Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
India 2000: a mirror of stagnation
Partha Ranjan Das
The author is a Calcutta based architect, associated with various projects including the Ambuja housing scheme.
The other day, I was leafing through the sketchbook of an artist friend. He had prepared a series of wonderful sketches on cities like Calcutta, Benares, Tiruchi, Jodhpur and Indore. They depicted the vibrant life inside organically grown cities. Narrow lanes, busy retail activity at the street level - claustrophobic residential quarters on top - birds perched on clotheslines on the second floor eyeing morsels of food below. Other drawings depicted grand buildings, temples, mosques, churches - a collage of a variety of shapes crowding the skyline and, somehow, making a city out of them.
Paresh Maity/ Fotomedia
Fascinating drawings. I could see that my friend was in love with these cities. "You should leave Chandigarh and start living in one of these cities," I said, "they have so much more to offer you. By the way, I don't see any sketches of Chandigarh." I feigned surprise even though I knew the answer. My friend smiled and said "It doesn't inspire the artist in me. If only we could combine the convenience of Chandigarh with the vibrancy of the old cities, we would have the ideal Indian city."
"But what about the architecture?" I made one last attempt at defending the modern city. "Cities like Chandigarh and New Delhi have provided the much needed platform for new architecture to emerge."
"Maybe," he answered, "but to what extent has it served its purpose? Most of the new buildings are either strong personal statements or half-hearted attempts at cloning a prototype to suit the builders' convenience, be it private or government construction. How much has it served the public in general?"
The architect in me got a little annoyed. Who does he think he is? What does he understand about architecture anyway? But I knew that he was speaking the truth. Contemporary architecture in India has failed to inspire.
What or who contributed to this failure? Among many reasons, the population explosion and our inability to control its many consequences is one. Most of the state governments' lack of awareness and apathy towards the urban sector is another. A less than satisfactory standard of architecture education is a definite third.
Bank of China building, Hong Kong.
I would leave out the occasional Charles Correas and B. V. Doshis and talk about the general standard as Correas and Doshis are not produced by colleges, nor are they deterred by government apathy or invasion of the third kind by the property developers. But that leaves us with a rather bleak scenario of urban architecture.
Perhaps the worst of the lot is our public buildings. Gone are the days when one could be proud of the city's public places. They used to symbolise cities and their aspirations. But our cities are still symbolised by the pre-independence buildings. Calcutta is synonymous with the Victoria Memorial or the Ochterlony Monument. I cannot imagine the New Secretariat building or the Purta Bhavan in Salt Lake taking its place. But Sydney has its Sydney Opera House to boast of. Similarly, Paris has its new Grand Arch and the Georges Pompidos centre. But New Delhi cannot be symbolised by the Vigyan Bhavan or any of the Central Secretariat buildings. We still depend on the Qutub Minar or the Red Fort.
Even Hong Kong has its Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building and the Bank of China building. Can Mumbai boast of a similar building of the post independence era?
Examples from the Third World? Kuala Lumpur has the Petronas Tower. Shanghai has the TV Tower. Colombo has its new Parliament building - the list is endless. Madhya Pradesh carries the lone Indian flag in this respect as they have a number of grand public buildings and international award winning projects. The New Assembly building in Bhopal and the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board office in Jabalpur are among the best examples. But what about the so-called great metros? Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta have produced the country's worst public buildings in the last 500 years. Comparatively, Chandigarh's Capital complex remains among the best few examples of public architecture in independent India. I shudder to think how archaeologists and historians will reflect upon the intellectual capacities of our city fathers, 500 years from now, when they study the period between 1950 and 2000 - and maybe beyond.
Low Income Housing, Belapur, New Mumbai (Charles Correa).
Housing and residential architecture in India, however, has some remarkable examples to show. Barring West Bengal and Eastern India, where architecture has always meant outrageous shapes or concrete boxes, other parts of India have at least shown the courage to experiment with traditional forms and concepts within a contemporary context. The results have not always been successful but it is important that there has been genuine efforts towards building a sustainable built environment that reflects our own culture, constraints and concerns.
The state Public Works Departments and Housing Boards are well known for their lackadaisical attitude towards housing and residential developments. It is a matter of shame that bad construction and poor design are generally referred to as "PWD type" or "Government pattern". The government and semi-government departments are still looking for solutions which are easy to repeat and easy to administer - but are not necessarily good.
But the last two decades have seen a visible change in attitude in a few state governments. Unfortunately their contribution is negligible compared to the construction activities by real estate developers and other agencies. The only saving grace has been that real estate developers have restricted their aesthetic expressions to the higher income groups.
Finding appropriate design solutions for housing the urban poor has always been the real challenge for the architects of the third world. They are the hardest lot to satisfy. The floor space standards set by the Government never satisfy their demands as their family sizes are invariably large. But their affordable limit is low. The task for the architect is cut out - literally making both ends meet. Some architects have a passion for low-cost, low-income housing and some of them have produced some wonderful schemes for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), the Lower Income Groups (LIG) and the Middle Income Groups (MIG) even though they are limited in number. But the trend remains encouraging.
However, India's biggest failure remains in creating new towns with a quality of life and character similar to our medieval and colonial towns. Ninety nine per cent of the new towns in India fall in the popular bracket of "easy-to-implement-easy-to-administer" category. As a result, they are boring, devoid of character and without life. The wonderful urban designs of our medieval and colonial towns with landmark buildings at suitable places, pedestrian plazas, squares, controlled residential neighbourhoods etc., are totally absent in our new towns.
Today's architects and town planners look at town planning as mathematical puzzles and not as places for people to live. They would typically conceive a new town as a jigsaw puzzle - a combination of small, individual pieces and not as a complete entity formed of smaller segments. Imagine a logical functional human body devoid of aesthetics. It would be like a robot. New towns today are like robots, efficient or inefficient, and not like the human body. They lack emotional appeal. Medieval and colonial towns had brought the element of emotional appeal into their town design. These elements of urban design are absent in our new towns. These are the elements which appealed to my artist friend.
I do not argue with my friend anymore. I accompany him on his day dreaming trips. I dream of ideal new towns in the 22nd Century. (The 21st is only a few months away).
Towns with inspiring public buildings, parks, landscaped urban spaces, wonderful residential areas with small, intimate spaces, all fitting into a city of only a few landmark buildings and a lot of cultural activities. After all dreams have no barriers.
Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.