Urban Design
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an open letter to reimagine architectural education and practice in india

July 9, 2020

This article is an open letter to fellow architects, urban practitioners, designers, and thinkers. The urban environment is extremely important to our sense of well-being and community. Designing is a huge privilege, as well as an important social responsibility.

In most Indian cities, the general perception is that architects cater to the wealthy and affluent; and on the ground, the formal profession is constantly losing significant ground.

Architecture is ‘elitist’ & ‘power centric

Architecture, and design, in general, are hence seen as elitist and power centric, possibly due to the modernist roots of the formal profession of architecture in India post-independence.

Despite the burgeoning artists and designers in the country, the housing crisis in the country still looms large on us. A large focus of practice is on medium and large-scale construction projects (there are of course exceptions!) based on a western-centric aesthetic that can easily be accused of falling into the traps of neoliberalism, which is individualistic and contributes to the institutional exclusion of communities.

In this context, it is useful to pause and reflect upon who are we leaving out of the conversations and dialogues around space, well-being, and shaping community aspirations. In short, who are we not designing for, overtly or covertly?

Architectural education needs innocation
Typical exclusionary, residential development in Bangalore, showing typical exclusionary architecture. (Source: author)

The missing vulnerable groups in urban discourse

The above question is necessary, and increasingly relevant because we live in a world where opportunities, possibilities, and prosperity are not equal for everyone.

Our built environment does not recognize the presence, concerns, aspirations, and inclusion of vulnerable groups in the urban discourse and materialization of urban policies.

Even after seventy-odd years of independence, the situation is grim, if one begins to map the footprint of indigenous communities in policy spaces or physical place-making in cities. The same goes for specific age groups such as elderly and children; or differently-abled persons, who have the potential to contribute immensely to our idea of space-design and place-making, yet much of practice continues to ignore these sources of dynamism.

The gendered spaces in our cities

If we add a third dimension of gender, we shall realise that most spaces we design eventually end up becoming gendered, due to segregation based upon patriarchal elements such as safety perception. At the community level, this is more dismal; with dominant spaces in streets that are not accessible to people of all genders apart from males.

The fourth dimension of class struggle (which by the way can be understood as a proxy of caste struggle!) is an interesting one, especially in the Indian context. For the past many decades, architects have attempted to understand the issue of informal spaces (read slums and squatters) in India and provide spatial solutions based upon procedural modernist principles of incrementalism and cost-effectiveness.

Yet most of these solutions were centralized, with the architect (and government machinery) at the centre, with varying levels of involvement of the communities for whom the spatial solutions were designed.

However, the decision making and hence the power always remained with the designers (and continue to do so), who were like a messiah, who somehow assumed they had a magic wand to solve the housing crisis. We can call it a parachute model of design since designers mystically force their arrival upon communities.

Romanticism with slums in India

In other cases, designers tend to romanticize the slums, something the renowned scholar Ananya Roy describes as the ‘aestheticization of poverty’. The inertia of these approaches, unfortunately, remains to date, with many large projects being based upon displacement of the most vulnerable communities.

One cannot possibly deny that the housing type which we oversimplify and call as slums continues to be the most dominant feature of urban landscapes in our cities. This peripheral urbanization exists almost in a parallel world to the dominant practice that we witness.

I do not want to fathom how complex this will become if we start imagining the intersections between the above. For example, the perspective about community prosperity, resilience, and equity of a differently-abled elderly woman, residing in a slum settlement is often missing in our conversations around buildings, campuses, streets, or the urban space in general.

Democratize architectural design & practise, now.

Architectural education and practice, unfortunately, have not done enough to address the above concerns in society; and thus remain inaccessible for the most vulnerable groups and communities.

What should we do then, to democratize architectural design and practice? I contend that we, the architecture fraternity, need to rethink and recreate work that engages and has meaning for people who dominate our southern cities.

One way to approach this is to embrace the temporality of the urban Indian landscape. Squatting can either be seen as something to be avoided (and hence evicted!!) or as something useful that can be culturally constructed based upon the realities and context (take the example of various Mohalla clinics in New Delhi, which is a case of the state creating squatters on sidewalks).

A new form of urbanization, built from top-down? A Mohalla clinic in New Delhi, built as a squatter on existing pedestrian pathway (Source: Hindustan Times/Anonna Dutt and Risha Chitlangia)

Repair Vs Upgrading

Other, and a more significant thing, is to develop a practice that chooses to focus on ‘repair’ rather than present approaches of up-gradation or dealing with housing shortages.

In doing so, architectural pedagogy will have to adapt itself to cater to changing demand in the market; that is to produce graduates that are proficient in not just novel large-scaled projects but in renovating/repairing existing small and micro homes.

Collective prosperity is at the heart of any professional practice. We may not be able to eliminate inequality through our designs but can design to improve individual and community equity.

We must make our intellectual positions clear that will help us avoid vagueness of thought and form. It is essential that we establish clear value propositions and boundaries of our practice and consulting, and not simply succumb to the ‘in thing’ or ‘trends’.

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