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Why do visualisations of the ‘future’ in popular culture tend to fall back so frequently on cityscapes—sinuous skyways, snaking through an endless vista of skyscrapers? Is there a clue in that to how our collective imagining actually creates the future? Perhaps ‘the city’ is the classic playground of Futurism as a creative principle, with architecture translating fantasy into reality—as monuments of aspiration. But the city is also its people—old settlements, new settlers, millions of dreams in collision, everything perpetually unsettled. Producing conflicts, resolutions, hybrids. Extending the human city at its frontiers to produce novelty. Like a Manipuri dhaba in a Jat mohalla within a posh neighbourhood. A sudden burst of ghost chilli.
A city is also its history. The past that lingers on as character, as identity, as visual heritage. Today, the conception of smart cities has taken root—spatial reality collapsing into virtual reality. And paradoxically, talk of crime and xenophobia fills news pages. For an exploratory dialogue on what an Indian city of the future could be like, say in 2076, five diverse voices—architect Raj Rewal, activist Bezwada Wilson, conservationist A.G.K. Menon, poet-linguist Rukmini Bhaya Nair and artist-photographer Dayanita Singh—came together in Delhi, a city with multiple editions going back a millennium. The venue: Svasti Sankul, IGNCA, a lovely place with a ‘festival of India’ charm, derived mostly by keeping the real city out. Excerpts from the conversation, moderated by Sunil Menon and Satish Padmanabhan:
Satish Padmanabhan: So our theme is the future of cities, how we can visualise them. If I may begin with Rukmini, who is working on a really interesting paper; it’s an intriguing concept called ‘localopolis’—as opposed to the ‘cosmopolis’. One key takeaway is that the future belongs to smaller cities, like Bhopal, Nagpur or Vishakapatnam. In the digital era, you can attend a music concert, hear a lecture and visit an exhibition on the internet. You don’t have to be in New York, London or Paris to do this anymore. Have I got it right?
Rukmini Bhaya Nair: Well, even I’m trying to get it right! You see, in the century just gone by, the cosmopolis, the cosmopolitan imagination was very strong. It was Europe’s way—not necessarily the world’s way—of recovering from a century broken down the middle by two World Wars. It was a broken-backed century and it had to be rebuilt. The way they rebuilt it was by all these great minds…sort of like Walter Benjamin talking about flaneurs, and Italo Calvino talking about invisible cities and so on: to imagine the cosmopolis as a place of refuge, a place where strangers could meet and fall in love and so on. A utopian idea. And now, in some ways, I feel the cosmopolis has been exhausted.
Look at the population structure of Indian cities. You find seven or eight megacities with populations above four million. Then you have intermediate cities, 40 or 50 of them, with populations between one and four million. And then you have this vast spread of cities where I locate the ‘localopolis’—about 500 cities with populations of 7-9 lakh. So we have this huge divide. We have Delhi, with the population of Australia, believe it or not—about 22 million or 23 million. One city! And there are these cities where I see a powerful conjunction of the local...local politics, rhythms of life, everyone knows the city intimately. Say, Muzaffarpur. Three or four lakh people, where every corner is known, and at the same time there is a university. So I thought the localopolis—if we can get its narrative of future anxieties in—that would be one way of thinking away from the cosmopolis. To newer spaces, for intimacy and narrative.
Satish: You think that’s where we ought to go or where we are inevitably headed?
Rukmini: If we’re looking at cities of the future, we are really forecasting for the so-called millenials. All of us around this table are safely over the millennial hump, so to speak. But we must remember, India’s demographic is ‘very young’. We are forecasting for them, those who are on the move, on their mobiles.
Satish: The digital part of it, how do you see that?
Raj Rewal: See, in all cities, there’s a place for discussion—the Greek Agora, the town square or chowk. Rajasthan’s cities still have it. Or say the Ramlila, you know….
Rukmini: Performance spaces….
Raj Rewal: Yes, common places where people get together. It used to be the temples in south India, Madurai and Tanjore still have that feeling. Now you’re saying the television is the place for debate! Or digital…debate goes over there. Rather than ten thousand people getting together and discussing.
