Sanjay Puri / October 16, 2017
Two decades ago, if one was driving through India, one could easily recognize a city while approaching it by its architectural character.
The predominant use of blue lime plaster in all the houses characterized Jodhpur city in Rajasthan, India. A hundred kilometers away hues of pink would make Jaipur city clearly discernible upon approaching it. In another direction from Jodhpur, whilst driving, the blue houses would slowly disappear and yellow houses and buildings would become visible, heralding your arrival into Jaisalmer, a city known for its yellow limestone. Two hundred kilometres away, a mix of beige and red sandstone buildings with wide roads and natural parks would mark the entry to Delhi, India’s capital city.
Bar Palladio in Jaipur captures the essence of the city
Over the last two decades this characterization and individual identity of each Indian city has been almost completely mitigated. No longer can one recognize an Indian city by its architectural character. These past two decades have seen an unprecedented urban explosion all over India, with more buildings being built than in the previous six decades.
One would think such growth would bring with it meritorious architecture. Unfortunately, it has only given rise to mediocre buildings in many cases, with most Indian developers and architects trying to follow global cues and creating all glass buildings, which are neither contextual nor energy efficient for India. The same typology of glass and aluminum-clad buildings now proliferate in abundance in each Indian city, making all of them look similar, resulting in a loss of that individual identity.
To put growth into a discernible and tangible factor, one has to simply compare the population of the urban area of any city from what it was two decades ago to what it is now.
Mumbai, India’s most populous city, grew from an urban area of 111,004 acres in 1995 to an area of 1,49,177 acres in 2015, with its population growing from 9.9 million to 13.8 million in the same period. Smaller cities in the same period have grown even more. Pune grew from an urban area of 36,198 acres in 1995 to an area of 111,355 acres in 2015, while its population grew from 1.6 million to 2.6 million in the same time.
While every Indian city is witnessing such unprecedented growth, the government has not created sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with it and as an outcome, there is traffic congestion, insufficient open spaces, lack of public housing and utilities and poor living conditions for many. In Mumbai, 54% of the city’s population lives in slums. The government has created negligible public housing in the last 2 decades and the current shortfall is over 20 million houses in India. About 95% of what has been built and is being built now is being done by private developers. Considering these numbers, one would think that the government would facilitate an ease of building permissions and rules to allow the private developers to create more housing so that the large deficit in housing can be reduced.
However the government is constantly changing rules, making it more difficult to obtain permissions for building. In addition, they are also creating rules that are detrimental to good design. As an example, a new rule formulated for Mumbai limits cantilevers to two meters only. If one designs a sea-facing apartment and wishes to create a large deck for each apartment, this
restriction does not allow it. If one wants to create a building with terraces facing the ocean, this too will not be allowed since the authorities insist that the open-to-sky terraces be a part of the built area permissible on the plot.
The government authorities do not sufficiently augment the required infrastructure, while not being able to create public buildings or public housing as well. This makes it extremely difficult for private developers who want to do so.
On the other hand, almost no large public building, museum, convention centers or library has been constructed in India in over two decades, by the government.
While Indian cities have witnessed an urban explosion of a magnitude beyond most other countries, this is yet negligible as compared to what India will witness in the next two decades. On a conservative estimate, the extent of what was built in the preceding two decades will be tripled in the next two decades. Will the forthcoming millions of square feet of new construction in India be architecture or merely large volumes of constructed space with no contextual or sustainable design solutions?
A few Indian architects are making concerted efforts to create architecture that is meaningful. The number of these projects is too small and needs to increase substantially to create an architectural ethos that is contextual to the country and its climate in a sustainable way. The path towards this is an extremely difficult one, with numerous hurdles created by the planning authorities on one hand, and the commercial mindset of most Indian developers on the other.
India is a large country with many regions, each of which has a very distinct character. Architectural projects that are envisaged in each location need to be designed in the context of the tradition, climate and heritage of that region, or be contemporary while imbibing the traditional aspects of design related to the region.
Recently, a large number of international architects have ventured into India and they too, are designing buildings in the same manner as they would have in other parts of the world. This is further mitigating the traditional aspects of Indian architecture, and Indian cities have already begun to look like Dubai or Shenzhen, with a mix of all types of buildings that are inappropriate for the Indian climate or the traditional identity of the location.
The current new projects in Mumbai city alone are in excess of 200 million square feet, with over 100 buildings higher than 60 stories. An important aspect of this urbanization is that the negligible open spaces in Indian cities are being depleted over time and the limited number of parks and gardens cannot facilitate the ever-increasing population.
It is frightening to think of what impact this new construction will have on the city’s already crumbling infrastructure. New cars hit the roads on a daily basis, roads that have barely been augmented in the preceding four decades.
There is an urgent need for the government to act fast and create better public transport systems, build new airports, create large public housing schemes and recreational parks, improve the rules and regulations that govern buildings facilitating easier approvals for effective and creative planning.
India is one of the fastest growing countries in the world and the Indian government needs to take cognizance of this, immediately, with an active plan to facilitate this growth instead of the lackadaisical attitude they have had in the past.
Simultaneously, private developers need to focus on sustainable and contextual design instead of only being interested in the commercial aspects of real estate while architects need to create holistic design solutions that emphasizes an Indian ethos, for a new architectural era.