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COVER | Six Indian architects sketch a post-covid neighbourhood

Lounge invites leading architects to reimagine various elements of the neighbourhood—from homes and parks to streets and marketplaces—to suit the needs of a post-pandemic reality

Homes in the sky at Boat Club Road, Chennai, by SJK Architects, Mumbai.
Homes in the sky at Boat Club Road, Chennai, by SJK Architects, Mumbai. (Photo: SJK Architects)

Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today." This quote by Hannes Meyer, a Swiss architect and second director of Bauhaus Dessau, the German school of design, architecture and applied arts,has always been a favourite of writers commenting on the future of architecture. And it is probably more relevant than ever today, for there is a need to reimagine the built environment in the city in light of the covid-19 pandemic. How does one decongest market spaces keeping social distancing norms in mind? Can one have kiosks in parks, on the lines of vintage telephone booths, containing oximeters, thermometers and sanitizers, to ensure safeguards are available to everybody? Is it possible to have a home within a home to act as a cosy quarantine chamber in case you need it again in the future?

This wouldn’t be the first time that disease has led to a reimagining of the built environment. In 1849, as a second outbreak of cholera ravaged the city of New York, architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted advocated the healing powers of parks, which could act as “outlets for foul air and inlets for pure air". And, thus, Central Park came into being. A piece in TheNew Yorker this month, titled “How The Coronavirus Will Reshape Architecture", states that much of modernist architecture can be understood as a consequence of fear of disease, a desire to eradicate dark rooms and dusty corners where bacteria lurk. Take, for instance, Adolf Loos’ modernist creation, Villa Müller, in Prague, built as a residence for František Müller, co-owner of a construction company. The article mentions that from 1930, it included a separate space where sick children could be quarantined.

In India, we have the cushion of traditional architectural wisdom to fall back on to tackle the effects of a disaster or changes in the environment. Traditionally, Mishing homes in Assam have been built on stilts to cope with the fury of the annual floods. To combat changing temperature levels, vernacular architecture across India has employed brick and mud.

Architects such as B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa and Didi Contractor have shown that it is possible to be modern while keeping in mind the local landscape and climate. They have drawn inspiration from people’s lives to create architecture which pulsates and transforms with time to suit the needs of an entire community. For instance, in Rudraprayag, which saw a devastating flash flood in 2013, Contractor has created a disaster-resilient structure for a community radio station using local material. Correa designed the open mall, City Centre, in Salt Lake, Kolkata—with a complex system of open spaces, from broad colonnaded public arcades to narrow bazaars and vast plazas—to suit diverse needs and erase the mid-market and up-market divide.

It now remains to be seen what changes in architecture will be propelled by an entire generation of people who have been cloistered indoors for months. “Decongest and decentralize" will be the keywords when looking at neighbourhoods, says Shimul Javeri, principal architect, SJK Architects.

This reimagining of the built environment calls for a nuanced shift. “We need to reclaim the outdoors. This is particularly important for women, for whom some of the indoor spaces can be very oppressive," says Rupali Gupte, professor at the School of Environment and Architecture, Mumbai. It may be a good idea to create a seriesof interconnected open and semi-open spaces, such as thresholds, verandahs, courtyards and gardens, which extend the idea of the “home" from its limited definition of a propertied enclosure. “We really need to get out of the idea of the apartment," she adds.

As new thoughts and ideas get added to the discourse, six architects re-envisionthe key elements of the neighbourhood, from the home to the street and the marketplace, to suit a post-covid reality.

Shimul Javeri
Shimul Javeri


Balconies, terraces and verandahs serve the dual purpose of becoming windows to ourselves and the world

In Milan, Italy, during the lockdown, the balcony became a space for expression—of anxiety, isolation, appreciation, and of reaching out to the community. One heard snatches of violin and patriotic songs being sung from apartment terraces, offering a moment of joy and solidarity during some very difficult times. “Even in India, we have realized that balconies and terraces have proved to be our saving graces. These are where we can meet other individuals while practising social distancing norms or simply gaze out at the world," says Shimul Javeri.

She believes we have neglected our open spaces so far, retreating further and further within glass facades and artificially-lit spaces. Traditionally, Indian homes had always been designed for human interaction: courtyards in the middle of the house or the othla—a verandah—right on the street so that you could see people go by. “Intense urbanization created the need to go vertical. While we connected with people across countries, our connection with the neighbourhood ceased to exist. However, the pandemic has allowed us to tune back into the neighbourhood and we need common open spaces that forge this bond even further," she says.