(To Rukmini) It’s interesting, what you say. I go these days to a small place off Jalandhar where I’m building for the first time, near Kartarpur…it has that nice small-town ambience. But ‘is the future there?’…I don’t know where the future is, because it’s not only made by whether you can debate, or see things, or get more facilities, but whether you can find work. That’s the single most important lure of big metropolises.
When I was in the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, I’d started to steer discussions in a certain direction. In urban design, it’s very important to consider how the poor are going to move in the next 100 years, 50 years, or even a decade. All urban planners and architects think cities are at a congestion point where they can’t take more people. I remember asking Sheila Dikshit, ‘How can one city employ 5 lakh new people a year?’ We have to consider that. Can we somehow get the working population to move to or to stay in small towns? Would they have living and earning capabilities there? You can absorb culture digitally perhaps. But I’m thinking of the day-to-day parameters of life….
A.G.K. Menon: I want to flag one thing here. I think Indian cities can’t be divided into megacities and other cities. Megacities too are a heterogeneous amalgamation of…
Rukmini: Many cities….
AGK: Yes. So what you say about a small city also applies to Delhi, it’s only that decision-makers, the elites, think of it differently. Take a simple statistic. Even in Delhi, with so much money (for development), so much of planning, seventy per cent of the city had to be simply taken as it is and regularised. Which means seventy per cent of the people just did what they had to do, even in a megacity. And this is despite all our planning being focused there! All they talk about is smart cities, forgetting the fact that at the base of even, say, Delhi there is a localopolis, as you call it. That does not capture our imagination. That has to change.
Rukmini: I was thinking, we are fighting across the border with surgical strikes and all that…and one of the things Rushdie wrote about Pakistan was that it’s a country insufficiently imagined. I think, in some ways, we too insufficiently imagine our cities. I think this kind of enterprise is important because it’s an attempt to sufficiently imagine something, even take risks with getting it wrong. I feel what AGK is saying about different localopolises inside the cosmopolis is critical. As Mr Rewal said, work…leisure, sanitation, structures like that, those are the things we need to imagine, yes, but we can’t leave media and the digital out because of the youthfulness of the population we are working with.
Sunil Menon: When you say the cosmopolis has exhausted its possibilities, isn’t that too absolute? If all our emotional and imaginative energies are going to be invested in creating a different locale altogether, you are practically talking about abandoning the city, like the Indus cities were abandoned or something like that. Would it make sense to take this new imagination, where there is both intimacy and newness, however you want to characterise the localopolis, to reimagine the cosmopolis itself in those terms so as to give it a new life somehow?
Rukmini: Yes, that’s right. The cosmopolis in terms of the localopolis, but as I say, I think it’s insufficiently imagined.
"We never designed our cities, they simply emerged! The ones we did, Chandigarh, are anti-poor, anti-women…"
AGK: To imagine, we must have a model. A strong idea. To give you a historical example, modern architecture developed because architects said we must have workers’ housing. Because in industrialised cities, the workers were very badly treated and they had no space. For Indian cities, the model is Shanghai and Singapore! Indianised Singapores. But it doesn’t work. We can’t imagine an Indian city, an Indian model. We just don’t understand who we are. We are poor, we are heterogeneous, we are all that, and the question is how to imagine a city based on that? When I tried to articulate it, my planners said, oh, you want to design a slum? But, it is a slum, you know! We have to say “that’s India”, and not get ashamed of it and say “no, I must build my smart city”. (To Rukmini) This is the danger in your technology bit, you get drawn into the smart city model. That vision has to be questioned. I can’t leave it at just that, saying the young are going to use technology, hence it must matter to the city.
Satish: Yes, Shanghai, Singapore, Gurgaon is modelled like that. It’s a city that’s so new, and has grown in front of us. (To Wilson) And all our cities seem to be based on the idea of consumption. Nobody bothers about its corollary, which is waste, which is sanitation. As an activist who sees the other side of it, how would you ask city planners, or architects, or theorists to think of a new kind of city where this is not left to some unseen force?
