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Outrage: ‘India's urban explosion has only given rise to mediocre buildings’

The Brahman Blue City

To accommodate future growth, the government of India needs to wake up and provide the desperately needed infrastructure

Driving through India two decades ago, you could easily recognise a city by its architectural character. The predominant use of blue lime plaster characterised the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Then the blue houses would slowly disappear and yellow buildings would herald your arrival in Jaisalmer, a city known for its yellow limestone. A hundred kilometres in another direction, hues of pink made Jaipur clearly discernible on approach. While 200 kilometres away a mix of beige and red sandstone buildings with wide roads and natural parks marked your entry to Delhi, India’s capital city. But over the last two decades, the characterisation and individual identity of each Indian city has been diluted enormously and you can no longer recognise any Indian city by its architectural character.

The unprecedented urban explosion across India has seen more built within the last 20 years than in the previous six decades. You might think such growth would bring with it a lot of exemplary architecture. Unfortunately it has only given rise to mediocre buildings, with most local developers and architects following global cues and creating all-glass buildings that are neither contextual nor energy efficient for India. The same typology of glass and aluminium now proliferates in each Indian city, resulting in a loss of that identity that was once particular to each place.

‘Over the last two decades, the characterisation and individual identity of each Indian city has been diluted enormously and you can no longer recognise any Indian city by its architectural character’

The government has not created sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with such unprecedented growth, so there is traffic congestion, insufficient open space, lack of public housing and utilities and poor living conditions for the majority. More than half (54 per cent) of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. The government has created negligible public housing and the current shortfall is more than 20 million houses in India. In addition, almost no large public building, museum, convention centre or library has been constructed in India in over two decades by the government.

To put growth into a discernible and tangible context, you only have to compare the population of the urban area of any city two decades ago with what it is now. Mumbai, India’s most populated city and financial centre, grew from an urban area of 111,004 acres in 1995 to an area of 149,177 acres in 2015 and its population grew from 9.9 million to 13.8 million in the same period. Smaller cities grew even more. In the past 20 years, the city of Pune grew from an urban area of 36,198 acres in 1995 to 111,355 in 2015 and its population grew from 1.6 million to 2.6 million during the same period.

Considering that approximately 95 per cent of what has and is being built is by private developers, you would think that the government would ease building permissions and regulations to allow private developers to create more housing to reduce the large deficit in housing. Instead, while the government authorities don’t sufficiently expand the required infrastructure, or create public buildings or public housing, they also make it extremely difficult for private developers to do so. The government is constantly changing the rules, making it more and more difficult to obtain building permission and creating rules detrimental to good design. For example, a new rule formulated for Mumbai limits cantilevers to only 2 metres. So if you design a sea-facing apartment and want a large balcony for each apartment, it’s not allowed. If you want to create a building with open-to-sky terraces facing the ocean, the local authorities insist that the surface area of the terraces – unlike anywhere else in India – forms part of the total surface area of the project.

‘A large number of international architects have ventured into India and are designing buildings in the same manner as they would in other parts of the world’

While Indian cities have seen an urban explosion of a magnitude beyond most other countries, this is negligible compared with what India will witness in the next 20 years. At a conservative estimate, the extent of what has been built in the last two decades will be tripled in the next two decades. Will the forthcoming millions of square feet of new construction in India be architecture – or merely large volumes of constructed space with no contextual or sustainable design solutions?

A few Indian architects are making concerted efforts to create meaningful architecture. The number of these projects is very small and needs to increase substantially to build an architectural ethos contextual to the country and its climate in a sustainable way. The path towards this is an extremely difficult one, with obstacles put in the way by the planning authorities on the one hand and the commercial mindset of most Indian developers on the other.

India is a large country with many different regions, each of distinct character, and different traditions in everything from architectural styles to clothing and food. Architectural projects envisaged in each location need to be designed in the context of the tradition, climate and heritage of that region or be contemporary while imbibing the traditional aspects of design related to the region.

Recently a large number of international architects have ventured into India and are designing buildings in the same manner as they would in other parts of the world. This is further weakening traditional Indian architecture, and cities have already begun to look like Dubai or Shenzhen with a mix of all types of buildings inapt for the Indian climate or the traditional identity of the location. Current new projects in Mumbai alone are in excess of 200 million square feet, with more than 100 buildings higher than 60 storeys being built right now. An important aspect of this urbanisation is that the negligible open spaces in Indian cities are disappearing over time and the limited number of parks and gardens cannot facilitate the ever-increasing population.

‘A few Indian architects are making concerted efforts to create meaningful architecture’

What impact will this new construction have on the city’s crumbling infrastructure? Some 400 new cars hit the roads daily in Mumbai, roads that have seen few improvements in the last four decades. The ratios of growth of buildings and vehicles are similar in other cities in India. There is an urgent need for the government to act fast and increase the public transport systems, and roads, build new airports and large public-housing schemes, create parks and improve the rules and regulations that govern buildings, facilitating easier approvals and better rules for more effective and creative planning.

India will be among the fastest growing countries of the world in coming years and the Indian government needs to recognise this with an active plan to facilitate growth instead of the current lackadaisical attitude. At the same time, private developers need to focus on sustainable and contextual design instead of only being interested in the commercial aspects of real estate, and architects in India have to create coherent holistic design solutions to propagate an Indian ethos in the new architecture that will emerge.

Lead Image: 

The Brahman Blue City, Brahmpuri area of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Northern India. Photograph by Tim Graham / Alamy