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.

Travel time for ideas on construction and technology to percolate into India is gratifyingly slow. (So slow that it allows architects to talk with authority about Gandhian ideals of mud construction at seminars). When they do come — usually via eastern Europe and Dubai — they fall squarely in the hands of the PWD, and watered down versions then appear in large-scale public projects. The AIIMS interchange in Delhi, for instance, was seen as pathbreaking design — allowing motorists to smoothly change directions without stopping. But as with many such projects, the self-adulation ignored the many other conditions which the flyover failed to address: pedestrian links between roads, its proximity to the city’s most crowded public hospitals, the need for overbridges, and all the secondary undercurrents that dictate traffic flow in an Indian city….