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Religion and Urban Transformation – A Conversation with Vinayak Bharne
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- From Identity to Urbanity: A Thought for India’s Neo-Liberal Generation of Architects
The Urban Vision : Capture the BIG Picture
Name: Vinayak Bharne
Bio: Vinayak Bharne directs the urban design efforts at Moule & Polyzoides, and teaches urban design and planning at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. His professional experience includes new towns, inner-city revitalizations, campus plans, and form-based codes for municipal and private clients in the United States, UAE, Panama, and Mauritius. His work has received awards from the American Planning Association, and the Congress for the New Urbanism and has appeared in such books as “New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide (New Urban Press 2009), and “Great Planned Communities” (ULI, 2002). His academic research has focused on the nexus of indigenous infrastructure and the urban water crises, with ongoing projects on Isfahan and Yazd in Iran, and Goa, Agra and Varanasi in India. He is the contributing author of three books – the forthcoming “Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture” (010 Publishers, 2011), “Los Angeles: Building the Polycentric Region” (CNU 2005), and “Hvalnica Senci” (Slovenian for “In Praise of Shadows”, Koda Press 2002). Nominated as a Presidential Fellow among 25 “promising future leaders” by USC’s Leadership Institute in 1998, he currently serves on the Advisory Board of Global Urban Development, an international non-profit engaged in strategic policy and action on urban issues worldwide.
Posts by Vinayak:
Twenty five years ago, when I entered architecture school in India, I found myself amidst an evolving dialogue on the identity of a post-colonial nation. By the early nineties – thanks to a handful of first generation, post-independence, Western-trained Indian architects – the best architecture in India had become a dominant mode of national identity. These talented, erudite and articulate architects had over three decades, transcended the Western Modernist ideologies and idioms they had trained in, and begun to develop a sophisticated Indian Modern architectural language using formal and spatial symbologies from India’s pre-colonial traditions – cosmic diagrams, passively cooled courtyards, the use of local stone, earth colors, folk art etc. These projects were a breath of fresh air compared to their early brutal concrete antecedents. For many of us, it almost seemed like these architects could do no wrong. They were our heroes, and their search for “Indian-ness” in architecture seemed as timely as it was inspiring.
Occasionally, these architects would get into larger issues of city planning – serving on national and local urbanization commissions, designing master plans, or even provoking propository ideas for Indian cities. They occasionally spoke or wrote about it, and their building-dominated monographs even had a few sprinkles of their urbanism dabbles. For many of us young architects or architects-to-be, these efforts were our only real link to the city planning profession. Even though there was an established profession of urban planning in India, with a national institute to edify it, not a single figure in Indian city planning was garnering the kind of attention the best Indian architects were enjoying. India had architectural heroes who were increasingly gaining global fame, but for almost four decades since independence, we had not seen a single urban planning hero. India had its own Fumihiko Makis and Ricardo Legorettas, but no one even came close to being a distant parallel to a Patrick Geddes, Edmund Bacon or Allen Jacobs.
Perhaps this was inevitable. After all it is far easier for architects to make their mark – their best built work is amply visible. Planners on the other hand do things that take a lot of time to come to fruition, and much of what they do remains invisible to mainstream eyes – zoning regulations, master plans, urban strategies, economic development, advocacy, activism etc. And unless they are able to articulate the importance of these efforts, they remain largely below the conventional media radar. Geddes, Bacon or Jacobs shot to limelight through their studies, advocacy and writing. They had been able to articulate the importance of urban planning in the West as both a discipline and a profession. They had been able to make it matter.
Alternatively perhaps, India was not ready for urban planning talk. In a society that is ambiguously regulated, and enmeshed in the most complicated urban issues such as poverty, social injustice and appropriation, the Indian city – as both product and process – had come to be something quite cumbersome compared to what Western planners were writing about. When it came to buildings and urban form, there was hardly a clear physical context to respond to in the first place. And the generic Indian public realm – an appropriated, semi-ordered, amorphous entity that sustained itself magically – was too complicated to engage with, leave alone transform or shape through planning, policy or design. It was therefore, all the more easier for the best Indian architects to make idiosyncratic buildings without worrying about what was around them, and make them provocative enough to create a national and global stir. It was, meanwhile, far more difficult for Indian planners to be at a parallel cutting edge.
