We try harder.” This marketing campaign from the 1960s for Avis, a US car rental company, comes to mind when we look at the emerging architectural creativity in India’s smaller towns and cities. The campaign capitalized on a fact most communicators may have tried to hide—that Avis was not the market leader (Hertz was). Is small town architecture too “trying harder”?
Demand for design
Take Brinda and Parth Shah, who practise in Rajkot. After studying architecture in Ahmedabad, Britain and the Netherlands, they decided to move to Parth’s hometown in 2005. Four years down the line, they feel their move has worked.
Brinda and Parth Shah’s office in Rajkot looks unusually home-like. Himanshu Burte
Says Parth, “In a small place, there are not too many people with your skills, so there is a greater chance of being heard.” They have also discovered that there is a tremendous hunger for good design in rural areas. “We have already worked in 70 villages on a project involving the design of schools,” says Parth. They also had the luxury of being able to choose the projects they work on—something their seniors in big cities can only dream of even after a decade of practice.
The Shahs’ first project, their own office, served as a demonstration of their ideas. They were helped by an indulgent family that gave them a plot to build a modern office which looks like a village house. At the same time, they began meeting officials to discuss what they could do for the city. After all, private practice and public projects mix well in architecture.
Praveen Bavadekar of Belgaum is another person who returned to his small town roots. “We tend to underrate the clientele in smaller places. But these are people like us—qualified professionals who have returned from the big cities and are keen to explore new ideas at home.”
Bavadekar, who studied architecture in Bangalore and at the famous Architectural Association in London, saw big architects famous for conceptual work (plans, model designs), such as Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid, struggling for actual projects. In India, too, he found that in places such as Bangalore and Pune, the big firms got all the plum projects, while those starting out had to struggle for significant commissions. But there was a lot of work and openness to new ideas in a place such as Belgaum, with the cosmopolitan influence of two cultures (Kannada and Marathi).
Since he began practising in Belgaum in 2002, Bavadekar has built a number of institutional and residential projects that are injecting an international sensibility into this small town setting. With opportunities increasing, he is trying to bring in talented architects from other cities to keep the bar high.
Making a mark: The Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Hubli, by Thirdspace Architecture Studio of Belgaum, takes an innovative form that hints at its intended function and occupants. Courtesy Thirdspace Architecture Studio
Along with new architecture, small towns such as Thrissur are also getting better public spaces because of young architectural enterprise and vision. Vinod Kumar M.M. returned to Thrissur in 1999 after studying architecture in Bangalore. Over the last seven years, he has worked with various government agencies tenaciously to restore (and redesign) a neglected heritage garden adjoining the Saktan Thampuran Palace in the city. He has also got a promenade and waterside park built along one edge of a large, old neglected temple tank where (now revitalized), which is now an attractive public space.
Many things work in favour of small towns today as far as good architectural and urban design is concerned. To begin with, the small town architect typically has more land to play with (because it is cheaper) than he would in big cities. The cost of construction and architectural services is almost the same everywhere. Media explosion and travel have also shown small town residents (including government officials) that they can get more bang for the same buck.
So, while part of it has to do with the globalization of the urban imagination everywhere, another part is the realization that design is not a matter of fashion alone. That begins to explain the simultaneous success of the different styles of people such as Bavadekar in Belgaum and the Shahs in Rajkot.
Issues of identity
One challenge many of these architects face is the question of identity: how to preserve all that’s valuable of the past that persists in the present, while preparing for the future. Since the 1990s, many big city architects have concluded that it is hopelessly sentimental to let the dead past shape the architecture of the present. But “fresh” architectural ideas often mean unexamined values, which may open up new possibilities while closing many equally valid ones simply because they are local and old.
Environ Planners’ Sanjay Patil’s design for the Bhujbal Knowledge City of the Mumbai Education Trust in Nashik proves that non-urban environs needn’t clip the wings of ambition. Courtesy Sanjay M Patil, Environ Planners
Aldo van Eyck, a famous modern European architect, once warned against succumbing to a “sentimentality towards the future”. Bavadekar might soon want to consider what his internationalist careening forms say about the past, present and future culture. On the other hand, the past, too, may be “a foreign country”.
The Shahs know that the real estate market makes the low-rise rural cottage, such as their office, a difficult general solution. It helps that all these architects have much left to build. They will need this depth of opportunity to work out an absorbing conversation between competing sentimentalities.
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Big ideas to help manage small spaces:
• Multifunctional furniture: When you can fit in only a few items, it helps if they serve more than one function. For example, a coffee table that is adjustable in height, letting it work as a dining or work surface, with a top that lets you stash things inside. An open shelving unit can offer storage while delineating areas.
• Built-in cabinetry: Cabinets and shelving made to fit your specifications can put every odd corner and nook to good use.
• Reflective and see-through surfaces: One of the oldest tricks in the book is using large mirrors and reflective furniture to give the illusion of more square footage. Transparent furniture has become another popular choice. Taking up little visual space, it makes a room feel open and airy. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Design inspired by human body
Perhaps inspired by contemporary art by the likes of Damien Hirst, many designers are basing everyday objects on body parts. “The human body has become a source of inspiration,” said trend spotter Francois Bernard at the Maison and Objet trade fair in Paris last week. There were hair-covered blonde and brunette chairs from Austria, internal organ water bottles from Denmark, a life-size Dutch garbage bin titled “Fill Bill” in the shape of a man bent over, posterior ready to receive trash, and this chair that resembles a skull from Ukraine-born, Netherlands-based designer Vladi Rapaport. AFP
Gardening on the rooftop
Interested in rooftop farming? The trend is catching on in the West, with many new converts. The rooftop farm, they say, yields more than just tasty greens. There are enormous environmental pay-offs as well: Plants absorb rainwater, which would otherwise make its way to the sewer system and eventually the sea, bringing pollutants with it; a layer of soil and vegetation helps insulate the building and reduce energy usage; and locally grown food, which doesn’t travel far, further reduces the carbon footprint. Enough green roofs can even mitigate the heat island effect of the urban jungle. BLOOMBERG
Quirky collections often outweigh their actual value. Make a display of yours:
• Bind small pieces together. For example, put matchboxes in a picture frame or use specimen jars or large canisters for smaller items.
• For different-sized collectibles, try to create harmony: Lean assorted frames against a long horizontal shelf; use a column of shelves for small items such as miniature cars. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES