Urban Design, Architecture and Heritage Conservation in Bangalore

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Response to: Why build out of context?: Infosys Campus, Mysore- an opportunity missed

I forget what I was searching for when I came across Why build out of context?: Infosys Campus, Mysore- an opportunity missed, yet another modernist whining about a building that doesn't conform to their dogma. Having a point of view, and time on hand, I banged out my essay length reply (rant?) but couldn't post it, so here you go:

I find it funny when modernist architects, whose stock in trade is to import the rather poor aesthetics and climate unfriendly design patterns of Northern European architecture from the second half of the 20th century, complain about the lack of contextuality of neo-Classical styles. 
If by context you mean references/resemblance to existing historical buildings, you should have seen the Lalit Mahal Palace (now a hotel) in Mysore (on the left). With its central dome fronted by a colonnade, it has a striking familial resemblance to the Infosys Education Centre (on the right).

Also, why are the Indo-Saracenic and Art-Deco styles you talk glowingly about so contextual ? Indo-Saracenic is nothing but Gothic Architecture with a few local references thrown in. Gothic is the style of Europe's great cathedrals. The local references were usually elements of Islamic Architecture  such as the bulbous domes. So a style born of the fusion of a European architecture with a Persian sensibility is contextual, but this building with its more rigidly classical palette is not! Doesn't sound logically consistent to me

As for Art-Deco (not that the Market visible in the linked video looked Art-Deco to me but anyway) Art-Deco, with its cousin Art-Noveau, was refined in the ateliers of Brussels and Paris before being exported to warmer climes like Miami and Bombay. So it is as much an import as any of the other styles.

I am not saying there isn't a problem with the Infosys campus. The minor problem there is of aesthetics. The 'classical meets mundane modern' of the Leadership institute is ho-hum, although an improvement over just modern mundane. The blob architecture of the Infy Dome is just silly. You will see far sillier examples in the Bangalore campus with buildings that resemble front-loading washing machines and pyramids, but as a modernist you may find that to be 'innovative urban architecture'. The neo-Classical Education centre could have been much better with architects who had a better handle on classical form and proportion, and a client willing to spend more on the detailing and material instead of cheaping out with concrete and plaster. Its tragedy is that it combines ambition with sloppiness, the ambition being for grandeur rather than excellence. It still is the one building on this campus that people will least regret building 50 years from now.

The bigger problem is of urbanism. This again is a gift from the great minds of modernism like Corbusier whose urban design breakthrough was to recommend the demolition of downtown Paris and its replacement with widely spaced towers. Pity the Parisians ignored him, his genius solution would have rid them of the millions of pesky tourists who infest their city in springtime and distract them from the pleasurable contemplation of their croissants. As a result of this ideology, most modern architects design buildings like they are being built in the middle of corn fields. Your profession, since the takeover of the modernists,  isn't taught to understand the urban fabric, the context (yes, this is the correct use of the word) in which they are building, the street grid that they must integrate with and add to. Your tribe doesn't understand how to design for continuity in the street wall, how to organize communities around spaces like squares and plazas, to give primacy to the pleasures of people over the demands of automobiles.

If you look around the Infosys campus on Google Maps you can see a dense tight grid of a residential neighborhoods on different sides. A 100 years ago, the architect in charge would have designed this facility in a way that would knit the neighborhoods together, with the massive GEC building as the focal point, fronted perhaps by an urban plaza, with streets radiating out to the various neighborhood clusters. Today, we can't think beyond building a gated enclave cut off from the neighbors and cutting off areas on the north from those on the south by forcing huge detours on people traveling between the two. You can say that clients ask for this, but the reason they know no better is that they are advised no better and, more over, this image of the utopia that is a sanitized anti-urban campus is the received wisdom that has been blessed by modernists starting with anti-urbanism of the cult of Corbusier. Please don't say Chandigarh - that is just suburbia constrained by the resources available to India in the 50s when we couldn't afford to build American style freeways.

ps. Calling the dome Byzantine - man you are just embarrassing yourself.
It could be called many things - Neo-Classical obviously, also called Greek Revival, like the US Congress building. Baroque, perhaps, like St. Paul's in London. 
The closest point of inspiration I could find was the Academie Francaise building in Paris, a Classical building with a curved facade like the Infosys building, although with enormously better detail and finish. 

