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What will cities of the future look like?

As we celebrate 75 years of India’s independence, Lounge examines whether the cityscapes of 2047 will allow individuals the freedom to live life to their fullest potential

Detail from Gigi Scaria’s ‘Equator’, digital print on archival paper. Courtesy: the artist
Detail from Gigi Scaria’s ‘Equator’, digital print on archival paper. Courtesy: the artist

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What will the world look like in 2047, 25 years from now, a year when India will be marking 100 years of independence? Will it be straight out of a dystopian science fiction movie, with floating cities, AI-powered pods and flying cars? Going by the news reports of our times, some of the landmarks of the future might be located not on Earth but on celestial bodies far, far away. Architects around the world are already working on extra-terrestrial architecture. The US-based multiplanetary design agency AI SpaceFactory, for instance, has envisioned its space habitat design, MARSHA, for Mars, 54.6 million kilometres away, using materials available on that planet.

Not everyone, though, will be able to get on to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s spaceship, points out Madhav Raman, co-founder of the Delhi-based firm Anagram Architects. So what happens if you stay back on Earth? Will the issues of the day—climate change, overpopulation, to name two grave ones—completely overwhelm society by then?

Certainly, it is becoming clear that architects will have to reimagine the cityscape, assuming they have the liberty to. Some have already begun doing this in small ways, showcasing a return to traditional local materials and designs melded with modern processes and planning. For most of them, the future lies in flexibility, “unbuilding”, harnessing resources wisely— and greenery.

Also read: What is the future of heritage conservation?

“The next generation will encounter unprecedented social, political and ecological challenges and we should be prepared to deliver holistic solutions for retrofitting and designing new buildings that actively mitigate the risks and amplify positive change,” notes It’s Alive: A Vision For Tall Buildings In 2050, a report by ARUP, an architecture firm with offices in over 30 countries, including India.

Gautam Bhatia’s ‘Hotel In A Suitcase’—a satirical take on the future of architecture. Courtesy: the artist
Gautam Bhatia’s ‘Hotel In A Suitcase’—a satirical take on the future of architecture. Courtesy: the artist

Indeed, architecture is not just about tangible structures; it’s reflective of a way of life, a sociopolitical ideology, a marker of identity. In India, for instance, the Hall of Nations at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan complex, designed by Raj Rewal, engineered by Mahendra Raj and inaugurated in 1972, was emblematic of a young, optimistic nation eyeing economic and industrial growth; it has since been demolished. As we celebrate 75 years of freedom, one wonders what the landmarks of the future will be, what built spaces will look like when India turns 100. Will we be looking at larger-than-life monumental structures or will we seek greatness in minimalism? Will cityscapes be restrictive or allow individuals the freedom to live life to its fullest potential?

Two architectural scenarios are emerging—one that looks at a business-as-usual scenario and the other, at a more ideal situation. Noted architect Gautam Bhatia reflects on the likely scary outcome of the first scenario, if we continue to crowd cities with private housing and smart buildings, stretching already overstretched towns into the countryside and on to farms, extending highways till everything is a dense mass of concrete. “Not-for-profits and world leaders will still be trying to piece together a treaty for climate change everyone can agree upon. People will live in small barricaded houses or cheerless blocks, working on their own, stealing vegetables and livestock, fighting over water and electricity,” he etches a dystopian picture.

Also read: Step into the imaginarium of architect Samira Rathod

It doesn’t end there. Bhatia imagines a world with dried-up rivers and trees in a “plant zoo” that people will visit from time to time to remind themselves of a life that once was. “The surviving symbol of India’s architectural heritage, the Taj Mahal, will still be visible but could be occupied by squatters as low-cost housing,” he goes on.

There’s more. Delhi-based artist Gigi Scaria, whose practice revolves around imagined cityscapes, feels the landmarks of the future will be intelligent, high-tech malls, with private enterprises racing to make the tallest one. “All public spaces will continue to be occupied by corporations and big malls. A lot of investment is being pumped into specific parts of the city. If that collapses, then in 25 years the city could be dotted by skeletons of failed malls,” he notes.