But things began to gradually change in the nineties, for a number of reasons. First, there was a paradigmatic intellectual shift in North America and Europe, where a number of influential architects – from Christopher Alexander to Charles Moore – were re-prioritizing the making of urban form and the public realm over one-off buildings. Second, manifestos, movements and rhetorics like New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism, Post-Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism were dominating the North American architectural academy, and diffusing the lines between architecture and city planning. Many Indians who received advanced degrees in architecture, urban design or planning in the West in the late nineties and beyond were insinuated with these notions, and those who returned back to practice in India were naturally drawn or interested in engaging with the Indian city as a canvas for practice, far more consciously than their predecessors. Urbanism was emerging in India – as it had in the West – not as an academic theory or an occasional project by an architect, but as a franchised profession that was invested in making better cities by bridging the disparate disciplines of architecture and planning.
Well into its post-1991 neo-liberal economy, India now has an increasing ensemble of urban designers, planners and activists – many trained as architects – who have made the transformation of the Indian city their primary professional concern. From rethinking streets and public transit, reclaiming neglected naalaas, planting public toilets, to recasting urban regulation, the increasing ubiquity of such concerns is as refreshing in post-liberal Indian architecture, as the search for “Indian-ness” had been before.
In fact, an intellectual shift has occurred across India itself – from concerns of post-colonial identity to those of neo-liberal urbanity. There is the new Prime Minister’s “100 Cities” proclamation. There have been major gatherings like the 2014 Urban Age Award event. There is the founding of the Institute of Urban Designers – India in 2007, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (an interesting parallel to the Indian Institute of Technology that was incepted three years after India’s independence) in 2009. Terms like “Liveable Cities,” “Green Cities,” “Smart Cities” are all over the place in India today (even though what exactly this means is still not necessarily clear.) For the first time in its recent history, Indians from all walks of life – entrepreneurs, elites, politicians, civic leaders, activists, urbanists, architects, artists, spiritual leaders and, best of all, ordinary citizens – are invested in some form or the other in the “city.” Whether this represents the coming of age of a born-again nation, an intellectual outcome of its thriving economy, or a practical response to living in the “century of cities,” this shift cannot be underestimated. It is an unprecedented moment for the world’s largest democracy.
The best thing about all this, is that Indian citizens are finally recognizing that cities are not shaped by architects, but by numerous other entities to a far greater a degree – politicians, administrators, economists, activists, transportation engineers, developers, planners – with architects coming much later into the equation. And progressive architects in turn are recognizing their real place in the complex game of city making. This is a good thing, because, for all the theoretical positions and ideologies that are making “better cities” in the West, the fact is that Indian cities are way too complex for clean manifestos and movements. Indian cities are and will be shaped by a complex web of practices – far more complex than the West. The Indian city will continue to need sparks of tactical brilliance – like NGO’s, citizen groups and activists – that can advocate and act towards immediate change, particularly at the vast bottom of its economic pyramid. It will need ideas with ambition and optimism, and this is already happening through experiments in “smart technology” by entrepreneurs, technocrats and scientists. And it will need waves of long-term and systemic policy reform, and this will have to come from enlightened politicians and administrators. They may not be easily visible, but many such progressive struggles are well under way. These efforts need to be highlighted and brought to the forefront. The new heroes of Indian city-making (not architecture) – multifarious and multidisciplinary – need to be identified and recognized, so that their work may inspire and inform many other campaigns and endeavors. In their struggles, successes and failures lie the seeds of India’s urban future.
Jantar Mantar, over the past two decades, has offered numerous reflections on the complex intersection of history, protest, place and democracy. Witnessing innumerable performances of protest — not simply as modes of political expression, but also manifestations of the democratic success — this historic observatory has affirmed that places and monuments in a city are never at rest. Original meanings are not the only ways of understanding places for their intentions can mutate from inception to reception — at once a political, artistic and anthropological riddle. If one reading of monuments is through histories made, then another is through histories that are in the making.