As times change, so will our priorities. Instead of chasing material goods and luxuries, one might now seek peace and tranquillity. These semi-outdoor spaces, then, could serve the dual purpose of becoming windows to ourselves and the world. “We need to look for homes that have much better access to nature and outdoors and, most importantly, to the community. As our mindsets change, so will the solutions," says Javeri.

Photo courtesy: Ashiesh Shah
Photo courtesy: Ashiesh Shah
Ashiesh Shah
Ashiesh Shah

According to Mumbai-based Ashiesh Shah, who has worked on spaces ranging from penthouses and offices to concept stores and restaurants, it is time for the home to turn into a multifunctional space. As the people living within it embrace a new way of working and living, the house needs to reflect that.

What if a home didn’t have designated areas for a particular activity—if spaces transformed daily, thanks to lightweight movable walls, into realms of activity, meditation and recreation? A bedroom need no longer be used just for sleeping. Rather, it could serve as a makeshift yoga space in the morning, an online learning station for the child in the afternoon, and for other activities too. “Everyone that we are speaking to wants a very good study and library in the house now. In this new normal, people will be dividing, say, three days at work and four days at home. Hence, going forward, people will want to invest more in bigger, better-looking and energy-efficient homes," he elaborates.

Shah’s vision for “dwellings 2.0" is in sync with his practice, rooted in the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi and Indian craftsmanship. He foresees a rise in minimalism, with people not wanting too much clutter around. “Having too much means cleaning too much. Staff is likely to be a luxury in the coming age," he says. Another impact of the pandemic on the built environment is that people are hungry for open, well-ventilated spaces. They simply want to embrace the wind and the sunshine, even in their homes. “A certain amount of claustrophobia has set in. We are done with air-conditioning now. Hence, larger stairwells and skylight passages will become very important—anything that allows the sunlight to filter in and give a sense of openness," says Shah.

One of the questions foremost on Shah’s mind is, how do you create pockets of isolation within the house which are warm and cosy and don’t reek of loneliness? “People building new homes will have to bear in mind, what if they need to quarantine a family member in the future? The study could be attached to a bedroom and have its own bathroom. This way it becomes a mini apartment within the apartment," he suggests.

The Sunder Nursery community toilets project is proof that inputs from everyone can result in a transformative design.
The Sunder Nursery community toilets project is proof that inputs from everyone can result in a transformative design. (Photo courtesy Vir.Mueller Architects)


There is a need to reassess the nature of pedestrian and civic arrangement in the city

Can a neighbourhood to suit the post-pandemic reality be designed without taking into account the voices of everyone who inhabits the space? Pankaj Vir Gupta says that in planning for a post-covid world, the first area of focus ought to be the street and the informal low-income housing settlements where thousands of people compete just to share a toilet, disconnected from sanitation or sewage infrastructure.

Pankaj Vir Gupta
Pankaj Vir Gupta

“Look at the street. People like you and me are constantly dodging cars while buying fruits and vegetables. For us, maybe this is a once-a-week event, but for millions of people, this is part of their daily routine," explains Gupta. He suggests reassessing the nature of pedestrian and civic arrangement. Streets, he believes, are not designed holistically or democratically. “Do we ask the autorickshaw driver, how do you park at a Metro station or pick up a ride from? Or a vendor about where would be the ideal spot for him to sell his wares, pick up the load at the end of the day and go home? Most developments in urban India are imposed on the citizenry, devoid of local citizen input, resulting in chaos. The last thing we need after the pandemic is another top-down directive," he says.

Instead, one must ask who are the citizens with the least agency, how do the poorest citizens live? “Our experience of working (on community toilets ) with people in Nizamuddin with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for the Sunder Nursery project has revealed that if you take inputs from all, the resulting design is transformative. I am beseeching for more plurality. This is a great opportunity to strengthen urban democracy," he says.

An image from the House of Stories, a concept for the India Pavilion that Ghosh is curating at the forthcoming London Design Biennale.
An image from the House of Stories, a concept for the India Pavilion that Ghosh is curating at the forthcoming London Design Biennale. (Photo courtesy: Nisha Mathew Ghosh and Soumitro Ghosh)


Extracting freedom for human relationships from within newly-drawn boundaries

In the olden days, traditional house forms across India had a clear sense of an outside public zone and an inside private or safe zone. This outdoor ‘threshold’ from the street was also where a person coming in from outside could wash up and then enter. It may be time to bring this back," says Nisha Mathew Ghosh, who will represent India at the London Design Biennale 2021. The third edition of the event is themed on resonance and will be led by stage designer-artist Es Devlin as the artistic director.

