The artist with an agenda



Without Boundaries

Architecture and the economy







On completing my bachelors in architecture, I took up a job in the most populous city and the economic capital of India, Mumbai. This to a great extent widened my perspective on architecture. It popped that bubble that we as architects tend to create, live and thrive in. Architecture to me now, has transformed from being more than just an aesthetically appealing piece of work to something that needs to be a culmination of various factors natural, social, political and economic in nature.  I believe that only on achieving this fine balance does architecture become truly sustainable. We do not build in a vacuum. We are not pure artists, however hard we try to pretend we are. That said, I’m not an advocate of function over form- in my opinion only when they complement each other can a structure be considered sustainable.

Mumbai is a rapidly expanding city with an enormous floating population. The city houses a wide spectrum of people- from the crème de la crème to the extremely downtrodden. The rising population being directly proportional to the demand for housing has resulted in a construction boom that has taken the city by storm. A construction boom that has had a mixed effect on the economy and architecture.

The underlying truth here though is that the construction companies cannot meet the demand created by the new development boom. The buildings that seem to be coming up by the dozen for this are anything but habitable. In order make full use of the allotted built up area; in most cases, more than the approved value, it has come to a stage where a basic balcony, an assured view to the outside and not into your neighbor’s toilet or even a window, is now a luxury. Wall to wall constructions have now become a very acceptable trend and anything else is now frowned upon. Land price, like in any other city, is a huge concern. This leads to builders compromising on the value or quality of the living space. Open spaces are seen as an incredible waste of area. Refuge floors are now merely a ‘concept’ that exists only until the sanctioning of a building.

Due to this very reason, an architect’s role (at least in Mumbai) is greatly blurred. Most of the new buildings, if not all, are congruous, analogous and uniformly boring.

Land encroachment is a problem looming large in the city. The city has been facing an unchecked growth of the slums (which now occupy a major part of the city fabric) which share walls with the airport and other prime locations in the city. Do the slums really pose a problem for the development of the city? I believe it could swing both ways depending on how they are handled. In Mumbai, Dharavi is more than a slum. It is a small scale industry in itself with numerous pottery, textile, leather and a large recycling industry processing recyclable waste from other parts of Mumbai.

Razing the slums and a major chunk of dilapidated and illegal constructions is an initiative that has been taken by the government a few years back. This has proved to be a better concept than practice because relocating the people, who have been living there for decades is only feasible on paper especially when politics and people’s unions have an incredible role to play. The proposed development plan has not gone down well with the people. Though it is a very comprehensive plan for the city development, it is not so much at a social and community level. I believe an iron fist approach will not help while dealing with a matter as delicate this. Understanding the needs of the people and working with them rather than against is a far more sensible approach.

Political parties, spawning from the workers unions of this former textile-mill city play a major role in the city’s skyline. Their promises of affordable housing, made during election time put massive pressure on the city’s developers. There is hardly any money, and practically no space- but houses must be made in time for happy voters to flood the polling booths for the next elections.

I believe that especially in a city like Mumbai, economics and architecture must go hand in hand. When speaking about this mammoth a scale, careful planning must be implemented at every step. Attaining a comprehensive solution that can be enforced to the entire city is almost close to impossible. Instead, zoning and creating a differently defined language for each zone with sufficient flexibility to house the various needs, may be slightly more effective.
Sustainability renders itself beyond just a green roof or solar panels. A sustainable city is a functional city. Mumbai, however old a city it is, and however ‘developed’ it claims to be, with its high rises, highways and the sea link, is far from sustainable. With poor sanitation, water clogging during the monsoons, pitiable roadways leading to extreme traffic congestion are a few of the problems faced by the residents. The city, like any other started small. Its expansive growth maybe, a tad bit unforeseen.  The lack of time and resources to meet the growing demands has led to development for the sake of development.

All of the above change can only happen if the system improves. India sees corruption at every level. It really is not difficult to build a 50 storied building if the land laws permit only 5 if one has the money. How does one change ‘the system’ that makes the ground rules for economic development? We need to be creating awareness by implementation and practice. We really must come to terms with the idea that no one really gets motivated by simply hearing but by seeing.

What does Mumbai need? According to me, an extensive infrastructure plan, an inclusive slum redevelopment agenda, an exemplary resource management scheme and above all, a social initiative.

Every era is defined largely by the architecture it left behind- because architecture is, and will continue to be the most political of all the arts. This is where I come to my final point- the economy is controlled by politics, and vice versa. As architects, we don’t possess the necessary monetary clout to control the system. And therefore, we must follow the other path.

As unsavoury as it sounds, I believe that a modern, green architect cannot be just an artist- he must be a political animal as well. In a deeply broken system, we need to shine the light of sustainability. We need to become an integral part of policy-making and lobby for the right kind of laws. Easy money will always, always be on the opposite side of the sustainability coin, and that is a reality we must face up to. There are always going to be people willing to grease a few palms to get their building built, never mind the environmental and social fallout. Our job does not end where economics begins; on the contrary, it starts there.


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