How should we read Jantar Mantar today? It was originally one of the five ensembles of astronomical instruments built by Maharaja Jai Singh II at different locations in India. In 1719, Emperor Muhammad Shah, set to embark on a long expedition, was stopped by his astrologers due to certain inauspicious cosmic alignments. A debate ensued among them on planetary locations in the public courtroom of the Red Fort but failed to reach conciliation. Concluding that the disagreement was largely due to inaccurate astronomical tables, Jai Singh conceived of an observatory to correct the charts, and completed the complex in 1724.
But for all this paranoia, the observatory functioned for a mere seven years, most probably only for compiling a more accurate astrological table, and by the end of the 18th century, the instruments had deteriorated due to neglect and vandalism. In 1852, the then-maharaja of Jaipur initiated a restoration that would be completed by the British in the early 1900s, during the building of the colonial capital of New Delhi south of the historic walled city. The new imperial city’s commercial district, Connaught Place, was planned around the observatory, a Mughal garden laid out around the instruments and a boundary wall erected to protect the site. Jantar Mantar survived decay and obliteration through colonial patronage — and this too is an intrinsic part of its history.
Today, Jantar’s Mantar’s post-Independence, democratic identity is less that of a ticketed public garden (though all the instruments are accessible to public), and more a centrally situated epicentre from where human rights activists intersect with thousands of commuters and people travelling to surrounding residences and offices. The precise venue of protests is not within the enclosed complex, but the adjacent half-kilometre stretch of Jantar Mantar Road, but even so, it is the celebrated profile of the observatory that offers these events its weighty signature of place. Jantar Mantar’s identity — at least locally — is not dominated by Jai Singh’s colourful instruments, but by a riot of pamphlets and placards, the din of shouting slogans marching on Parliament Street, droves of charged people in pitched tents peacefully protesting for all kinds of causes, and finally by the uncanny entrepreneurship of snack kiosks and tea shops that cater to these events each day.
Jantar Mantar was not the first choice as a place of protest. Its predecessor was the Boat Club lawns — running along both sides of Rajpath, the original axis of the new colonial capital connecting India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan (the former Viceroy’s Palace) up Raisina Hill. The shift occurred in October 1988, after Mahendra Singh Tikait led thousands of farmers from Uttar Pradesh, along with their cattle, onto the lawns, lighting campfires and cooking food in the open for around a week. A consequent public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court asked that the government find new places for protests in the city. Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan became the next choice. In April 2011, Anna Hazare’s indefinite hunger strike to initiate a stringent anti-corruption law bill became a milestone in Jantar Mantar’s recent history. It witnessed a crowd and media attention usually associated with protests at the spacious grounds of Ramlila Maidan. In response, the local police issued formal guidelines for succeeding protests here. It is now mandatory for protest leaders to obtain a no-objection certificate before a rally, arrange for drinking water and medical aid, refrain from hampering normal traffic flows, and ensure in writing to abide by the rules. But with protests happening almost every day, it is now the local residents that have sought restrictions and lodged complaints that the agitations have disrupted their daily lives. The high court has subsequently asked the government to once again look for new protest sites, to ensure that citizens are not denied the right to expression.
The focus has shifted to Ramlila Maidan, a “pond” literally situated between Old and New Delhi, that was filled up in the early 1930s as the new site of the Ramlila from the flood plains behind Red Fort, but quickly became a popular site for political rallies. It was here in June 1975 that Jayaprakash Narayan led his mammoth rally with over a lakh people protesting against Indira Gandhi’s government. It was here, following the Emergency, that several anti-Congress opposition leaders hosted a rally to form the Janata Party. Ironically, the origins of this maidan could not have been more “non-democratic”. It was part of a cordon sanitaire, a typical planning gesture of new colonial cities, wherein a deliberate physical gap separated indigenous habitats from new ones for supposedly hygienic reasons. From this standpoint, Ramlila Maidan, a setting for performing democracy, seems so symbolically appropriate — as the charged space of the people bridging two formerly disparate worlds, the historic city of Shahjahanabad and the colonial capital of New Delhi, now, unified as one in democratic India.
