City, Multiplicity, and Specificity

S.K. Das, Architect, S.K. Das Associated Architects, Delhi.

Le Corbusier to plan and design Chandigarh

One of the legacies of the British colonial rule was that independent India inherited large infrastructural provisions such as roads, railways, dams and bridges and, with that, a large number of professional engineers. The architectural profession, however, was out of balance, practically non-existent. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first modernist of independent India, was well aware of the developments being made globally in architecture in the 50’s. His desire to put India on the world map resulted in an invitation to Le Corbusier to plan and design Chandigarh, which is the most significant milestone in the development of modern Indian architecture.
Chandigarh allowed Le Corbusier to realize his long-standing urbanistic vision of “an Ideal urban future” and, at the same time, assimilate eastern ways of thinking and living on a tropical plain. Thus the very birth of modern architecture in India was linked to urbanism and city planning.

Though Le Corbusier made a big impression on policymakers, Chandigarh remained an isolated showpiece, while the design of other towns, cities and buildings by the bureaucracy reflected the dissonance between planning and architecture. Planning remained the privilege of the government as a two-dimensional exercise in land use and zoning. A great opportunity was thus lost the chance to discuss the significance of architecture as an aspect of the city. Architecture became limited to the scale of single-building design or, at best, Institutional complexes. Corbusian orthodoxy became a guiding principle and even a trademark of many Indian architects, without necessarily contributing to its evolution in style or substance. Yet another paradox of history is that it was left to a few Indian architects, who had trained in the West, to adapt Corbusian modernism and carry it further. Today, it would be a mistake to interpret contemporary Indian architecture as a surrender to pure Western modernism. Indian architecture, as it evolved during the 70’s and beyond, is the synthesis of external influences and internal explorations and innovations. This spirit could be best summarized in the words of Nehru:

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed; I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

Indian assimilation has also derived a lot from the direct presence of Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad and from the influence of teachers like Walter Gropius, to whom Indian architects flocked In the exodus to Western universities.The exodus still continues today.

Architectural education in India remained based in the large cities through the 80’s, with the main schools in Bombay, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The fascination with the traditional architecture of the Indo-Gangetic valley, with its narrow shaded streets, internal courtyards, and the juxtaposition of terraces, reminiscent of ancient cities, combined with an exposure to Western architecture, offered Wide choices in design interpretation. Vernacular inspirations showed the first seeds of “modern regionalism” as carefully and painstakingly articulated by Kenneth Frampton Sometimes, though, the regional theme tends to be overplayed.

Nowhere is the stark contrast between affluence and abject poverty more evident in imagery than in Indian cities, with the juxtaposition of sleek skyscrapers and squatter settlements or slums. This poses a challenge to the sensibilities of architects as to which social class they serve and who benefits from their work. The lack of adequate investments for the poor meant that urban poverty manifested itself in the poverty of urban environment. By the mid-70’s, a quarter to one-third of the population in the large cities lived in slums. The Gandhian notions of self-reliance and people’s power inspired the formation of non-governmental or community-based organizations that attempted to act in the sectarian interests of the poor, challenging top-down planning. Many architects got preoccupied with this stream of work. The nature of the welfare state and governmental spending also resulted in a large number of jobs for architects In the public sector. A closed and protected economy, devoid of external investments up to the 80’s, had resulted in the creation of large, strong and steady private industrial, trade and financial sectors. With less than 5% of the population engaging architects, this sector provided most of the opportunities and commissions.

The reaffirmation of the ideals of democracy and diversity allowed the dynamics of public, private and community sectors to simultaneously work, away from one another, in their own” internal spaces”, albeit with contradictions and conflicts. The city in this landscape began to seem as though it was made up of irreconcilable parts, unable to be combined into a coherent whole. Capital cities with governmental land ownership and spending tried to establish excessive order and control, to the exclusion of the urban poor. Paradoxically, the” market cities”, such as Bombay or Calcutta, despite their apparent chaos and lack of architectural order, reflect greater vitality than cities like Delhi and Chandigarh. The federal and state capitals, however, have not escaped the inevitability of commercialization that goes far beyond a planned and controlled canvas.

The city became a turf on which different sectarian Interests fought and negotiated for space and presence. Aside from the obvious divide between the planned and the unplanned, the city in India today consists of many fragments of interests and communities, each carrying its own aspirations and sensibilities. The rich use material means and the poor use their only inexhaustible resource - their collective bargaining power - in battles for space, with the state caught in between the two.

Le Corbusier to plan and design Chandigarh
Globalization in the 90’s ushered in external investments and an expansion of the real estate markets. This made it possible for the affluent to raise the bar on their consumerist aspirations and devote themselves to the pursuit of them. With this came a new architectural vocabulary, universally applied in all global cities. The government had to function as a mediator between extremely divergent and contradictory interests. Basic needs like water and sanitation, and general affordability naturally became major concerns, and architecture was relegated to the tail end of priorities. In a situation of affluence, mutually contradictory demands can be met separately to satisfy all sections of society. However, in a context of scarcity, one must choose between competing demands, and satisfy one at the expense of another. The development process is confronted with several dilemmas, for example: whether to invest in the real estate market, or to directly provide affordable housing; whether the government or private sector should build and provide, or leave It to the communities to carry this out on their own with infrastructural support. How should the limited open spaces be distributed - as large single parcels in the form of green reserves or as decentralized spaces within neighborhoods or even allocations at the doorstep? After all, there are limits on the quantum of open space that can be allocated. If economic growth is the overriding issue, it would have to favour construction of roads for automobiles and mass rapid transit systems. If comfort and affordability are the prime concerns, then pedestrianisation and cycle tracks would be essential.

