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How will Covid-19 change our cities?

The pandemic and lockdowns to tackle it have raised many questions about the future of urban living.

The novel coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that were put in place across the world to tackle it pose questions about the future of urban living. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

Think of a city that has a skin that can inflate and deflate, depending on the number of people it needs to accommodate. A house that can be lifted on a crane and perched on skyscrapers and detached when your work in the city is done. What if a city can hang off an airship and land overnight in a place, with a kit of moveable parts? In the late 1960s, when modernism was making chunky cubes of houses for people to live in and grids for urban layouts, a group of six British architects came together to form Archigram. They began with a single-page magazine that was filled with collages, poems and visuals of utopian possibilities of a city — flexible, mobile and adaptable. The group would challenge generations of architects to build, dream and envision possible futures. Though Archigram never built any city and critics called them out for their assumption that the earth had endless resources, many of their ideas seem to have found their way into our everyday, from escalators to monorails.

The novel coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that were put in place across the world to tackle it pose questions about the future of urban living. In India, among the images seared into public memory are those of crowds cheering on balconies of towering apartments and private homes, and that of workers streaming out of cities, walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes. Some of “us”, for whom home remained a safe place, raised the drawbridges, switched on our
WiFi and disconnected from the outside. We created islands for ourselves within our homes, while the migrant worker moved out of his dwelling place.

“Today it’s the pandemic, tomorrow it could be an intense heat wave or a global climate crisis. Confined living will become the way forward,” says Thiruvananthapuram-based urban designer and architect Manoj Kumar Kini. A possible future model, he says, lies in the example of Arcosanti. Sometime in the 1970s, Italian architect Paolo Soleri planned a future city that would meld ecology and architecture. In the Arizona desert, he envisioned the utopian metropolis, Arcosanti. Its ribbed vaults allowed ample light and air to filter into spaces, and encouraged a sense of community. One could walk to the office or workshop, compost with one’s neighbour or walk out of one’s house into the thick of cultural action. While it had its faults, be it the people who lived there or the unadaptability of the structure, it offered a worldview that could change the way we live.

Closer home, Auroville near Puducherry aimed to be a place with “a new consciousness”, with like-minded people from all over the world making it their home. “In the future, urban living could be like something between an apartment and a township like Dwarka in Delhi, where compact living will be the norm, with people choosing to walk, cycle or take public transport, because distance will compress. We will travel less, have a smaller ecological footprint, and have more time with family,” says Kini.

Could buildings of the future be about empathy, about an architect who “places himself/herself in the role of a future dweller and tests the validity of the ideas through this imaginative exchange of roles and personalities?” asks Finnish architect and thinker Juhani Pallasmaa in the book Architecture and Empathy (Peripheral Projects; 2015). Will buildings become a shared resource? Can a university and a corporate office be in the same campus? Can government administration and cultural centres coexist? “Maybe it will open up spaces in the city, between building and non-building, where designers and architects will need to intervene to revitalise, renovate, and renew. We will have to get off our Autocads and get our hands dirty. Just the way you now want a hairdresser to come home, people might want an architect to come home and use what they have to build anew, since money and building resources will be hard to come by,” says architect Moulshri Joshi of the Delhi-based firm Space Matters.

“Until now, we were aware of those who lived on pavements, in slums and chawls and overcrowded small apartments. But we didn’t realise there is another lot of people who live in corridors, garages, attics, mezzanines, and lofts in every city, and their numbers are staggering. When the city turns its back on them, where can they go?” says architect and habitat professional Kirtee Shah, who lives in Ahmedabad.

For the poor migrant to the city, there is a place called home in the village and a city where he earns his daily bread. “For some, the home is a ‘resort’ but for those who don’t have that privilege, the city was their home. It gave them certainty. What does it mean to not have that in a lockdown? There are no easy answers, but we need to think of ideas of care and how we can create those spaces in our cities. How can we create different levels of communities and what will those spaces be?” says Mumbai-based architect and urbanist Rupali Gupte.

In a recent letter to Praveen Pardeshi, former municipal commissioner of Mumbai, Shah offered suggestions for handling the slum crisis in the city. From using vacant houses and unsold inventory in housing for migrants and using rooftops of public buildings to create temporary housing stock, Shah pushed for more dignified dwelling units.
He recounts his keynote address at the opening of the “State of Housing” exhibition in Mumbai in 2018. He asked an audience of nearly a 100 people, a majority of them architects, if they had heard of Indira Awaas Yojana. “Only a few hands went up. It was one of the world’s biggest social housing projects, which lasted nearly 30 years and built more than 20 million houses, but India’s architects barely intervened. It speaks volumes about the disconnect architects have with society,” he says.

