To make architecture is to construct knowledge!

ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION AND INFORMALITY IN INDIAN CITIES

India is fast urbanizing; with 31.16% of the total population living in urban areas and having a decadal growth of 31.8%[1], major chunk of this urbanization consists of informal settlements. It is time to reinvestigate the way Indian cities are urbanizing, more so because there are three main disquiets of this urban phenomenon. Firstly the development model is grounded on consumption based GDP calculations and not on human development. India is ranked 136 [2] as per the Human Development Index (HDI). Investment in improving HDI doesn’t give immediate results and because of which in a five year electoral cycle, only projects that can create a ‘spectacle’ qualifies. Secondly, urban development in India is out of the direct ambit of electoral politics. This leads to a cultural hegemony, where the imaginations and aspirations of the urban middle class, as propagated by the media, define the discourse on urban development, and architects become a tool for creation of these images. “[The] abstraction of the urban middle class aspiration to a commodity (which essentially is just a graphic/image), and dilution of the interests of a voting economically weaker section is leading to an urban disaster and increasing disparity in Delhi and in-turn being replicated across the nation. The indigenous urban areas are considered redundant and sometimes even termed as ‘slums’, due to lack of conformity towards the commodified image.”[3] And thirdly, the prescriptive/restrictive ways of urban governance via a master plan results in redundant legislations, because the rate of change of urban areas are much faster in India than the rate at which a statutory document can practically be changed.

This scenario of urban development has lead to a binary theorization of the cities, into the formal and the informal. Where the economically weaker section is seen as living in the ruptures of the legal systems and called the informal. The informal, understood as- of which is devoid of formality, thus most of the discussions pertaining to informal are portrayed against the formal. Informality thus becomes an anarchic appropriation of what could not be absorbed in the formal.

The focus on ‘informal’ started in 70s with ILO report on Kenya and writings of Keith Hart which discussed about informal economy. But ever since, the discourse on informal has been shifting. From informal as ‘parasite’ in the 1980s, to De Soto’s[4] claim of looking at informality as a solution by bridging the gap between formal and informal, to the apocalyptical picturization by Mike Davis[5] and finally urban informality as a dominant normality in postcolonial worlding cities by Ananya Roy[6]. Though four decades of research on informal are over, the primary theme that prevails is that of the ILO report- economic; resulting in linking informality with poverty.  Recently there has also been an alternate interest in building techniques of slums, popularly known as Jugaad Urbanism which is now showing up in art installations[7] ; an Indian version of ‘Bricolage’, which again overtly romanticize the informal.

Informal settlements also are centers of bustling economic activities and intense social action, resultant of which is that often architects romanticize the notion of informality. Economic sensibility, the market driven economy and vibrant small scale entrepreneurs are all seen as positives of a self help settlement that took very less from the government/formal and is a major cog in the development wheel.

Theorizing the subaltern urbanism or proposing development aid has lead two ways of looking at the informal settlements. First one is that of a hub for opportunity and innovation, thus a major contributor to the economics of the city and second one is that of a philanthropic viewpoint which sees poverty and filth and thus demands action to improve the environment.

Even though Brazilian geographer Milton Santos, long back in 1979, studied the spatial dialectic of the formal and informal, and established the need to study them as a loop rather than in isolation, the formal/informal-overlaps needs further exploration, and research on urban India in this regard is limited. With the new focus of the Government of India on urban issues, there are many schemes[8] that are coming up but without much impact due to its lack of understanding of Indian urbanism. Most of these policies are based on quantitative understanding, thus it becomes crucial to have studies that will give a qualitative and comprehensive understanding of the scenario, especially for architects.

These developments are happening in an era when the role of an architect in such settlements is not very clear, when approximately only around 5% of the buildings in India are designed by architects. “Often studios [in architecture schools] try to emphasize on design so much that the students’ mind intuitively looks for problems and innovative ways to solve them. This problem solving attitude fails miserably in informal settlements, which majority of Indians call home.”[9] Thus raises the need for the architects to enquire into this mode of development so that a new niche for the profession can be formulated. “If cities are the crucibles of ideation where the future is imagined, then that imagination needs to be debated quite separately from the politico-economic processes, if only to protect them as public places. The Indian city needs to be re-imagined, from the grandiose Nehruvian symbol of ‘progress and scientific ideologies’ to a place where the quality of life is nurtured and reduced equitably, and where control over resources is vested in its citizens. The urban object needs to be relocated from being an epiphenomenon of other forms of planning to a crucial, active agent that reinstates Eros as a prime deity in the city.”[10]

The concerns raised above should first reflect in architectural education, where explorations to understand these new forms of living, which clearly steers away from the established typologies, needs to be assimilated and transformed in design studios. Architectural education should expose students to the new urban systems and develop a sense of understanding and re-framing the paradigm every time in the design studio. The studio rather than starting with a problem, can start with an exercise on understanding which leads to architectural responses that are above the notions of problem solving. “Much of what we know of institutions, the distribution of power, social relations, cultural values, and everyday life is mediated by built environment. Thus to make architecture is to construct knowledge, to build vision.”[11]

To make architecture is to construct knowledge, to build vision.

 

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[1] All the population data is from Census 2011, Government of India

[2] “UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs” <http://esa.un.org/unup/Maps/maps_1970_2011.htm> [accessed 17 September 2013]

[3] Nipesh P Narayanan, “Aspirational Urbanism and the Indian Metropolis”, in Nature of Spatial Practices, ed. Ali Aslankan, Karen Paiva Henrique and Aparna Parikh ( Pennsylvania: College of Arts And Architecture – Penn State University, 2013), 72-77.

[4] Hernando De Soto, The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

[5] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007).

[6] Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong, eds., Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global (Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), vol. 41.

[7] Sanjeev Shankar <http://www.sanjeevshankar.com/jugaad.html> [accessed 22 September 2013]

[8]JNNURM – with a budget of 1205.4 Billion Indian Rupees over a period of 7 years; RAY – with a budget of 322.3 Billion Indian Rupees, are two of the many schemes.

[9] Nipesh Palat Narayanan, “Design as Understanding- illustrations from an academic experiment”, in 7th International Conference of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia (Melbourne: Monash University, RMIT University and University of Melbourne, 2013).

[10] K T Ravindran, “Why Planning Failed”, Seminar, 445 (1996): 30-5.

[11] Thomas A Dutton and Lian Hurst Mann, eds., Reconstructing architecture : critical discourses and social practices (Minnesota : University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

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