Thursday, May 07, 2020

The Pandemic and the City

The city is not just block and buildings with roads, and traffic. The city is also lives, livelihoods, opportunity, economic opportunity, but more than that the city is hopes and dreams and futures.
And the one thing we have figured out  in the course of the last 3 months of a pandemic is that the city is woefully inadequate in most of these respects.

The city scarcely recognises those that live on its fringes
do the work that keeps it going.
And when all this is done, it will put the weight of the future on a vaccine and "better" healthcare and carry on like it has always done - mostly indifferently.

A lot is being said about social distancing being the "new normal", but that isn't possible when scores of nuclear families own multiple tenaments with more than 4 bedrooms (as investment, for the future et al) and 65 percent of the city lives and uses possibly less than 30 percent of the city.
It is also not possible as long as norms of FAR are linked to number of dwellings per acre, and developers and policy do not go back to the drawing board and reimagine the city based on densities and provision of resource based on community health and livability.

To make any real difference we need policy changes and new models by which the city is imagined and realised. We need policy that looks at housing and infrastructure as guaranteed democratic rights, not as speculative investment for economic gain. Our cities have too long been controlled by the super rich! You need only to go over to NewGurgaon, or closer home, places like Vasant Kunj. You don't need to go near Lutyens zone that reeks of this to a point of sickness.

Also we have forgotten, there are natural cycles, 100 years, 50 years, 20 years, for floods, for disease, we have chosen to ignore these.

In a sense this is opportunity. But it will require braveness to explore and re-imagine a future that does not build on the errors of the
#urbanism #density #far #policy #fringe #infrastructure #community #health #city #reimagine #model #reassess #future #architecture #cities #citiesindecline #rich #poor #speculation #thoughtgoingforward #lockdown #covid19 #pandemic #Delhi

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Sunday, February 02, 2020

Of Informality and Opportunity, and cities in Post-Colonial Hangovers.

Vendors at the Mehrauli Archeological Park, on a weekend

I moved to Mehrauli in 2010, this was back when i think the metro had maybe 3 lines and an Airport line from the New Delhi Station.

It struck me as odd, back then, that the metro station for Mehrauli was over a a kilometer of a walk from the outer edge of Mehrauli and possibly another kilometre from dead centre. More interesting was the fact that elsewhere, whereever it was needed to cross a busy thoroughfare a Foot Over Bridge (FOB) was integrated into the design of the station. This was not so in Mehrauli - the Metro Station is on the other side of a National Highway designated road, and a pedestrian crossing with a largely non-functional red-light was the only way to cross until, 2018. 

Yes, 16 years after the metro services started in Delhi. 

But that is not why i sat down to write this, the issue is bigger than a station and the lack of a pedestrian bridge. 

It goes back to a few days ago, riding in the back of a cab from a site visit, those special occasions, when i get to observe what is on the side of the road, the edges, the changes of the city scape.

It also connects, a little unexpectedly, to a walk in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, where i regularly walk my three fur children, where i crossed a group of vendors, and another time chanced to overhear a conversation of one the security guards with seller of Ram-laddu, telling him how it was not allowed for vendors to sell their wares in the park, and how he could impound his things. 

What was interesting, was that immediately after this conversation on the possibility of impounding, and the illegality of the selling, the security guard asked the vendor to serve him a plate of those Ram-laddus, and then paid him the 20 rupees that was the regular price of a small plate. 

Immediately a few thoughts flew through my head - 

The first, that the guard actually paid the vendor, he didn’t even suggest they be given free, or negotiate a price or anything. There was no demand for free service in exchange for allowance of passage. 

A second, that there are possibly lacs of people who come to their city in search of a better life and better earning opportunities, who work and exist in an informality that provides much needed services to the city at prices that keep them both affordable and relevant.

And the third, and possibly most important, that Policy may not register this, but even the enforcers of policy, and the public at large understand that there is a need for them and without such people and the varied services they provide, our city and many of privileges we enjoy would not be possible. 

The city is an economic entity, there is little that can be said to refute that. The nonsense around art and culture etc doesn’t really apply to a vast majority of the people in the cities we live in. One could argue that geographically, less than 5% of the city is actually given to these functions, and accessed by an even smaller percentage of cityzen.

