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Wah! Taj in my living room: The possibilities of post-pandemic architecture

A sketch that imagines the Bandra-Worli sealink supporting townhouses

A sketch that imagines the Bandra-Worli sealink supporting townhouses   | Photo Credit: Darshit Nakrani & Khushika Sankhla

As all life goes online in the wake of the pandemic, it’s time to imagine a new future for urban architecture, one that is radical and equitable

Recently, when the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his Easter sermon, the cathedral’s visual splendour and its unusual acoustic timbre were unfortunately missing from the occasion — the archbishop spoke to a home audience from the dining room of his London flat.

At St. Peter’s in Rome, Pope Francis broke with centuries of tradition and livestreamed his Easter address to an audience of 1.3 million Catholics from the lonely magnificence of the largest dome in the world, with just television crews and trusted church elders present.

Is this the future of religion after the pandemic?

Kumbh Mela in bathtub?

If institutions like the Church of England can go digital, what stops Laxminarayan Temple in Delhi from broadcasting the evening aarti over the Internet? The history of cathedrals is part of European religious history, as indeed is the range of temples, churches and mosques in India. But after the experience of a million heads prostrated in unison at Mecca, can a private reading of the Quran be an adequate substitute for collective mass prayer? Will social distancing ever be possible at the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra? Could indeed the next Kumbh Mela of 120 million devotees become an immersion in a home bathtub with packaged Gangajal?

What is the future of architecture, of monuments, temples, mosques and elaborate landmarks, if all life is going online? Will great complexes like Angkor Wat, the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the churches of Italy, and the museums and concert halls of Europe become mere reminders of recent history — the physical age before the digital one? As the pandemic rages, it is hard to imagine crowds jostling at the new Ram Mandir being planned in Ayodhya, and yet it’s hard to imagine the Ram Mandir as a virtual structure, without physical dimensions or a construction budget.

Awaiting transformation

At least for some time in the foreseeable future, expanded digital platforms are likely to become the medium for large public participatory events. People who want to indulge in fine dining might order food from a Japanese restaurant and then eat it in front of a TV screen display of the interiors of a Japanese restaurant.

Fans may cheer a cricket match from their living rooms, with a collective of excited voices beamed to players on

Endless possibilities: A sketch that imagines a bus turned into a garden

Endless possibilities: A sketch that imagines a bus turned into a garden   | Photo Credit: Darshit Nakrani & Khushika Sankhla

the field from speakers hidden under the empty seats of the stadium. Yet, what is the real value of a city, unless it is formed out of active public participation? Why would so many people come to live together in one place if there were no reasons to connect to each other? Is the future city then a wasted place?

In a country that has never had outstanding modern edifices to public life — museums, libraries, theatres, concert halls — nonetheless, a vast array of buildings will still suddenly fall silent with social distancing. The vast chains of hotels, vacation resorts, malls, shopping centres and stadia across India will lie empty and forlorn, doomed to decay. Or they could be given a new lease of life.

As the old requirements from spaces die out, new ones reveal themselves. The three main areas where such new ideas could play out are hospitality, commerce and entertainment.

With tourism and travel the most obvious victims of the pandemic, hotels will largely lie empty. Would their conversion into private city apartments be a possibility? Could the Taj in Mumbai or the Oberoi in Delhi be the points of such transformation? What about malls, shopping centres and restaurants? With most forms of commerce moving online and home-delivery of food and groceries, these vacated spaces and their crucial location in key points across the city could make them ideal candidates for a useful addition of specialty hospitals and neighbourhood clinics.

Changed order

Just as homes have evolved into extended work spaces, large office buildings could enact a similar reversal, providing extended homes within the office area. Thus, work-from-home could be supplemented with live-in-office. The possibilities are endless.

A sketch that imagines paddy growing in front of Select Citywalk mall

A sketch that imagines paddy growing in front of Select Citywalk mall   | Photo Credit: Darshit Nakrani & Khushika Sankhla

Any future rethink of architecture must widen its humanistic arc to include everyone in the city’s participatory life. The old idea of the city must be given a new direction. More than ever, the government — using the architect community — needs to take insightful and radical positions. The pandemic has clearly pointed out the immense shortfalls in our urban life.

After this is over, as millions of migrants slowly return to cities and jobs, will they be given an assurance of better living conditions or will they merely creep back into their old decrepit crevices? Can the city reciprocate with a changed order of architectural priorities, and seek valuable lessons from new discomforts rather than return to old and flawed familiarities?

Architecture’s brief will be valuable only if it creates vivid and unapologetic solutions for a new reality. The profession’s most tragic failure has been its inability to take a stand on cultural and social patterns of city life. Retaining for itself the comfortable and irrelevant postures of design, its failure will become all the more obvious if it doesn’t participate in redefining a new, post-pandemic character for our cities.

In the end, that is where the difference will lie. Will we be saddled with a new set of urban ruins, adding crumbling hotels, stadia and malls to our existing stock of Mughal tombs and derelict monuments? Or will we take necessary — even outlandishly experimental — steps to create a diverse and unique skyline? At a time of such upheaval, the decisions that we don’t take may affect us more than we think.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 6:06:55 PM |

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