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New York, USA - The empowering spirit of jugaad as antidote to hubris

The improvising spirit of Indian jugaad urbanism comes to New York

It’s been more than a century since the great Chicago architect and urbanist Daniel Burnham advised, ‘make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ Today, big plans of the architectural sort have a way of stirring the blood, but for reasons contrary to Burnham’s intention: how often do we hear objections to hubristic modern projects that are too big, too expensive, too inhumane, too paternalistic and too impractical? In our postcolonial age, architecture’s utopian impulse has been humbled by a guilty conscience and a heady dose of pragmatism.

This new modesty was the undisguised theme of Small Scale, Big Change, the bellwether Museum of Modern Art’s recent international survey of socially engaged design (AR November 2010), and it is likewise the subject of Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities, which opened last month at New York’s Center for Architecture. If the premise of the two shows is similar, the projects of ‘Jugaad Urbanism,’ ably curated by Kanu Agrawal, are at once less glamorous and more geographically focused.

They are also more varied in scale, ranging as they do from a small stove to a community centre, a solar-electric rickshaw to a plan for bus rapid transit in a city of millions.

It is a sensibility of creative resourcefulness, or jugaad, that brings these diverse projects together. Although there is no precise English translation of the Hindi term, ‘make do’ or ‘improvised’ come close. Even the exhibition itself, divided into four sections - land, water, energy and transportation -and wedged into a pair of small galleries on separate floors, has a jugaad quality to it.

Some of the projects that are on display are as inspiring, in their own way, as any of Daniel Burnham’s grand visions. A composting toilet, for instance, which can be inexpensively fabricated from locally found materials, could give essential dignity to the two-thirds of the Indian population that still defecates in public.

At the same time, using such a composting toilet would prevent the kind of groundwater contamination that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The toilet is a project of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, and many are already in use.

Or take the Envirofit Biomass Stove, an efficient cooking unit that dramatically cuts down on the deadly toxic emissions that emanate from the biomass stoves that populate the developing world.

More likely to be found on a design magazine cover is Jugaad New Delhi, a photogenic canopy created from 945 discarded tin cooking oil containers. The arching form was devised by Sanjeev Shankar as a shaded public space for the community of Rajokri, and built with their collaboration - they scavenged the tin cans, and painted them in deep fuschia (AR March 2009).

There is a clear suggestion that the lessons of the show apply beyond the subcontinent, that you should leave it feeling emboldened to confront your own world with a new, jugaad attitude. It is an empowering idea, and I will admit that I walked away heartened, but also a bit wistful for the past. A composting toilet may be a good thing, but it’s not Chicago.

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