By Aiswarya Vijay & Ananya A P
“To whom does the city belong to and who all belong to the city?” This was a question that arose among us during a casual tea-time conversation. Although we couldn’t come up with a definite conclusion, we realized that our answers to these two questions were quite different.
For our academic projects, we often create fancy building sections and renders with well-dressed men and women walking dogs and jogging, kids going to school and fancy cars lined up in front of our buildings. If all our designs and buildings are serving the above-mentioned category of people, where do the rest of the people go?
We are taught about different local communities through subjects like sociology and vernacular architecture in the course of our formal architectural education, but there is an apparent disconnect between the way architecture is taught, and the lived realities of the communities surrounding us.
Social stratification has always existed in India but has often been glorified in the name of history and culture. India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. Patriarchy, caste system, and other religious beliefs together create a complex social mixture that controls and creates a set of regulations for the society, especially women and other minorities.
Moving forward to 2022, India is now a developing country with a growing economy, slowly adapting to modern reforms and policies. But unfortunately, social stratification still exists largely in India, across a broad range of categories such as religion, caste, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental abilities, and many more, although it’s made less visible to the naked eye. Architects and Planners are involved in designing for the development of the community now more than ever in India, and yet they still seem to lose sight of the community itself, which often forces the disadvantaged to resort to squatting and other methods of survival.
Covid-19, climate change, rapid urbanization, and other development projects have brought devastation to the marginalized population of India, leading to a mass displacement of the economically and socially disadvantaged. Heavy monsoons have resulted in fatal floods and other natural calamities for the past three consecutive years, causing havoc in states like Kerala. People who were once safely sheltered suddenly turned into refugees. The global pandemic has further forced more people onto the streets. These communities consist of people from different age groups, religions, castes, genders, sexualities, etc., and are rehoused into systems that are barely designed to fit their needs. Designers have important roles in supporting these communities through more planned community development solutions that should include detailed studies of what the community lacks and finding, developing alternatives to evictions, and eradication of the community.
Often, the planner’s biases and ideologies overshadow community feedback, impacting the users severely. Working with these communities, we could appreciate their existing cultural, social, and economic aspects, and suggest a design that will enhance the positive and discourage the negative aspects observed. As trained professionals, architects can see both form and function and can facilitate communities to make better use of their resources and techniques. In turn, they get an opportunity to learn about indigenous construction methodologies and materials, making it a two-way process.
Architects have crucial roles in facilitating and empowering communities by involving them in the design development process. A participatory approach would create a sense of belonging and ownership to the inhabitants, enabling architects to understand their expectations and needs, based on a more accurate understanding of their cultures and perspectives. This would redefine the role of an architect from that of a grand designer to someone sensitive and socially responsible, enabling an exchange of knowledge, and making it a two-way process.
Julia King, who is also referred to as the “Potty Girl”, has often talked about the importance of participatory designs and the need to provide the underserved communities with infrastructures that they lack. The decentralized sanitation system that she was a part of designing, has managed to enable households to have toilets in communities that earlier resorted to open defecation. According to her, communities don’t necessarily need what’s traditionally considered architecture today as they are capable of building homes and cities on their own. Rather, designers could put their architectural skills and knowledge towards designing and implementing what the communities truly need. Now that the world’s population is turning overwhelmingly urban and about a third of the population is predicted to be living in slums by the next century, the need for responsive architecture is extremely urgent. Addressing the issue in India, King says, “India’s peri-urbanization is at the same time its greatest challenge but also its greatest opportunity. If done right this can result in positive development lifting millions out of poverty, and if done wrong these disconnected spaces will be sources of conflict.”
Today, we see dozens of housing projects being built devoid of character without addressing the core needs of the people, only to be demolished years later when they’re recognized as failures. The current development projects are the potential slums of tomorrow. With the surge in population and rate of urbanization, more “urban metropolitan” centres are coming up but are failing to address the deteriorating quality of life lived by millions of people.
There are many architectural discourses about equity these days, and it is getting reflected in practice.
The need of the hour is not fancy and fashionable architecture, but rather architecture that acts as a mindful service in providing fair and just access to the resources and opportunities necessary to thrive.
Authors: Aiswarya Vijay, Ananya A P