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The Mumbai Architecture Project dreams of design-driven urban planning

The Mumbai Architecture Project believes that the collective history and shared memories forged in buildings contribute to the production of a vibrant local culture.

Shraddha Sejpal, with other members of The Mumbai Architecture Project, photographed in Mumbai on . Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Shraddha Sejpal, with other members of The Mumbai Architecture Project, photographed in Mumbai on . Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Architecture is the one discipline that has been absent from any widespread public discussion in India. And what little is discussed in the name of architecture and urban design is mainly in the form of overtly cliched platitudes that increasingly cater to the rhetoric of political machines rather than genuine attempts at propagating holistic architectural or urban visions.

Slogans such as Mumbai to Shanghai, Smart Cities, etc., abound. But rarely do they address the realities of built environment in India, much less the real issues and challenges inherent in their production. They are more political propaganda than genuine architectural or urban visions. They become quick, saleable and easily digestible images, and, in this farce, what is lost is that which is most critical to making our architecture meaningful and our cities more livable. The farce, or the image, takes over and reality takes a step back.

Compare these to the ambitions of former French president François Mitterrand, who, in the late 1980s, embarked on the creation of Grand Projects—ambitious, monumental architecture, ostensibly to redeem the country’s pre-eminent position as a cultural leader of the world. That too was no less political propaganda, but in spite of the rhetoric, Mitterand was successful in constructing buildings like the Louvre Pyramid and the Musée d’Orsay, which successfully brought Paris back to the forefront of architectural discussion in the world.

India, to be fair, had in Jawaharlal Nehru its own Mitterand. He understood what architecture and nation-building stood for. There was, at the inception of our nation, a much clearer and well-defined world view that dominated the public discourse. Ideas of modernity and progress were fundamental to all aspects of nation-building, and architecture was no exception. The making of Chandigarh and the engineering monuments of the initial decades clearly showed an interest in the march towards a better society. Architecture became the medium for both, a dialogue with its citizens as well as a means to express a national identity.

But the India of today sits far from that trajectory. From architecture being a tool of state propaganda, it has moved, in yesterday’s liberal and today’s neo-liberal times, to being just a slogan, and culturally, of no consequence. And that, really, is the problem. That architecture in India today is inconsequential.

That is not to say that it is not there. Of course, it is there and we are aware of buildings. We see roads, bridges, buildings, steel and glass skyscrapers, and a modern, urban India being built right in front of our eyes. But we are not conscious of the kind of architecture being practised. New communities are being built, but they are gated and safe. New malls, hospitals, call centres and special economic zones are being built all over the country and they employ the same language of architecture. Glittering steel and glass structures now dot the countryside, with the erstwhile villages of Gurugram or the outskirts of Hyderabad standing out as the most notable examples. Infused with private, global capital, this derivative urbanism has become the bane of a large part of the landscape. Town after town and now village after village, is following in the footsteps of Mumbai, the big brother. Floor space index (FSI), a tool to control speculative building, has become the guiding force of architecture, even in places where it doesn’t make sense to build over and above one’s requirements.

Architecture itself is of no consequence. Image, the superficial visual affect, becomes everything. Architecture is reduced to a consumable item, an object of desire, and not a cultural artefact, as defined by Mulk Raj Anand in the editorial of the first issue (1946) of Marg.

“We consider architecture, of course, as the mother art. And, therefore, we shall naturally include within our orbit of discussion all the arts which help us to live and move in the houses and workshops we build. And the criterion which we shall bring to bear on these arts will be the simple one of beauty, a term which may be defined here to cover the formal materials of a work of art as well as its subject matter and the function it fulfils in society."