In our post colonial reality, the city remains an opportunity, for better - education, pay, standard of living, employment and possibly an escape from caste / and employment structures that are very limited in the reaches of rural India. 

The city is lorded over by policy makes, bureaucrats, politicians and lawmakers, who ricochet between their various bastions of power in high fancy cars, with a battery of sycophants , support staff, servants and security detail. You won’t seem them step down on the sidewalks, or for that matter use a bus stop or board the metro. Our notions of achievement, development, and progress are hung over from the days of the Raj and an internalised Imperialist aspiration.

Again this thought is not what sparked the idea of this piece. I was riding back in a cab from site crossing the many stations of the just completed Magenta Line, the most recent of the DMRC’s additions to the vast network on Metro that has done wonders to change mobility and the city scape ( of course there are really stupid ideas like the TOD floating around, but we shall not digress) and as i passed each station, i was surprised by the number of sellers, crowding the alighting points - water and nimbu-pani, sellers of cigarettes, boiled eggs and bread-omelette sellers, momos, mobile screen protectors, and parathas, the list gets longer and more interesting at some stations with chow mien carts, chaat, chole-kulche, and litti-chokha. 

Vendors outsite the Megenta Line Station, Hauz Khas

Food stalls at Qutab Minar Mentro Station

It also strikes me as odd, that the metro stations, where you could easily have an end to end commute in the region of 90 minutes or more, are devoid of water fountains, have negligible restroom facilities (that are invariably outside if the exit gates, requiring you swipe your card or drop your token to access them, which is even more inconvenient if the station is not your destination station and you are using a token).

So while the network is a transportation boon, in its now 16 years of growth and development, it has sadly remained just that - a conduit for the transport of people across the city. 

The Metro has failed to recognise its own agency, and its own transformative potential. it has  now become the venue for dates, for meetings, and is slowly, but without any design intent, morphing into a quasi-social infrastructure out of sheer need. And it surprises me how these aspects have been completely blindsided. I could accept that the first time around when the station at Kashmere Gate opened, with the inclusion of a McDonalds, and some other fast food places, there could have been a lack of clarity. 

But 16 years down the line the omissions are disappointing,(possibly deliberate), point towards an intellectual laziness, and represent a huge opportunity that is lost. One would have expected to see last mile connectivity, street food and vends, and social activity transforming the landscape around the interface of the metro stations with the city they are an intrinsic part of. 

The way things stand even now, one can see the design and thus also the intent behind the design is opposed to such a possibility. A stance that comes from, and i conjecture here, policy makers who themselves do not use the metro and deem it to be for the “working class.” Or from a deep rooted class divide, that recognises cultural activity, social exchange, and food to be of value to only a certain economically advantaged section of the city that would not engage in such at “transport infrastructure”. It would be too pedestrian (pun intended!)

One must recognise informality, in its many avatars as both economically necessary and infrastructurally vital to the existence of the city. Informality posses an ability to organically grow and change to suit demand, space, season (and climate)and ever-changing taste and so possess a quality that is unmatchable by the more formal and much more resource intensive models of commercial and consumer enterprise the economic powers that control the city wish to encourage. There is a certain dynamic property that guides the informal, that cannot be replicated by the large corporate, multinational / big brand business entities. 

While it is encouraging to see a Cafe Coffee Day and Wow momos, or Burger King at metro stations, or kiosks selling bottle water and drinks, it is also necessary to address a changing usage pattern and the needs of a far larger population that drives the metro and keeps it viable. A population who's needs if recognised and integrated into the wider plans of the city and its infrastructure, we should have a safer, more seamless and more pleasurable public space.

It is time we recognised that transport and infrastructure will be the New Democratic spaces of the city, and i could argue, its future monuments. Mobility, and the access to information and digital communication have altered the way we use and interact with the city. But design and design practitioners, especially architects, planners, policy makers and the government have yet to acknowledge it.

I see in the metro and how it interfaces with the city of Delhi as a massive, untapped opportunity - financial, cultural and social, that could multiply the already large impact the metro has had on the lives of all city folk, working, retired, young, old, disabled or otherwise. 

