Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Open Spaces" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Journalists often mistake me as a soothsayer, when I am a mere architect! They ask me what Pune, or some other city, will be like in ten or twenty years. I have no answer except to lament that, “If you choose the ten things you like best in the city, they will not be there in ten years!” The wide sidewalks are being thrown out to make parking spaces, the foundations get in the way of traffic and the hill slopes are up for grabs

While the urban population of India is swelling, the open space accessible to people is shrinking. In 1968, when I first came to India, there were a mere ten cities that could boast a population of a million or more. Today there are fifty-five and each of them are four times the size they were four decades ago!.

Unlike the West, a great deal of India’s social life and recreation takes place out-of-doors! We are a nation of street side stalls; hang out places and informal encounters. This is what makes India a vibrant social environment and what dulls the senses in the West. I use the word conviviality to characterize this very positive quality of Indian urban fabric. Conviviality depends on the existence of accessible public domains; places where there is unrestricted access, where there is a minimum comfort level in terms of safety, cleanliness and room for gathering. Our personal standards are not high, a pan shop will do! But we must have our places to gather, chat and meet strangers. Conviviality is India’s ancient answer to cold hearted, pay-as-you-go, canned entertainment. It is encounters with old friends and serendipity brushes with strangers that make the Indian street socially dynamic and emotionally exciting.

Like water and air, open spaces were once believed to be free! But more and more open spaces are shrinking and being privatized. The quality of a “public domain” is being robbed from us as we ape the west in building privately owned malls and amusement parks. This forces more and more people onto the roads, as even footpaths are being curtailed to provide movement channels for more vehicles and places for them to park. Like water and air, open spaces have become commodities to be packaged, conditioned and sold to those who can afford them. Air conditioning, bottled water and pay-to-enter public domains are animals of the past decade. They were largely unknown in one’s recent memory.

Given the reality of rapidly expanding population, rising land values, densification of cities and the resulting enclosing and packaging of everything, there is a new role for designers to enter the fray and to design “public domains.” I would like to note that while the transformation of open spaces into private domains is rampant, there are excellent examples in the Sub-continent where designers and public authorities have reversed this process, often using traditional Indian precedents as a basis to move forward. Let me cite a few good examples:

Weekly street markets have always been places of gathering, meeting and bargaining. The Delhi Haat is an example where an abandoned sewerage drain was filled over and reincarnated into a vibrant public domain. In his design Pradeep Sachadev integrated modern hygiene and space standards with footpath vending, window shopping, browsing, traditional fast foods, and places to just hang out. “Meet you at Delhi Haat,” is the common response in Delhi to where shall we get together! In the planning of New Delhi, numerous pocket parks, green areas around ancient monuments and formal gardens were planned. Nehru Park, Lodi Gardens, the Raj Path and Central Park are but a few to name. Walking in Connaught Place has been a must for every visitor since the day it opened. These designed open spaces have given back to the city what formal planning took away. The lessons for India lie in our own traditions and recent history. Marine Drive is another example of a vibrant open space to which all can flock, regardless of one’s income or social status!

In Ahmedabad where the population has grown four fold in as many decades play fields, un-built plots, road set-backs and a number of informal no man’s lands were places for meeting and recreation. They have largely been walled in! Gated housing societies and exclusive malls have isolated the well to do from the average citizen. But here the Municipal corporation has taken creative action to refurbish old gardens and parks, fill in stagnant drains and transform them into convivial public domains and most exciting of all, is the grand Sabramati River Front Development Project designed by the Architect Bimal Patel, gifting to the people of that great city an amazing series of recreational options. In a similar manner the ancient Mogul tank, Kankaria Lake is being totally reinvented by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation as a people’s pleasure zone, with a refurbished zoo, water sports, promenades, gardens and a new indoor, air-conditioned stadium where thousands of citizens can witness spectacles, sporting and cultural events. The city of Hyderabad offers many lessons for the future in the manner that Hussain Sagar has been transformed into a wonderful open space for all walks of life to gather and relax in the evenings. Other examples are the revitalization by Landscape Designer Ravi Bhan of the Ayodya river front and the historic structures which interface with the water body.

Side by side function specific public areas are slowly transforming. The new domestic airport in Mumbai, designed by Hafez Contractor, establishes new standards of public convenience and functionality. So also, the new metro stations in New Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai are trend setting in their comfort levels and modernity. The Millennium Park in Kolkata created by the Metropolitan Development Authority, offers a cool riverside garden, with piped music emanating from greenery and soft lighting. In our new capital plan for Thimphu, the Wang Chhu River and its finger tributary streams are the structure over which an open space system has been created. The green blanket of forest which dips down from the mountains is demarcated by a cycle-foot path several hundred feet over the city, dotted with grottos, archery ranges, picnic spots and view points.

In all of the above examples it is the public agencies which have played an essential role in generating positive change. We need to highlight these new starts and positive initiatives so that governments know that quality open spaces for the masses are achievable. In all of the cases I have noted, well known designers have played a critical role. Government has used its own strengths and those of private consultants and developers to create things of lasting beauty for their people.

Professor Benninger studied Urban Planning at MIT and Architecture at Harvard University where he later was a professor of design. As a Ford Foundation Expert he founded the School of Planning at Ahmedabad in 1971 and the Centre for Development Studies at Pune in 1976. He has prepared urban plans in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and in many of India’s cities. He presently over sees his architectural design studios in India and Bhutan, where he is designing the new Capitol complex and has prepared the capital city plan.

(Published in Sunday Economic Times)


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