Menon: To chance events…I mean, in Gurgaon, pigs seem to take care of a lot of waste management! It’s outsourced to the animal kingdom. The implicit meanings of that are so extreme. And environmental issues were already widely articulated in the 1990s…and still this pseudo-Singapore just comes up.
Wilson: Now with most of our planners, the model is ‘smart city’. They may not even know what it is….
Rukmini: …yes, what is a smart city?
Wilson: If someone asks them, defend your idea of a smart city, no one has a ready answer: ‘my smart city is....’
Menon: …smarter than yours!
"In India, there’s no place for architects or city planners. It’s composed of either lawyers, economists or politicians.”
Wilson: (Laughs) First question is, why ‘city’? Eighty per cent of India used to be in the villages. It’s only in the last 100 years that these cities have been growing. Why? A peripheral reason could be the facilities they offer. But a big reason why the migration happened is caste. Indian villages are very traditional places where that mindset is very rigid, they are designed around caste. You live in assigned spaces. So there are groups who feel they can’t accept this. And not necessarily just the discriminated. Even among the dominant castes, there are those who say, “I don’t want to discriminate against somebody forever”. And the discriminated feel, “I don’t want to be at somebody’s mercy. I want to leave”. So we reach the cities. But our cities were designed…rather, we never designed our cities, they simply emerged! Except Chandigarh. And we find these cities too are inherently anti-poor, anti-women….
Satish: The same patriarchy of the village is replicated….
Wilson: In another form. We do want the service providers, the domestic workers, construction workers, the people who lay roads. But does any city have a place, even small quarters, for them? In Delhi, where houses are ‘designed’, the design includes this thing called servant quarters. No one is progressive enough to keep the servant in the house. Maybe one or two, but the design does not reflect it. And the safai karamcharis—look at 100 years of our cities through their eyes. No cosmopolis has quarters for them, except Mumbai. And there, only the quarters that were made 100 years ago exist. So the cleaners, when they retire, they request their son, who might even be a lawyer, to “please join this safai ka kaam, otherwise I will lose my quarters”.
Satish: Even in a very ‘modern’ kind of work, like the Metro, they have taken care of everything—noise pollution etc—but all the workers are on the roads.
Menon: There are two categories of such workers—the construction workers, for instance, are almost nomadic. They just vanish, you don’t see them anymore. But even those whose work enjoins them to a fixed location, they too have no space.
Wilson: Their life is not included in our ‘design’ at all. If you go to the Nigambodh cremation ground in Delhi in the evening, there is a huge spill of people on the road, everybody sleeping on the footpath. Every day we see that. But never feel the need to design for them, to provide them space.
"Future cities could take on the slum model. And maybe we need to stop calling them slums and think of them as little villages."
Rewal: Digressing a bit, but when you say designing…there has to be a vision. In the Indian establishment, there’s no place for architects, urban designers or city planners. It’s composed of either lawyers, or economists or political families. In other countries, town planners, urbanists, architects have that stature. From the British period, it’s the government planners who’ve been designing. Let’s take Delhi, and DDA. They are treated like chaprasis, and they behave like it. It used to be said that the Centre makes money on defence deals, and the provinces make money on land. So the process of design was taken over by the political hierarchy because that’s where the money is to be made.
Even in the US, a pure market economy, there’s a proper process of urban design, it’s not laissez faire…or ‘leave it alone’, whatever happens. But in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, there’s nobody actually designing. So when you talk about designing for poor people, coming from different backgrounds, the fact is that there is no one designing. It just happens in a sporadic manner.
Menon: The underlying design of society manifests itself….
Rewal: It’s a vicious situation. If you study slums, it’s very interesting. In the few studies I got done in the US—11 or 13 studies—perhaps the first on India, one thing we found was that there were various distinctions even among the slum people. For instance, they tend to say, “this is a slum of south Indians”. Or even finer distinctions. So settlements of the poor emerge, because they need work. But this idea of intermingling—where you forget caste and background and a new kind of person emerges, a new kind of society—that is not actually happening. Which is a great pity. Smaller cities, say Jalandhar or Madurai, they have an in-built caste system…if I may use the word…it carries on.
