Is our architecture destroying urbanity?

The failed city, and the failing neighbour- hood, are the failures of a profession entirely detached from civic life

If 20 years ago, television journalists stood before India Gate to visibly connect their story to India, today they must stand before a shopping mall. Perhaps even a glass mall in old Bikaner. Coated in desert dust, heated to an unbearable summer stillness, and visibly uncomfortable in its historic location, the picture will tell you very graphically, the current sorry tale of Indian architecture.

Earlier, architecture’s relevance counted for a great many public ideas. Its importance as a political and cultural symbol in the 50s created Chandigarh, and later, architecture formulated the framework for institutes of technology and business, the IITs and IIMs. In the 70s, as a dominant instrument of social concern, it produced large-scale housing for the middle classes, and even suggested local house types for rural settlements. Amongst professionals, the 1980s generated debate on the need to express regional identity in buildings — buildings that conserved a balance between design, materials and ecology. Architecture mattered, because it was conscious of people, places and problems.
The era of globalisation, however, has brought a strange ambivalence to architecture, fostered by the dissonant multiculturalism of foreign materials and ideas, of which the Bikaner mall is only a minor outcome.
All of a sudden, India’s architectural strategies have became linked to middle-class vanity. Signs of economic success are visible in the flashy details of big business and attuned to luxury, to the growth of mega complexes and a spa culture. Without a whimper, architecture has become irrelevant to the social causes of the country. It is no longer interesting to be an architect.
In much of recent Indian architecture there is a personal claim to design that is offensive for its pretension. As if the invention of something new-looking must be staked into a kind of personal heroism. The attitude the new buildings describe is one of “I am the maker” and “This is my copyright.” However self-hypnotic and clever the building, at its core it remains miserly and self-conscious, pretending to safeguard architecture from mass consumption and isolate it into discrete pockets of affluence — the private farmhouse, the exclusive apartment, the fancy mall. The wider interests of design with a set of community values from shared common experience are missing.
Architecture works its way back behind closed doors, back into the closet. The dangers of such paranoia are many, but paramount is the reducing influence of the profession itself. Its largesse, as an involved — and involving — activity of space limited now to its appreciation as a minor object, a piece of jewellery. Condemned — as it is by its own maker — and imprisoned behind high walls.
Look anywhere and you will find office structures, apartments, IT buildings in tinted glass, walls leaning or angled in uncomfortable asymmetries, light falling in accidental reflections. Have these structures altered the old understanding of architecture as a stabilising influence on its surroundings? Or has architecture come to redefine natural laws of gravity.
The architect will confidently explain how the façade is a fusion of historic tradition and contemporary technology, how indeed the sheer scale of the structure is a metaphor for the growing confidence of the economy. But verbal and visual justifications do little to appease the chaotic character of the urban experience. Granted many of these buildings are exceptionally well crafted, engineered with obvious innovation, but you would be hard pressed to find in them the essential ingredients that say, yes they have improved the quality of people’s lives. Or their very presence in the city has enriched the surroundings. But mistaking originality for a defiance of natural order they merely promote the idea of architecture as “heroic” rather than “humane”.
What will remain in memory of the new work? Will the Ambani residence in Mumbai be remembered for its owner or for its design; the Commonwealth Games for its expenditure or for its structures? Will anyone even care to inquire about the new capital city of Chhattisgarh, currently in construction, the way Nehru did for Chandigarh?
Can in fact the architect and planner give clarity to a social situation with his building, looking not just to accommodate as set of requirements but to enrich the lives of its residents. For all its large-scale projects and grandiose plans, Indian architecture offers no selfless acts of generosity or gifts to the spirit. No surprise gardens hidden behind walls, no water courses or arcades built for no reason at all. No maze where citizens can lose themselves. No urban recognition of seasonal variations, no monsoon greens or summer gardens. No flights of fancy, nothing…
Sadly, the illegibility of the present city is related not so much to public indifference, but architectural irresponsibility. Nowhere in the world has one singular profession — in collusion with planners — contributed to such a complete visual destruction of urbanity. Drawing attention to itself, architecture’s contribution is a firm disconnection with public life. Beyond his building as a technological artifact, the architect’s inability to intuitively design for a common purpose has left a lasting legacy of utter civic remoteness — isolated landmarks, derelict plazas, inaccessible parks, disjointed commercial and housing pockets.
A profession that treats the city merely as a form of real estate opportunity can hardly be expected to influence the lives of its people. The architect’s immature desire to create “original” buildings needs the severest reprimand, and a curtailing of this rash and irresponsible practice. The failed city, and the failing neighbourhood, are the failures of a profession entirely detached from civic
life. And one fast
moving to complete obsolescence.

Gautam Bhatia, an architect, artist and writer, has built extensively in India and the US

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