Saturday, June 27, 2015

Charles Correa and blessings of the sky – architecture for modern India

Architect Charles Correa
Kanchanjangha apartments, Mumbai
Gandhi Memorial Museum, Ahmedabad
Charles Correa, the legendary architect of modern India died last Tuesday. I remember sitting awestruck in Charles Correa's lecture at School of Architecture CEPT in 1998. Before Charles Correa started his lecture, someone was adjusting the microphone in front of him and the mic went too close. Correa immediately said, "Oh, here goes my front teeth." Everyone laughed and I told myself, 'I like this guy!' The lecture was famously called ‘blessings of the sky’ where Correa talked about his creative journey, building after building, to explain how he uses open-to-sky spaces such as courtyards and terraces in his designs. To him, open-to-sky spaces not only have sacred meaning but they are practical way of making climate-friendly buildings which people can associate with very easily. 

Charles Correa is a leading name among a generation of architects who began their career when India became independent. And the question in front of him was how to design buildings, which have Indian ethos and Western modernity at the same time. Correa drew references from the historical buildings and traditional vernacular architecture without being burdened by the past. He absorbed Western modernist ideas of abstraction compositions and devised them to cater to the Indian imagination. His architecture was loaded with playful arrangements of colorful planes, light and shadows. 

Ahmedabad knows Charles Correa as a designer of the Memorial Museum at the Sabarmati Ashram. He was 28 years old when he was commissioned this work. Charles Correa taught us how to design in a powerful historical context like the Gandhi Ashram without being loud or without pretending to be traditional. Correa’s architectural marvel in Gandhi Ashram reflect the beauty of being subtle and of being structured yet flexible. The museum becomes an obvious extension – not only to the other buildings in the Ashram – but also to Gandhi’s philosophy of austerity, simplicity and truthfulness. 

Charles Correa was a tireless advocate of better urban living. His ideas of urban architecture and housing radically deviated from attitudes of greedy floor space consumptions and dreary skylines that define our cities these days. He was a planner for the New Bombay’s early plans until 1975. Later he was asked by Government of India to lead the first ever Commission on Urbanisation between 1985-88. A lot of what is written in the commission's report(s) still makes sense – giving more financial autonomy to cities or to create unified transport authorities and so on. Of course, these recommendations were never taken seriously or acted upon by the government who commissioned it. It is heartening to see that the NIUA (National Institute of Urban Affairs) is determined to re-publish the reports. Today we can surely criticize the positions of the commission but there is no doubt that they had comprehensive road map for the future of cities and this was in many ways a stepping stone for the future urban policies in India.

Charles Correa’s architecture and his ideas on Indian cities became ‘textbooks’ for the architecture and urban planning students. I am sure Charles Correa’s work will come to rescue whenever a teacher looking for an example to show to her students, - ‘Ah, see what Correa did in this kind of situation’. 

 (22nd June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, June 15, 2015

You are not stuck in traffic, you are ‘the traffic’ that you resent so much!

A bus full of people reduces about 50-80 vehicles from roads. A train coach will reduce about 100 vehicles if it reaches where the need is. 

"A developed country is not where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation."