I had four years in China and whatever the mistakes of Mao or the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward, he did do one thing. All the professors had to go and clean toilets. That has now made the society. If you are talking of the mingling of classes, we need a revolution. We can’t carry on as a society evolving on its own into something. Perhaps it might, but I’m doubtful.
AGK: The truth is, we don’t know how the Indian city is evolving. We think it’s evolving like the European city of the 19th century. It’s not. The caste system, the economy, the whole attitude has come into it. We are evolving differently. No one is theorising about it, no one is studying it. We get disappointed that we haven’t become like Europe. Yet our cities are evolving. Who’s to say what they will be like in 2076, as you say…we can’t tell because no one has studied it or theorised about it.
Rukmini: The point you made, Wilson, these hierarchical structures we carry in our head. I feel we need to address one thing—when we talk about a polis or the city, it has a politics. We need to look at how we democratise it, how we create a new politics….
Menon: Etymologically, aren’t they related?
Rukmini: Yes, of course; from the Greek polis. The city is the space for building a political consciousness. In the city of the future, we need to address that squarely. We talk about infrastructure, gadgets, smart cities, all these things, but we’re not addressing the nub of it—the inner politics.
Menon: Very apolitical, our cities can be. Even urban reform/planning is apolitical.
Rukmini: Yes, and we can’t have an apolitical discussion, especially in India.
Satish: Dayanita, in your work, very noticeably in the early years, it wasn’t this Oriental exotica that everyone was doing; the Mughals, the Rajputs, Banaras. It was very focused on ‘normal’ interior spaces, and to an extent on the marginalised. How do you see their status in the future, as someone who has dealt at an intimate level with the subject?
"We talk about infrastructure, gadgets, smart cities, all these things, but we’re not addressing the nub of it—the inner politics.”
Dayanita: I think we have to start from that place. If I were the urban planner of Delhi, I would say we have to look at all the slum studies, and all students of architecture should have to go live in a slum for six months to see how it works. I think there lie all our answers to space planning. We still go for a Gurgaon model. I think the cities of the future, to talk about them positively, could take on the slum model. And maybe we need to stop calling them slums and think of them as little villages….
Rukmini: As a localopolis….
Dayanita: Then I wonder, the same way, what if we think of the city as a place of women—a women’s city? And the men came and left. Something like that. We have very unsafe cities. Somehow for me, seeing how slums work, how brothels work, seeing how space is utilised in brothels, for instance, it’s an interesting exercise, somehow we bring the women into the conversation much more. It’s women who need to decide how space should be structured, and not just the kitchen.
Wilson: Mostly, we ask women only for suggestions on how to design the chimneys and kitchens. Never the wider things. And see how insensitive we are. Once we enter, say, Connaught Place, in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, can you show one public tap where someone can drink from? Not a single one! One day I went around checking. Simple drinking water. Not one.
Menon: There used to be these piyaus, in the old days….
Wilson: Maybe in the old days, but we’ve taken them out completely. We presume everyone has bottled water. Then there are public toilets. If you have a pass to enter Shastri Bhavan, you can use the washroom without paying anything. But for the poor, you charge for the public convenience. Those who have no money, they have to pay! The spaces we have created are so rich-friendly—and really, anti-women. They have to run here and there, asking, but they can’t go to Shastri Bhavan, Jawahar Bhavan, Rail Bhavan, they can’t go to the Parliament.
AGK: There is a famous book, Women in Man-Made Spaces. If you think of it, all spaces are man-made. And when we think about women in these spaces, there is problem after problem.
Dayanita: Yes, absolutely….
Wilson: Even when we talk about this, nature’s call or whatever you want to call it, even there we bring in the dignity of women. We never talk about it as a basic necessity or right….
Rukmini: How true is that!
Wilson: It is as if the whole country’s dignity, society’s dignity…the women’s body…is at stake! That is the only reason we think of it. Otherwise we don’t care.
(from left) Bezwada Wilson, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Dayanita Singh, Raj Rewal and A.G.K. Menon
Rewal: Getting back to the future of cities, I would certainly not romanticise slums in any way….
