Architecture in Urbanism

Stories of Storeys: Art, Architecture and the City” a book by Delhi-based architect, artist and author Gautam Bhatia is about impulses and conditions–social, literate, personal and political–which are expressed, but often ignored in architecture. Architecture+Design carries an extract from the book–

So out of touch with reality, every builder’s act of excess is followed by actions more outrageous, more magnified. On a hilly picturesque landscape beyond Pune along the edge of a lake, a different sort of city has been built. In its brochure Lavasa is a city of generally fair-skinned people laughing and frolicking in clear European sunlight. They are in shirt and tie or skirts, smiling and healthy, sipping cappuccino at cobblestoned sidewalk cafes, far removed from the messy brown-skinned reality of India. They punch laptops, shop at boutiques, and are surrounded by pastel-coloured unblemished European buildings reminiscent of Monte Carlo. A boat is moored on a distant bank. The picture instantly attracts by its mere foreignness, its promise of a different life. The real possibility of efficient work combined with the heady pleasures of daily living. Observe people in the picture: their movements, their activities, their needs, modes of entertainment, their obvious contentment are all visible in precise and amiable encounters around landscaped parks and completed streets. The good life is not an expectation in some remote imaginary future but exists in a living happy reality. Even though a setting of such pastoral splendour as Lavasa is not just unusual in India, but is itself cheating the standard features of the Indian landscape: the dust, heat, excessive rain and usually flat featureless countryside.

No one would argue that architecture’s central premise is aspirational. People come together in a city to live better lives, and to find newer opportunities to improve their condition. And Lavasa itself is not a new idea. Developers have been ranting and raving over their California clones for years. Live a new life at Pune’s Campbell Towers or Come to Ahmedabad’s new upmarket Malibu Gardens. But why does the imagery promoted by the builders and developers always suggest European and American models? Is it merely a failure of the imagination, or the distressing belief that little of value has been done in India?

Are there possibilities of creating imaginative local models?

Naturally society’s wants take a secondary place when architectural effort is directed towards personal fulfilment. The hedonistic pleasure of  architecture as an upliftment of the human spirit is a notion that does little but reduce building to a trivial visual act, firmly disconnected with public life. In fact, the architect’s inability to intuitively design for a common purpose has left a lasting legacy of such utter civic remoteness—isolated landmarks, derelict plazas, inaccessible parks, disjointed commercial and housing pockets—that urban life’s satisfactions can now only be in the family verandah, a walk to the neighbourhood tailor… Only a heterogeneous city with multiple and mixed uses can accommodate both impulses.

At a time when art was relieving itself from the oppressive regulations of its many schools and academies, architecture was being bonded into the slave trade of the city’s all too powerful lobbies of builders. The primary focus of Indian architecture in the past few years has been the sheer neglect of the Indian template, and the production of shining, silvered and mirrored objects in the landscape—malls, offices, and housing. Bereft of the conditions from which they have arisen, or without serious comment on the lives of the people inhabiting them, the structures were a formless pretence to a cold unconnected internationalism.

All across India, architects and their firms were subsumed under the larger umbrella of developers. The purchase of land and buildings was a convenient commodification of an earlier practice that had been exploratory, artistic and uncertain, and had consequently produced unexpected results. Unlike the builder, the architect need never guarantee the success of his project or the fluency of the lifestyle. When design was reduced to an easy applicable formula, it became harder and harder to respond to the ordinary abstractions of technology as insightful work, and to people promoting themselves as cultural reactionaries and rebels.

Even architecture’s high command had struck down the old moral codes and left a landscape that had begun to outwit itself. Noise, clamour, fatigue, drama, delight, boredom, hope and hopelessness all combined in equal measure to sustain the Indian image, whatever the medium. A simplistic message merely indicated technological progress—aspirations to the highest ideals of mankind, but dumped relentlessly into garbage. Even the stereotypes were missing. A failed imagination could turn the architectural message quickly to abstraction or historicism, that nobody could question. Architecture was defeated before it began; architecture had become a history of defeat.

