How should we perceive the “Indian City”



1. the representation of what is perceived; basic component in the formation of a concept [syn: percept] WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University.

In the quest for progressive and developing approaches to design, it becomes essential to begin at the root of the process of conceptualization. How do we deal with the complexities of a city? What influences design? What makes us approach a design problem in a certain way? Why do we prefer one aesthetic of a design solution over the other? How do the masses relate to design?

The answer to these questions lies obscured within the undertones of a single word – Perception.

As creative individuals responsible for the transition of cities within developing countries a lot counts on our perception of development priorities essential for further growth. Today India is in the forefront on many aspects on a global sphere. We are rightfully taking our place as entrepreneurs in fields ranging from information technology to mega business practices. We stand tall at this moment in time, where we have made it to the moon and the oscars. However are we proving ourselves as fore runners in the field of architecture and place making? Are we designing our cities as benchmarks for the world? Or are we content with designing the “standard” mall which contribute to our cities in no other way than being large energy consuming built masses? Have we conceived a formula for the “Indian Mall” which caters to our context? We have had great architects of the likes of Corbusier and Kahn work in this country, paving the way for future generations of Indian architects. However the question arises are we ready to sculpt a vision that is entirely our own for our cities?

Once upon a time Indian cities grew from a unified vision of urbanism and collective dwelling. A time when India defined her own ideologies and evolved from her own sciences and techniques of construction. Some of these baffle structural engineers even today. These ideologies are evident in the fascinating structures/cities such as the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Fathepur Sikri, Jantar Mantar, Jaipur and other built forms that respond to our climate, culture and context. These Built forms have been able to offer themselves as evolving transitional urban platforms surviving and educating generations of our heritage .

During the late 1800’s India lost her rhythm in a bid to dance to a new tune in the form of colonial influence. We were seduced with a vision of progress and a perception of a modern industrial India. We have been blindsided by this seductive occupation of years and have forgotten the essence of the Indian city. We are now seeing history repeat itself. Our trust in our own selves has divindled. For instance do we really need our projects to be LEED accredited? A foreign organization, with foreign standards, for standard building typologies which do not apply to our contexts or our economic sensibilities. Yes we do need to care for the environment, but lets remind ourselves that India has been a sustainable nation since its conception. Our rituals and culture have always thrived on the notion for man to live as one with the environment. And we have not spent millions of dollars to do this. We have been recycling since the birth of the raddiwalla. Our villages have been existing on bio fuels prior to the Raj. We are one of the oldest cultures in the world. We would not have sustained through the ages if we were unable to co-exist with our natural environment. We have much to offer the world on a global scale. However our word is not good enough. We need to prove with action and implementation. Indian cities need to respond with vision, technology, adaptability and courage.

It is extremely important that urban designers question the perception of an “Indian City”. Is it Chandigarh? Is it New Bombay? Auroville? Or is it one of Calvino’s invisible cities – a perception of fantasy? It is after all our own perceptions of the world that would enable us to envision the true global Indian city. The best tool to enable this vision – research.

Architectural research does not have to be limited to documentation and analysis of historic structures, but should be involved with pushing the envelope of design through testing of radical ideas. Archigram famously created a vision of a plug in city. Interestingly enough B.V.Doshi’s Aranya works on a similar logic – a microcosm where every inhabitant has the freedom of choice to build with whatever, however. This creates the opportunity for the formulation of a radically and constantly evolving fabric. Yet we stand steadfast eyes focussed west in the hope of attaining a “foreign standardized” solution that may cost us millions in tax payers money to achieve. If we are to learn from the west let us do it from the spirit behind Corbusier’s research of architecture through sketches, art and sculptures. Let us learn from Kahn’s dedication of 14 years with the IIM. Let us learn from the passion behind the research of form in Gehrys study models or from the analytical compilation of OMA’s interpretations of cities of the world. Are we confident in ourselves to surpass traditional design tools to make way for the new dynamic thought processes?

The Indian designer is faced with many challenges. Apart from dealing with the complexities of the Indian context, the arrival of western design behemoths raises the question of survival for the local firms. In order to sustain we have begun to hesitate with our dynamic experimentations with sustainability, technology, culture, heritage, form, materiality and modernity. In most cases we have agreed to form associations with these firms where we are no longer involved in design but in creating documentations for them. In A+D’s special edition 2009, the sketch of “US Architectural Giants” on a seesaw “knocking out smaller practices” by artist Sanil Kumar was humorous but at the same time raises a huge question of the importance of boutique design practices. What can smaller firms offer that large “US Architectural Giants” do not and vice versa? If we look on a global level it is the smaller studios who have laid the foundations for the larger “Giants” to follow. Small firms that have continued to question the norms of architecture on a global scale have in time evolved into “Giants” in their own right. Firms such as Richard Meier Associates, Peter Eisenman Associates, Tschumi Associates, Zaha Hadid Associates and many others started out as small studios, or in some cases out of bedrooms of their apartments that exploded as offices, that set the benchmark for architecture.

