Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Our towns: their slums
In the early Sixties, Indian cities were brimming with a newly found architectural confidence. On national holidays, every building worthy of note, would be lit with fairy lights. As part of the celebratory routine, ordinary citizens would walk or drive past the lighted monuments and experience a visual sense of national pride.
In the case of Delhi, these would include Birla Mandir, the newly built Ashoka hotel, the round cake of Parliament building, the Presidential Palace and government buildings, as well as the Red Fort, a tribute to power, past and present. In Mumbai, the buildings would include the Rajabhai Tower, Victoria Terminus, Bombay Municipality and Town Hall, the Taraporevala Aquarium and Marine Drive, and on the waterfront, the grand facade of the Taj hotel, thereby signalling the more cosmopolitan outlook of the city. In Chennai, the glass and concrete LIC skyscraper, glowing like a crystal matchbox in the middle of Mount Road, (now Anna Salai), the South Indian Railway buildings, the State Bank of India, Parry's Corner, the old Spencer's arcade and Higginbothams book shop, testifying to its gentler provincial heart, provided the glitter of municipal pride to the citizens.
Cities have that effect on citizens. They wrap their walls around them and create a sense of community. They thrust monuments into the air proclaiming their superiority as a place for worship, or military or intellectual strength, or as a convergence of market forces. In being the tool that shapes the visual history of a culture, the architect has played a role of varying intensity at different moments. When cultures are dominant, they revere the architect. He is the one who will raise the Pylons and the Pyramids, the Colossus at Rhodes, the Colosseum at Rome, the temples, palaces, pleasure gardens, and even the market places, that add to the wealth of nations. When a culture is in decline, or confused, or unsure of itself, it does not blame the architect, it merely uses him (or her), to underline its insecurity.
In India, architectural schools that were steeped in a conservative colonial tradition which underlined the idea of the Empire, felt liberated by the apparent freedom of the Modern Movement. It not only introduced new material and techniques that appeared to be ideally suited to ushering a period of scientific progress, but gave a cosmetic sense of freedom by the upward thrust of the straight lines and flat clean planes of an architecture, that was used most notably in the designing of Chandigarh.
It has been a dizzy ride from the Modern Movement to Po-Mo (Post Modernism) as far as the Indian architect is concerned. The architectural landscape is nothing if not varied. Travel down to Kerala and you will find a veritable pastiche of styles. The lollipop pink, pineapple yellow, pistachio green and grape purple, Dubai villas that dot the landscape, may owe more to their owner's vanity than to the architect's ingenuity but they reflect the desire to go "modern" by imitation. They are examples of the Modern Movement gone wild in a tropical setting.
Le Corbusier's deadly legacy, that has for so long been synonymous with the PWD's concrete finish touch, has sent its tentacles into almost every town and district headquarters in the country. Wherever there is a Collectorate, there will be a building, plain-as-a-cardboard shoe-box, painted grey, or yellow, rimmed in red, with dust-laden cement louvres sheltering pigeons, boxed windows that have been blocked out against a possible air-raid, or perhaps just the glare, and a cantilevered porch at the entrance, saluting yet another generation of bosses arriving in their regulation Ambassador cars. By way of contrast the upwardly mobile middle classes have gone in for the chocolate box style, with as many false balconies, plaster work Apsaras, wrought iron balustrades, glass ornaments and marble finishes, that their architects can provide. This is in direct contrast to the fake piety of the super rich who imitate the austere colours and forms of vernacular architecture, with add-on carved temple pillars, hand polished floors, tribal rugs, grass mats and antique accessories, that hint at minimalist longings in immense Californian Pacific beach house interiors that roar and purr with central air-conditioning in the calm backwaters of their country retreat, which they like to describe as a simple "farmhouse".
