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Indian Cities: Birth of modernisation or Death of heritage?

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Thinking about the modern urbanscapes of 21st Century India.

Introduction: India and Her Roots

A land of snake charmers and culture; palaces and rulers; Harappan Civilisation and colonial legacies; that is how India is known to most part of the world. A country where art and architecture converge, has certainly been a juxtaposition of various styles relating to the ruling periods. Every architectural style adapted in India was either developed by religion, region, ruler or was a legacy left behind by the colonial rulers. Various architectural styles like Temple, Indo-Saracenic, Mughal, Rajput, Gupta, Buddhist, etc have played a part in making Indian architecture so versatile.

India’s independence in 1947, brought along a massive progression in the industrial and urban sector with Jawaharlal Nehru as our Prime Minister. Having his wisdom and knowledge from the experiences in west, he pioneered in setting the ball rolling for Indian urbanisation. Chandigarh was a pacesetter for new India. The seeds for modernisation were sown. The creative use of concrete, innovative and distinct housing-solutions, and a visually powerful and cohesive style put India on the world map. Chandigarh became something of a Mecca for a new architecture. Competitions of commissioned work sponsored by the Indian Government as a result turned to contemporary Occidental concepts and to what was happening on the European and American continents in particular. Gradually, art was detached from architecture with the latter moving towards more of a scientific side. Since the wave of urbanisation set afoot after Chandigarh, architecture was all about technological advancements and contemporary ideas from the West.

Although India’s fame was due to Chandigarh, Indian subcontinent was a witness to a highly functional urban civilisation since 3000 BCE. Tracing back to the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation, archaeology has unearthed one of the finest and earliest examples of urbanisation. The cities of this civilisation have shown an exceptional urban planning, with grid layout of the city, fortification, drainage system, orthogonal street patterns, structures parallel to the streets, water reservoirs, storage complexes, etc. Urbanisation as a discourse was not totally colonial for India after all. Yet in the dissemination of urbanisation, Chandigarh stood pivotal, establishing the success of Western ideologies.

Cities have always been viewed as sites of progress-places that revealed and signified the development of human civilisation, its scientific advancements and social and cultural transformations. The transition of cities from prehistoric civilisation to the vernacular villages, to the modern urbanscapes, might be seamless but a few attributes went missing in the process. Although the advancement in construction technologies, material usage, aesthetics, and planning ideals have had a major leap, they have also raised an important question of rethinking about the modern urbanscapes of the 21st century India.

If 21st century is all about modernisation and reaching new peaks in the urban sector, then why suddenly take a step back and rethink?

Need v/s Greed

“While there is indeed much to celebrate about contemporary architecture and urban planning in India, it however overlooks the significance of its failures, such as the stubborn persistence of the degraded quality of the contemporary built environment. These failures are the legacy of the colonial origin of the professions, which has created conundrums, or conceptual dilemmas, that its legatees have not resolved.”

With independence, came the ideals of Western design principles in the name of ‘Modernism’. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, known as the architect of modern India, saw in the collapse of the European imperialism, a new opportunity to master the noble traditions of ancient India and modern Europe and lead the world. He brought Le Corbusier aboard for designing the city of Chandigarh. His vision for the newly established democracy was to reinforce every infrastructure within the country, and to pin India on the global map. He saw the ‘need’ for bringing foreign help in developing a capital for new India.

Along with Chandigarh’s success, came an agenda of quantifying urban developments and transforming Indian towns to a modern package of social, cultural and political infrastructures. Architecture and planning started to drift away from people towards modernism and technologies. Smart cities and sustainable urban developments were the new candies for the government of India. Architects and urban planners continued to follow colonial prescriptions to solve the present-day habitat problems. The prescriptions which are void of contextual answers, occupants’ perceptions and the acceptance of modernity in a traditional culture.

Today India has reached a point where modern urbanscapes are more of a political power struggle; in simpler terms-greed. The emergence of advanced designing and construction techniques have made it to the top in the agenda of modernising Indian cities.

Let us understand how ‘need for modernisation’ changed to ‘greed for modernisation’ by discussing the demolition event of Hall of Nations.

Why was Raj Rewal’s iconic Hall of Nations brought to ground?

Hall of Nations was a heritage site and Delhi was nominated to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Cities in May 2015. Just before its approval was to be considered, the government panicked, because it thought that the heritage tag would restrict their political agenda to “modernise” the city. The archetypal edifice was demolished only to be replaced by a world-class convention-cum-exhibition centre.

If this does not explain the greed for modernisation, then I do not know what will! We have been so adamantly blind in moving towards a new kind of society, that our ignorance to the already existing society sees no bounds.

Where will the political power struggle lead the modern urbanscape of 21st century India, if the focus does not shift from mimicking the prescribed to designing new prescriptions? This demonstrates a dire need to reassess the direction in which India’s urbanisation is headed. The fast paced acceptance of contemporary and modern principles have forced us in thinking about negotiating between ‘need and greed’. If the current pedagogy continues to prevail with the sole intention of replacing heritage with modernity, then the upcoming generation will never experience ‘nostalgia’ of built environment.

Thinking Beyond Quantification

Cities are the portals between the historic evidences and the future adaptations. We will find old traditions still residing in some pockets of the city and simultaneous emergence of modern principles. If we look back from the time of Indus Valley Civilisation, to the present-day heritage city of Ahmedabad, we have seen that the cities have always been acting as catalyst in the progress of its people and the country.

