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Time for the great middle class skyscraper
Structures that rise sixty to eighty stories, with multiple mixed uses, would release more space for homes within commercial districts, leading to lowered real estate values and less pollution.
The surface lies exhausted, ravaged. Everywhere you look there are signs of fatigue. Overstretched by construction, the relentless spread of suburbia, the blight of industry and the bigger blight of farm houses with swimming pools, the earth's finite resource of land is quickly reaching saturation point. Travel anywhere beyond the few remaining stretches of a beautiful, melancholic and soon to be ravaged countryside. The approach to any Indian city is like a pus wound, a stagnant eruption of surface despair that deepens as you go further in;broken half-built structures, repair shops, people and garbage, the city ugly and unloved, and in a perpetual state of war. As if the day's battle is over and everyone is retreating to make-shift encampments. Nowhere is this more apparent than around India's biggest cities.
Twentieth century ideals of urbanism fall apart when applied the numbers game of migratory shifts. In 1950, Delhi's population was a mere 1. 4 million. Thirty years later the figure rose by 240 per cent. The city's periphery, however, remained loose and undefined, as did the logic of its expansion. Today, at 23 million, the city - now called National Capital Region - occupies 1, 500 square kilometres and engages in its ambit, surrounding towns of Panipat, Karnal, Mathura, and Hapur. There is serious cause to reflect on the conventions of the planning. Can such an agglomeration still be seen as a unified place? Can 1, 500 square kilometres of unregulated and often unrelated buildings with an imprecise network of disjointed neighborhoods be called a city?
The psychological dilemma of a spreading city, unfortunately, fuels both private aspiration and public apathy. In a city where people are privately demanding and publically indifferent, it is impossible to create cohesive communities. They want more electricity, more water, more entertainment, more shopping options, bigger cars, better schools, better medical care, more servants, security guards. All life is built on material expectations and promise of their quick delivery. In contrast, public life is steeped in abject squalor. The inability to share urban resources equitably makes for lowering standards of city life. More pollution, uncollected garbage, encroachments, stolen electricity, water wars, road rage, crime and sexual assault.
Perpetuation of class and professional distinction in housing and city layouts has for the greater part made Indian city life a victim of its own reality. Outside of the home, the social unease is palpable. You move cautiously through structures perceived as hostile: your colony defines your status;you stick behind the protection of gated neighbourhoods. You speed across dispossessed and anonymous zones to connections across town. You use your car to connect the few personal dots across the GPS map.
But the built life in India had an altogether different beginning. Mahatma Gandhi's lesser known architectural maxim stated that 'the ideal Indian house will be built of materials gathered from within five kilometres of the building site'. The statement encapsulated a precise idea on building, material resource, labour, skills, conservation and ecology. At the time Gandhi spoke, the words had prophetic feel because they echoed his larger message of self reliance. They were at once traditionalist - as they saw the core of rural life as just and good. And radical, because they echoed something of Thoreau's environmental plea that the best form of conservation was to not build at all. Certainly in agrarian rural surroundings the ethics of land use would find truth to his words. However, the enlarged scale of the city requires both a moral view on private land ownership, and a radical shift to an altogether untested technology. The right to land needs to be divorced from the right to a home. Nowhere is the need more desperate than in the Indian city of the future.
In the years after Gandhi, however, the shift of population defeated the idea of home as God's little acre. Today, builders sell homes and plots in far flung areas. Municipal governments continue to make desperate promises on new roads and metro connections across the spreading city. Severe building height restrictions in Mumbai create a living space density so high that it can only lead to squalor and overcrowding at the ground level. Compared to Shanghai's 150 square feet per person Mumbai residents occupy barely 30 square feet. Such neglect of living conditions has been largely encouraged by height restrictions. Even when the changes are made in the FSI they are so miserly as to make little difference.
So far the Indian city has even applied restrictions in the wrong place. Had Mumbai chosen to carefully assess the serious critical state of the city's unaffordable real estate, perhaps its legislators would not have arbitrarily clamped restrictions on building. Why does the extreme southern swathe of the city from Worli to Malabar Hill and Colaba remain so artificially inflated that most residents have little choice but to live beyond the periphery? What would it take to get an office worker who commutes two hours to Nariman Point to live at Nariman Point?
The current imagery of the luxury high rise is only a squalid reminder of urban India's architectural class distinctions. And despite the neon wasteland that immodestly claims itself to be the Shining India, the country's architecture can be truly heroic if it replaces the unworkable model of seeking perpetual prosperity and growth by one of contentment. While the world's largest and most livable urban centers like Hong Kong, Singapore or New York are proactive in their search for an equitable cosmopolitism, cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Dhaka, Bangalore, Karachi, sadly remain stagnant bastions of Third World thinking - cesspools of humanity, unwavering and happily complacent in the slide to oblivion.
Beyond the pale of corruption scandals and the nexus between builders and politicians land utilisation in core areas of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, needs to be thoughtfully evaluated to develop to their fullest potential. Structures that rise 60 to 80 stories, with multiple mixed uses, would release more space for homes within commercial districts, leading to lowered real estate values and less pollution. To encourage greater productivity in a place such as Mumbai and Bangalore, where inadequate roads and transport constantly irks citizens, high rise and high density living can eliminate these needs altogether. Wealthier places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Jakarta learned their lessons earlier. Consequently, housing there is affordable and cheaper.
It is well known that high density living also makes for corresponding reductions in pollution and energy consumption. People travel shorter distances, save time, and generally live healthier lives. Standard of living surveys set highrise places like New York and Hong Kong above more spread out cities like Paris and Los Angeles. In any multi-use multi-storied scheme there would be obvious questions about infrastructure, parking, utilities etc. But if thoughtfully conceived, and with ideas that combine both, an Indian sensibility and the new technology, chances are the great middleclass skyscraper will be a success. The daily life of a town - home, work, recreation, commerce, pleasure - occupying the space of a Greater Kailash in one structure, with no driving, no unnecessary commutes, more modest homes, no private land ownership, and a citizenry that engages with each other. Unwillingness to change is a catastrophe too painful to contemplate.
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