In both these cases, the optimistic Sixties, and the confused Nineties, we see the insidious effect that architects have on the environment. Architects do not actually have to build for the poor to prove their bonafides. When they build for the rich, or those in power, the consequences of their work affect the lives of the poor, without their even knowing it. There is a type of brutalisation of the habitat that takes place in the name of development, or city improvement plans, that sends the already marginalised segment of the population further away to even more remote areas. The architect anxious to prove his or her understanding of deterritorialised canons of architectural principles in the name of an international style, has often been the wedge that has caused this fragmentation. Ever since Ayn Rand, the not-so-subtle propagandist of the capitalist system made an architect the hero of her novel, The Fountainhead with lyrical descriptions about a man who conquers nature through a mastery of the drawing board, there has been a lingering nostalgia in the minds of architects for this type of domination.
As Hassan Fathy, Egyptian architect who worked with traditional craftsmen at his beloved Gourna, has written in his book, Architecture for the Poor:
Manoj K. Jain
"The modern advance in technology which has given us new materials and methods in building has also necessitated the intrusion of the professional architect, a specialist who has been taught the science of working in these materials. This architect with his reputation has taken all the pleasure of house building away from his client, who is unable to catch up with the rapidly advancing techniques. Now, instead of the unhurried appreciative discussions with the craftsman as the house is being built, the owner has the opportunity to exercise his choice over marks on a plan in the architect's office. He doesn't understand the idiom of the architectural drawing nor the architect's jargon, so the architect despises him and browbeats him or else deceives him into accepting what the architect wants by adding specious trees and motorcars."
Fathy is actually more optimistic about the fate of the poor who do not have the privilege of going to an architect. Though as he notes, with government intervention this decision is often made for him.
"The result is hideous and inhuman; a million families are bundled into these ill-fitting cells without being able to say a word about design . . . The architect who undertakes this wholesale massacre of individuality would be indignant if asked to design a hundred different houses for a hundred private clients in a month. Not only indignant but ill, he would collapse after designing twenty. Yet when designing a million houses for the poor, so far from collapsing is he, that he is ready to take on another million the next month. He designs one house and adds six zeros to it."
Many decades ago Patrick Geddes the visionary Scottish town planner who became the first Professor of Civics and Sociology at the University of Bombay in 1919, had studied the actual case histories of cities like Madras and Calcutta and commented on the need to preserve the intimate scale of the native quarters. He deplored the tendency to restructure them along the lines of a city like London, which he called "a matter of doing puja to the straight lines of the drawing board and set-square." Talking about the need to preserve the Burra Bazaar area in Calcutta with its narrow lanes he said. "Lanes, it is true are much out of fashion and with most large scale planners especially. A lane is after all a pavement without a road beside it, and some people value its quietness, while its narrow width and shade give it coolness."
In our time, Charles Correa has been an architect and town planner who has consistently tried to focus attention on the needs of the poor. Indeed he has compared the explosion taking place in the slums of the cities of the Third World to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He has written about and incorporated ideas about the way the Indian street winds its way through narrow lanes, incorporating open-to-sky spaces with covered ones, so that the person using them is consistently surprised and recharged with the visual richness of the Indian lifestyle, in his projects. In his words, in a tropical country, "space is a resource". His experiments whether with planning for the smaller community type dwellings that he designed for the new Bombay project, or for a small sunken theatre that finds its echoes in the bathing pool at Hampi, or in the more ambitious schemes such as the State Assembly of Madhya Pradesh, in Bhopal, have always made full use of the ambiguous nature of space, light and shadow, in a tropical climate.
"Improving the habitat needs visual skills" writes Charles Correa in his blueprint for change, The New Landscape in which he has analysed the problems facing the urban landscape and provided his suggestions.
How do we develop these visual skills? Do we leave it to the architects and town planners? In one of his successful experiments, Patrick Geddes inspired what is called the Outlook Tower at Edinburgh. It is located on the high point of a ridge that dominates the city and uses a "camera obscura" to narrow down on different parts of the City, that then get magnified for viewing within a small dark chamber. The effect is life holding the entire secret history of the City within your grasp. Geddes emphasised that the place, work and the people, whom he called the folk, are all intimately involved in creating the dynamics of a city.
Maybe every city needs an Outlook Tower in which citizens can meet to sharpen their visual perceptions of where they live and where they want to go. Architects alone cannot shape the habitat. It must involve the ordinary people who live and work there. The first step in this process must start with the need to look outside of ourselves and create a more integrated image of the environment in which we live.
Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.