Imagining the Indian City - IIA Natcon 2016 Bengaluru

Events Diary Dated:  Dec. 7, 2016
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IIA Natcon 2016 Bengaluru

The IIA Karnataka Chapter hosted the IIA Natcon last week in Bengaluru, which saw enthusiastic participation from architect members throughout the country.

For the uninitiated, Natcon is the largest congregation of architects in India and is organized by the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA). The Natcon 2016 edition hosted in Bengaluru was special since it commemorated the centenary celebrations of the IIA.

At this special edition, Ar. Divya Kush, President, IIA presented the IIA Madhav Achwal Gold Medal 2016 to Prof. Altaf Ahmed and Prof. Ashok Laxman Chhatre. The IIA Baburao Mhatre Gold Medal 2016 was presented to Ar. Raja Aderi.

The central theme of the 3-day convention curated by Ar. Prem Chandavarkar was “Imagining the Indian City” outside of what has come to signify a “Global City”.  It raised multiple questions about our urban spaces, the role of growth, economic policies having a hand in their evolution. Matters of poverty, migration, sustainability, informal tenures were discussed and their role in urbanisation, the direction of our town planning, integration of informality into the mainstream. 

Day 1 saw a thought provoking discourse by Ar. Rahul Mehrotra, practicing architect Mumbai and Professor of Urban Planning, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.

Session 1 on Day 2 saw presentations by Ar. Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect, urban planner, educator and cofounder of Urban-Think-Tank; Ar. Neelkanth Chhaya, a leading academician and practicing architect; and Tatjana Schneider, an educator, researcher and writer currently working at the University of Sheffield. The presentations were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ar. Vijay Namapatti, Design Principal of mayaPraxis.

The Natcon 2016This session titled Architectural Practice and the City attempted to address the following questions:

  • Should practices only concern themselves with the buildings they design, or should they also be concerned with the city?
  • How does the city inform or influence practice?
  • How do individual acts of practice shape the city?
  • What ethical responsibilities should an architect take on when practicing within a city?
  • What role can the fraternity of architects play in the development and implementation of public policy on urbanism?

Contending that most of the population growth in the world (2 billion in the next 30 years) will happen in the slums and most of this will be in India and Africa, Architect Alfredo Brillembourg stated, “It is not about providing ideal solutions but about providing the right solutions, the right to housing, infrastructure, safe cities, safe homes.” Questioning who defines the city, he asked, “The new villa cities are knocking out existing spaces and introducing the life of privilege. Who is determining this investment? Social democracy is for whom?”

He called for going vertical, re-purpose the city as it exists, build on existing blocks, plug in new units to existing buildings, giving a whole new fit and meeting requirements. “Build densely, reorganise vertically, provide more public spaces, release land for other uses, social activities. Create new mobility systems, electric vehicles, connect your building to your neighbourhood, bring in public elevators that connect to these buildings. Bring in a one mile radius city where you have everything in it, with an anchor building, the people can slowly build the city out after that.” 

Ruing that buildings designed purely as objects prevail in isolation from their context, Architect Tatjana Schneider said, “tourists visit for architecture, but the designed projects instead of relating to the local scenario, give a global image.” She further added, “It is important to see how buildings sit in context of the city, socially and conceptually, in terms of use, in relation to its surroundings, the flexibility of the spaces designed, meet peoples’ needs, but these quite often do not exist.” Architecture as a process needs to change to equitable development, social justice where it is not confined to the elite but addresses all, she insisted. 

Session 2 titled Rethinking Urban Spaces, was deliberated upon by Dhiru A. Thadani, Neera Adarkar and Franz Ziegler. Moderated by Ar. Kaiwan Mehta, the panel spoke their mind about:

  • Difference between “public space” and “civic space
  • Kind of urban commons needed in order to sustain an inclusive urban culture.
  • Links between infrastructure and public space.
  • Links between gender and public space.

Debating on how public spaces can be designed differently and put to better use, Architect Dhiru A Thadani said, “most of our public spaces are either unused or open and unusable. For public spaces to be safe and usable, the entrance should be easily accessible, the interiors visible, as in a park where the boundaries are fenced and not walled.”

Referring to our streets which are currently brimming with automobiles with no room for pedestrians, Thadani stated, “Streets constantly change in the manner of their use given the multiple uses they are put to, be it festivities, protests or celebrations. Unfortunately 85 per cent of our street spaces are taken over by automobiles. We can reclaim these spaces by resorting to effective public transport which is the trend globally. Time square has removed automobiles. This trend should be addressed instead of building flyovers.” He added, “Mumbai is getting worse because of the dichotomy existing in the city and the wrong design and investment. But a city like Washington is getting better purely because of the right investment.”