The future need not be so dismal—if we course-correct, and quickly. Bhatia, for one, is counting on serious introspection over the next couple of years that could be followed by a massive shift—with the old ideals of large houses, glass malls and private ownership of lands making way for new. He muses on the future: “People live either below the earth or raised high above. Urban populations are accommodated in buildings that do not occupy much land; underground farms are the source of all agriculture, slow transport appears.”

He imagines cityscapes without cars or planes, movement that is local and terrestrial, communities that are small but connected and permanent. “The saving grace of architecture for India at 100 will be if it ceases to exist as a practising profession and submits to a new order, both natural and technological. Only the Taj Mahal remains (as a landmark), a monument to a forgotten time,” he adds.

Also read: Gautam Bhatia’s storyboard of life

While Bhatia is all for “unbuilding” and the revival of nature, Scaria hopes for sustainable and inclusive landmarks. He imagines a non-assertive structure, something on the lines of Sabarmati Ashram. “If the Hall of Nations was the landmark of a new India, then a new model of Sabarmati Ashram could be symbolic of India at 100. Today, we look at people through the lens of religion and community. Even if those social hierarchies are taken away, money acts as a gatekeeper to social spaces,” he says. Scaria looks forward to a fluid architectural space, where people can easily flow from one part to another without any hesitation or restrictions.

The move towards unobtrusive structures that are sustainable and responsible has already begun, in fact. If you were to visit Nila House, a centre of craft excellence and innovation in Jaipur, it could seem like just another rambling house on leafy Prithviraj Road from the outside. Within, though, you realise how architect Bijoy Jain and his team at Studio Mumbai have refurbished this haveli from the 1930s using indigenous materials—and yet created a look of minimal modernism. One can see stairs with a grainy Tancha texture, typical of Rajasthan forts, windows that let in natural light, a central courtyard paved with sandstone. “Jute has been used on walls; the mortar is a mix of jaggery, fenugreek and guggal gondh (a type of gum) to increase the molecular strength of the walls. Natural materials such as lime plaster and local marble have been used in restoration, with a small amount of indigo added as a natural repellent against termites and mosquitoes,” reports a 2019 article in Lounge.

In other places, efforts are on to create climate-responsive architecture. The CEPT University Library in Ahmedabad, designed by architect Rahul Mehrotra and his team at RMA Architects, is one such example. The materials respect the existing ones on campus. “…its modulated, louvred façades can be manually adjusted to admit less light or more ventilation. First-floor reading rooms overlook the campus. Below-ground book stacks, carrels and study spaces benefit from plentiful natural lighting via the louvred façade and subterranean courtyard, as well as the natural cooling effect of the surrounding earth,” states a note on the Aga Khan Trust for Culture website, after the project was shortlisted for its architecture award, along with 19 others, for 2022.

Kishore Shinde’s compositions create illusions, of high-rises under construction and bridges dissolving in air. From the ‘Inner Life Of Things Around Anatomies And Armatures’, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Courtesy: KNMA
Kishore Shinde’s compositions create illusions, of high-rises under construction and bridges dissolving in air. From the ‘Inner Life Of Things Around Anatomies And Armatures’, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Courtesy: KNMA

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Mehrotra has worked on yet another project, Hathigaon, a housing project for mahouts and their elephants, at the foothills of the Amber Palace in Jaipur. According to the project brief on the RMA website, the design first involved structuring the landscape, used as a sand quarry, to create a series of water bodies to harvest rain runoff, the most crucial resource in the desert climate. “With the water resources in place, an extensive tree plantation program was carried out together with seeding the site to propagate local species,” it states.

Projects by Mumbai-based Architecture Brio, helmed by Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt, are based on future-proof structures. In a 2021 article, Architectural Digest notes that The Other Side Studio in Alibag, Maharashtra, is built to be dismantled and moved if sea levels submerge the land around it.