Rewal: They are grim places, and none of us can stay there for even one night, forget six months for an architecture student.
Dayanita: In terms of space utilisation?
"All valued cities have evident layers of history. Delhi is valuable because we have 1,000 years of history visible!"
Rewal: In the ’50s, Chandigarh came from a vision, that’s what we need. JNURM funds were frittered away on buying buses, because someone in the transport department said buses are what we need. Perhaps some people made a lot of money there. But each time there’s an idea, urban development is moved away from the central theme of what the vision should be for the future. Even with this government talking about smart cities, we haven’t seen anything as such in two-and-a-half years, short time though it is. All the money now goes into garbage collection. Not a bad idea in itself, the energy uses etc, but it’s only one aspect. A strong idea of the design…of a future city...is nowhere. And unless architects, urban designers and planners come to the fore, and not economists or politicians or lawyers, we are in a visionless future. But slums…I think that’s not a place to have a vision.
Menon: I think all of us want to interject here! Take your point on planning, but to revisit the issue of slums with a little more…
Menon: Yes, but not to romanticise it at all. It’s a phenomenon where a lot of things can be read. Someone mentioned the village. You can’t think of a city without thinking of the village. It is the other of the city. The slum has often been read as an organic kind of growth, a stunted village. Middle-class flats…the very word, no grand arches, no curvature or interesting asymmetry—flat. But slums bring a bit of the village. In a south Delhi slum, out of the blue, you can hear the nadaswaram…and you’re in rural Tamil country. But at the level of metaphor, we think of slum as disease, therefore slum eradication, like polio eradication….
Rewal: See, when I designed the Asian Games Village, the idea was to create a series of squares where people can get together. Let’s say, it was evolved from the traditional city, unlike these vertical towers. So if you are talking about slums as a metaphor for people mingling and sharing, their little spaces, then maybe. But…there is no sanitation, no water, no electricity. It’s a very grim place! If you say, can’t we see it as having some humanity within it…then yes.
Dayanita: We’re talking about the space.
Rewal: Yes, but I wouldn’t use it as a model. In other countries, they do what they call social housing. They do it badly, generally. Paris is a very bad design, but they survive. The very poor have a place. In Europe, they may die of cold, but they have a space to live. In the long term, I feel a horizontal, low-rise city, as compared to Chinese towers, is an ideal we could work towards. Another way to look at it might be how China did population control. You see, every city in India is getting degraded. I’m not going to say ‘becoming a slum’, because you’re romanticising it!....
Rewal: But almost all our cities are becoming degraded. Not just Bombay, Madras, Calcutta. Even smaller places are going in this direction…gated communities. Those who want to live well say “we don’t want you there”. A terrible future!
Satish: Dayanita, you had a point to make.
Dayanita: Yes, utilisation of small spaces. How a family lives...multi-purpose use of the same space. Like in Bombay, where you have your shop below and you live above, a model really worth considering, especially when we talk about unauthorised commercial areas and pushing them out. Look at the 80-feet road in Dharavi, the studio is downstairs and the living is upstairs. For me, slums are about space utilisation versus the kind of spaces we imagine….
AGK: The idea we need for the future city is to learn from a slum, not to replicate a slum.
Satish: The idea, of course, is not to have more slums!
Rukmini: On use of space, if we look at hostel spaces, we come up against a bureaucratic notion of design. Little boxes, exactly the same. That’s a kind of error in democratisation.
AGK: In India, you often say ‘jugaad’ to mean a fantastic solution. What we need is frugal design, not jugaad design. Jugaad is a problem. What Rewal is talking about—low rise, high density—that’s frugal design. A future city must account for everything: the poor, the heterogeneity, democracy, technology.
Dayanita: Each house with its own septic tank….
Rewal: Mixed development is a good idea, the idea of bringing together shop and house.
Rukmini: Shop-houses were part of colonial design…in Singapore, for instance.
Satish: When they plan around this smart city idea, it’s mostly lawyers,builders. (To Wilson) Do they come to you, ask for ideas?