The view from Jantar Mantar, spanning the Boat Club Lawns and Ramlila Maidan, then, reveals a complex narrative on how events insinuate their own identities on sites, even cities, overlaying origins, authenticities and histories and imparting new meanings to places. It reminds us that, while the city may be designed, built, and experienced as a three-dimensional material object, it is in fact a phenomenon in flux, an event in time. The view from Jantar Mantar underscores that there is such a thing as “democratic space” that is distinct from the state — for public debate, deliberation and consensus — created, possessed, claimed or shaped by the people as chosen, contested and negotiated terrains of democratic identity. Jantar Mantar, as one of Delhi’s and India’s most famous monuments, should therefore not simply be understood and celebrated through narrow, and exclusively historic or nostalgic mind-frames. Within and around the shifting identities of this once royal observatory are far deeper revelations on post-colonial India’s socio-political cleavages, as well as the simultaneous re-appraisal of its democratic aspirations.
Many are surprised that the colossal Meenakshi Temple complex in Madurai in south-India began as an anonymous stone lingam (phallic symbol of Shiva) in around 1600 B.C., and evolved through the subsequent commemoration of that spot through centuries of communal worship, patronage and craftsmanship; that the entire temple town of Madurai, as it stands today, represents the teleological end of this ancient lineage of grass-roots activism powerful enough to create an entire city.
Three millennia since, such patterns continue to exert a vivid influence on the contemporary Indian city. With the daily influx of rural migrants into the metropolis also comes the import of a sacred substratum to the public and private dimensions of Indian urbanity: The city gets sprinkled with a thousand nameless spots of religious solace transcending all legal norms and nurturing a parallel urbanism associated with Hindu shrines and temples.
Shading a smeared stone or a diminutive portrait of divinity, or marked with flags and banners, a devasthana (literally “place of the Gods”) mysteriously appears along the roadside beneath an anonymous street tree. As the anointed abode of a deity, it is worshipped through diurnal and seasonal rituals directly under the canopy. In time, that smeared stone may seem to bear the spiritual weight of an entire community, and with prayers increasingly answered, elicit its transformation into the rudiments of a Hindu shrine. When such a tree dies, the spot remains sacred, believed to be vibrant with the energies of the innumerable rituals that became the focus of community worship. An anonymous street tree thus marks the genius loci of a place to be.
As components of this parallel sacred urbanism, thousands of anonymous wayside shrines impregnate the formal Indian public realm, evolving into the centers of various invisible cults. In his essay Look Out! Darshana Ahead, Ranjit Hoskote has observed how the 1990s street side shrines in Mumbai’s suburbs in fact followed a standard evolutionary graph: “first the platform, then the parapet; in due course, an archway, this additive process culminating in the consecration of a miniature temple, rendered in grey-veined marble, complete with grille-guarded, white-tiled sanctum, bells, saffron pennant, and that vital basis of the shrine’s financial model, a collection box.”
Yet for all their semiotic association, these shrines are contradictions to the canonized symbolism of a Hindu Temple. Their orientation to the cardinal directions is ad-hoc as opposed to the strict east-west alignment of their franchised peers. And unlike the managed hygienic environment one associates with city temples, most shrines are so wonderfully raucous, open to all people and practices. With this legal and sectarian immunity, the spatial field surrounding these shrines gradually garners a complex social significance: It is from where one prays to the deity; it is the pradakshina-patha or path of ritualistic circumambulation symbolizing holy union; and it is the setting for communal festive gatherings. The shrine gradually attracts not only daily worshippers, but entities interested in commercial dealings with this destination – the mobile food shack, the craft stand, the flower seller, the alm-seeker, and the loud-speaker all represent elements of a larger evolving urbanism.
But that said, these shrines are also illegal encroachments on the public domain, blatantly violating zoning ordinances and by-laws, and it is not that they always escape their infractions. In Mumbai for instance, in 2003, the municipal authorities, undeterred by citizen protest, launched a campaign to demolish street shrines. Several illegal shrines and temples vanished leaving behind traces of their trees or paving. But their continuing veneration as sacred ruins nurtured gradual reincarnations affirming the resilience of this stealth urbanism.