Our roles as creative entrepreneaurs has to be guided by a process of intelligence and discovery. If we are looking west why look at only their historic theories/models and not at the vision they are cultivating for their future cities? Why not adopt political strategies that have revitalized dead and decaying neighborhoods? We need to do our homework. We are amongst the highest IQ people in the world, yet we back away from art and research. We seem to lack the understanding that these two aspects have been the driving forces for the progress of many western neighborhoods. Can we learn from Manhattans SoHo which in the 70’s was revitalised into todays dynamic and buzzing district, by the initial inclusion of the artist communities within the decaying fabric. The industrial backwater town of Bilbao was transformed by the introduction of a museum that negotiates with the city around itself, into one of the most celebrated cities in the world, generating millions of dollars in touristic revenue, is another example of creativity as a force for the future. Can we learn from these strategies vs blindly implementing standardized control systems? The above mentioned are but the tip of what makes cities urbane as well as gives them a concrete identity. Taking into the precedence of what happened in SOHO,NYC, the city of Baltimore is taking an initiative to looking for artistic and creative solutions to help vitalize their decaying city. One can not begin to fathom the endless opportunities that will soon be available to Baltimore to help it transform itself.

As future sculptors of Indian urbanism we will be unable to realize the full potential of Indian cities without the aspect of research. The cultivation of radical ideologies predominantly in architecture school is critical as they offer the ideal conditions for developing new theories which could be employed into practice.

As designers involved with the development of global India we have many complex forces to encounter within our context. we have to deal with the burden of history and a future of endless possibilities without compromising on our complexity and our culture. Our cities have a huge historic content which is embedded in their cores. In todays context, these ancient sculptures offer rich surreal urban spaces. We can not afford for them to disappear into the banality of global standardization. They are testaments of our heritage that are inscribed within the fabric of our cities.

Indian cities today are positioned to engage in a Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs dialogue. On our path of progress, we require moses’s highways and jacobs’s neighborhoods. We have the possibility of creating a new paradigm – one that is rich with culture, heritage, social interactions and modernity. The world is enrich with histories of cities of the world for us to learn from. Technology makes this information available for all to utilize and wield with intelligence.

India is in a state of “Awakening” to a new dawn. The choices we make for our cities could stand as a testament for the world to see and model itself after. We have the opportunity for Moses and jacobs to walk hand in hand. How fantastic would an Indian city be if we were to retain the essence of both? We are in a position to create our own Bilbaos for the world to look at. The west used to be the land of opportunity and promise. Today that land is India. Let us not repeat history but strive to create it.

This Article was earlier published in A+D

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About the Author

Amit Talwar Amit Talwar is Founder and Partner of Amit Talwar Associates / office of Blurred Edges. Amit is an Architect with a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University, New York City, USA. Prior to establishing ATA/OBE Amit has worked and lived in various regions of world namely the USA, Middle East and India. He has been involved through out his career in leadership roles with firms such as Skidmore Owings & Merrill Inc, NBBJ, Charles Correa Associates, B.V.Doshi's Sangath and Pan Arab Consultants & Engineers, LTD. Amit's exposure to various firms has enhanced his sensitivities towards the different processes within the realm of design alongwith its impacts on cities and the urban fabric. He is a strong advocator for the preservation of cultures and heritage of different regions and finds it critical for cities retain their authenticities during their march towards Globalism. Amit holds a keen interest with modern complex issues of Sustainability,Transit Oriented Developments, Urban Dynamics, Urban Networks and Globalism. Amit has been a visiting faculty at Knowlton School of Design at Ohio State University and has been invited as a guest critic at Columbia University, NYC on various occassions. He has also been awarded the William Kinnie Fellowship Scholarship during his Masters Degree. His work has also been published in books such as "Designing Patch Dynamics" by Richard Plunz, Brian Mcgrath & Victoria Marshall. Amit is a recipient of a World Architecture Community Award for his project "Ziranenge/Angel" - A Hospital for Children and Maternal Women - Rwanda, Africa. Amit's works and articles have been published in various magazines, newspapers and websites.