Yet when i see the latest of the metro stations to be opened, one cant help but be sad,
that our cities, and how they continue to be designed by architects, and visioned by policy makers, and governed by administration, do not not account for the home-grown, for the small enterprise, for the spontaneous, for signs of hope - do not account for the huge possibility that is the informal. 

That the city and its infrastructure is still being designed with a colonial Sahab’s gaze, that lives in a nostalgia of being driven around New Delhi in the back seat of imported car, with a saluting driver, who handles the steering wheel with white gloves. Who’s 
idea of the city is a sanitised, inch perfect, picturesque and poor-free space. 

Not only would that be undemocratic, but it would also be absolutely unsustainable in every aspect - energy consumption, urban services, last mile connectivity, domestic services, food, the list just goes on. It is tiresome to see the same mistakes  and same assumptions being repeated again and again. Opportunities for livelihood and ownership of the public space are not only for the rich, and the economically advantaged. Our cities need to be reimagined, our cities need to be designed by people who live, eat, work and most importantly WALK in them (and use its public transport systems!)

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Wednesday, December 25, 2019


To me,
It looked like a government school
Or a graveyard,
I couldn't make up my mind which,
They seemed like the same to me
Both had bodies,
In one they were still alive!

I was moved,
To memories of devastating earthquakes
Where children 
Were trained, carefully, to take 
shelter under their desks, 
and so Died
A horrible death, for an education
Of little meaning!

The simplest task 
To save their lives was taught wrong!
All the song
And dance around alphabets and numbers come to naught.

This sudden thought, 
came flooding back!
I can hear 
In my head the dull tune
 of their Learing by rote,
(It sticks in my throat)
The repeating of meaningless words
To quote,
As if the repeating would suddenly change
The fate of from where it is they came!
Another quake is all it will take
To take their future in its wake.

To me,
It looks like graveyard, they call it school
I suppose they know, they make the rule

24 December 2019

*this piece was born as i recalled the haunting description of the many deaths of school children in the last earthquake of Afghanistan, a few years ago, while i was on a plane to Delhi on the 20th night, in the air, with a twitter feed that informed me of another earthquake of 6.3 in the region which also carried a mention of Delhi. I was mid air when i scrolled through my phone and saw this update. It was a eerie feeling, and the in ability to get information broke me into a sweat. 

It was written while travelling to Lucknow, on the 24th.

A few months ago, while in Uttarakhand, i had walked into a lonely, and desolate government school campus and wondered what the children might be learning here, and what was the education they were getting preparing them for. 

This poem is fictitious, but asks both those questions.

On a more serious note i am appalled that the signboard outside of this school opposite the Saket metro station, it is quite clear why i hope.

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Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Problem with Our Stars - II ( Or Architectural Journalism in the Information Age)

So much of how we look at design is based how we have taught architecture, and also how a legacy of celebrating certain ideas, personalities and design “trends” have shaped our own acceptance, understanding and stance on what might be considered good architecture. The fundamental basis of marking judgments usually relies and is formed by this at a rather early stage of our lives as we become part of world of design. 

Our first instances of design and appreciation come from names and personalities and critical acclaim attached to those names and projects. 

While good design is usually the ability to arrive at clear and manifest expressions of purpose and experience that more often than not is the result of many year (or instances)of practice. 

This many years invariably translates into a reputation, a certain sense of celebrity, that then overtakes the discernment and appreciation of well designed ideas and slowly turns into a celebration of entity that implies directly good design (whether it is perceivable of not). 

In the age when books and the cost to write them, to print them and the need for a captive audience necessitated the need of a certain degree of repute and personality to ensure a successful publishing, but that age is past. 

In the age of digital media (4g, Instagram and online publishing through blogs etc) and a much wider platform and faster speed of putting data out and also the opportunities that the many digital platforms offer to generate conversation, I find it problematic, that Good design still seems to be the domain of the celebrated Design professional. 

So what’s stopping us? Is it that there is little good design happening? 

Or is it that the conversation around design is rarely the conversation about design but more the conversation around the designer and why this or that represents good design in a wider body maybe (but surely reputation) of good design. 

So when I see internet and social media based Architectural journalism / curation and content creation that does little more than merely replicate the printed mediums. 