Across India, Innumerable such shrines are evolving into larger, franchised entities. These transformations are evidence not only of their growing repute, but also their changing status-quo from artifacts of kitsch to canon, and anonymous illegitimacy to recognized ownership. Some shrines formalize the open space around them, but most are ingenious site planning solutions within limited spatial confines, some even incorporating the original anointed tree as part of their design. The process of building a franchised temple around a sacred tree or shrine involves special rituals to cleanse the area prior to breaking ground. The temple typically adheres to traditional canons, and if necessary, its orientation is “corrected” to face the rising sun. Collective decisions determine whether the original idols are retained or replaced with new ones, and their eventual transfer into the sanctum after the temple’s completion involves elaborate prescribed ceremonies and rituals. Such processes, all too conspicuous to avoid public curiosity, are typically the result of significant individual or communal patronage, with legitimate cooperatives, funding sources, and even records documenting the temple’s design and construction.
As alternative dialogues on place-making and populist informality, and as contradictions to mainstream practices, this metamorphosis from abstract beginnings to complex eventual compounds expands the rhetoric of planning and urban design in India, bringing in other issues of spontaneity, bricolage, ambiguity and inclusiveness. Hardly a bourgeois utopia, the demographic associated with (but not limited to) this urbanism largely comprises rural migrants, slum dwellers, and denizens of the pavement, that far from being a burden on the urban economy in fact supply it with a vast pool of labor for the “un-desirable” jobs that organized labor evades. Through their unlicensed religious entrepreneurship and uncanny ability to elude law and authority arise these intuitive manifestations of commonsense, labor and kitsch.
Can the ubiquity of such sacred trees and shrines then be included within the planning dialogues of Indian cities? Can parts of the Indian city be understood as evolving communities around maturing holy nuclei, whose future forms and extents may not be entirely unpredictable? Do the millions of wayside shrines and their continuing evolution suggest a parallel building industry, where the ingenious self-help skills of the city’s floating populace – masons, brick-layers, construction workers, and gardeners – can contribute to a significant employment base for the urban economy? Do their mysterious inceptions, growth and resilience challenge the linear reading of zoning, land use and land value? In fact, some shrines have been known to raise the real estate value of a neighborhood even as others have become communal shields to freeze changes like street widening.
The anointed Indian city raises perplexing questions on the thin line separating legitimacy and tolerance, formality and spontaneity, and urban planning versus urban possession. Size does not matter; what matters are the locations of these sacred dots powerful enough to bypass socio-political legitimacy and celebrate everyday ordinary life and reality with little pretense of a perfectible future. Today’s venerated trees and shrines will become tomorrow’s centers and monuments, for in them lie the hopes and spiritual aspirations of the millions of underserved who simply want a stake in the city. The task at hand therefore is to identify and accept them and find the mechanisms to include them as integral elements of the Indian urban landscape.
In September 2010, the Yamuna River touched the base of Taj Mahal’s 300 m long river-facing terrace for the first time in more than two decades. Heavy rains in north India had raised the river’s water level creating a momentous event in the recent history of the celebrated monument that had fronted a near dry riverbed for too long. I am disappointed that I could not see it in person, but it delighted me that the event generated much public optimism, and more importantly, hope for the Taj’s long term future. Several studies have now concluded that the strength of the wooden shafts holding together its foundation depends on being constantly moistened by the river’s water.
What this event also did is forced people to re-read Taj Mahal, revisit its idea as a riverfront monument, and re-contemplate the river’s significance to its experience as a place larger than the white marble-clad building. Many tourists are hardly aware of the river’s presence. Most entering through the magnificent red sandstone darwaza are simply euphoric to finally see the Taj’s dominant media image face to face – a frontal white building with four minars and a char bagh garden. Many climb up the Taj’s base, some chance behind the building and discover the river for the first time, but few know of its significance in the monument’s original design.