But by no stretch of imagination is this a Byzantine styled dome - that is what you see on the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque or any of Sinan's other wonderful mosques that dot the Istanbul skyline.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Airport Rail Link DPR

The detailed project report (DPR 11.4MB zip) for the Airport Link was released some time back and is pretty much along the lines reported over the last couple of years in the media. The problems I had with the plan still stands.

According to the Infrastructure Development Department website, the shortlisted bidders are
1. Pioneer Infratech Pvt. Ltd. & Siemens Project Ventures GmbH
2. Lanco Infratech Ltd. & OHL Concesiones S.L.
3. L&T Transco Ltd.
4. Reliance Infrastructure Ltd. & CSR Nanjing Puzhen Rolling Stock Co. Ltd.
5. ITD – ITD Cem Joint Venture

It will be interesting to see whether any of the shortlisted bidders will agree to build the line without a really significant subsidy/viability-gap funding given that actual passenger traffic numbers at BIA is significantly short of the projections given in the DPR (prepared by DMRC in Oct 2007). For example, 2010-2011 annual traffic was projected to be 17.2 million, while the reality is in the range of 11 million. Projections for future years look even more wildly optimistic - 30 million by 2016-2017 would require a really radical expansion of the airport which BIAL is not even comtemplating.

It is also not clear if the alternate possibility of building a commuter rail using the existing railway tracks that pass pretty close to the airport was properly evaluated.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another one bites the dust

The last few years have not been kind to those of us who care about conserving the heritage of our city. A long real-estate construction boom and the exponential growth of Bangalore have resulted in the loss of many lovely old buildings, replaced for the most parts by structures of abominable ugliness.

I don't know how many of you understand what we are loosing. Maybe an image can move you where words fail.

On the left is the photo I took sometime back of a house off Queens Road, close to the Indian Express circle. The structure is not in a great condition but you can still see the beauty in its form and the graceful ornamentation on the crenelations above the bay window.

I pass by this place often and last month my heart broke, once more, as I saw that this too had succumbed. On the right is what remains as the vandals who masquerade as builders hack away at the lovely building.

My first experience with seeing a graceful building go before my eyes was with the Kannan Building on MG Road, which housed GK Vale, Lawrence & Mayo, Lakeview among others.

Among the last few surviving heritage structures on MG Road, its demise was a long drawn out and much publicized affair as the tenants moved out one by one. I kept hoping somebody or something would intervene. A PIL in the High Court, administrative intervention, anything. But nobody much seemed to care and one day the demolition started.

I don't know if I will be able to harden my heart and look away as these beauties from the past bite the dust one by one, till we have nothing but a banal, characterless city, the only type of city we seem to deserve.

I hope there are some of you who want better. All is not is not lost. Yet.

There are still parts of Bangalore that have significant heritage buildings that survive. The lanes and bylanes near Shivaji Nagar/Indian Express still have a few lovely bungalows. KG Road and the region around Town Hall have some classical and art-deco commercial buildings from the early and mid parts of the last century. A few parts of south Bangalore still can remind us of what this city used to be.

But to preserve what is left, we need a law to preserve this built heritage, at the same time protecting the interests of the property owners. This is not something unique or unprecedented, even in India. Bombay and Delhi have already blazed the way. Many groups and commissions in Bangalore, the latest being ABIDE, have recommended such legislation for Bangalore, but alas nothing has come to fruition.

We now have a small window of opportunity. The economic slowdown in the US has impacted the IT sector and, temporarily, brought new construction activity to a halt. We have an upcoming election to the BBMP - the period when politicians are most receptive to public opinion. This is the time to press for the passage of such a law.

We need to mobilize and make our voices heard. Whether it is letters to newspapers, ministers and MLAs, questions asked to BBMP candidates, PILs etc. Anything that works. Unless we can bring sustained and significant pressure to bear, all we will bequeath to posterity will be a wasteland of glass boxes and ugly malls that could belong anywhere from Singapore to Detroit and everywhere in between. You won't want to live in such a city - I guarantee it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Vaayu Vajra Time Table

What do you know, BMTC has gotten savvy enough to print brochures containing timetables for the Airport Volvo routes and hand it out to interested folks.

