India is one of the most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution, according to the World Inequality Report. Our country continuously battles this inequality, yet it is constantly divided into the haves and the have nots. Our cities are perpetually divided between the ones that can afford to live there and avail the resources, and the ones that are forced to live in extremely unlivable conditions. Architecture ends up playing a pertinent role in creating this divide and separation. Architecture inherently becomes something for the ones that can afford it. The practice is all about money.
The profession often caters to only the elite that can bear the cost of creating something. There are no architects for the poor. In a country like ours, where such wealth disparity exists, it is difficult to find infrastructure being created for the poor.
Governments, though with their schemes and policies, mostly disregard the architecture for the poor. It is common to see hastily built shanties, slums, and hutments of temporary shelters around the circumferences of our cities only for the ones that can afford it. Structures like shopping malls, hotels, gated communities, restaurants, high rise apartments, and shops, they all sequester space only to be consumed in private. Our cities get divided into zones, and the movement of a person is determined by their economic status. Architecture creates exclusion and separation. Even paved streets and boulevard avenues end up creating an atmosphere of exclusion.
The poor have no place in our urban centres. Neither with affordability nor with architecture to cater to them. They resort to the architecture of subversion – creating spaces under flyovers, on pavements, between streets, near railway tracks, squeezed into the tiny spaces left for them to occupy.
Where one side of the occupants in a city, live in glass buildings, with access to running water and the luxuries of air conditioning, while the other half lives in tiny spaces, with unsanitary conditions and without access to even basic amenities. The city becomes a group of privately owned or exclusive spaces, that propagate this notion of classism further. Even the middle class is not free from this. In a country with a wealth disparity so large, and resources for all so scarce, aesthetics and design of spaces is often overlooked. It becomes the least of all considerations, with utilitarianism as the foremost factor.
A huge amount of government money is pumped into creating public infrastructure ‘for all’, a prime example being pavements. Yet, there are no pavements, and every year, hundreds of Indians die due to unsafe walking infrastructure.
The slums rehabilitation projects in Mumbai to define this need for good design. While policies are passed to create these projects, very little thought is given to designing them well. The poor are never thought of as real clients, just a mass population that can be herded to use bad design. With poor living conditions and bad ventilation, these houses are just stacked one upon another without any thought to the users.
Our country, on its independence, had grand development plans for our future cities. Paved roads, good housing, public amenities, gardens, and parks; yet these all depended on actually understanding the true use of architecture to lessen the divide within the nation. Architecture and design could be used to create spaces that are inviting for all, instead of concretizing the city into rigid divisions. It has been described and propagated as an elite profession, only for a few, not available to all. Designing for the poor has never been a concern that has been spoken about in-depth. None of the conferences or design exhibitions, ever talk about the people living in the sequestered and cramped spaces of our cities. We as a profession feel content to write and talk about the so-called more ‘intellectual’ issues.
We create architecture fit for the ‘gods.’ Never does anyone question what happens to the workers who create this said architecture. What about their need for design? And the dichotomy does not stop here. Even today, we feel content to create grand plazas, and tree-lined boulevards, monumental architecture, and imposing structures that will supposedly ‘unite’ the public. But these spaces serve only the very few of our nation. Our hypocrisy as a profession has far-reaching consequences. Writing about
Architects either choose to work on the smallest scale, creating fancy and luxurious details of even door handles, or on the largest scale – planning grid lined cities, public parks, entertainment hubs, and public gathering forums. The middle – creating well-designed housing for the ones who need it, public infrastructures like toilets, or schools and hospitals, are all labelled as grand projects waiting to see the light of day until government policy comes into place to start them. Yet, we fail to realise that this is the need of the hour. To use architecture to create the cities free from division, free from disparity, and most of all, to build cities for all.