Adding a pulse to street character

Project: Taj Ganj Urban Redevelopment, Agra

‘..India has always moved ahead with the awareness that the seeds of a solution lie within the problem itself.”—Aman Nath in ‘Architecture and Attitude’

Most downtown areas in India are in dire straits in almost every respect, tottering under the burden of unrestrained growth. Even though the world is largely getting its act together and evolving comprehensive plans for the revitalisation of inner cities, more often than not, the emergent solutions are stereotypical.

Studio Archohm’s approach to urban redevelopment in old city areas in India is based on a singular mandate that celebrating one’s heritage means recognizing the very necessity of relating to the narratives of the past; presented not as a blind emulation but made scalable to contemporary societal needs and envisioning future possibilities. This ‘preserved’ past never remains static but is in a constant state of change — so in reality, what is, is not, what once was. Change refers to ‘value addition’ by subsequent generations.

The tale of the urban rejuvenation of Agra firstly bears an almost reassuring testimony to the fact that indeed there can be a transfer of epistemology to practice in the domain of urban design in India, if the vision is lucid and pursed to fruition with a dogged commitment and if one masters the art of operating laterally within systems in place; systems that are debilitating to say the least.

cobbling the street to reduce traffic and speed
urban plan

The designers’ vision, from the onset has been to set a benchmark of aspirations and create a model of interventions, a prototype of sorts that can be adapted to any of the many heritage cities that have invariably become India’s Achilles’ heels. In Agra, the premise clearly stems from the need to connect the built environment, natural flows and systems and living traditions as if they were vertices  of an equilateral triangle; to take responsibility for nursing back to health, these individual components and making them fit enough to resume a symbiotic conversation, so eventually, the city reads as a coherent sustainable narrative. The interests of all stake-holders have been considered- tourists (both national and international), local denizens (who seemed to have got lost in translation), policy makers, people with small and big business interests, artists and historians alike.

Program

The idea has been to make visitors keep coming to Agra, to prolong their stay (so that the city’s economy benefits) and to endow memorable and multi-dimensional experiences; to make Agra ‘Meragra’ for its residents. The vision for the urban redevelopment of Taj Ganj, the residential neighbourhood adjoining the Taj, thus has been about anything but only Taj Ganj. It is about the city of Agra — of the Taj and beyond it (secular urbanity — ‘a city for all’ was conceived centuries prior to the building of the Taj Mahal; its foundation as an unparalleled riverfront city laid out even earlier). It is also about addressing Uttar Pradesh — the most populous and demographically complex state of India; about nation-building and about making a sustainable, liveable world.

From large state level interventions to the basic level of street signage, from city planning to the last detail of a cobble-stone, all the scales have been encompassed into a single ensemble that strives to philosophically, functionally, aesthetically and as a narrative conveys the same vision and vocabulary. The interventions begin with connectivity to Agra via infrastructure projects — expressways as the Agra-Lucknow and the Yamuna Expressway; physical connectivity between cities enables them to collectively become vanguards of development. Other inserts included proposals for a master plan for New Agra and the Agra Ring and entry points.

Taj Ganj is a four centuries old district right outside the Taj Mahal, largely comprising erstwhile markets appropriated into residential neighbourhoods called bastis by quadrants or katras, and sporting a few heritage monuments, havelis, and mostly slums. Its inhabitants are none other than the proud descendants of the artisans who worked on the making of the monument and who still revere the Mughal monarch. Earlier, it exhibited urban decay with a crumbling infrastructure and a lack of open spaces which its immeasurable vibrancy, socio- economic ingenuity and resourcefulness tried to make up for or two, pause spots, and viewing points clearly make up the value additions to this area.

Additionally, the studio had drawn up proposals to sew together disparate edges of the Taj — commercial/ institutional/parks/forests/the river and its banks/interstitial spaces/the many other monuments, to present contemporary readings of the city. To recreate the magic of a boat ride along the Yamuna and connect to the erstwhile fronts of the monuments, a pontoon bridge at one end and a rubber dam at the other, could contain water. A river bank trail explored on foot, a similar narrative of a city along a river.

On the road to Fathehabad, are positioned two institutions that appropriate the Taj experience by way of a Mughal Museum and the Taj Orientation Centre. With no barriers between them and the street, they have become a part of the street pageantry. Streets are the key protagonists; spines that orient visitors toward the world monument and network with one another to weave the fabric of Agra. The street emerging from the East Gate is textured in Red Agra cobble in the ‘No-Vehicle’ zone up to a distance of 500 metres. There onwards, up to 1200 metres, the cobble continues in granite for the restricted access of motorised vehicles. After this, the street is laid in pigmented concrete. With cobbling ensuring that any vehicular traffic explicitly slows down and footpaths merging seamlessly with the road but separated by bollards, the street has become a walker’s paradise. Additionally, there is a provision for non-motorised vehicles and for transition from one mode to the other at nodes.

The grain of the cobbled surface addresses the human scale of the heritage precinct, in stark contrast to the joint- less ‘industrial spread’. The bold and clear monochrome all along the sequential approach to the monument makes visitors move away from the littered disparate buildings and get oriented towards architecture of another time.

The dimensions, sectional profile, materials of the street furniture, the conveniences and public amenities, elements as lamp posts, bollards, benches and landscape proposed in the design are woven so as to leave an absorbing, continuous and lasting sensorial imprint. The ambient lighting in the bollards highlights the granular texture of the cobble. The perforated jaalis of the lamp posts throw soft patterns of light on floor plane adding a measure of romanticism to the street character.

Taj Ganj was a typical Indian example of urban excess where diversity (which is necessary for life to thrive against adversities) had turned into a form of disparity that threatened to truncate its very sustenance. And now, only time will tell whether the threading together of the diverse and disparate facets of the place through common strands of spatial design stands its ground or not.

The architects and designers say that in retrospect, the overall experience of interventions in Taj Ganj has been in a sense, a lesson in delivering despite indifference; and perhaps a lesson in democracy, now or never.

Photo credit: Andre Fanthome

Factfile
Client: Uttar Pradesh Rajkiya Nirman Nigam
Design Team: Sourabh Gupta, Siddharth Singh, Sujit Jacob, Mohit Gupta, Shivani Shastri, Shailesh Pathak, Shriya Aggarwal, Inakshi Mittal, Kavana S Kumar, Mariyam Hassan
Consultants: Structural – Pristine Ideas Consulting Engineers, New Delhi; Landscape – Archohm; Plumbing – SSB Tech, New Delhi
Built-up area: 45327.6645 sq m
Cost: INR 197 Crore
Year of completion: 2016