I picked one up on the BIAS 7A on my way to work today, and that because a fellow passenger was asking the conductor if there was a timetable. On my own it would never have occurred to me to imagine that fancy stuff existed. Here are the scanned images - click on them if you can't read it.

Missing is BIAS 1 which goes to Gottigere, down Bannerghatta Road. There doesn't seem to be any routes numbered 2 0r 3 - funny I never noticed this before.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Naipaul on British-Indian and Modern Indian Architecture

I don't know that Naipaul is a great writer from personal experience, having read little of his work. He must be, the world says so and the high priests of the Swedish Academy agree.

It was most agreeable therefore to come across this absolute gem while dipping randomly through his book 'India A Million Mutinies Now'. I don't know if he thinks a lot about architecture, but there is no way you can improve this analysis/discourse/rant one whit. Even I couldn't have put it better ;)

In India in 1962, I took much of the British Architecture for granted. After what i had known in Trinidad and England, British building in India seemed familiar, not a cause for wonder. Perhaps, too, in 1962, just 15 years after independence, I didn't allow myself to see British Indian architecture except as background. I was saving my wonder for the creations of the Indian past. Even Lutyen's great achievement in New Delhi I saw in a grudging way, finding the scale too grand, looking in his ceremonial buildings for the motifs he had got from Mogul builders, and finding in his adaptions further evidence of vainglory.

I looked in this partial way even at the lesser architecture of the British, the bungalows and houses built for officials in the country districts. They were pleasant to stay in; with their porticoes and verandahs, thick walls, high ceilings, and sometimes additional upper windows or wall openings, they were well suited to the climate. But they seemed too grand for the poverty of the Indian countryside. They seemed also to exaggerate the hardships of the Indian climate. So that, although absolutely of India, these British buildings, by their exaggeration, seemed to keep India at a distance.

But the years race on; new ways of feeling and looking can come to one. Indians have been building in free India for 40 years,and what has been put up in that time makes it easier to look at what went before. In free India Indians have built like a people without a tradition; they have for the most part done mechanical, surface imitations of the international style. What is not easy to understand is that, unlike the British, Indians have not really built for the Indian climate. They have been too obsessed with imitating the modern; and much of what has been done in this way - the dull, four-square towers of Bombay, packed far too close together; the concrete non-entity of Lucknow and Madras and the residential colonies of New Delhi - can only make hard tropical lives harder and hotter.

Far from extending the people's ideas of beauty and grandeur and human possibility - uplifting ideas which very poor people may need more than rich people - much of the architecture of free India has become part of the ugliness and crowd and the increasing physical oppression of India. Bad architecture in a poor tropical city is more than an aesthetic matter. It spoils people's day-to-day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that can flow into many different channels.

This Indian architecture, more disdainful of the people it serves than British Indian architecture ever was, now makes the most matter-of-fact Public Works Department bungalow of the British time seem like a complete architectural thought. And if one goes on from there, and considers the range of British building in India, the time span, the varied styles of these two centuries, the developing functions (railways stations, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, the Gateway of India in Bombay, the legislative buildings of Lucknow and New Delhi), it becomes obvious that British Indian architecture - which can so easily be taken for granted - is the finest secular architecture in the sub-continent.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bus shelters - the ugly

If you are convinced in your head that the people who read the Times of India most carefully and most completely are retired folks with all day to kill in a comfortable chair with a extendable foot support, you are wrong.

The correct answer is the Indian in a foreign land, mostly America, probably a software engineer, who misses home like crazy. He hunts the online edition for any news of his city, his locality, the street where his first girlfriend lived, the darshini where he hung out in his college days.

Such a person would know that the BBMP had awarded the contract for setting up Bus Shelters on the Outer Ring Road to Outdoor News India, the local avatar of Outdoor News International, a Murdoch owned global player in the outdoor advertisement space. Think hoardings, bus stops, metro station ads, telephone booth ads - everywhere except your underwear could be their motto. So I was excited. Bangalore already has the most beautiful bus shelters in India (topic for a future post), one of the many legacies of SM Krishna and his Bangalore Agenda Task Force.

