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Question of urban identity

Aug 26, 2012 :

Rapid urbanisation is altering the physical and cultural milieus of our cities, making it seem as if the past, the present and a somewhat dystopian future are all colliding, snuffing out breathing space. Are our cities facing an identity crisis, wonders Meera Iyer.

In 1943, a stirring debate took place among British Members of Parliament on the question of rebuilding the Chamber of the House of Commons which had been destroyed by German air raids two years earlier.

Winston Churchill argued eloquently in favour of retaining the oblong shape and rather small size of the building.

These, he said, promoted two-party democracy by, among other things, fostering ‘conversational’ debate among members with ‘quick, informal interruptions and interchanges’, rather than ‘harangues from a rostrum.’

The small size, he reasoned, ensured that debates did not take place in the depressing atmosphere of a half-empty house, and was also filled with a sense of urgency when filled beyond capacity.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us,” he famously observed.
Churchill’s perceptive statement on the power of architecture to shape people holds equally true of cities.

The contours and form of a city depend on its environment and its past history. “The trail left by civilisation as it moves through history,” as the eminent architect and urban planner Charles Correa put it — the history of people and place recorded in brick, stone and mortar; in songs, dance and arts — are what vest the city with an identity.

Urban identity then is not only an expression of a time, but also a function of buildings, culture, communities, available resources, parks and memories. This multi-layered, constantly-changing beast also shapes how we feel about our cities, and how we see ourselves individually and collectively in our cities.

The world has been urbanising for many centuries, but it is only since 2007 that more people live in cities than in rural areas. In India as a whole, we are still more rural than urban, but that is changing.

At the turn of the last century, almost 90 per cent of India lived in its villages. Today, that number is closer to 70 per cent. It is expected to further drop to 50 per cent in less than 50 years. To put it another way, by 2050, there will be more than 800 million Indians living in cities.

This rapid urbanisation is altering the physical and cultural milieus of our cities. The frenetic building of new layouts, houses, offices and commercial establishments is usually accompanied by the dismantling of old houses, shops and offices, and the destruction of lakes, pastures and farms.

Where heritage structures are not demolished, they are often boxed in and literally overshadowed by new buildings. In India’s cities, it seems as if the past, the present and a somewhat dystopian future are all colliding, snuffing out breathing space.

The obliteration of the trajectory our settlements have taken through history means that some of our cities have already lost or are in danger of losing their distinctive buildings and spaces. How has this erasure of built, cultural and natural heritage affected urban identities in India?

The concept of urban identity is a strongly debated one — every architect, urban planner, anthropologist, sociologist, policy maker and scholar has her definition and there is little consistency across fields.

For a layperson like me, it means the unique character that almost every city seems to have, its ‘vibe’, ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ — the brash energy of Mumbai or New York, or the historicity that Delhi exudes, for example. Urban theorists tell us that it derives from how we react to the physical city itself and to our social interactions in it.

The city’s built form — its buildings, layout, streets, gardens, parks — as well as the culture we experience in it — our everyday interactions in its streets, shops, theatres and temples, for example, all contribute to the image we build up of the city.

One of the earliest Indian architects to tackle the issues of identity and urban planning was Charles Correa. In an influential essay on the question of identity that he wrote in the early 1980s, Correa says that identity is not a ‘found object’ but a process. We develop our identity by reacting to our problems and our circumstances.

Correa believes that one of the fundamental determinants of this process is climate. Climate also determines culture, which in turn influences the form that buildings take, as well as the spaces between them. Our vernacular architecture has responded to our hot summers with, for example, courtyards and open-to-sky spaces.

Think of Fatehpur Sikri, Mandu, Tipu Sultan’s palaces in Srirangapatna and† Bangalore, or the delightful Padmanabhapuram Palace near Thiruvananthapuram, for example, and what comes to mind are the airy, open spaces in all of them. Monumental architecture aside, most of our traditional houses also incorporated courtyards to let in light and keep the house ventilated.

Effects of globalisation

But while climate determines the form of the buildings itself, traditionally, the layout of a settlement or town was often dictated by religion, economy, caste or other factors.

Today, all these factors are getting overridden by another: globalisation. With greater movement of people across borders and greater integration of economies, more and more people aspire to the signs and symbols of a global economy.

As developers and governments vie with each other to recreate a Singapore or Shanghai in our midst, local distinctiveness falls by the wayside. Malls, villas and glass balconies have replaced neighbourhood markets, traditional bungalows and jagalis (raised platform seating).

Highrises encased in glass are mushrooming everywhere. Delhi-based architect AGK Menon, who is also an urban planner, educator and author of an Indian ‘Charter for Conservation’, exclaims exasperatedly, “Why is it that glass towers define modernity?

Modernity equals glass?

Our vision has become so restricted that modernity equals glass.” But, does this mean that we must only look back to the past for inspiration, for cementing our urban identity? Correa’s buildings show that the answer to that is a vehement ‘No’! Take, for example, the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, an arts and crafts centre built in 1991.

Its layout was inspired by the layout of Jaipur itself, which was also planned on a grid of nine cells. In the city, one cell was displaced by a hillock. In the Jawahar Kala Kendra, the central cell accommodates a vast courtyard. Though the centre has several elements drawn from the traditional architecture of Jaipur and from the Jantar Mantar, it is essentially a modern building, a product of contemporary Indian architecture.

