In the search of ‘Difference’ & the need for a Designed Public Realm
“I am suspicious of architecture which makes pompous claims for itself. I think a design that sets out with the conscious intention of being Iconic is unworthy. And, I think a pre-requisite of a good design is one which contributes to its context.” - Graham Morrison
Kenneth Frampton, in his book, Modern Architecture, published in 1980 first introduced the term Critical Regionalism. Simply put, this term stood for architectural work that was happening outside the seemingly all-pervading blanket of modernism. The work though contemporary in its making, referenced local conditions (like climate, availability of materials, etc.), local building traditions, and was seen as a particular product of the site. Indian architects like Charles Correa & Balkrishna Doshi (IIM-Bangalore) were seen as part of this brigade. Though very different in terms of expression the works of these architects were contemporary responses to the specific conditions presented by their location. Using a vocabulary which was of the time, these architects were attempting to rediscover, at an essential level, the spirit of the place. Walking through the Management Institute in Bangalore now, it is difficult to imagine it in any other location...it seems rooted and ancient.
Large-scale architectural work in China and the U.A.E. (Dubai, in particular) is fundamentally changing the way we approach the local, and the meaning of context. Clients nowadays, often seek a unique, ‘different’ solution - they want a spectacle. Architects too are now seeing incredible patronage to follow through on ideas that till recently were simply impossible. In this context what happens to the traditional notions of the city fabric, about architecture as ‘backdrop’? Is it appropriate to think of every building in the city as a unique expression of the client and/or the architect - as an icon? We live in the age of YouTube, Myspace, Blogger, etc. and personal expressions are finding widespread audiences through these avenues. So is this just a sign of the times? If the nature of architecture in the city then is random, eclectic and unpredictable how is order established? Though I would like for clear distinctions in terms of scale, and character between public institutions and private buildings, I am not sure Indian cities are about these distinctions anymore. A return to that ideal of a strong fabric dotted with iconic public institutions (the temple, the church, etc.) seems unrealistic. To address the chaos we see around us because of the preponderance of ‘different’ buildings we need to look elsewhere.
Our city needs a clear Urban Design agenda for the public realm. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, said, ”...when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing democracy. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” Bangalore needs sidewalks, public squares, and a designed environment for the pedestrian. The consistency of this environment will help mitigate the inconsistency of our architectural landscape.
London is a good example of this. There is a lot of new development within the heart of the city and as we see elsewhere this work is very diverse in character and though stringent planning processes exist, these new buildings defy categorization. What makes this work within the city is the strong urban character of the streets, the consistent quality of the street furniture, planting, lighting and signage, the rules that govern the way these new buildings approach the street (in keeping with the neighbours), etc. Bangalore needs this sort of carefully considered set of guidelines, which govern the way our public realm is created and preserved. Pedestrian sidewalks, designed streetscapes, and access regulations are mostly non-existent. This may be achieved through large-scale public works or we could imagine that each site owner is responsible for his part of the sidewalk and pays for its creation and maintenance. An overall vision for this is required and it would be a good addendum to our new master plan document.
Having condoned the predilection of architects and clients to create icons, I must add that in a city full of icons, there can be no icons. Like Syndrome says in The Incredibles, “I’ll give them heroics. I’ll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone’s ever seen! And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone’s super...no one will be.”