Should water be distributed based on affordability and cost recovery, or rationed in order to ensure access to water for all? The final decision must also be sustainable in the long run.

Then there is the primary issue of urban governance, territorial management, and upkeep of space. City governments, being relatively poor, find it difficult even to satisfy taxpayers. A large number of people exist outside the taxation system and the majority of wage-earners do not earn enough to be taxed. Contrast this situation with a Western city like Amsterdam, where the Municipality looks after the nesting and reproduction of ducks in the canals and is even able to carry out a census. Our administrators find it difficult even to manage the day-to¬day supply and maintenance of basic facilities, let alone being able to keep track of how many people there are in the city.

When it comes to the production and delivery of goods and services, the choices range between privatization or public/private partnership models to community management systems or participatory models between the government and the people.

Standard Western models of zoning and land use, which separate living and working spaces, Industries and housing and recreational zones, are, at best, applicable only in the higher echelons of society, i.e. the corporatized communities. At all other levels, people live and work in the same space; in such a context, there are many dimensions to any given space.

In this scenario, the relegation of architecture is understandable, though questionable in principle. The limitations we face on a daily basis are almost enough to make one believe that the aesthetic must be sacrificed to the mundane. It is now left to architects to retrieve a larger space for themselves. But to do this requires a deeper understanding of the urban situation and a commitment to a combination of economic and social goals. Most importantly, they must create new urban conditions that are acceptable, relevant, inclusive and sustainable.

A younger generation of architects began to feel the limitations of their own works as isolated entities that make no sense at all beyond the boundaries of properties. The growing fascination with the diversity and complexity of the city, combined with a desire to make contextual sense and to influence the context in which they worked, became a prime motivator for some. Architectural orthodoxies began to readjust and accommodate stylistic interpretations inspired by the contemporary city, and urban history became a strong reference point. Though Western theories of urban design provided some inspiration, the practice itself began to grow strong, locally specific roots.

The lack of opportunities for large scale urban commissions, especially for design in the public domain, has led architects to internalize urbanistic ideas and lessons learnt from urban history. These ideas manifest themselves in smaller works, even at the level of a private house. Public spaces within housing clusters become neighborhood-or city-centres. A neighborhood or business district becomes a microcosm of a city. Narrow,winding, exacted streets and squares, and rivers and tributaries long ignored or denied their rightful existence as public spaces begin to flow through as conceptual statements. The city’s very limitations and idiosyncrasies become the last bastions of individuality in an increasingly power-driven society. These concepts grow and mature in cellars of the imagination, only to emerge stronger when given the chance.

The architectural construct within which this” new urbanism” (not to be confused with the American movement of the same name) has developed is that, like Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” there are many parallel and simultaneous cities that make up the larger metropolis. Unlike them, these need not live only in the imagination.

With varied degrees of association with and distance from globalization, each city represents specific needs, interests, aspirations and sensibilities, all of which demand the fine-tuning and texturing of form and substance. These parts are more complete in themselves than the whole. Some might find this discouraging. The optimist, however, sees the whole as a growing tabula rasa. The public domain must be seen as an overlay of multiple sensibilities as specific representations of the parts. It should reflect the strength and the vitality of local enterprise on the small scale, the corporatized economy on the large scale. Alongside this, it must embrace the global phenomena of socio cultural diversity. The thinking here is in contrast to the notion, now emerging amongst some Western architects, that global cities everywhere will become more uniform to the extent that architectural substance and form are interchangeable. Instead, the” new urbanism” believes that the global city cannot conform to a single template, and that, especially in the developing world, there is a greater need than ever before for every city to reflect its own unique multiplicities.

Acknowledgment

Reproduced from the book ‘Mirrored Metropolis’ printed by Aedas Berlin Publisher.
Le Corbusier to plan and design Chandigarh
S K Das is a Delhi-based architect and professor, and is the head of S.K. Das Associated Architects, which he established in 1987. He was a senior faculty member at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Rotterdam, from 1981-’86, and has subsequently held several teaching positions, including that of Dean and Professor at the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, New Delhi; Visiting Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi; and Visiting Professor at the University of Leuven. Mr Das has also lectured at several universities, including MIT, Columbia, Architectural Association, Berkeley, and Delft. He has been a Selected USIS visitor, an Eisenhower Fellow, and a Chettle Fellow (University of Sydney). In 1991, he won the National Award for Community Architecture in India, and his work related to post cyclone reconstruction has been listed among the 100 best practices by UN Habitat, and has also received the national award.

SK’s forte has been in developing master planning of townships, urban design for inner city areas, mixed-use developments, housing, and large-scale real estate development projects in a broad range of international contexts. His clientele for consultancies includes UNDP, UN Habitat, UNESCAP, NOVIB (Netherlands Organisation for International Development Corporation), and the governments of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia. His professional experience spans Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.

His main areas of research and teaching are in socialization of space and built form in cities and fabrics in the context of diversity and pluralism and textural representations in architecture and urban design, and issues of mediation and participatory planning. He is also interested in bridging the gap between planning and architecture, and in overlaying mutually complementary concerns in the design of urban spaces.

He served as Vice President of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISoCaRP), from 1995 to ’98, and is currently an Advisor to the Infrastructure Development Finance Company (IDFC), India, and the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC).
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