Menon: This Amaravati is coming up....
Wilson: I went to Amaravati. It’s impossible to even describe. All that greenery, the workers and their problems, the farmers and how they are chasing them out. The CM talks only about Singapore. Even the construction company is from Singapore! The farmers can’t even comprehend the kind of buildings that are emerging. And the official thinking is only about how much money people will get. The most important in democracy is equality, liberty and fraternity. These aren’t there in our design. Only the volumes of cement, not self-respect and dignity.
Satish: Now this is a future city that’s coming up, and if this is how its fundamentals are, that seems like a despairing situation.
Wilson: In that sense, we are collapsing...not building.
AGK: I’ll give you an example. A lot of smart cities are coming up, and the government is spending crores on the idea. Putting out advertisements. Read those ads carefully. ‘We need an architect, has to be an Indian architect, but he must have a foreign collaborator.’ That is in the government ad!
AGK: It goes back to the point he was making, that we don’t respect our architects, our urban planners. Raj Rewal designs across the world. But here he’ll need a collaborator. Our policy is that you need a foreign hand! Because no Indian has designed cities for Rs 5,000 crore. Only foreigners have done it.
Wilson: To find a solution to our problems, we go to somebody who does not know about our problems!
AGK: And they give solutions from their societies.
Rukmini: That’s classical post-colonialism, or neo-colonialism. Why are we handing over charge to the politician? Because we aren’t talking enough in the public sphere. This idea that we need to learn from other societies can be a good idea—nobody owns ideas—but it’s one-way traffic.
Menon: (To Rewal) A slightly fundamental question on architecture...not asking as a skeptic, but among all our classical arts, folk arts and craft traditions, one would think most of them have survived fairly robustly...mutated a bit, but survived. Music, dance…. Architecture is one field where you feel a stark disconnect. The older grace and grammar of beauty, that’s been abandoned, and one doesn’t know if a distinctive new aesthetic has been created in its place. Do you sometimes feel that way?
Rewal: That will take another hour to get into! Broadly, cities like Madurai, or those of Rajasthan...Jaipur, despite it becoming ‘slummy’ (if I may), still have a lot of charm. Still walkable cities, you see people. You want to live in a city of that type. Like great Italian Renaissance cities, they all have that quality. Just towers, and vapid space where no one wants to gather, that’s not a modern city. Chandigarh is becoming quite a nice city, by the way. Sector 17 may not be the best address in the world, but it’s nice...there’s greenery. Firstly, we should have the option of designing our cities ourselves. And what can we do about our existing cities? Some surgery is needed there! Delhi has the distinction of being called the most polluted in the world. I’m not sure about that though...I would think Beijing, each time I’ve gone there I have tears in my eyes! What I would suggest is that there isn’t space in magazines for architecture. We need discussions.
Menon: Urban planning and architecture go on slightly different tracks. One is a functional, pragmatic sort of domain. But aesthetics, which seems to have no use value really?
AGK: I think you’re slightly off there. Architects responded to tradition much more than urban planners. They referred to the roots while designing. But never urban planners. So cityscapes, public architecture tends to look like that.
Dayanita: Before you go (to Wilson, who is leaving for a Swachh Bharat programme at Vigyan Bhavan), I have a question. Is there some kind of mobile septic tank? That anyone has developed, especially for slums?
Wilson: Sulabh has, but that’s not a septic tank.
Rewal: Well, I’ve done it...I designed it myself. What they call a high-tech toilet. Three others too have designed it at DUAC. You don’t need drainage systems for it. The bugs eat up everything. It’s expensive, but the idea is to start with simple things.
Dayanita: Yes, these are the kind of solutions we need. If we had the time, I would have asked...between Mr Wilson and Mr Rewal, if we could make a design for a 5-by-5-metre double-storey shop-house, with its independent septic tank?
Wilson: Yes indeed, I need his contact details! (Laughter) Before you move to your digital tea.
Menon: (To AGK) Coming back, maybe you can’t have art without being in some sort of dialogue with the past. So individual architects may have done it. But by and large public architecture, housing, it’s all modular, ‘western’.... Old houses, say in an urban village in Delhi, there’s so much grace there, as compared to a flat.
