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Unbuilt India

Neeraj Manchanda


It is a statistical fact that the next twenty-five years will see the development of built-space the quantum of which is equal to the entire built-space that humankind has put together in history. It is also certain that a very large part of this development will happen in the developing world, of which India is a large part, where population growth – rates, though slowly declining, and rapidly growing economies will necessitate new development. While a substantial part of new physical development will happen in urban centres, economic progress will irrevocably drive a large amount of new physical development in rural areas. In other words, the design and building industry is going to grow at a pace not entirely different from the pace of new-age industries, exemplified in the Indian context by projections of growth by the Indian information-technology sector. But where is our building industry today? Despite the fact that the building industry supports a wide variety of industries through the more than 300 products and affiliated services it generates demand for, the Indian Building Industry has only recently been recognized as a formal industry, as yet with no distinct proactive framework within which to work. We are being carried into the twenty-first century on the backs of our construction work-force which works silently, barefoot and semi-clad, climbing shabby form-work without safety-equipment while its children play with construction material below, which lives in makeshift homes and which has to defecate in the open.

The architectural profession and the building industry are by definition in dialogue. While it is true that opportunities in design, method and detail are created through materials, processes and technologies by the industry, it needs to be recognized that primary internal imperatives of the industry remain economic, based on its own perception of demand and appropriateness to the Indian context. Increasingly, as India moves further down the path of economic liberalization and integration with the global economy, the Indian market will see products and processes that were designed based on criteria of elsewhere, but which we will use.

On the above issues, in the clear absence of an alternative, it is the fraternity of Indian architects that needs to pick up the gauntlet. If we are in charge of ordering natural resources into our idea of a physical environment that we should inhabit, we must ensure that what we do is appropriate to our circumstances and has concern for our fellow citizens. The architecture of post-independence India marched forward with the momentum of modernism, described by the generation of Rehman, Kanvinde and Doshi and guided by Nehru’s vision of a resurgent ‘modern’ India that brought Corbusier here to design the new capital of Punjab. However, the framework within which the architectural profession had to proceed was defined on the one hand by codes that did not have an Indian essence and on the other by the battle between the English bungalow and the Indian haveli. It is a matter of record and some regret that the Indian haveli lost. There are three reasons for this. One, that the more appropriate and natural morphology of the haveli was driven out, taking with it a part of our lifestyle, transplanted by the bungalow, a home of cold-climates. Two, the bungalow itself did not survive in it’s essence, reduced and compromised as it was into what we call ‘residential plots’ today, with a front setback and a rear one, neither of which we use the way we would have a courtyard. Three, and most important, the victory of the bungalow broke a hidden barrier, opening the floodgates for artificial transpositions on the physical fabric of the country, at least in terms of its cities and towns. It is no wonder then that as a free country we turned around to call our traditional settlements ‘slums’, as in the case of Shahjahanbad in Delhi.

As the second generation of post-independence architects came into their own, along with their peers they hit critical mass, expounding the need for an Indian reference in architectural conception. Doshi had travelled from ‘Tagore-Hall’ to ‘Sangath’, and Correa experimented with Indian metaphors and ‘tube-housing’. They were joined by architects like Rewal and Uttam Jain who searched for a new Indian idiom in every project they designed. This change in focus was the precursor to the ‘vernacular’ movement of the 80’s, creating a generation of young architects who spoke of local resources and skills, trying to narrow the gap between Indian architecture and the Indian people it belonged to. Agencies like HUDCO provided the umbrella and the thrust required, giving voice to the relevance of vernacular architecture, traditional patterns of space, energy – consciousness and appropriate technology. Organizations and individuals from different streams found a common platform for expression. The CBRI of Roorkee, Development Alternatives in Delhi, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Laurie-Baker and Costford in Kerela provided key inputs, opening the doors on a new architectural process. And that is where Indian architecture remains, caught between the somewhat sketchy and unclear ‘Indian’ agenda on the one hand, and the inevitable, irrevocable westward-looking aspirations of Indians as they try to improve their lives on the other, fuelled in no small measure by the liberalization process of the last one decade.

However, now, more than ever before, Indian architecture has a tremendous opportunity. At the turn of the century, the 50 years since independence have given us enough distance in time for us to ask ourselves questions afresh.

As India integrates with the world, the Indian architect needs to redefine himself or herself. Key areas that have lain too long outside the professional domain of Indian architects need to be brought into the ambit of the profession. Buildings of civic importance, critical symbols that signify the public’s aspiration and describe the state of the nation have remained with public works departments for too long. More national institutions that are part of government – buildings of education, law, justice and culture – need to be brought in to a system where they together comprise the canvas on which Indian Architects can experiment in a new search. This is crucial for re-invigorating the profession and for reviving public debate.

Housing for the urban poor, left too long with slum ‘clearance’ and subsequently ‘development’ boards needs to be viewed by Indian architects as central to their domain, representing as it does a good 30 percent of the average Indian city’s population.

India’s specific problems of the new millennium need addressal by the Indian architect. As our population grows, there is increased pressure on natural resources. Increasing amount of city land will come under hardcover, limiting ground-water table recharge. Tree cover in the country may decrease further. A proliferation of brick and cement production will be responsible for inefficient use of energy, loss of topsoil, and remission of money into the monetized sector, depriving local economies of income and opportunity. There is an urgent need to address these critical issues, directions for which are visible. Revival of traditional rainwater harvesting systems in conjunction with modern technology, water-run-off audits, recourse in the use of environmentally friendly materials, ‘harvested’ as against ‘felled’ timber, proactive use of industrial waste such as fly-ash in the very promising technology of cellular light-weight concrete exemplify some of the initiatives that Indian architects need to focus on as necessary contribution to the idea of sustainable growth.

Rural built-infrastructure in India has not had the benefit of architectural inputs, crucial for bringing to village-schools, hospitals and other public facilities a sensitivity that arises from an understanding of topography, climate, and social systems. For too long these facilities have been relegated to the status of an engineering and financial exercise, where standard budget allocations are translated into standard designs for implementation by departments of government. Like large city development authorities that build flats for city citizens who have no say in what their home should be and do, this systems alienates rural populations, a problem compounded by the anonymity of standard designs.

And what of ‘what’ we will build? Cities like Delhi and Mumbai already illustrate how resident populations have withdrawn from the public domain into their homes and offices. While the ‘outside’ environment – air-quality, building-facades, open-space and all things that give cities life – crumbles, we have withdrawn, or rather retreated, indoors into a separate world where we can still retain control. This dichotomy, where anonymous, uncared-for buildings, plastered and painted over, house rich and personalized spaces is a message to Indian architects. It is necessary for Indian architects to proactively facilitate re-establishment of contact between the general public and its environment. And for this architects need to step outside the ‘site’. There is an urgent need to re-aggregate skills, where the fields of urban-design, transport planning, landscape design and architecture need to work together not only at a site-level, but addressing cities and public domains a whole.

However, the reconciliation of environmental, contextual and other concerns needs to be drawn through the sieve of the central life-force of architecture, i.e. space. The purpose, scale, texture and colour of space, built or unbuilt. We need, at this point, to work towards discovering a contemporary expression and form, which re-validates our roots while placing us in the present. For if we are to know who we are, then in going where we are going we must remember were we come from.