When Nehru chose Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh after Partition, his justification signalled the hopes of a brighter future for the country. If the IITs were the new temples of India, then Chandigarh promised a new urbanism. That the job of designing the new city was awarded to an artist demonstrates Nehru’s belief that the final product would have to go beyond anything formulaic.
Now as plans for Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, are announced, the catchphrases of urban design are being tossed about. Smart city, IT city, Sustainable City—each with its baggage of convenient ideas ready for application. The CM wants an IT city; an MLA suggests green architecture; there is also a call for the first “Indian skyscraper.”
The terrible trap of architectural seduction is one of the many risks of building without ideals. What looks good in Canada does not have to look good here. But Naidu has already invited foreign software companies to make Amravati a development hub for their facilities and local builders are looking with an eye to big profits. But does the picture-perfect vision of buildings with acres of reflective glass offer the only answer to India’s urban future?
Right now here are three serious reasons to reconsider the bureaucratic culture of new capitals. First and foremost is the layout that serves as nothing but a hive of antiquated assemblies, where every official has a place in the hierarchy. For VIPs to begin behaving like ordinary people, we need an elimination of costly architectural perks like free housing, special offices and private facilities for entertainment. A new capital is a prime opportunity to demonstrate how the city can become a great leveller.
More crucial is the question of land acquisition. If the smart city is based on an efficient business model, the capital city still retains its allegiance to the bureaucratic model. Wasting land, it swallows up vast swathes in housing, roads, parking, useless office buildings, cavernous secretariats and bhavans. While around the world countries are downsizing big government into more efficient partnerships, Indian bureaucracy spreads into all aspects of life.
Thirdly, over the next decade, the Indian city is going to be the epicenter of the largest rural migration. Already most metros measure the daily flow of over a thousand families in search of a secure future. Is an American architect—despite impeccable international credentials—in a position to gauge the influx and design needed in India? The integration of the rural dispossessed into the culture of smart cities will only be possible when the government begins to dissociate ‘smartness’ from mere appearance.
After displacing 41 villages, Naya Raipur, the new capital of Chattisgarh, has swallowed over 8,000 hectares of arable land and filled the countryside with legislative buildings, secretariats, roads, housing, canals, offices etc. The city is an example of outmoded 1950s planning when land was cheap and readily available. But now, 60 years after Chandigarh, to spread such vast quantities of concrete on precious agricultural terrain is a shameful act of tyranny. Today Naya Raipur is still under construction. Tomorrow Amravati will begin to rise in Andhra. Who knows how many new states will need capitals in the near future. The excesses of past capitals at Bhubaneswar, Gandhinagar and Chandigarh continue to be repeated without question. Before carte blanche invites are issued to star architects around the world, may be local governments should get their own house in order. A shimmering glass tower may look good but it will do nothing for the rural migrants, the middle classes and the labour.
More than ever, thoughts on the Indian city need socially conscious strokes that go beyond mere emp–loyment figures and the accommodation of numbers. The incentive to take a big leap rests with those inv–esting in larger-scale construction. The future of the Indian city is bleak unless local resources are used; the replication of Toronto or Vancouver in the landscape of Chhattisgarh is a sure recipe for failure.
One local architect who revolutionised building in India was Charles Correa. He advocated using local supplies for a series of inventive, radical designs that were made keeping the climate in mind.