Home >Opinion >World’s poor need real homes, not grand monuments

Here in the City of London, you can step out of Bank underground station and walk half a mile in any direction to see what Pritzker Prize-winning architects can do when they push themselves. At Bank intersection itself, breaking up the heavy imperial-era neoclassicism of Soane, Baker and Lutyens is James Stirling’s Number One Poultry, whose postmodern curves softly echo the other buildings’ grandiose lines. Stirling won the Pritzker, “architecture’s Nobel Prize," in 1981; Number One Poultry, still controversial, is nevertheless now the youngest building to be officially protected, or “listed," by the British government.

Most architects who have been awarded the Pritzker are best known for buildings like this: grand and controversial office buildings such as Lloyds’ headquarters, vast museums like the Tate Modern, unforgettable set-pieces such as the Sydney Opera House. But, last week, the Pritzker jury gave the 2018 prize to the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, who is best known for very different designs.

Doshi, now 90, has had his share of landmark commissions—the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, for example, and Ahmedabad’s Tagore Hall. But he is best known for Aranya, a low-cost housing project in the central Indian city of Indore. Aranya is one of the wonders of India: a housing project that actually works. Houses are arranged around open spaces, organized into 10-home clusters to create a sense of community, but each also includes a small private courtyard to the rear. Rather than completely erasing the dense urban clusters which it was meant to replace, Aranya seeks to replicate their neighbourly social spaces. As some observers have pointed out, Aranya essentially imitates the slums that dot Indian cities like Indore—except with infrastructure and more open space to make it more liveable.

The architecture celebrated by prizes and popular acclaim is the most macho, egotistic side of the profession. Consider that the most memorable—if abysmally written—architect in literature is Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.

The Pritzker itself is regularly assailed for not recognizing more women. But Doshi’s award is a reminder of what good architecture should actually be: As he told the Guardian last week, architects should “move away from their focus on the designer as individual to being far more collaborative, compassionate and invested in the dignity of those they house."

Doshi seeks to create places where the borders between commercial and personal space are blurred and shifting; where individuals and businesses have the ability to change and modify their spaces so that a new genius loci can emerge; where people of differing backgrounds and income levels can live together. Perhaps this is a quintessentially Indian project. Yet it’s one that is too little seen in today’s India, obsessed with gated communities and harsh, exclusionary Chinese-style infrastructure.

It was not always so. Doshi’s principles are a reminder of the possibilities and promise that seemed everywhere in the first decades after Indian independence in 1947. On the wall of my study at home is a 1940s advertisement for Tata Steel. The ad highlights the government’s plan to build millions of low-cost houses that would require the company’s materials. What stands out, though, is how the company illustrated what it thought these new townships would look like: compact but adaptable houses, with little yards, capable of accommodating many generations of one family, set around shared and semi-public areas.

The picture shares a great deal with Doshi’s vision for Aranya, suggesting an unusual consensus between professionals, companies and the state. You would look in vain for such projects in today’s India. Every year, the federal budget sets aside a little for low-cost housing; every year, people expect big construction companies to make money off federal money without providing actual, liveable townships. As a result, 10 million upscale homes lie empty in India while a vast proportion of Indian town-dwellers live in slums.

Across the developing world, whether India, Brazil or South Africa, governments will increasingly be judged on the communities they create. Drive into Cape Town and you pass, on one side, the informal settlements for which South Africa is famous; and, on the other side, the vast new development known as N2 Gateway where residents are agitating for Doshi’s principles to be applied: Why are we being given flats, they ask, when we want houses?

It’s time for today’s architects and planners to take a step back and listen to Doshi. Perhaps, after contemplating Number One Poultry and what it says about modern architecture, they could walk around the Royal Exchange to look at the statue of George Peabody that stands behind it; his Peabody Trust, which practically invented inner-city low-cost housing, still exists—many of its buildings sharing with Number One Poultry the yellow stripes on their exteriors that are somehow emblematic of London. Steps from the British parliament buildings in Westminster, in the former Devil’s Acre—the place that gave birth to the word “slum"—the Peabody Trust replaced one community with another, far safer and more liveable, in the 19th century. Surely governments can do the same in the 21st? Bloomberg View

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