Pointing that the gap between sphere of influence and sphere of concerns creates problems, Architect Franz Ziegler advocated the effective use of transit spaces in urban areas. “The new urban transit spaces like the metro can serve as great public spaces. They can be made more vibrant, clean, safe, trendy, exclusive. Likewise underpass spaces can become commercial spaces. Seek coalition, build communities, engage interest groups, monitor transformations and these would offer evidence to provide new solutions to problems in an urban space. We need to have a process of mapping where we can bring together all the interest groups into the discussion.” 

Day 2 ended with Keynote Address by Saskia Sassen, Robert Lynd Professor of Sociology and Member of The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Author of several books and the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, ranging from multiple doctor honons causa to named lectures and being selected for various honors lists, Saskia spoke on 'Who owns the City?' 
Her presentation engaged some of the commonly used markers to identify today's cities and their major transformations. Sasken argued that the familiar terms of gentrification and density are not quite useful in capturing what is happening today in a growing number of cities worldwide. To take just this past year, from mid-2014 to mid 2015, over a trillion US dollars has been invested in buying 'significant' properties in 100 major cities across the world: these numbers include only properties priced at over $5million and exclude investments in urban development/new construction. At the same time the modest middle and working classes - often the majority of urban residents, increasingly cannot afford to live in cities that may have been Rome to many generations. What does this trend tell us about cities in today's global world? 

Session 3 centered around Governance and Social Justice in the Indian City. Moderated by Himanshu Burte, the presenters Pankaj Jain, Kirtee Shah and Sheela Patel presented their thoughts on the questions of:

  • Adequacy of current structures of urban governance
  • Reforms needed
  • Citizen participation in the governance of a city
  • Elitist imagination of the city and how it can be made more inclusive
  • Challenges of urban housing
  • Housing as a fundamental right
  • Role of private sector in urban administration

The Natcon 2016

Architect Kirtee Shah had the following take. “Accept people are trying to solve their problems through opting for slums. Upgrade slums city wise. Provide service. Provide land rights. Change your perception of cities, such as Mumbai being inclusive of all strata of society and not Mumbai as Singapore.” He further added, “Currently we have poverty, migration, informality and lack of jobs. We need close to 220 million jobs in the next 15 years. We are currently looking at dream cities which are not relevant to our context.”
For cities to be globally just, there needs to be a paradigm shift, he averred. “Mind-set has to change where we question the inevitability of urbanisation and recognise urbanisation is a product of our economic policies. Cities are product of the quality of growth and we need to take close look at development. We have to deal with poverty, energy, technology, integrate informality, address sustainability and understand people. Our town planning needs to be bottom up.” 

Resilience in the Indian City was the topic of Session 4 which saw presentations by Harini Nagendra, Arun Jain and Aromar Revi. Sanjay Prakash moderated the discussion to cover questions like:

Should cities be imagined in terms of resilience as buildings are in terms of sustainability?
How can urban resilience be built to vagaries of nature?
Should there be a change in spatial imagination of a city in order to build resilience?
What networks are needed to build for resource planning and management?

Dr. Bimal Patel, Aneerudha Paul, Swati Chattopadhyay participated in Session 5 which was moderated by Bijoy Ramachandran. It dealt with thoughts centered around Designing the Indian City.

So how would you design a city? Is it possible to define the design parameters? How much of the future of the city can be predicted? The economic base, the consumptions levels, the emerging lifestyles, new technologies, trade links, population, how much of these can be accurately predicted to design the city right? “There is certainly uncertainty, yet we have to design”, stated Architect Bimal Patel. “Hong Kong I am sure never predicted a century back how it has evolved today. It is similar with New York and many others. Building a city is uncoordinated, erratic, at times even a wasteful process. Any plans made can go out of date because of the change in the city scape.”

According to him, one unfailing way of addressing this uncertainty is to come up with a grid of streets around which the infrastructure and buildings in the city will evolve in a planned manner. “Not providing this grid of streets when the city is evolving causes the problem as the city expands.” He added, “Poverty is not the only problem. Improper planning in the early stages leads to improper growth later as the city expands.” He cited the Indian city Ahmedabad where “the grid of streets was first developed and the development is now happening in an organised manner.”According to Architect Aneerudha Paul, the way a city is observed, mapped and represented will determine the manner of intervention later. “Mapping the character of settlements, bringing in the narrative into the planning, introducing the homogenous or heterogeneous factors, keying in the incremental features that are an integral part of our fabric, the evolving needs of the family, all of these would need to be brought in while imagining the Indian city”, stated Paul.  

The conference ended with a Session on Unpacking the Smart City and saw Partha Mukhopadhyah, G Sampath and A Srivathsan argue about the criteria for labeling a city smart, what it entails in terms of privacy, justice and equity and how are technology and urbanism connected.

Find the other IIA Natcon 2016 presentations here:

Session 1, Session 2, Session 3, Session 4, Session 5, Session 6

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