There are plenty of examples by other Indian architects including Sanjay Mohe, Naresh Narasimhan and Raj Rewal, to name just a few, who have applied some cardinal principles of architecture to designs that are sensitive to the local environment, resources and needs of people. Using skylights, courtyards and other open-to-sky spaces, and using locally available materials, they have created architecture which is modern, global, edgy, yet thoroughly Indian, and definitely not a glass tower!

Paradoxically, a flipside of globalisation, at least in many European countries, is that it has also led to a reaffirmation of the local. This is not restricted to a strong attachment to the place you were born in.

Researchers have found that when people move away for jobs and opportunities, there is also a strong sense of identification and attachment formed to the place they move to. The more people go global, the more they anchor themselves to the local, even if they have only just moved there. One of the markers they most strongly identify with — local character and heritage.

This renewed and increased interest in the local, however, does not seem to operate in India. Some quip that it may be a case of too much — we have inherited such a vast amount of diverse cultural and built heritage that, talk of ‘our glorious past’ notwithstanding, we do not really value it or even want it! As Correa puts it in his 1983 essay, ‘A Place in the Sun’, “Societies like India, who live with the past all around, who accept it in their everyday lives as easily and casually as a woman drapes her saree — these are the societies most impatient to invent the future.”

Heritage conservation

All our cities have lost innumerable heritage structures to the bulldozer and heritage is not on anyone’s priority list. “In a poor country like India, no one has money for heritage conservation,” agrees AGK Menon. But he adds, “That is why we need to use heritage conservation as a tool for development.”

Menon makes a useful distinction between conservation and preservation of heritage structures, a distinction similar to one defined in the realm of natural resources. Heritage preservation is the tendency to freeze everything in time. In a country that feels it on the cusp of something big, all talk of preserving heritage is seen as regressive and anti-modern. According to Menon, we should instead call for heritage conservation, which would allow heritage buildings to continue being part of the fabric of life.

Cities around the world are indeed trying to conserve heritage and using it as an urban renewal tool. The impetus for this is the looming threat of climate change. As urbanisation proceeds apace, cities everywhere are having to rethink their form and function, and their impact on the environment, especially on climate change.

The statistics are sobering: worldwide, cities occupy only two per cent of the world’s landmass but account for about 70 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to the amount of energy they consume.

Approximately 25 per cent of greenhouse gases are emitted because of energy used in heating or cooling buildings. Another big chunk goes towards transportaion. Indian cities are not yet as high as their western counterparts in terms of energy consumed, but even here, more than a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions are because of residential use of energy, followed by about a quarter due to transport.

Interestingly, in their search for ways to make cities more sustainable, urban planners are now taking a fresh look at heritage precincts.

As Menon says, in India, cities have so far dealt with their old quarters “by either neglecting them or obliterating them.” Old areas in most cities have become overcrowded and have very few amenities and almost no open spaces, thanks to minimal investment in infrastructure.

Often, their character is totally destroyed by putting them to inappropriate uses such as for parking, bus stands, or storage. But these very derelict, shunned spaces are emerging as worthy of conservation after all, not merely from sentimental or antiquarian interests, not merely for bolstering urban identity, but for economic and eco-friendly reasons as well.

For a start, since the buildings are adapted to the local environment, a direct benefit is that they require less expenditure on energy to keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The new direction in urban planning now also points away from spacious new developments and points instead towards compact, dense layouts… much† like our old city quarters which usually have a compact, mixed-use form, with high density housing integrated with commercial activity.

The more dense an urban area, the lower its energy consumption. For example, Japan’s cities are about five times as dense as Canada’s but consume less than half as much electricity. Compact cities where activities overlap can also reduce the use of cars, which in turn reduces energy used for transportation, encourages cycling and walking rather than driving, and improves air quality.

Heritage areas are also excellent examples of sustainable building traditions and crafts. Most were built using local techniques and with locally available materials

that contain less embodied energy (mud, stone or brick in place of cement for example) than concrete or steel. Most of them also have or had a strong component of streetside activities.

Vernacular houses in some of the older parts of Bangalore still have jagalis near the front door which were once used for leisure and informal commercial activities. Most old parts of cities also have narrow, intimate streets that preclude motorised transport. Scholars have found that such informal street activities are crucial factors for urban vibrancy, and also instil a sense of community, belonging and identity in citizens.

Old markets


Chandni Chowk in Delhi, where a market has existed for almost 400 years, or the Avenue Road area in Bangalore, which has been a commercial hub since the city was founded in 1537, are both examples of such old, compact, high density urban areas. Both have severe problems with crowding, lack of green areas and abysmal civic amenities. But both hold immense potential for renewal and an alternative strategy for urban form and growth.

What is lacking is some political will and imagination. If we are to revitalise our city centres, to retain our unique urban identities, to not reduce them to characterless, soulless imitations of cities elsewhere, we need to look beyond dichotomies like tradition and modernity, technology and heritage.

Instead, we must find creative ways to marry the two. AGK Menon exhorts architects and planners to look at “traditional cities as models for the future, and not to merely protect something that existed in the past,” to look at “heritage conservation as a catalyst for the future, not for fossilising the past.”

The poet and playwright T S Eliot, while writing on talent and tradition, wrote that if tradition was just the mindless imitation of successes of the previous generations, it must be discouraged. But a historical sense that involved “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence,” a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, such a historical sense would make a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity. Much the same could be said of architecture and urban planning today.


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