So an international player which does the street furniture in Paris and Amsterdam will have no choice but to one up this. You think ?

They weren't having any of the "World Class Quality" nonsense, preferring the horses for courses approach. Hence the lame, washerman's donkey with an outsize bundle on it's back which made it look like a miracle it could stand up straight, leave alone move along steadily.

So this weird creature has a plastic painted metal colours look, with a huge neon lit sign on the roof for the sponsor's message. Grace, elagance, proportion, design sense. No, no, no and no. The only saving grace is that it makes no pretension to them either. Which is nice - imagine how well you would love Amar Singh if he admitted that he was a short, ugly man, with a squeeky voice and slimy eyes. Or not. Depends on whether your name ends in Bachchan.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time to build a new capital for Karnataka

Brasilia and Chandigarh come obviously to mind when you think of purpose built capital cities, created de novo to realize, in both cases, certain national aspirations.

Brasilia was the realization of a long cherished dream, written into the Brazilian constitution, to open up the country's sparse hinterlands to development by moving people from its overcrowded coastal cities.

Chandigarh was more a child of necessity, born of the loss of Punjab's historical and historic capital Lahore to the whimsy of the Radcliffe line. Nehru took this opportunity to make a seemingly bold break from received colonial wisdom, inviting Corbusier to create a new town based on modernist ideas, a scientific approach to urban design that was to be a grand repudiation of our colonial legacy.

The recent decade have seen two more such projects, this time built from the gushing wealth of the oil well. Both are blighted by serious legacy issues.

Abuja is Nigeria's new capital, an effort bythat cursed nation to build a capital on land that belong clearly neither to the Christian North or the Muslim South, an uncontested space for a conflicted nation. That noble ideal has been tainted by the rampant corruption that is a way of life in Nigeria (ranked at or or near the bottom in recent survey by Transparency International).

Astana is Kazakhstan's new capital, a gift to the huge Central Asian nation by it's long ruling dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, of a grand memorial to himself. It is his Persepolis and Daulatabad rolled into one. Grand in a very kitschy way but who knows, posterity may yet be kind.

But why does Karnataka need a new capital? It is blessed with the cosmopolitan, technology savvy, salubrious climate endowed Bangalore, located at the very heart of South India. Is Bangalore not good enough, you ask! It is good enough and more. And I would like it to stay that way. Let me explain.

Bangalore is a great town metamorphosing into a sordid city. This will in time lead to greatness, for what great city has not seen overcrowding, unsanitary congestion, crime & pollution, dying many little deaths to be reborn grander, scrubbed to a shining new.

From the ferment of these difficult places has come great literature and art, large leaps in philosophy and political thought, evolution of new economic models and, not least, those magnificent structures - the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey & London Bridge, the Opera House in Sydney - that are the familiar and beloved icons of our world.

What would Dickens have written about in a pastoral London! What need a french revolution in a manicured and genteel Paris! Would Central Park have been conceptualized in such a grand scale but as the shining opposite of the airless slum tenements of lower Manhattan. From the theories of Marx to the ideas of Corbusier, all were a response to and an escape from that gritty misery.

But this road is a long one, a lot of it still to go downhill before the exhilirating climb to the top can begin. Perhaps not in my lifetime will the depths have been plumbed. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Mega cities come with mega problems.

The civility that we see still in Bangalore has no place in a mega-city, where people are consumed in the daily grind, rushing from one place to another for fear of being left behind. Life is nothing but an all consuming effort to escape the misery of such a place.

Furthermore, as growth inexorably continues, there will follow an inevitable period of contention for limited resources by ever growing numbers. Such situations are fertile breeding ground for parochial, sons of the soil politics, divisive ideologies united in their hate of a common enemy, usually poor immigrants who speak different language or have a different skin colour or a strange religion; who are not us but them.

Is that really where we want to go. Doesn't sound like a good place to be. I say let Bombay have all that dubious greatness.