The architect washed his hands of his responsibility and handed buildings to the local money lender. He bought land, sold houses without building them, auctioned office blocks and rented space. The city was a place of momentary opportunity. Style was irrelevant, as was architecture. Occasion mattered. And the act of designs was an event. Nobody needed the architect. Versailles could be created by a wedding planner, the Taj Mahal, by Pappu Tent House. Put up for an only son’s marriage, it was correct to the last detail, even better than the original. The bulldozers and the scaffolding and brick walls were no longer the tools of the trade. Just a finely stretched fabric on a frame. A catalogue of available spare parts and the labour to erect. People’s wants had evolved, and millions of differently thinking clients, in business and retail, in sports, recreation and entertainment were clamouring for more: brighter lights, higher atriums, bigger malls, glassier lobbies, crazier weddings. Architecture was a stage-set of mesmerizing scales, a plot to create noisier and more vocal scenes of distraction, and a professional willingness to encourage greater forms of disbelief. The idea was not to seek permanent solutions, or to back some archaic ideology, but to find the quickest route to a new potential reality. Those who accepted architecture’s resolution as short-term were quickly successful.

Even as planning moved out of the congested city into suburban Bangalore, Delhi, Pune, the architect moved into parallel developments, as promoter and builder and financier. No need to create opportunity, no need to create or invent, but go where the opportunities are: in the suburbs in speculative housing, in retail space and amusement parks, airports and bus stop design, metro stations and malls. Follow the movement of money and people. You couldn’t go wrong.

Just as the impact of monetized economy had affected materials, technology was visibly influencing landscape. Design has altered in many ways. New materials demand their own methods of assembly. Earlier generations perhaps took great pride in being poetic and artistic about building. Even a display of modesty that removed architecture to background.

Modesty was an old hang-up, it didn’t go when the architect was a cult figure, like Armani. Even intellectualism had drifted into a profession that once had practical and artistic inclinations. The perception that buildings were not just cultural products but were instruments of social change.

For most architects trained to consider architecture as a noble expression of the highest order, such a view was not just a professional shock but a serious disorder, of dimmed and a desperate motives that had once belonged outside architecture. How could architecture be done for anything but serious aesthetic reasons?

How could architecture not be controlled by the drawing board?

So far the architect’s role has been unfortunately confined to professional qualifications in early practice, into a smattering of design concerns expressed in varying scales of work. Later, for most, architecture even kindled a harmless form of social activism. The role, however, is often limited and despairing. A background in design is neither an effective launching pad for professional integrity, nor for developing a moral or social code.

So you build and resurrect ideas within accepted international norms of acquired aesthetics, remaining resolutely within the formalism of design. Sometimes, you stretch, wherever possible, the boundaries of space and structure, but remain within professional conventions. Then after a while, when design’s intrinsic banality, and insufferable pretensions sink in, the practice steps away, into a more hope-filled direction, and a new concern for social consciousness. Architecture begins to recognize all work as social service, a saviour. You begin to see that architecture, and its many associations are beset with national problems. The numbers of homeless people is staggering; every year architecture helps to reduce the statistics. But the hoards of poor are on the move.

Unable to build anew, or to keep the numbers at bay, the strategies change. The slum is recognized as livable; it is upgraded. Dharavi, once described as an agglomeration of the world’s poorest, is suddenly given social respectability; the standard measures of poverty are changed. Quality of life acquires a less materialist, more sociological meaning. The architect escapes the city to build for the rural poor. Victims of tsunamis, poverty, hurricanes, malnutrition, disease, floods, and earthquakes, the professional ascribes altruistic motives to design. In a poor country the architecture must necessarily be poor. To build for the poor, you lower standards, lower quality of construction, reduce specifications of design and space.

The buildings sit comfortably with the belief that at low cost any building is a blessing. Any roof over a head, however ill-designed and unsuited to its environment, if cheap, is a triumph of architecture.