AGK: Because modernity has been defined by the West. We want to be ‘modern’, we want to ‘develop’, so we imitate. A lot of it comes from our colonial experience. You cite the past, I say also find out about the present. Who are we? A lot of us have been saying, we must go back to our own sources too, but that unfortunately becomes problematic now, part of political agendas, people are in a dilemma.
Menon: Are you in favour of the idea that cities should be autonomous, concentrating all their energies on themselves, like Bombay wants to....
Satish: A very American sort of idea....
Rukmini: Also very Singapore.
Dayanita: Island cities.
Raj Rewal: You see, what Bombay should be is not what, say, Amritsar can be. Every city has its own character, problems, histories. And what Bombay can be or should be is such a big topic. Scores of people are involved in it, but no one is in a position of power, to be able to nudge policy in any direction. Charles Correa had nudged me to design for New Bombay, low-cost housing, because Laurie Baker got out of it. We did about 1,000 units back in 1990, and it’s very interesting to study it, scholars from all around the world have come, French, Swedish…a unique low-cost model. It’s horrifying (and amusing) to see it now. One part, the Customs employees, they never came to stay. It’s now overgrown with weeds and greenery, quite nice to look at that way! Another part—low-rise apartments—they have turned it into a shrine! A village-like space, quite nice. The third…they’ve turned low-rise into six storeys. Nothing looks like what I had designed! Many places are taken over by greenery and jungle!
Menon: Talking about ruins and nature taking over, if you look at the pre-Mughal heritage now, do you think it actually looks better now than it looked then? Because it’s in ruins?
Dayanita: That depends on your aesthetics.
Menon: I mean, Red Fort and Purana Qila, one still breathes power, the other has been evacuated of power. It has a certain Ozymandian pathos to it.
Rewal: The British totally destroyed the Red Fort too after 1857. James Fergusson, who had visited the Topkapi Palace and the Forbidden City, he said the Red Fort was the best palace he had ever seen. The British very quickly made these barracks on top.
AGK: You see, the British had almost lost in 1857, and they studied that. Their own analysis showed they had almost lost a war because they couldn’t understand the Indian city. Its physical layout…the whole idea of an Indian city. So once they won, you find city after city being torn down, boulevards coming up—all new cities were designed with that in mind.
Rukmini: They couldn’t understand the galis. Especially Lucknow, because it had the surangs. Amazing place!
Raj Rewal: Lucknow is amazing, a little baroque and flamboyant. The Alkazi Foundation has preserved all the old photographs. French photographers who’d come there with those huge cameras, they had studied the city and all that is preserved.
Menon: So the arrival of this modular city is….
Rukmini: …actually a colonial reaction.
AGK: And a deliberate disruption of the old ways.
Rukmini: The British memorialised it so much also. The Relief of Lucknow is one of the most famous paintings, it shows the British mounted on the stallions, the whole city looming in the background…alien to them...the Indians at various levels cowering. The entire thing captured and destroyed. The first thing you see when you go into the British Museum is the Siege of Lucknow, the big panel. The city is a player…the mosques, the minarets.
Menon: Capturing it in the mind is the first step to ‘capturing’ it.
Rukmini: And making the hierarchical relations clear within the dimensions.
Dayanita: Okay, back to my question. What’s the minimum space required for someone to have a shop below and a house above? Septic tank, solar panel. I am thinking, the more we can compress our living spaces, the less high-rise, the less shanty life will become. That’s the thought that always came when I passed by that 80-foot road in Dharavi.
Raj Rewal: Once I designed something in Gwalior…a 5-meter frontage is possible, the depth could be more...10 feet or 16 feet.
Dayanita: My dream is to have an architect who will make a design that’s as self-sufficient as can be. The only thing I keep getting stuck on is water. A self-sufficient unit that we can put online and make available for anyone to build for our semi-tropical environment. Open source architecture.
Rewal: In Vietnam, there are these long, narrow houses, five storeys, touching each other…it goes towards densification.
