As a class V student I was enamoured by a small text book with line drawings filled with water colours. The subject of the book was houses around the world. It was written by a very kind man who wanted to apprise a young reader to understand various kinds of architectures that developed around the world. Most of what was mentioned in the book is now lost in the deep recesses of my mind except for those water colour filled line drawings and the central idea behind the book.
It revolved around the fact that architecture and the way of life within the house was a direct reflection of a region or a country’s geographical, environmental and climatic conditions. It evolved over a period of time painstakingly incorporating human needs and natural constraints to come up with a near perfect solution.
This was the reason Japan had houses built from light material and Spartan in their décor. Tribals in the India’s north eastern region would build their houses on bamboo as most of the time they lived in water logged areas. Chinese had their pagoda style houses, while all the houses built in region experiencing snow fall had inclined roofs. Houses in warm and sultry climates had high ceilings, long corridors and big windows.
However, in the last 40 odd years as the globalisation has taken roots in every regional economy, people, especially in Asia and Africa, are moving in large numbers from rural to urban centres. This is leading to a decline in diversity in architecture.
The architecture is becoming monotonous. From the glittering new cities coming up in China to urban sprawls in Latin America, Africa and India, the trend is unmistakable. Huge concrete and glass structures for office space and garish Soviet style multi-storied apartment blocks are coming up with nauseating regularity. Interspersed between them are large slums where living conditions, for those who left the village for a better tomorrow, are worse than what they were in the rural areas.
Policy planners, engineers and real estate developers insist this is the only economically viable way to accommodate millions who are pouring into urban areas. They say the days of idyllic urban lifestyle is over and we should brace for the rough and tumble of over populated and cramped concrete jungles. In another words the diversity of architecture should be forfeited to fulfil the immediate need of a sea of humanity. Any talk of an alternate view falls on deaf ears at best and at worst the lone voice can be muzzled by the most potent weapon of all — ridicule.
Yet a closer look at the urban development betrays an inherent unsustainable trend. High rises accommodate a large number of people within a small area. But this comes at a very high price. In cities across India parking of vehicles around these high rises has now assumed epidemic proportions. Reaching to and getting out of them is becoming a nuisance.
The glass structures trap the tropical sunlight and heat and make the buildings much warmer than the ones with less usage of glass. They need heavy investments in installing chillers and consequently need copious amount of air-conditioning.
Similarly, the residential blocks face parking problems, shrinking space for children to play and also needs constant power supply to maintain elevators. Both the residential and office buildings are energy guzzlers. They also need huge investments in water supply and sanitation.
Despite town planners’ assertion about the “efficient way” of accommodating millions, a large majority, even in strictly controlled China, find themselves cut off from these hip quarters and take refuge into the shanty towns sprawling in every city.
So the question is why the model of dense vertical settlement is being pursued? Actually the tussle is between vertical growth and horizontal expansion. The stock argument against horizontal expansion is lack of land. This is true for many coastal cities like Mumbai, Shanghai, Tokyo and others. However, even here the experiment with vertical settlement hasn’t yielded desired results as a large number of people find refuge in horizontal settlements (case of Mumbai is pertinent).
Is it time to get out of the vertical-horizontal debate and look at the problem of settlement from a different perspective viz a vis energy and resource consumption? The cost of vertical growth should be calculated in terms of energy and resources consumed in creating and maintaining them. Also a life cycle study should be undertaken to find out how long will these mushrooming high rises, survive the test of time.
The cost should be compared with the horizontal expansion and its maintenance. Based on these calculations a new paradigm of development should evolve where verticality reduces its “commanding heights” and expansion sets its own boundaries to create a viable urban conurbation based on manageable and mellow heights and compact smart spacing.
This new paradigm will also create a space for many dying architectural practices to make a comeback. It will give architects a whole range of new tools, practices and innovative designs to choose from. It would be economically viable, inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
Ironically it took a disaster to create such space for an experiment to be carried out. In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in India’s western state of Gujarat in 2001, the city of Bhuj was completely destroyed. It was a classic case of rampant and mindless urban expansion. Tall buildings in cramped areas jostled with one another for a slice of sunlight. Narrow roads made living claustrophobic. But the calamity destroyed all that was built over the decades and in the old quarter over the centuries.
The entire city was razed to the ground and rebuilt from the scratch. As the memory of devastation was recent care was taken by the administration to desist from making the same mistakes of creating concrete monstrosities. In this space a Japanese architect named Shigeru Ban entered with his unique ideas. For the economically weaker sections of the society he created what is now his signature style of paper log houses.
These light, sturdy, human friendly and environmentally sustainable houses showed the way towards an environmentally harmonious and architecturally refreshing and diverse lifestyle.
Mr Ban is not alone. A new breed of architects around the world is experimenting with age old practices and principles. They are incorporating them into their modern designs with spectacular effect. The most notable impact of incorporating many traditional design features is a considerably reduced impact on construction material as well as energy use in the built up area. In other words these structures have a light environment footprint.
However, policy planners, burdened by politicians and real estate cartels, have to get their act together. Town planners will have to re-imagine the urban landscape.
The lust for mindless vertical growth dominated by steel and glass frames is a very 20th century phenomenon. The cities of tomorrow should aim to be benign towards their inhabitants and not generate trepidation as is the case today.
Digging deep into the vast historical repository of regional architecture would produce a goldmine of knowledge which will usher in a new era of sustainable architecture and urban living.
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