The Taj Mahal was conceived as a riverfront monument, as the visual pinnacle of seventeenth century Agra’s 5-kilometer long riverfront promenade. Shah Jahan would boat down the Yamuna from the landing below his royal quarters in what is now called the Agra Fort, park at the Taj’s base, climb to the top of the red sandstone terrace and thence approach the white marble edifice. This was the regal entrance and the public face of the Taj Mahal. Boating or strolling southward down the river, the magnificent promenade would instantly announce the city’s wealth and glory: To the east the mausoleums of nobles such as Itmad-ud-daullah and Afzal Khan; to the west the splendid havelis of the generals, with the red sandstone ramparts of the Emperor’s fortified palace straight in the distance. Winding eastward, was the sculptural formalism of the Taj – first seen obliquely, then frontally from beneath Mehtab Bagh, the “viewing garden” created by the Emperor directly across the river from it.
With the Mughal capital’s shift from Agra to Shahajahanabad (Old Delhi) in 1648, the riverfront released from royal patronage was gradually occupied by commoners. Several villas were sold by their owners and converted into funerary sites, with the entire riverfront gradually garnered a funerary character. By the early 19th century, during the British stronghold, it had begun to show significant deterioration as seen from much of the paintings and sketches of that period. By the early 20th century, the waters of the Yamuna had been both significantly reduced due to irrigation dams, and polluted by industrial and sewage waste. The riverfront was now used as a latrine and garbage dump, many of the mansions had been reduced to ruins, with silt covering the ghats that once connected the Taj’s plinth to the water. Within three centuries, few read the Taj Mahal’s larger urban presence; fewer still recognized that its very face had become its backyard.
But this is only one half of the Taj story. The other half remains shrouded within the walled world of Taj Gunj – the informal habitat directly south of it. This is, in fact, the former caravanserai of the Taj Mahal’s 22-hectare campus centered on the white mausoleum. It used to be a two story commercial complex also planned on the Char Bagh theme, with four enclosed quads, and two principal intersecting streets forming the heart of a bazaar with rooms and arcades. In the mid-seventeenth century, it teemed with local and foreign trades, and with merchants building their houses just outside this imperial campus, the area surrounding the Taj had become an identifiable district, known as Mumtazabad, the city of the queen. With the bazaars contributing financially to the maintenance of the campus, the Taj Mahal had, from the beginning, unified the mausoleum’s spiritual and the market’s commercial aspects into a symbiotic ensemble.
Consequent to the capital’s shift, the market too declined, and the caravanserai was incrementally possessed by local merchants and physically altered to meet their growing demands. By the early 20th century, nothing save the four gated walls once framing the central market square remained identifiable. The four quads had been filled in with haphazard development and the arcades had been added on to, reducing the streets to tenuous lanes.
Today, there is nothing to visually unify the caravanserai’s outermost gateways, and little to reveal its original form as one steps out of the mausoleum garden into the jilaukhana, the transitional court that once separated the mausoleum enclosure from the market. And it certainly doesn’t help that the Taj’s ticket booth and secured entry are now conveniently located at the jilaukhana’s eastern approach. This manipulated route requires a tourist to turn northward from the jilaukhana directly entering the mausoleum precinct bypassing the door leading to the Gunj. For most, the experience of the Taj Mahal today begins and ends with a white building and its immediate garden. Meanwhile amidst ongoing riverfront restoration efforts, preservationists also remain bent on vacating this illegal, haphazard settlement, even as its residents argue that the Taj is their rightful legacy, claiming their ancestors as its builders and subjects of the Emperor.
What an irony! How conveniently we condemn the history of a place. How easily we weed out the so called “dirty” world that surrounds the Taj Mahal even as we flaunt the white centerpiece, though it may tell but half the story. I fail to understand why origins are the only ways through which we choose to see and show monuments and their monumentality. Why can’t other dimensions – like appropriation, possession, transformation – be accepted as intrinsic parts of a monument’s evolving history, or even its irrevocable destiny? Why can’t Taj Mahal be released from its exclusively nostalgic profile, and re-read for its broader dimensions as a place that is Mughal, colonial and contemporary at the same time; as an evolving monument that is actively engaged with the city and its people thereby expanding its social significance as a phenomenon bigger and more purposeful than a single magnificent white building?