AGK: …about 100 feet tall, and the street facade is only 10 feet.
Rukmini: I love low-lying; I would give my soul for low-lying. I just feel these American cities around me are built to fall out around the sea.
Menon: (To AGK) We tend to think of cities in terms of a biological metaphor, they are born at a point in history, they grow, evolve. The natural corollary is they must die at some point. Civilisations follow that graph too—they rise and fall, and leave remnants behind. The mill district of Bombay is a recent anachronism. In Delhi, we shift that scale back a millennium. What’s the value of retaining ‘anachronisms’ in a modern space? Why retain heritage? What’s the conservation spirit all about? People often just don’t get it.
AGK: All valued cities are those that have evident layers of history. Delhi is valuable because we have 1,000 years of history visible! And working. When we were nominating Delhi as a world heritage city, it was that just fact: that after having gone through 350 years of evolution, Shahjahanabad is still a living city. It’s important to imagine it thus.
Satish: In fact, it has better sewage and sanitation than Gurgaon.
AGK: On your point of cities dying, I think in India cities are reborn. In conservation we use the term “jeernodharan”, you give life again, that’s what happens to our cities. A concrete example: we’ve been arguing with DDA that modern Delhi is 40 years old, don’t abandon it. It has to add 40 more, and so on. As far as they are concerned, it was planned in 1962, so tear it down and make it multi-storey spaces. Absurd!
Dayanita: IGNCA in ten years may be a parking complex…
Menon: Cities all over the world struggle with this. Singapore is ruthless, Berlin is ambivalent...how do we strike a balance?
AGK: Conservation is a crucial tool for town planning. Most people think it’s musefication. No, conservation is about how to design for the new city. The Modi government withdrew Delhi’s application for world heritage status. Their argument was, “no, we want development”, and I said I’m talking about development! With that status, I can increase Delhi’s economy six times, you can’t do that by adding IT centres. The entire legacy can be transformed. This government tried to destroy the Lutyen’s Bunglow Zone saying it’s colonial. Name-changing is only one part of it…also change the pattern. But where are you living? What do you showcase? Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament…. Who were they designed for and by? We adapt and adopt. Conservation is a vital tool in city architecture, and it’s inherently future-orientated, because it forces you to root yourself.
Rukmini: There are two models. One is the disposable city, it comes from nothing, thinks of itself as disposable…and there’s the eternal city. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo is talking to Kublai Khan, and the emperor imagines all these cities and asks, are these really true, and Marco says never confuse the words in which a city is described with the city itself. So, eternal cities! I’m thinking the tabula rasa city is also to be thought of. People made new towns from nothing, but it would still not be one without memory. You take memories to that city. But there’s a difference between the Delhis and Cairos and Timbuktus, and the tabula rasa cities, which all cities must have been once.
Rewal: Delhi, Lucknow…the British transformed them. But now what? I think there’s scope for a ‘New New Delhi’, Lucknow, Bombay . I asked Sayed Shafi—he and C.S. Gupte were behind the idea of Noida—I was teasing him about how it turned out, and he said it saved Delhi, imagine the clutter otherwise! I asked about people coming from Gurgaon to Delhi for work. He said that wasn’t planned…we should have put it further away! But Noida stopped all other development in UP, absorbed all resources.
AGK: I asked Edgar Ribeiro, you’ve had a whole career as a sensitive town planner, what seems to be the problem, why aren’t plans succeeding? He said plans can never succeed in India because land values are so high. Someone will come and pay more for it and there goes the plan…. But you know, there’s no real tabula rasa. There is land there with natural memory. Design has to incorporate the ecology.
Rukmini: Recently in Birmingham, they asked me if I would apply the concept of biophilia—a love of nature that you cannot overcome—to cities so as to create a sustainable energy continuum. They were thinking about the city imagined without any greenery or any kind of externalities. I said that isn’t true of our cities, because everything is everywhere.
Rewal: I don’t know whether we said anything useful or made sense. But it was good, thank you so much for this discussion, sprawling as it was….
Menon: Like an Indian city! Thank you so much.