Salvaging our city’s public spaces

Pinned on soft boards lining the auditorium of the School of Planning and Architecture were 114 project reports. These entries, part

of a compelling contest organised by a landscape architecture journal were the blueprints for a much-neglected domain public spaces. The contest, which would definitely strike a chord among Delhiites, involved picking a public site and redesigning it within its social context to turn it into an energetic and safe spot for social intersection. Unlike other international cities, Delhi scores very badly on this count.

Pradeep Sachdev, architect of the Garden of Five Senses and Dilli Haat, while scrutinizing the entries for freshness and relevance, said: “Imported cut-and-paste ideas don’t work here.” Each idea, however, was unique to India’s chaos.


Home truths at housing conclave

The state government has called for all hands on deck to tackle the housing problem of the urban poor, predicting an annual shortfall of 100,000 houses in the city for the next few years.

Inaugurating the 36th World Congress on Housing Science at a city hotel on Monday, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said he hoped the five-day conclave could offer low-cost technology solutions for the housing sector to help plug the gap.

“Housing is a serious problem in the developing world. In India — where 30 per cent of the population is still below the poverty line — a forum like this must focus on the housing needs of the low and middle-income groups,” he said.

The congress, being held in India for the second time, was organised by the department of architecture and regional planning of IIT Kharagpur, in association with the International Association for Housing Science (IAHS), an NGO associated with the UN.

Art Cities

Shadowboxing: Shahid Datawala

Architecture of decline

Shahid Datawala’s photographs of spaces in Mumbai meant for human habitation don’t have any people in them because he says that amid the chaos and hubbub, there is a lot of loneliness in the metropolis.

In his show titled Shadowboxing, he is displaying the photographs—which feature tall buildings, concrete shells of unfinished structures and dilapidated interiors—in pairs to highlight, as he puts it, the disparity of Mumbai’s living spaces. This disparity comes in many forms: “You’ll have flats here going for Rs20-30 crore and a slum a few metres down,” says Datawala. “Or, you will have incomplete buildings (only partially built) which have been like this for 25 years in the middle of the most expensive real estate.” Some pairs capture this dichotomy very starkly, such as the two stairwells placed alongside—one is spic and span, with smooth surfaces and sharp lines that intersect cleanly at various angles; the other has so much peeling paint and rubble on the floor that its dilapidated state looks almost grotesque.

Datawala’s diptych. Shahid Datawala

Datawala’s diptych. Shahid Datawala

Most photos placed side by side, though, are not about simple contrasts, but are often slight variations on the same theme—there are two doors, one looking into a kitchen, the other with a curtain and a mailbox, both pictures of well-worn domesticity. There is no obvious pattern to the pairing. “I have put the old with new, the old with the abandoned, or the new with new,” says Datawala, who is also the chief designer for Pallate, a Mumbai furniture store. “I want to provoke the viewer to imagine and to think.”


Cities without ideas

Op-Ed by Gautam Bhatia in the Indian Express.


In levels of squalor, inefficiency, noise, disorder, visual pollution, weariness and decay, few would disagree that today’s Indian city is a waste of space. But instead of tackling real problems, there is quicker relief in merely changing its visible contours. Armed with theatrical ideas of international appeal — buildings of mirrored glass and steel — it is easier for the city to be seen as progressive, rather than actually being so.

In the 60 years of urban design since Independence, the mindless borrowing of foreign ideas has left the Indian city teetering between awkward extremes. The citizen is condemned to half-baked clones of foreign models: Indonesian and Columbian rapid transit models, American clover leaf roads, New Jersey malls and cinemas, and Californian housing plans. The pretend suburbs of any expanding metropolis are filled with Malibu Villas, Westwood Townes, Amby Valleys, Beverly Parks and Darlington Heights — pretty English villages and LA condominiums set in a new Indian location. Has there over been a clear attempt to create an Indian place, based on our own urban demography, lifestyle and economics?

Few amongst Delhi’s elite corps of architects and urban planners would argue a case for the design and urbanity produced by the architecture of Greater Kailash. Yet when the metro proposed a raised line cutting through it, their protests conveniently overlooked the incoherent quality of the place, and raised abstract objections about sight lines, noise levels and urban visibility. While their effort at maintaining an architectural status quo is laudable, they sadly overlooked the potential to generate a more vivid engagement of citizens with their changing neighbourhoods.