The lack of need of infrastructure, and the freedom and independence that the digital platforms afford seem to have little consequence on the conversation and content. And most surprisingly has had little contribution to the discovery of outliers and design that is actually testing/ stretching / breaking new ground.

Is there need for it? Yes, is there scope for it, given the minimal content available and the sheer volume of work being carried out, and the scale and geography of the subcontinent? Put simply, the scope is immense. 

Will it be economically viable? Yes. 
That’s a no brainer! 

So then why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Most models online even seem to rely on An older process of delivery, where architects and designers are asked to send in “material”, that includes self celebratory write ups and documentation on their work, this process models itself closely on the footsteps of the dead or dying “masters”, with a acceptable level of design. These look more like advertorials! 

I have been guilty of this. But as practices desperate to get heard, and eager to get our message out in the cloud of noise that is design journalism, you can forgive the practices!

But why isn’t there more frontier journalism,and more exploratory? And why isn’t there a uproar for this kind of material. Why don’t we see your journalists/ architects/ writer setting out armed with smartphones and 4g, with blogs and Instagram ablaze! 

Why isn’t there a loud clamor in the design circles calling for this kind of content?

And can it be a collaborative model? A network or people willing to share, converse and actually have a meaningful Architectural discussion that goes beyond the names! 

Of course everyone wants to name-dropped after a certain point in time.

After years of teaching at a few design schools, and having the good fortune of spending 6 years at Undergrad at SPA New Delhi, I think the answer is how we are introduced to Design and Architecture, where the case study seems to be central to the establishing precedents  of good design. But never seems to stop there! And it becomes a debilitating exercise of name dropping and reputation. 

But you can call content curated, if you will, but you cannot call it journalism if all you are doing is featuring contributions from the architects themselves without the slightest attempt at generating discourse!

But if we want discourse, we have got to be ready for a little criticism! (And if there is one thing I have learnt from the few wine-filled dinners (that I have started to avoid) and fewer meaningful talks and discussions I have attended in these past many years – Architects don’t seem to like criticism! Much of our architecture is pattern book stuff (High modernism when modernism is long since dead) or Stylistic interpretation like post-modern, (when we didn’t even have a modern) and form fantasizing. Not to say there isn’t grounded architecture that is geographically / culturally rooted and socially relevant – but those architects are not among our stars. And sadly, there’s little being done to add them to the constellations of our sky!

Monday, April 01, 2019

Of Architecture, Museums, Oversimplifications and the Taj

I am tired of hearing that the Taj Mahal is fantastic architecture 
it so follows that if people can appreciate the Taj, they can and must have good Architectural taste. 

I'm paraphrasing, but thats pretty much what was being expressed.

That’s like saying I must know good food because I follow Gordon Ramsay on Instagram! But I turn up my nose at the local Aloo-Tikky joint. (Or I watch Masterchef Australia!)

And, no, a tomb made by an emperor to remember a dead wife in an exercise of monumental excesses, arguably the most intricately and ornately decorated still would not be my benchmark for good (let alone great) architecture in the subcontinent. 

To me it is an object in the landscape. 

Like a icon, a flag, a post, appreciated and viewed singularly for its place in the distance in a landspace, as an place to be photographed before.

A marvel of construction, proportion and shape, and craft, definitely but architecture?

Also the common discussions around the Taj, rarely, if ever, go to the Char-bagh, or the Masjid and its mirrored Aaram Ghar, or how it fits in a larger landscape or urban precinct, those I have heard only in the confines of architectural conversation between very lettered conservationist, and architects.

No one I know thinks of the Taj beyond its celebrated imagery, its marvel of an Object-in-a-Landscape and the phenomenal pictures it lends itself to from every angle, like a finely crafted curiosity, that attracts travellers from all continents to marvel at its perfection. It is a wondrous tourist attraction, surely, but is it architecture? We could argue that.

Does it fit the Vitruvian Ideal? Commodity, Firmness? Delight? Or the 10 markings of architecture? How does it address climate? Or shelter?

Does it belong on that bank of the river? Or is it contrived, Kind of like the Guggenheim at Bilbao? And the word is divided on Ghery’s Bilbao( i’m being polite when I say divided, but we will leave it there) 

But that isn’t why I started out on this.

