Sabarmati Riverfront development in Ahmedabad, the Dharavi slum redevelopment in Mumbai, and, of course, the much-celebrated redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi.

A view of Dharavi against the backdrop of skyscrapers in Mumbai.

A view of Dharavi against the backdrop of skyscrapers in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

These projects already have or will transform the face of their respective cities and have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. They also have the potential to redefine urban living for years to come and catalyse economic development. However, some of these projects are based on questionable design and urban planning practices, which begs the question: are the processes of commissioning these projects necessarily effective towards realising the aspirations for which they were conceptualised? Are we harnessing the best design talent and expertise that our country has to offer?

National War Memorial in New Delhi, with India Gate in the background.

National War Memorial in New Delhi, with India Gate in the background. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Good public and social infrastructure in our neighbourhoods and cities can bring people joy, make our cities better, safer, and more sustainable, and create a better experience for citizens.

Many State governments and planning authorities in India are continuing to invest large capital to upgrade urban infrastructure. Last month, the National Housing Bank (NHB) operationalised the ₹10,000-crore Urban Infrastructure Development Fund (UIDF) aimed at supplementing the efforts of State governments for infrastructure projects in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Permissible activities under the UIDF include a ‘comprehensive area development project’, under which five types of works can be sanctioned — transit-oriented development (TOD), heritage conservation, preparation of local area plan for decongestion, planning of greenfield areas and setting up of parks and open gyms.

I believe that these efforts to create better, sustainable and safer cities are commendable. Yet, it is imperative to recognise that without proper vision and thought, consultation with professionals, and processes for commissioning, the risk of futility and mediocrity looms large, with projects not necessarily effective at addressing the challenges or realising the aspirations for which they were set out.

Site of a road development project in Mumbai.

Site of a road development project in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For instance, the Mumbai Coastal Road Project was conceptualised to address the city’s transportation challenges and over the last four years, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has already spent over ₹12,000 crore on it. However, it will not make life any easier for the vast majority of Mumbai citizens since it will primarily benefit a minuscule percentage of the city’s population that owns cars.

Additionally, over recent months, it has become clear that this project will give rise to 175 acres of public spaces — spaces that have the potential to be transformed into parks and open spaces for lakhs of people, but the process and status of appointing an architectural or planning team to bring this vision to life remains unclear.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Some of the best-designed buildings and projects in India, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, the Chambal Riverfront project in Kota, Rajasthan, the Buckingham Canal project in Chennai, and the National War Memorial in Delhi, were commissioned through design competitions and have, over time, become significant parts of their respective city’s culture and landmarks. Globally, projects such as the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, and the High Line in New York City were also commissioned similarly and today shine as success stories for their cities and people.

Buckingham Canal project in Chennai

Buckingham Canal project in Chennai | Photo Credit: Karunakaran M.

Governments in India, whether at the centre or at the state level, need to undertake a similar approach to the process of designing and building infrastructure for all upcoming public and infrastructure projects — open public competitions to attract some of the best designers, architects, and urban planners, and therefore, the best ideas, designs, and solutions. This will serve as a great opportunity for several practitioners from across the country to participate in such competitions and work collectively with the government to build world-class landmarks and improve the country’s infrastructure and cities.

The Council of Architecture (COA) — a statutory body constituted by the Government of India under the provisions of the Architects Act, 1972 — has laid out guidelines for organising such competitions. These guidelines are set out to ensure that competitions are fair and transparent and safeguard the interest of both – the promoter and architects. They also emphasise the importance of a clear and concise brief, having a fair and impartial jury, and having a clear and transparent selection process.

Chambal Riverfront in Kota, Rajasthan

Chambal Riverfront in Kota, Rajasthan | Photo Credit: PTI

While some governments and planning authorities across the country have conducted design competitions and/or invited respected practitioners to submit proposals for public projects in the recent past, there is more that needs to be done.

For instance, the Amaravati capital complex and city planning project, even though it stands shelved today, presents a distressing example of how governments can do lip service to the idea of consultation and engagement with the professional community. Expert recommendations on the feasibility of the project were dismissed at multiple stages, and there were frequent invitations, appointments, dismissals and reappointments of professionals that were seemingly politically motivated.

In another instance, the BMC invited architects and urban designers to submit proposals for improving streets in Mumbai in 2019. Five design firms were selected as winners. However, in January 2021, the firms were notified that their services were not required any more. The BMC has since invited tenders for a project along similar lines.

Rahul Kadri

Rahul Kadri | Photo Credit: special arrangement

World Architecture Day is a timely reminder that our city’s future is inextricably linked to the spaces we create today. The places we inhabit, the structures we encounter daily, and the cityscapes we navigate shape our experiences and our collective identity. It is within this context that we must raise a vital issue that concerns all citizens — the need for reform in the way public architecture and city infrastructure projects are commissioned.

The writer is partner and Principal, IMK Architects.

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