Although the first few decades after independence did produce architecture worthy of a newly-formed country in search of its own identity and voice, that voice soon began to wane. The rhetoric of nation-building could inspire the architect and the bureaucrat only for so long. And with the coming of liberalization in the 1990s, the last vestiges of that search ended. Rampant profiteering became the only goal. The government too had abdicated all pretence of nation-building. What little was done by the state was so shabby and time-consuming that it was not even worth talking about. Private, capitalist development took the Western path and concentrated more on urban areas while disregarding the rural areas. Within this deteriorating, ill-kempt but continuously growing urbanization, the nature of architecture came under even greater stress. Economic, social and political discourses controlled much of the production of architecture. The mode of architectural production in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, became the benchmark everywhere. FSI calculations, and approval of plans, became one of the primary activities of the architects. What little beauty, programme, context and meaning remained within the scope of the architect was relegated to the 2ft of facade space. Planning became an exercise in maximizing approvable area. Schools and hospitals, government and private institutions were now built on the basis of total approvable and passable area, no matter whether the extra area was required or not. Space, and therefore architecture, became a commodity and lost its meaning as a cultural artefact.

Consider, for example, the statue of Shivaji, being built by Maharashtra. The only public discussion about the statue is on cost and height. There is no discussion on the meaning of the statue (to the state and its people), to the kind of project it will become (a wonder of the world, an environmental disaster), the context in which it is being built, or how it can be made better by incorporating, along with its core programme (ostensibly for establishing regional pride and identity), other, different programmes within which it would, more than just symbolically, add to the state’s identity and pride.

Consider also the building of a National War Museum in Delhi, the first of its kind in India. In any other nation, it would be a matter of immense pride, and the process would have been conducted with transparency. In India, it has become a joke. An architectural design competition was held, and a winning design judged, selected and awarded the prize, and, still, there is an ongoing controversy, about the project.

The problems of the current state of architecture, urban design and city planning in India are too many to even enumerate in this limited space. These are just the most recent examples of the follies being perpetrated in the name of architecture, and architects are as much to blame for these as the rest of society. The institutions guiding the discipline of architecture are generally aimless bodies, with literally no control over the discipline and its practitioners.

How can a country that is home to the Taj Mahal and Kailash Temple in Ellora not understand that cities are known by their buildings? The mythic quality of cities such as Prague, Paris, London and New York is attributable, in large part, to their architecture. Bilbao, once a gritty old port city on the northern coast of Spain, reinvented itself in the early 1990s. Following the example of Barcelona, it invited famous architects to design a master plan and build various public buildings such as train stations, bridges and airports. The new Guggenheim museum, the crowning glory of the city’s architectural adventure, ultimately put Bilbao on the global map and led to an almost immediate quadrupling of tourist revenue. The local economy experienced such a dramatic improvement that the city was able to recoup its investment in less than a couple of years. But Bilbao is only one example and one that isn’t necessarily replicable.

In the cause of city and nation-building, it is an experiment that is worth the time and investment. Increasingly, cities all over the world have taken to participatory projects and open architectural competitions, with design (and not fees) as the critical component, as the means to realizing good architecture. At the very least, it allows for a public debate. It provides for possibilities and differing opinions and opposing viewpoints—and, in the end, brings together politicians, artists, cultural figures, and, hopefully, even the citizens as arbiters of taste and participants in the production of cultural artefacts. More importantly, it opens up the decision to public discussion and scrutiny. But this is just one method and there are many more that can be thought of and implemented, which would put the onus back on architectural production as an important cultural activity and one that merits a much closer look.

In the end though, it is important to see architectural monuments as part of a nation’s cultural capital and public urban spaces as a city’s inherent assets. Buildings add to the creation of place-making, and, within these, memories and histories are forged. The collective history and shared memory thus created contribute significantly to the production of a vibrant local culture, capable of satisfying the ever-growing horizons of public expectation. Architecture reaches beyond the boundaries of grandiloquence and imparts a value that is, although not always quantifiable in economic terms, intangible and therefore inestimable.

It is critical as a nation, going forward, to bring good design and meaningful architecture back into the national discourse. And what is required for this is a strong, revamped institution which can create a newer, larger framework for better, ethical design practice, and one that allows and nurtures innovation in all its different forms.

The piece has been written on behalf of the Mumbai Architecture Project (MAP), a collective of people with a shared interest in our built environment. It was founded by Shraddha Sejpal, Pinkish Shah, Nemish Shah, Advait Potnis, Manas Vanwari, Soumya Raja, Rajeev Thakker and Quaid Doongerwala.

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