As the epitome of the Mughal Tomb, does it automatically become great architecture?  And even if it does (although i’d argue it doesn’t) does an ability to appreciate the Taj, an easily acquired (sometimes considered a default human birth condition even) automatically translate into an ability to appreciate and recognise good architecture elsewhere?

Or is that some sort of oversimplification?

Or more, condescension?

I’m tired of the logic of this - the ability of recognition and appreciation of established and over exposed examples of classical architecture(and I write architecture to address all the examples we may come across) being touted as a demonstration of an ability to appreciate architecture in all its complexity in its much less tourist-loved and academia obsessed vernacular and contemporary models that populate the places and spaces of our everyday lives. 

So why am I raising this?

So there has been talk about a museum of architecture for a while now and i’m wondering how we or anyone will go about deciding what is good architecture and what merits inclusion and what doesn’t. 

(And please don’t throw the “buildings designed by eminent architect” criteria at this, if it weren’t for the name, there isn’t much to most of theose buildings in most cases.)

The Architectural press and the glossy journals do an awfully bad job of this, with an absolute lack of any kind of critical investigation, where firm invariable contribute both written and visual material and articles are more like author monologues of “design” celebration, even when there is little design and less to celebrate about it.

So how else? 

The contention that if you can appreciate the Taj you can appreciate good architecture is, well less talked about, the better. And even then i’d argue that the Humayun’s Tomb complex is possibly higher in Architectural value as well as in its opportunities for learning and demonstration of Architectural thinking and purpose than its Agra Cousin, that is more an exercise in aesthetic brilliance than anything else. 

But to me it doesn’t end there, to a culture and a consciousness that views life as cyclical and regenerative, a tomb being the bench mark for architecture for the living is somewhat ironical

If you said temple? Would I have the same Discussion? And if you are going to bring up Khajuraho? My response is an emphatic YES!  And for possibly the same reasons!

So lets not bother to revisit the argument.

Much of our appreciation and acknowledgement of our own architecture comes from the volumes of Fletcher and Tadgel, who did a wonderful job of documenting our historical monuments, but seem to have been driven by a collectors view, of cataloging, classifying etc these structures with a Art Object view on them. While the documentation is exhaustive, it speaks little of culture, tradition, life, landscape (but being dead monuments mostly, you cant fault that), almost a taxonomists delight, those, but do very little for an understanding of architecture as frame for human life.

And nothing for the humbler cousins, the vernacular of the varied geographies that make up the subcontinent and have nurtured life for innumerable generations but have been skipped by schools and architectural historians in the their ever westward looking view (barring for a token study somewhere in the earlier years of architecture school)

Also, most of us at architecture school are taught to appreciate buildings as architecture because a certain name is attached to them.

So how would you appreciate a good example of Kumaoni House?

Or wait,

Would you appreciate a good example of Kumaoni House if you raved about the Taj Mahal? Or would you Rave about a Matharoo Building because you find the Lakhmana Temple in Khajuraho the finest example of temple architecture?

I think not,

The world’s rife with oversimplifications, but as an architect, oversimplification of architecture I’m not very good with!

P.S. i thought i'd post a picture of the Taj, but sadly i don't have one of my own, but im sure the internet will flood you with a million pictures of it in less than 0.08 seconds, as for the Kumaoni House, please visit Kumaon!

Monday, February 11, 2019

74 And Counting!

The NCR, National Capital Region boasts of an Institute of National Importance that is also a Deemed University, The SPA, with Departments of Urban Design, Transport Planning, Industrial Design, Architecture and a lot more, the NCR also has 4 other schools of Architecture and Planning, to add to this fray the Delhi State has School of Social Design at Ambedkar University Delhi, and still we get to see this.

74 foot over-bridges and a skywalk is an appalling waste of public funds to arrive at this conclusion. What is the point of all these institutes if the PWD and the MCD have bureaucrats and engineers with little vision, and even less common sense making decisions. It would cost the government nothing, to put exercises for improving the public realm to these institutions and ask for their well considered opinion and design solutions. 

Opportunities to make positive change are lost over and over again in this shortsighted vision of development that seems to ail every aspect of our development work.

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