Professional dislocation is neither the responsibility of the architect, nor the planner, nor indeed the people demanding buildings. It is merely the outcome of collective failure. As marginal interventions, each makes a personal contribution to city life, adding an appendage in a city of appendages, however outmoded for its time.

It was as a student of architecture traveling in southern France that I first realized the remarkable possibilities offered by the combination of architecture and urbanism. The amalgamation was most obvious in the medieval city. The approach to the cathedral in the small town of Le Puy was a roadway lined with stone shops and houses.

The cathedral was the central composition in the townscape, and as I got closer to it, the road became steeper and steeper; along with the buildings it kept rising till it became a ramp. The cathedral got closer, and the ramp became a cascade of steps, rising higher and steeper. As the cathedral front loomed, I realized the steps were in fact heading underneath the building, and I was ascending below the nave. I kept rising up and up, till I realized that I was under the building; then quite magically, the church floors opened and suddenly, I was face to face with God. Not my God, but God nonetheless.

As I turned around, I saw the city far below, the entire length of the street from where I had come, and I sensed how the street and building had combined to give me the complete kaleidoscopic experience, how indeed the cathedral’s high elevation had been used to extend the church into the town. The town, the hill and the cathedral merged in such a way, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. It was an experience so architecturally gratifying and monumental, and made, both by the cathedral’s location on the hill, and the rise of steps that connected it to the city. The hill dictated a possibility for the layout. The medieval architect multiplied it tenfold into a truly concentrated ideal.

How many Indian cities ever consider their position or seek any real advantage from their unique landscape? Does Bombay’s sea location create any special conditions in urban layout, or architectural design to catch the sea breeze or evening light? Is the mountainous terrain visible in the architecture of towns in Sikkim or Himachal? Is the desert or the river location of north Indian towns, with the exception of Varanasi, a criterion in their layouts?

To attract residents to the sea, the small town of Cape May along the New Jersey shoreline, oriented its entire grid of streets on a diagonal. Whatever the street, you are either going towards the beach, or away from it. A plan of such astonishing simplicity, yet so effective in urban terms, was made by a mere deflection of the conventional street pattern. You are either with us or against us, so the urban design says.

A concern for new ways of orienting ordinary city life makes many architects seek unusual combinations of the public and private face for their own buildings. In Madrid for instance, with dense and crowded ground conditions, an enterprising builder chose to move the urban dimension of his apartment block to the roof. In an unusual connection to all the apartments, the roof offers the essential pleasures of 181 public life usually reserved for the ground level: meetings, cabanas, clubs, theatres and restaurants. Besides extraordinary views of the city, the reversal of convention between the public and private gave an entirely new expression to the architecture, the urban design, even zoning. The private street and the public roof were proof that it was possible to do something more than just the predictable and the banal.

If you stand on the concrete tarmac that forms Le Corbusier’s capital complex at Chandigarh, you will notice two things: the jagged line of the Himalayas to the north, intended as a monumental backdrop to the grand composition, and the unwavering line of messy buildings to the east, signalling the ceaseless physical thrust of an India denied entry to the city. In the half century since the conception, little has changed: the Himalayas are still there, though a little denuded and sad; and the hordes pushing at the seams are stronger than ever.

Like all formal structures in India, the city survives only because of strict zoning and paralysing building regulations, rules as old as the city itself. Had India been unleashed on the city over the period, had waves of rural migrations been allowed to make space within the plan of a continually changing city, Chandigarh could have been judged as an urban experiment that could reasonably be applied to future cities? In its sealed state, with a prescribed logic and half a century of bureaucratic control, Chandigarh remains a model of draconian legislation. Its false sense of livability is fostered by the experimental form of urban conservation, similar in intent to the fencing around ancient monuments. The extra care lavished on its parkland, leisure valleys and sculpture gardens, its wide avenues and bureaucratic bungalows is an aberration, an artificial construct in a manmade vacuum. A brilliant, monumental lie.


Book: Stories to Storeys: Art, Architecture and the City

By: Gautam Bhatia

Publisher: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd; YODA Press

Pages: 378

ISBN: 978-93-532-8080-2