You are not stuck in traffic, you ARE the traffic!’ – Originally a slogan from Copenhagen to promote sustainable means of transport has become a timely reminder for many city planners and administrators in the 21st Century. It is quite self-sympathising and self-deluding to believe that ‘I am stuck in traffic’ – as if there is a larger conspiracy to do so. Smart motorists realise that they are also contributor to the problem of traffic and they cannot get away by putting the blame on others for driving just like them. Recently I have been guilty of adding one more car in the city by buying one. The more I drive the car, the more I realise how I am contributing to the problem.
When you are a car driver, you would like wider roads and less traffic coming your way. Wider roads, free parking and smoother functioning of traffic coupled with lack of efficient public transport compel a lot of people to take up driving. Yet we have a very low car ownership in the country compared to many industrialised countries. For example, the US have about 750 cars per thousand people and we have not even reached about 100 motor vehicles per thousand people. In short, motor vehicles will be growing at unprecedented rates and we will have to learn to deal with this problem like other countries.
Cities around the world are realising that unlimited supply of wider roads and flyovers is not possible. These conventional solutions of keep building ‘roads over roads’ are not economically or environmentally sustainable. By building a maze of flyovers and by allowing relentless traffic, Delhi has attracted the worst air pollution, unsafe roads and never-ending traffic. Besides, who likes to live in a city, which has a jumble of flyovers on every junction but hardly any sight of greens! Even car drivers are not happy with these solutions because they neither get wide roads nor smoothly operated traffic. As new owners add more and more vehicles, the once-upon-a-time nice roads to drive on get congested.
Many cities have realised that they need to make ‘life-style changes’ to solve the problem of their clogged arteries and some by-passes here and they will not help in the long run. As Petro Gustavo - the mayor of Bogota famously said, “A developed country is not where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Promoting public transport and making it so efficient and affordable that a majority uses it is a challenge worth taking up.
A bus full of people reduces about 50-80 vehicles from the roads. A metro train coach will reduce about 100 vehicles provided it reaches where the need is. Many vehicle drivers will not mind walking short distances or taking public transport provided there are better facilities. Cities in Gujarat have surely made a good beginning in these directions compared to many other Indian cities but they will need to do much more. Over the last few years, the awareness amongst the citizens about the benefits of public transport is growing. This needs to be now backed up with the adequate investments, long-term plans and efficient implementation. Good governance gives us possibilities of being a solution to the problem and not only the contributors. Hope, we get our due!

(15th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

If cities are engines of economic growth, what are the rest of train and coaches?

We need to move beyond romanticising either cities or villages & develop more nuanced understanding about their economic and social roles.

In the last two decades, everybody from senior bureaucrats to World Bank officials and academic scholars keep reminding us that cities are the engines of economic growth. They complain that cities have not been given enough attention since independence and we need proper policy and increasing financial support for our cities. To some extent, the slogan ‘cities are engines of economic growth’ is posited against ‘India lives in her villages’. This contributes to a misplaced contest between cities and villages and vice versa. 
This is a rather old debate in India. Some political ideologies have demonised cities as sites of criminal activities, greed and pollution. Besides, romanticising village life, which is believed to be closer to our traditions and nature. Both demonising cities or hailing their growth potential presents a one-sided picture. We need to move beyond romanticising either cities or villages and develop more nuanced understanding about economic and social roles of different settlements. 
Cities are not islands. Each city becomes a city because of its hinterland, which is rural and agrarian in nature. There is a symbiotic relationship between cities and villages of economic, social and cultural exchanges. It is very difficult to draw a physical boundary around economic production or cultural imports. In fact, cities are quite diverse themselves and so are villages. To say that cities are the engines of economic growth is a misinformed analogy. Would engines have any meaning if they were running without the rest of the train? Would the rest of the train move if there were no engines? We need both the engines and the other bogeys of the train. And one should not claim that I am more important than the other. 
In the urbanisation story of India, thousands of small and medium towns play an equally important role as the big metropolis. As per the 2011 census, we have about 50 cities with one million plus population and about 7,900 towns in the range of five thousand to one million populations with great diversity in their geography and economy. Lot of urban growth is taking place in these small and medium towns. According to the latest National Sample Survey, the small and medium towns across the country have witnessed more growth in jobs. Unfortunately, these towns are hardly supported by efficient municipal administration with adequate financial health. In Gujarat, we have about 150 municipalities, which do not receive as much financial support as the big municipal corporations. 
Before embarking on the urban policies and programs, we need the right kind of imagination and conception about our cities. An urban discourse or urban policies should not necessarily hamper the focus on rural development and vice versa. Cities are not only engines or industrial production houses or labour markets. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs would put it - “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” We need cities created by everybody and for everybody. Imagining cities as ‘engines’ is so limiting and boring.

(8th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)