If the restored riverfront can become a new socio-economic engine for the Taj’s experience, why shouldn’t a strategic nurturing of the Gunj – its skilled labor force, stone-inlay crafts and micro-commerce – play an essential role in the Taj’s recurrent upkeep, reviving its historic relationship with the monument? What if the ticket booth was relocated at the southern end of the Gunj, so that one could walk through its informal spine, take in the re-possessed carevanserai, its ad hoc streets and houses, its shops and their crafts? What if a tourist was thus enabled to re-read the Taj Mahal for what it truly is today – a paradisiacal realm between two disparate worlds – the ruins of the drying riverfront, and the quotidian realities of the Gunj – both of whom want a stake in it?
For all its universal reverence as the ultimate monument to love, the media rhetoric surrounding the Taj Mahal is pitifully one-dimensional – limited largely to the de-contextualized presentation of a magnificent white mausoleum devoid of any larger physical and intellectual backdrop. It undermines the Taj Mahal’s deeper values as an evolving cultural icon and place. It cautions us against linear understandings of monumentality, conservation and heritage. It reminds us that historic monuments are eventually complex two-faced Janus-like constructs – one face looking to the past, the other engaged with the present, each inseparable from the other. What the Taj Mahal therefore needs today, I would argue, is not so much a glorification of what it was but a deeper reflection on what it is, and an expansion of the simplistic dialogues on its future into complex and inclusive territories.
The term “density” has developed a tarnished reputation in our time. It has become synonymous with mid and high rise buildings, typically designed as homogeneous, repetitive, self-referential projects that rarely respond to their adjacencies, surrounding streets or their location within the city. The uncritical obtrusion into single-family neighborhood fabric, or the haphazard mushrooming of slabs and towers, represents not only the denial of a coherent urban form and public realm, but the reduction of the very idea of city-making into an unchecked, rapacious capitalism.
There are two planning tools that have perpetrated this attitude – Floor Space index and Coverage. Floor Space Index (FSI or FAR) establishes the optimum building envelope within a lot per its specific zoning designation. It is expressed as a number: A FSI of 3 means that the total buildable area can be up to thrice the lot area. Coverage in turn establishes the extent of the building footprint on a lot, or the amount of open space to be accommodated within the lot. It is expressed as a percentage of the lot area: A Coverage of 75% means that at least 25% of the total lot area must be open to sky space. While both FSI and Coverage help quantify building to land ratios, they do not offer any means of appropriating building form to its surrounding context. Further, FSI offers assembled lots a considerable buildable area over individual lots, incentivizing larger buildings which have a negative effect within finely grained communities. In short, FSI based codes are poor predictors of urban form. They reduce development to a one-shoe-fits-all approach, with developers packing as many units as possible within a maximum allowable envelope, regardless of context.
The idea of “Blending Density” represents a critical counterpoint to this syndrome. It advocates for a heterogeneous distribution of buildings on a lot or block basis. It replaces the homogeneity of FSI-based development with a calculated massing diversity that responds to and evolves from the desired character of its physical context. For instance, the FSI target of a single tower floating within a lot can also be achieved through a combination of a tower and mid-rises within the same lot appropriately massed to respond to their surrounding streets. Likewise, an FSI of a single mid-rise can be recalibrated as a combination of mid-rise and low-rise buildings making the development compatible with adjacent single-family houses. Thus, a final FSI target need not be the result of a single literal extrusion, but the average of various FSI components within a site, each carefully conceived in response to context.
How does one recast the FSI based regulatory framework to accomplish this? First, the FAR number can be replaced with minimum and maximum building heights that are carefully regulated on a block by block basis to respond to the streets and neighboring buildings. Larger avenues and parkways can be coded to take bigger and taller buildings, smaller neighborhood streets can repeat the scale of dwellings.
Second the set back requirement can be expanded to articulate building frontage, that is, the desired scale and character of the block or lot face. Blank street walls can be disallowed. In certain areas, ground floors can be required to be taller to accommodate retail and commercial uses over time. Where appropriate, ground floor units can be required to have direct access from the streets through a number of contextually appropriate transitional elements such as porches, stoops, dooryards to lobbies. Compound walls where customary can be regulated to ensure formal harmony. The interface between the public and private realm can thus be consciously calibrated block by block, street by street.