Nisha Mathew Ghosh
Nisha Mathew Ghosh

She foresees structural changes in homes based on the cleanliness and disinfection practices likely in a post-covid world. This would also be the right time to push climate-integrated houses. “New boundaries will come into play. But the challenge will lie in extracting freedom for human relationships from within these boundaries. This requires thoughtful architecture which is centred around people and not space," she explains.

Ghosh suggests adding resilience to the living space, be it condominiums or low-income housing. She believes it should be mandatory for every house to have a tiny strip of land outside. “This will also allow you to grow your own food, making you self-reliant and reducing the number of visits to the market for everyday produce. A great crisis such as this has the potential to create systemic changes and that is what we should be moving towards," she says.

Morphogenesis is currently working on projects which feature outdoor food courts for 500 people.
Morphogenesis is currently working on projects which feature outdoor food courts for 500 people. (Sketch by Amjad VK; Courtesy Morphogenesis)


Making the outdoor environment more comfortable using temperature control and passive design methods

In India, the public social space has always been outdoors. In the 1960-70s, this used to be a democratic area, which used to foster conversation and discourse," says Manit Rastogi. Over time, however, with access to energy and the advent of air-conditioning, many social activities such as shopping and retail started moving indoors. India’s hot climate had a big role to play in this shift. “Outdoor akhadas (spaces for training in sports and martial arts) moved into enclosed gyms, street-side eating spaces shifted to indoor restaurants and one saw the rise of enclosed shopping malls," says Rastogi, whose firm recently won the FuturArc Green Leadership Awards 2020, which recognize innovative and ecologically responsible buildings in Asia.

Manit Rastogi (Right)
Manit Rastogi (Right)

This transformational shift, he says, was driven by the fact that indoor spaces could be regulated for comfort through acoustics, lighting and temperature control. Now, Rastogi is hoping for a complete reversal of this phenomenon.

“We hope that the social spaces move back outdoors. The big difference today is that we have the ability to make the outdoor environment a lot more comfortable," he says. Morphogenesis is currently working on projects which feature outdoor food courts for 500 people. By using passive design methods such as micro-climate creation, the team has been trying to keep the temperature in check. Lightweight tensile roof structures are being used as protection from rain and sun and attempts are being made to harness the wind where possible. They are adding external air filters for better air quality and sonic mosquito control systems to make the outdoors comfortable. “It’s a given fact that during the pandemic, people feel more at ease in open spaces than indoors," he says.

He adds that most open spaces in urban setting are underutilized since they are used only for a limited part of the day or year. What if these could be turned into multifunctional spaces? If the outdoor food court could serve as a classroom, or a meeting and training space through the day? “It would be a wasted opportunity if we don’t use all our technological abilities to bring social activities outdoors in a more democratic and accessible manner" says Rastogi.

Multilevel parking lots, pedestrian piazzas, central gardens and extended shaded walkways can transform markets into world-class high-street experiences.
Multilevel parking lots, pedestrian piazzas, central gardens and extended shaded walkways can transform markets into world-class high-street experiences. (Sketch by Ayesha Mahiira Hussain; Courtesy Studio Lotus)


Creating efficient neighbourhood markets, multilevel car parks, revitalizing small parks at the centre and creating pedestrian promenades

The marketplace—be it neighbourhood markets or community plazas—must be decongested so you don’t have to jostle with a mass of human bodies and vehicles. “This pandemic is a great opportunity to rearrange the peculiar hierarchy as part of which cars currently rule over the main space. We need to make the pedestrian, the cyclist or the person on the public transport take centre stage," says Ambrish Arora,

Ambrish Arora
Ambrish Arora

He cites the example of Delhi’s popular M-Block Market in Greater Kailash-I and the Defence Colony markets, which have been planned around quadrangles. Unfortunately, the small parks at the centre of these serve neither any function nor act as ornamentation. The roads on either side are a mess of vehicles, with pedestrians completely sidelined. Just creating multilevel parking lots in the peripheral open spaces could transform the visitor experience, easily increase capacity and ensure a truly world-class high-street experience. The open spaces at the centre could be integrated into the design as pedestrian piazzas, much needed in cities like Delhi that are bereft of public space. Lightweight canopies could help create shaded walkways around buildings, open terrace spaces on the upper levels could be used for food and beverage services. This would double the area for first-floor restaurants.

“The reason why France and Italy have been able to open up cafés, and more, is because so much of the dining experience is in the open," explains Arora. “I, for one, would feel uncomfortable sitting boxed up in a sealed, air-conditioned restaurant. There is increasing evidence that outdoor spaces are less vulnerable to the spread of infection." Such a move would also have a far-reaching impact on safety and energy efficiency. Evacuation staircases for disasters could be built into the verandahs while creating larger open-to-sky areas with low energy consumption.

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