While architects design on a computer, the drawings are executed by masons, carpenters and unskilled labourers. “They are the ones who convert our dreams into beautiful projects. So I asked, ‘Since most of you visit your sites at least every two weeks, how many of you have seen the conditions in which the workers live?’ Barely one hand came up,” says Shah. “We need to rethink and reshape our cities which are inhuman and hostile to the people who build them.”
In the letter, Shah suggests renegotiating terms with employers so that workers are provided better places to live. “… [It] could be a rented place in a slum redevelopment colony, in an affordable low-income settlement, in a slum where a family is willing to rent a room, or in a liveable tent on a public building terrace.”

The comfort of home for migrants is also the sense of security that comes from the physical and figurative boundaries in a village. Numerous migrants testified to the urgent need of going home, even if it meant starvation or death. “Homes in villages have their own layering. The epidermis that holds you in. You have the aangans (courtyards), and within that the public threshold, and then within them bigger rooms, and then your own room, your clothes, your body. Here, the epidermis of life has always existed, which is not affected by the commodities of the world. With it comes immunity, when your food and shelter is homegrown,” says Bengaluru-based architect Varun Thautam, who conducts workshops on handmade buildings. “Today, in cities, we don’t know who grows our food or where our water comes from. But staying local is the only way forward,” he argues. Case in point: the lockdown proved that the kirana shop and the immediate neighbourhood was equipped to handle most of our needs.

“It is in a crisis that our true belonging to a place is revealed. We want to return to our villages because our heart is at home,” says Chennai-based architect-academic Durganand Balsavar. He speaks of what he learnt from his experiences of working with Sri Lankan civil war refugees and those displaced by the 2004 tsunami in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Many of the Sri Lankan women, for instance, were skilled at weaving mats. Balsavar, with his team at Artes-Human Settlements Development Collaborative, encouraged them to use these as partitions for their new homes. “That should be the way forward for families returning to their villages, too, during the lockdown. None of them want anything free, they are glad to engage their skills in a productive manner. That is what we should be doing, respecting dignity and pride in their work,” he says.

Home is about identity and self-definition, an expression of belonging. While our cities privilege privacy and gated elements and also disconnection from the larger masses, in our villages networks are cyclical and form the basis of life. The city and its lack of interdependency is what causes alienation. Pratik Dhanmer of Design Jatra, a rural research and architectural firm in Dahanu, Maharashtra, speaks of how the layout of houses in villages enhance interaction, where verandahs face each other and children are secure playing on the streets.

Balsavar recounts what he noticed in Nagapattinam soon after the tsunami. Several families had abandoned their newly-built concrete-box shelters. These fine engineered solutions for living put the kitchens at the back of the house. The original homes had the kitchens in the front, which enabled women to talk among themselves, keep an eye on their children playing on the street, not to mention the excellent cross-ventilation they afforded. However, in the new homes, the kitchen was pushed to the back of the house, which meant the women worked in isolation, their front doors were shut and the streets empty. “The idea of a rural home has many layers, which architects, sociologists and engineers can learn from,” says Balsavar.

While we rejoiced in employing our city balconies as a stage for approval, with all the bells and whistles, it has rarely become a site for interaction all these years. It’s the park view we seek and not the sense of community. In fact, in many homes, balconies are seen as obstacles in the way of carpet area. Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia has planned a design where the community is not compromised. In cities where we privilege privacy, what are the possible combinations which allow for the public and the private to come together? “Over the last couple of decades, life has been going into lockdown by itself. Within homes, too, entertainment was becoming private and recreation was getting isolated. So, the idea of an apartment that shares community values yet allows you to keep your privacy is the aim.

These would be about 800-1,000 sq. ft houses, varying from one-two bedrooms. The remaining spaces are given over to the community, with meeting rooms and games areas. The idea is to force you out of your confinement. You pay much less for private space and get more shared space. You will be forced to go out into verandahs. Unlike high-end apartments that are self-contained, where there is no sense of sharing,” he says. There is the need to change by-laws in our cities to accommodate more public spaces and integrate all classes to live side by side. The future, Bhatia says, is in smaller homes and rental housing.

The coronavirus has exposed the artificial and abnormal in society, argues Delhi-based Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective, which is curating the Yokohama Triennale 2020. “There is an enormous amount of resources spent to ensure that our society is not democratic. Delhi, for instance, is a lot about gated communities and large resources are used to keep people out. We are living in a highly artificially maintained dystopia. Architects and urban designers can show a new way and plan how our cities can be for the next 100 years. But I don’t see them coming together to demand a commitment to urban housing from any regime.” “Ultimately, it will not be about big projects but keeping life cycles intact, which our vernacular societies have always done, where life is not a straight line and relationships are important,” says Thautam.

Maybe, our cities ought to be like Ersilia, from Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities (1972), where relationships nurture life, and “its inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of their houses” across the city to mark connections, be it for trade or fellowship. So that, even when walls come crumbling down and homes cease to exist, the “labyrinth of taut strings” will continue to exist.

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