The notion of modernity rests on the idea of rupture—of rupturing the past from the present, myth from history, emotion from reason, ritual from rationality, East from West, tradition from modernity and cities from rural settlements. Surviving the independence, infrastructure of the country was politically driven, leading towards the rupture of our ‘desi’ or ‘native’ ideologies to ‘modern’ or ‘revolutionary’ nuances. We started adapting to the Western principles in fields like education, architecture, urban development, construction technologies, constitutional infrastructure, culture so on and so forth. The major shift happened in the mindsets of the people. The focus was on quantifying commodities rather than qualifying them.

In the modern city discourse, meaningful human encounters are certainly essential. Apart from all the tangibles, a city functions because of its people. In catering to modernity, if the human value is absent, then the efficiency and productivity of a city is compromised. A group of individuals bring social and cultural infrastructures within the urbanscape. We need to ensure that natives are taken into account in designing and implementation of systems that will influence the way cities operate.

Along with human value, another important aspect is the history of the rupturing settlement. If we can integrate the culture of the community and the historic background of the place, we will be able to deliver a modern urbanscape which will cater to the sensitivity of the people residing in it. It is essential to integrate technological developments to a city’s infrastructure, but we should not misinterpret those technologies to influence people over their historic culture.

We seldom think about how people negotiate with the notions of modernity and city as a modern space. It becomes necessary to understand the shift in their consciousness, with respect to spatial, cultural, historical and political developments.

Negotiating City Through History

Today, the co-existence of modernity and tradition have been in question. Modern principles within an urban development have outweighed the preservation of people, traditions, culture, heritage and history. The new Indian urban landscape is being designed around grand concepts such as smart-cities and export-oriented industrial corridors.

When discussing about sustainable cities, India has made a secured voice amongst the global discourse of self-sufficient urbanisation. Amravati, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh, has been given to the world famous architectural firm, Foster+Partners, for developing it into India’s first totally sustainable and self-sufficient city. The planning of the people’s capital is based on concepts of smart city, IT City, green architecture, etc. An international competition to design the capital city was organised and UK based Foster+Partners became the winning team. Their master plan includes a central park inspired green spine, with canals which carry water from Krishna River, solar panels on roof, water taxis, shaded streets to encourage pedestrian movements, etc. The urban planning of Amravati is said to be futuristic as it is estimated to be completed by 2025.

Sadly, there are no free lunches! The modern landscape and contemporary characteristics of Amravati will be bestowed to us at the cost of farmers losings their lands, destroyed river flood plains and ruptured natural ecosystems. The giant footprint of the city, will tear down the ecological balance and precious natural environmental resources.

Now instead of an ecologically unstable masterplan of an urban settlement, can we think about the city in terms of its residents? The greed for political supremacy has soared high with an ultimate goal of bringing foreign investors to our soil. Urbanisation of Amravati was set to fulfil this goal, but due to the on-going agitation of the farmers, the dream for Naidu-led government seems bleak.

Amongst all the power struggle, the true Amravati has become hazy for the architects and urban planners of our country. The ideas of modernisation have been so deeply rooted in our minds that we become selfishly ignorant towards the existing reality. Amravati was one of the most important Buddhist sites of south-east India. Yet, there is not a single point of convergence between the heritage and the modern concepts, except, “The high court complex with its stepped roof form inspired by India’s ancient stupas.”

How far is it acceptable to allow the Westerners to disrupt our heritage, display it in their museums and we (Indians) have to buy tickets to experience which is already ours? The remains of the famous Amravati shrine and the stupa have been displayed in the British Museum with a panel which reads “Importance of Amravati and its Sculptures”. If it was so important to be understood, then why not disseminate its value to the country in which it belongs? Or, if the British have really understood the importance of our heritage then why is there a lack of heritage integration within the modernist approach, when they are chosen to design Amravati?

Modernisation in India has always meant demolition of heritage and imbibing the European derived conjectures. Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, “Urbanisation in India is a slow but sure death for her villages and villagers”, and it makes so much sense today when we see farmers being bullied by the government in selling their prime source of income-their lands, only to have a state capital which can accommodate contemporary concepts and architecture to add glitter to our infrastructure.

Merely following pre-derived theories might not be the correct approach for India. We need to define ‘modernisation’ using our own vocabulary. We once had a highly functioning urban civilisation void of Western influences, which makes a point that we might just be dependent on the foreign design policies without actually looking for insights from our own historic data.

Architecture should never be reviewed esoteric, especially when one thinks of its attributes. All the tangibles like planning, construction technologies, materials, aesthetics are key features but the present day cityscapes urge for the integration of the intangibles like temporality, human presence and tradition within the designing policies. Contemporary principles have their own unique contributions within the rise of Indian urbanscapes, but it is time to quote a new definition of modernism with the incorporation of our rich human value and our inherited resources.

The utmost necessary aspect for a country like India is to ‘unlearn’ the pre-dictated terms of urban culture. It is not the time to ‘rethink’ the modern urbanscapes but, ‘think’ from a new stance. Rethinking will only reshape the already existing paragons, but the true necessity lies in designing a new model which seamlessly binds the people and heritage within the modernist definition, bridging the gap between mankind and architecture. If modernisation in a country comes at the cost of its people and the cultural heritage, then it’s about time we show some compassion in our design processes and policies.

“Although the contemporary principles have their idiosyncratic positives but the conundrums about our heritage that they bring along are screaming for attention.”

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