Third, regulations can spell out the allowed parking disposition within a lot to ensure that it is concealed from the public realm. For instance above-grade parking may not be allowed within the first 25% of a lot. Parking podiums can be mandatorily lined towards the street, and the number of parking entries per block face can be accordingly specified. In contrast to conventional zoning, a minimal set of mandatory Urban Standards on building placement, building profile, frontage, and parking location can thus ensure a predictable and positive relationship between the building to the public realm, with the architecture and specifics remain open-ended.
While recasting FSI codes through height and frontage standards does help regulate the public –private interface, it does not necessarily guarantee a parallel performance standard within the lot interior. A perfectly compatible project as seen from the street may be a terrible building within – a “motel” for instance, with a central courtyard given to parking and surrounded by multi-level corridors as the only means of circulation to the units. As such, all units get minimal privacy and direct light and air from only one side.
FSI-based zoning can therefore be advanced through performance standards for the lot interior. Non-mandatory guidelines can articulate how an open space within the lot interior should be adequately landscaped, how public rooms rather than blank walls should face a communal courtyard, or how the various units should have adequate private space. While these may not be mandatory, they can be used as a checklist by developers to both understand the larger intentions of the code and thereby ease the entitlement process.
FSI-based zoning can also be further advanced through the introduction of typological regulations. The term typology is essentially a classification of buildings not by use, but per their objective spatial and formal dimensions: access, open space, circulation, spatial organization and parking. For instance, an entire menu of residential types can be organized by intensity from the least dense (Single-family house, Duplex etc) to the most dense (Slabs,Towers etc), creating a DNA for residential development, each with their respective density (units/hectare) or FSI numbers. Hardly a one-shoe-fits-all menu, this typological calibration needs to be essentially place-based emerging from the history, climate, and market realities of that particular city or country.
The code can then specify which of these types are appropriate in which zone. For example, the tower might be allowed in the urban core, or along major corridors, but not within single-family neighborhoods. A duplex may be allowed within a neighborhood, but not along a major commercial corridor. Developers and architects can then choose and locate the allowed building types along specific streets without worrying about compatibility concerns. The typological menu, coupled with the Urban Standards can thus provide an alternative planning tool prioritizing responsible urban form of land-use.
The challenge of course is how one gets from here to there. Changing conventional zoning is a process easier said than done. It can take time, and significant staff training and capital. Even progressive developers with the best intentions are typically fraught with seeking variances to existing FSI codes implying extra work, time and money, with no guaranteed results – a major disincentive to doing anything other than business as usual.
The inclusion of Urban Standards as supplements to a city’s conventional FSI regulation could be a starting point for this change. These standards could be introduced for select areas within the city as new regulatory overlays within the larger stream of existing zoning. In progressive cities, an entirely new formal geography of neighborhoods, districts and corridors could replace land use designations as the principle regulatory armature, with a brand new set of urban standards and guidelines. A Building Types menu with detailed representations explaining the physical characteristics of each type can be included to clarify their merits and advantages to mainstream developers, who may not otherwise know of these alternatives.
Subdivision Standards can in turn help guide the design of large empty sites that are typically developed as introverted enclaves with repetitive building multiplied across the site. For instance, parcels larger than 0.8 hectares (2 acres, or the size of a 100 x 100 meter block), can be required to be broken into smaller development parcels through the introduction of blocks, streets and alleys. Based on the street type they front, appropriate lots can be designed to receive appropriate building types, which combined with the urban standards can generate a conscious neighborhood form and character.
Form-Based regulations can instigate contextual appropriateness at a lot, block, neighborhood and eventually a city scale, enabling the making of a comprehensive urban form and a rich public realm, project by project. It can provide an alternative for create multiple dwelling choices, expanding the market, enriching the community, and reviving of an entire spectrum of building types that have remained marginalized over past few decades. Recasting conventional FSI codes is a pressing task at hand, to not only control the least common denominator of uncritical densification, but to ensure than our cities do have a viable public realm to seamlessly compliment the private lives of its inhabitants.