Back to the earth

For both Raman and Samira Rathod of Samira Rathod Design Atelier, water availability and climate change are the two critical issues architecture in India should start addressing. “In 2047, we will have among the highest population numbers. We are expected to be mostly urban by then. Meanwhile, climate change would have progressed to the extent that our water needs would not be met by our perennial rivers as they are now,” explains Raman. Like many, he believes the wars of the future will be fought over water. “Water justice is going to be the most significant aspect of our life. So, will we need a Supreme Court of Water Justice? I think we will, and that is likely to be a key landmark in the future.”

With India urbanising rapidly, Raman says structures centred around water will become even more significant 25 years hence. “If there is a shift in the monsoons, you will find rivers change or disappear from their course. Buildings that engage with the fluidity of this cycle will become important culturally and socially,” he believes.

Rural and indigenous water retention centres such as baolis (stepwells) and community reservoirs will become important as social spaces, albeit in a new form. “Instead of ghats or spaces around flowing water, it is collected water spaces that will become significant,” he adds. In such a scenario, building material will also have to adapt, with architects falling back on the oldest one available to humanity—rammed earth. While space-age materials such as carbon-fibre might seem attractive now, 25 years later the bulk of resources needed to produce those might not be available. “On the other hand, glacial melt would be well on its way. One can expect a lot of erosion along the rivers—this means a significant amount of silt, sand, clay and ceramics, which will be used instead of concrete,” says Raman.

Samira too believes local and sustainable materials will be the order of the day. For her, the most important aspect of architecture is the very antithesis of a building. She hopes we would have created more gardens in 25 years. If built public structures are needed, she would go for schools. “That is the most important landmark for any city. We need schools for adults, about good toilet habits, about parenting—basically a school of life. You don’t even need a structure if a family decides to dedicate time to teaching people around them,” she says.

Also read: Meet the archivist of urban heritage

Samira and her team have worked on two schools and are working on a third project. At one of them, located in a fruit orchard in Bhadran, Gujarat, children spend their formative years prancing around trees. “There are a plethora of small spaces to hide, climb, roll, run in to and out of, to satiate the curiosities of a forming mind,” notes an article on ArchDaily. The form of the building, based on a study of a child’s scribble patterns, features asymmetric arches, lopsided vaults and irregular jack arches spanning skewed beams. “It defies the conventional form of architecture and nudges a child to question. The structure is also sustainable, with water collected on the roof, which comes down to recharging wells. We need more such innovative spaces,” says Samira.

The school of dancing arches designed by Samira Rathod Design Atelier in Bhadran
The school of dancing arches designed by Samira Rathod Design Atelier in Bhadran

Flexible architecture 

ARUP creates quite an image of the building of the future in It’s Alive report: complete with water basins, an underground transport interchange, a dashboard that tells us about building resource levels—say, 26,000 hours off-grid, or two million litres of water stored. The complex would contain schools, daycare centres, vegetable patches, linear parks, hydroponic-powered farms on the higher levels, and robots as staff to repair and maintain the space.

“It is imagined as fulfilling multiple roles in response to the changing needs of our society and planet. As digital solutions (internet of things, or IoT, Artificial Intelligence, 3D printing, Big Data) become a pervasive part of the built environment, there remains a need and desire for analogue, intuitive and resilient design solutions. Collectively these enable a more human-centred, open and adaptive building, ready to empower communities,” states the report. The tall structure is designed as a malleable one, which can modify and morph as the situation demands. For example, unused office space could double as a homeless shelter, made possible by flexible and adaptable design solutions.

Such innovation may seem futuristic in a country where basic infrastructure is a challenge. But architecture in India has always reflected the spirit of the times, whether pre- or post-independence. Sentiment, politics and economics have stamped their influence but going forward it will have to be about people and environmental concerns. “Architecture has the power to transform,” says Samira. “Look at Japan, which is full of secret gardens. Look at small, simple and accessible designs. There is greatness in smallness.”

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