An aspiring 18-year-old architect before entering into the academic space of architecture dreams of eventually contributing to the changing skyline of cities. One comes with the perception of learning technical skills to be able to build, to put it simply. It is only after spending a considerable amount of time in the education system that one starts to even comprehend the complexities and layers attached to the discipline.
Overwhelmed by the issues and with hardly any aptitude to derive solutions, one begins to question, “Why is the situation so bad in the first place and why has nobody done anything about it?” It is at this key junction that the architect realizes a sense of purpose in the profession.
The Need to Perceive Architecture Holistically
It is essential to understand architecture as an interdisciplinary and collaborative process. Architecture is inclusive of allied and applied aspects of humanities, aesthetics, built environment techniques and skills, technology and engineering sciences and allied management systems. While utilizing relevant information and knowledge from these disciplines, it goes beyond them to be a unique and holistic discipline of architecture. (Council of Architecture, New Delhi, 2005)
The architect also needs to understand the complex relationship that people share with their built environment. It is through this lens that the architect starts to perceive built spaces very differently.
For example, the glamorous luxury apartment buildings I was once in awe of and believed to be the “modern way of living” has delayered itself to be hi-tech gated enclaves for the ‘rich’ with aggressive policing and personal surveillance mechanisms. The analytical skills gained through engaging in allied courses allow one to look beyond the ‘aesthetic appeal’ of built spaces. A radical change in outlook is thus required towards the profession of architecture. The architect is no longer a mere designer but a ‘changemaker’ in shaping the urban realm of our society.
Experience of ‘Public’ = Experience of a City
Today, when the economic and social division in our country is at its peak, it is critical to look at its implications on the built environment. It is evident that many public spaces are being privatized in the interest of real estate development. Even the ones that are not privatized, it is highly questionable as to how ‘public’ they really are. In the current times of gated communities, segregated suburbs, surveillance-controlled malls, open recreational spaces enhance the experience of lived reality. (Mahadevia, D., 2001)
Cities like Mumbai are left with very few public spaces like the Azad Maidan that allow physical expression of democracy and participation. Leaving aside big spaces, neighbourhood parks, wide sidewalks, and community spaces add value to the lifestyle of society. However, we often see such neighbourhood parks in Indian cities are gated, with heavy surveillance and security mechanisms that allow for discrimination against marginalized groups.
Even the sidewalks are most often encroached for parking private vehicles or under-maintained for use. It is the responsibility of the architect to collaborate with administrators to design public spaces and devise innovative strategies to ensure equitable access to everyone.
Binary of the Slum and High-rise
Furthermore, one can see the dichotomy in the urban typology of the high-rise and slums in urban India. While the rich are stacking up their mansions to reach greater heights to fulfill their dreams of living way above the filth of the urban sprawl, the urban poor are living in matchbox dwelling units with four walls and a roof spread out across the city. The height of the high-rise has become synonymous with the economic status of the resident. The high-rise building has become a misleading symbol of modernization, and an answer to the issues concerning the dense, organically developed low-rise slum settlements. This perspective vaguely categorizes all other urban forms of living as ‘slums’, including chawls and state-built housing that do not strictly fall under the ambit of high-rise buildings. (SrivastavaEchanove, 2012)
With the dreams of making our megacities into ‘world-class cities’, many slum upgradation and redevelopment projects are being carried out in the cities giving an undue advantage to the real estate industry. However, it is important to understand that the high rise is not always the solution to the needs of a highly populated and dense settlement.
For example, Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, which used to be an unused marshy land has grown incrementally by marginalized groups over decades to become a diverse, dense settlement with residential, industrial, trading, and community spaces. It would be preposterous to replace this thriving economy with high-rise redeveloped towers that would disconnect the inhabitants from their means of subsistence, which is highly dependent on access to the street and social networking in the context of India.
The Neglected State of Public Transport
With the conception of World Class cities also comes the idea of grand highways and bridges. This has caused a shift in city planning, which allows facilitating private transport and systematic neglect and degradation of public transport. Massive expenditure is incurred on building new metro and car-based infrastructure while negligible on improving existing modes of public infrastructures such as rails and buses. This system does not only use State funds to build for the elite class of the urban areas but is also an unsustainable practice that has manifold repercussions on our environment.
To put it in perspective, the 10km coastal road being built along the western coastline of Mumbai, which will cost 14000 crores (the most expensive freeway to be ever built in the country) will serve only 0.54% of daily commuters while causing irreversible damage to our ecosystem, increase chances of sea-level rising and flooding. (Indorewala, H. and Wagh, S., 2020)
In tough times such as now, when we are facing major environmental, social and economic conflicts, architects need to take a stand and sculpt their environments to improve the lives of society.
 – Quoted from the unpublished report of The Board for Development of Post Graduate/Advanced Studies/Research in Architecture and Allied Fields of Studies, The Council of Architecture, New Delhi: 2005
 – Mahadevia, D., 2001. Public Spaces make Cities. [Blog] Down to Earth, Available at: <https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/public-spaces-make-cities-44492/
 – Indorewala, H. and Wagh, S., 2020. Mumbai’s Coastal Road: Making land in a drowning city. Scroll.in, [online] Available at: <https://scroll.in/article/971791/mumbais-coastal-road-making-land-in-a-drowning-city> [Accessed 25 April 2021].