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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Cities without ideas

In levels of squalor, inefficiency, noise, disorder, visual pollution, weariness and decay, few would disagree that today’s Indian city is a waste of space.

Written by Gautambhatia |
November 5, 2008 12:50:43 am

In levels of squalor, inefficiency, noise, disorder, visual pollution, weariness and decay, few would disagree that today’s Indian city is a waste of space. But instead of tackling real problems, there is quicker relief in merely changing its visible contours. Armed with theatrical ideas of international appeal — buildings of mirrored glass and steel — it is easier for the city to be seen as progressive, rather than actually being so.

In the 60 years of urban design since Independence, the mindless borrowing of foreign ideas has left the Indian city teetering between awkward extremes. The citizen is condemned to half-baked clones of foreign models: Indonesian and Columbian rapid transit models, American clover leaf roads, New Jersey malls and cinemas, and Californian housing plans. The pretend suburbs of any expanding metropolis are filled with Malibu Villas, Westwood Townes, Amby Valleys, Beverly Parks and Darlington Heights — pretty English villages and LA condominiums set in a new Indian location. Has there over been a clear attempt to create an Indian place, based on our own urban demography, lifestyle and economics?

Few amongst Delhi’s elite corps of architects and urban planners would argue a case for the design and urbanity produced by the architecture of Greater Kailash. Yet when the metro proposed a raised line cutting through it, their protests conveniently overlooked the incoherent quality of the place, and raised abstract objections about sight lines, noise levels and urban visibility. While their effort at maintaining an architectural status quo is laudable, they sadly overlooked the potential to generate a more vivid engagement of citizens with their changing neighbourhoods.

Travel time for ideas on construction and technology to percolate into India is gratifyingly slow. (So slow that it allows architects to talk with authority about Gandhian ideals of mud construction at seminars). When they do come — usually via eastern Europe and Dubai — they fall squarely in the hands of the PWD, and watered down versions then appear in large-scale public projects. The AIIMS interchange in Delhi, for instance, was seen as pathbreaking design — allowing motorists to smoothly change directions without stopping. But as with many such projects, the self-adulation ignored the many other conditions which the flyover failed to address: pedestrian links between roads, its proximity to the city’s most crowded public hospitals, the need for overbridges, and all the secondary undercurrents that dictate traffic flow in an Indian city. Acutely aware of these shortcomings, the Delhi government initiated stern action. A Rs. 3 crore steel sculpture has been sanctioned on the grounds around the roadways, so that motorists can stop to admire it, and have an ice-cream before proceeding!

While urban art is itself a sound idea, its promotion within the cityscape must be carefully controlled by selective exposure. Moreover the government must recognise the temporal nature of public art. Not as a finite and permanent construction, but a perennially altering form that engages with the public. A windowless wall on a prominent Boston building is regularly repainted by scenes of what artists imagine may be happening inside the building. A similar exercise with a government structure in Delhi may be fruitful from several perspectives.

Public architecture too, faces an uncertain future. When Arunachal Pradesh recently announced the result of a national competition for the new Secretariat building in Itanagar, it came as a surprise that they chose to award the work to the third prize winner, without assigning a reason for their decision. Choosing to build the third best was as clear a signal from the government that they had no interest or obligation in promoting design quality and standards. Urban decisions, whether in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore are made by closeted government committees whose thrust is a two-fold form of public appeasement. Beautification for the middle-class, and municipal service for the underclass — vote getting techniques in which city life is an unfortunate victim.

In creating effective solutions out of their own situations, cities abroad have embarked on a range of urban ideals. A project worthy of note is the extraordinarily versatile sidewalk of Hong Kong. Crowded by high rise buildings, the city’s expansion was contained by its island confines. Moving people across narrow streets on the ground was cumbersome. Conventional sidewalks eventually gave way to a 3-dimensional network of pedestrian movement that linked buildings with sky bridges and street escalators. By contrast, in designing the incomplete BRT system for Delhi, designers happily ignoredpedestrian access. One way out of this was the advice of an industrial designer who suggested plying double deckers on the stretch, so passengers could exit from the upper floor to a ramp that would bring them safely to the sidewalk. But since the idea had not been tried anywhere, it was dropped.

Could imaginative transport systems and public landscapes be implemented in a place that has a stranglehold of bickering municipal bodies? Unconstrained by urban bylaws, has any builder ever attempted anything beyond the most predictable and banal? To connect the roof tops of apartment houses and create an unusual landscape of clubs and cabanas, like recent projects in Madrid? Or used particular species of trees along the road because they don’t restrict vision? Why bother — the profits are too comfortable to risk innovation.

The writer, a Delhi-based architect, is author of ‘Punjabi Baroque and Other Memories of Architecture’

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