Let's hold on to the Bangalore we love. Hold on to what gardens and bungalows of her's remain. Cling mightily to the charm and civility of a
life were we have time to stand and stare at the beauty that surrounds us and accept the generosity of the community that makes us.
We can't do this by adopting the railway compartment mentality, where all those inside try keep out all those outside from getting in. It simply doesn't work.

Bangalore has been capital barely 60 years, and its choice saved Mysore the fate I mentioned above, leaving it a still gracious town of culture and heritage. So it would be no tragedy for the capital to be moved once more.
There are precedents for this - Islamabad was built as an alternative capital to the overcrowded previous capital - Karachi. Bhubaneshwar was built since Cuttack couldn't take any more people. So, to an extent, was Nigeria's new capital Abuja.

Make no mistake that Bangalore would still remain the most important city in Karnataka, even all of south India. It would be New York, not Albany. It would be Paris, not Brussels. It would be Hong Kong, not Beijing.

How do we go about building a new capital.

De novo cities are ambitious and challenging endeavors. New cities are blank canvasses, the best of them get filled in over time with vibrant colours and fascinating shapes by succeeding generations to become masterpieces. However they involve large commitments of time and effort and require daunting obstacles to be overcome. They also have a long take off period as people are unwilling to relocate to these places in the absence of adequate social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, markets, entertainment) and social infrastructure development is hampered by a lack of patronage - a classic chicken & egg problem.

A via media is to build the capital adjacent to an existing settlement, a small sized township which can provide the base facilities of human habitation as the new city develops.

An example in the neighbourhood is the development of Islamabad on the door steps of Rawalpindi. Such an approach has other drawbacks such as dealing with legacy issues and the need to strengthen the capacity of the existing town to handle the influx, but these are minor compared to the jumpstart benefits.

China has ofcourse built many cities overnight within or adjacent to its existing towns. Even Shanghai, which once rivaled Bombay as a commercial center for this part of the world, has a new city within its folds built on the swamps of Pudong across the bay.

So what are the options? Let's first set down some parameters for the choice of the new capital.

1. It should be atleast a 100 Km from Bangalore, preferably more. Any less and there is a danger of it turning into an extended Suburb (exurb) of Bangalore - a New Bangalore. That would make things much worse - people would live in Bangalore and commute to the new town, pushing up commute times. The area in between would gradually get populated, creating a sprawling urban conglomerate, a megapolis with mega problems.

2. It cannot be too far from Bangalore. At worst it should be an easy overnight journey (8hrs max), preferably less; for a simple, compelling though transient reason. During the ramp-up period, a lot of bureaucrats and other pioneers will leave their families behind in Bangalore and do a Monday to Friday commute to the new city till the social infrastructure builds up. Build it too far and the hurdles to easy adoption become very high. It will remain a bridge too far to cross.

3. It should be somewhat more centrally located than Bangalore with reference to rest of the state. That is an easy bar - Bangalore is more or less at the centre of South India, but that places it at one corner of Karnataka.
This criterion will out one strong candidate, Mangalore. Also two peripheral ones, Kolar & Bidar.

4. A reasonably equitable climate. Ofcourse nothing can come up to Bangalore's standard here, but perhaps the regions with the greatest extremes can be avoided. That rules out many part of Hyderabad Karnataka (Raichur, Bellary) with scorching summers.

So what are the options? I believe there are 3 schools of thought here.
  1. Move the capital to the north of the state. Being much less developed than the south (old Mysore and Dakshina Kannada), the region would benefit from the boost in investment and spending that a capital city attracts. If you subscribe to this school of thought, Hubli-Dharwad is a logical first choice.
  2. Locate it as centrally as possible so it is accessible from all parts of the state. This would suggest either Shimoga or Davengere.
  3. Keep it near Bangalore so people can commute in 2-3 hours. This would impose a lower cost in the transition, besides having access to a significant international airport (BIAL). Keeping the centrality criterion in mind, Hassan is a strong candidate. It is equidistant from Bangalore, Mysore and Mangalore, 3 of the 4 most significant population centers in the state. Climatically also, it is not too different from Mysore.
Those are my ideas. I'd love to hear other points of view. Let a public debate start. We need to start talking now if we hope to start building it in the next 5 years.