Cities of opportunity....lost

Cities of opportunity....lost
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First Published: Wed, May 20 2009. 08 32 PM IST

Updated: Wed, May 20 2009. 08 32 PM IST
It was as a student of architecture travelling in southern France that I first realized the possibilities offered by the combination of architecture and urbanism. The amalgamation was most obvious in the medieval city of Le Puy.
The approach to the cathedral in Le Puy was a roadway lined with stone shops and houses. The cathedral was the central composition in the cityscape and as one got closer to it, the road became steeper and steeper, and along with the buildings, kept rising till the road became a ramp. The ramp became a cascade of steps, rising high and steep. As the cathedral front loomed, I realized the steps were, in fact, heading underneath the building and I was ascending below the nave. Under the building, the church floors opened and suddenly, I was face-to-face with God.
As I turned around, I saw the city far below, the entire length of the street from where I had come, and I understood how the street and the building had combined to give me the complete kaleidoscopic experience, how the cathedral’s high elevation had been used to extend the church into the city. The city, hill and cathedral merged in such a way that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. It was an architecturally gratifying and monumental experience, fashioned simply by the cathedral’s location on the hill. The hill dictated a possibility for the layout. The medieval architect multiplied it tenfold into a truly concentrated ideal.
How many cities, especially in India, ever consider their position or seek any real advantage from their unique landscape? Does Mumbai’s sea location create any special conditions in urban layout or architectural design to catch the sea breeze or evening light? Is the mountainous terrain visible in the architecture of towns in Sikkim or Himachal Pradesh? Is the desert or the river location of north Indian towns, with the exception of Varanasi, a criterion in their layouts?
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
To attract residents to the sea, the small town of Cape May along the New Jersey shoreline oriented its entire grid of streets on a diagonal. Whatever the street, you are either going towards the beach or away from it. A plan of such astonishing simplicity, yet so effective in urban terms, was made by a mere deflection of the conventional street pattern.
A concern for new ways of orienting ordinary city life makes many builders seek unusual combinations of the public and private face for their own buildings. In Madrid, for instance, with dense and crowded ground conditions, an enterprising builder chose to move the urban dimension of his apartment block to the roof. In an unusual connection to all the apartments, the roof offers the essential pleasures of public life usually reserved for the ground level: meeting, cabanas, clubs, theatres and restaurants.
Besides extraordinary views of the city, the reversal of convention between the public and private gave an entirely new expression to the architecture, the urban design, even zoning. The private street and the public roof were proof that it is possible for builders to do something more than just the predictable and the banal.
In the steep high-rise buildings of Gurgaon and Pune, the only difference between apartment blocks is style and colour. No one, least of all the builder, is concerned with design.
In the search for innovation and new ideas, it is a known fact that Indians invariably choose the well-trodden path. Tried and tested ideas. Whether in science and technology, information technology or streetlamp design, irrigation or road systems, city planning or urban design, it is the same story. Despite the country’s extraordinary beginnings in art and design, its unmatched craft history and architectural heritage, the culture of borrowing has made India into a second rate habitat—and the Indian, a second rate citizen. So used are we to mediocrity and urban neglect that the only complaints we have are about water shortage.
Unable to produce, design or build anything of lasting value or quality, our reliance on foreign ideas keeps citizens guessing about their urban future. Will the next shopping idea come from Dubai? Will the new transport hub in Bangalore be designed on Japanese lines? Perhaps. But only Indian solutions to Indian situations will result in a truer expression and a more coherent urban landscape.
Meanwhile, the government sends its emissaries, armed with camcorders and copying equipment, on yet more study tours. To Russia to study the 100-year-old Moscow subway system; to Switzerland for bridge design; to Mexico for increasing agricultural output; to Scandinavia for the health system. To beg, borrow and steal in a way that gives no credit to the original but creates a model in a way that the original begins to look like a copy. But who cares? The pandit is already there on the new flyover with a coconut, waiting for the minister.
CONNECT
RECYCLE
Coca-Cola Co. is developing a new ‘PlantBottle’ made of up to 30% earth-friendly, plant-based material such as sugarcane and molasses. Coca-Cola North America will test the new bottle with Dasani, its leading water brand, and carbonated beverage brands later this year and with Vitaminwater in 2010. The plastic bottles currently used are made from a petroleum-based resin known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PET bottles are recyclable but the process can be relatively expensive and complex. PET bottles that aren’t recycled can take years to decompose. Coke’s new bottle could make the recycling process easier and cheaper, and reduce the time discarded bottles sit in landfills. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
DEBATE
Last week, 63 governments agreed to make the scrapping of the world’s freighters, luxury liners and tankers safer and greener by requiring higher standards at shipyards. But critics, led by 107 environmental and rights groups, say the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships isn’t enough. They want governments to ban the breaking down of ships along beaches and require the removal of hazardous material before recycling. An estimated 1,000 ships are broken each year, most of them in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. AP
APPLAUD
Bill Airy of Denver, US, got a doggone good idea while walking his two Jack Russell terriers at Sloan’s Lake in August. Airy saw another man walking his dog, which stopped to do its business, and then the two simply walked away from the mess. “It was disgusting and rude,” says Airy, 30. Farther along, Airy found a dispenser of bags for pet poop. Problem: It contained no bags but was loaded with trash and unbagged poop that looked about three months old. Airy called the Denver parks and recreation department with a solution: Have companies sponsor bag dispensers in parks. This month, a one-year pilot of Airy’s Poo Free Parks begins. Poo Free Parks will install at least 200 dispensers of biodegradable poop-pickup bags in as many as 25 parks. Airy hopes to expand the business model. He already has contacts in New York and San Francisco.©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
KNOW
If you had walked around Lightfair International, the lighting industry’s annual trade show at the Javits Center, New York, last week, you would be forgiven for thinking that lamps based on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, had already filled our homes and workplaces. LED bulbs and fixtures dominated nearly every booth on the floor. Now all the world has to do is catch up. “In the US, 78% of the public is completely unaware that traditional light bulbs will be phased out in 2012,” says Charles F. Jerabek, president and chief executive of Osram Sylvania Ltd, a unit of Siemens. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Wed, May 20 2009. 08 32 PM IST