MARCH 2021

Urban Openscape: cities where the common man will preside

Shaurya Chauhan is an architect and independent researcher based in New Delhi. Graduate from Sushant School of Art & Architecture (Gurgaon), he has a keen interest in the fields of urban placemaking, participatory design processes, and application of open source & analytics in architecture. Shaurya is concerned with the widening gap between the top-down architectural development initiatives and the ground-reality of the citizens. He is currently engaged in attempting to bridge this gap by questioning & re-calibrating the architectural practices in place.

“If there is to be a ‘new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form.”
-Rem Koolhaas, S, M, L, XL 1995

The pace and degree of change in the last hundred years are hard to comprehend. In his 2016 book ‘Thank You for Being Late’, Thomas L. Friedman posits that we have crossed a threshold into the Age of Accelerations characterized by change so rapid it challenges human capacity to adapt to it readily. On one hand, revolutionary innovation unimaginable even a decade ago has become the new normal accompanying the progress of the World Wide Web and the digital playground (Elefante, 2018). The age of information is changing the way we live. On the other hand, the city’s defiant persistence and apparent vigour, despite the collective failure of all agencies that predict its behaviour or try to influence it – creatively, logistically, politically – is evident. However, even with these phenomena in plain sight, the building stands unapologetically rigid. The architect insists upon fitting the emerging phenomenon into pre-defined solutions, at the cost of ostracizing the citizen’s creativity (Koolhaas, 1995). In India, the urban population is rising much faster than its total population. Level of urbanization has increased from 17.29% in 1951 to 31.6 % in 2011. With the urban population in India, which is nearly 377 million, poised to grow to 600 million by 2030, there is a dire need to re-visit the conventional systems of city design. The growing disconnect between the app-empowered omnipotent user of today and the large-scale top-down development
policies of the authorities leads the architect into new territory. The current discussions in architecture, therefore, revolve around the need for the profession to open up to the public and develop awareness among the users about the possibility of non-rigid urbanism. The idea of re-orientation of the role of the architect to that of a mediator is emerging as a prominent and
popular solution and for good reason.

The citizen, however, is no longer willing to morph her aspirations to fit these boxes designed by committee. Traditional models of architectural design have been destabilized. With the increased influence of informal development at the urban level, technological literacy at the architectural level and Do-It-Yourself culture at the individual user level, the design is increasingly produced by a network of collaboratives. (Boston, 2010) The role and relevance of architecture is rapidly changing with the change in socio-cultural dynamics of the society- moving from the sole authority of the designer to participatory equity of the stakeholders and the final users. The close-knit communities that traditionally produced societal prosperity have become much less desirable in the past decade. The Human Capital Theory of regional developmentposits that the Creative Class- the largest and fastestgrowing group of working people in the cities- value openness to diversity and opportunity to express their creativity over the physical attraction of malls, apartments, infrastructure and such. (Sassen S., Cities
in a World Economy, 2018) In Delhi, the response to this growing trend of sharing over sole ownership has seen the private sector thrive (Uber-pool, AirBnB, RentoMojo) and the public sector is bound to follow suit. With the masses now brought to the forefront of the city (Intense commercial and housing schemes anchored on the power of the Delhi Metro), priority
needs to shift to endeavours that cater to the consumption trends of the masses over preferences of the privileged few.

The people are more interested in the process over the product. The notion of “access” (to tools, information, design) has become the single most important factor determining the perceived quality of life in urban centres. (Florida, 2005) Born between 1980 and 2000 and having lived through an economic crisis as either teenagers or young adults, Millennials and Generation Z also show somewhat divergent consumption patterns when compared to older generations. They are proponents of the growth of peer-to-peer platforms that provide access to shared commodities and services across the globe. Sharing economy or collaborative living is the new normal. The tools of unobstructed connectivity, alternative models for capital
procurement and access to information are ready to propel the profession into the mainstream of consumer culture. As is the trend, the act of mediation between the User and the Urbanity in the cities opens up a reinvigorated role for the architect, one that is learnt from various fields, beyond the built environment, that has changed our world as we know it.

This ‘new urbanism’ requires the synthesis of a dynamic development approach which keeps userneeds and customizability at the forefront. This new approach to urban design will not aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling frameworks that accommodate processes that are transient and informal. These underlying trends and patterns will be accounted for and given a share in modifying the project, as the urban fabric changes over time.

Bernard Tschumi once proposed that architecture is continually transformed by the multitudinous events that take place in and around it; events which in themselves are too varied to be described by any architectural program. (Tschumi, Architecture and event, 1994) In the programs of the future, airports are simultaneously amusement arcades, athletic facilities, cinemas, and so on. These non-causal relationships between form and function, or space and action go beyond poetic confrontations of unlikely bedfellows. (Tschumi, Architecture & Disjunction, 1996) Keeping this idea of mutations at the forefront, there would be some focus on generating a transaction log between the user and the spaces he would use, with respect to the level of engagement with the existing typologymonetary and spatial, her appropriation of spaces to perform recreational and livelihood functions as well as the modification of physical infrastructure for personal use.

Active participation and specialized information are readily available to the app-empowered generations of the present and the foreseeable future. The idea of a ‘modern urbanscape’ in architecture requires more than openly publishing architectural designs; it demands a rethinking of the discipline’s theory and practice—a re-diagramming of its processes and the roles of the subjects involved in them. The future of the city is being driven by the culture of collaboration and the creative class’ need for creating instead of simply consuming. The city of the future promises to be shaped by citizens themselves. The expertise of all the fields- from the technical to the creative- will only provide the tools for the people to shape their environment.

With the lack of user participation repeating throughout the history of modern urbanity, new opensource models for a collaborative approach are bound to have dramatic implications. The pressing question is how to recalibrate architectural practice toward people, and the answer will be to put architecture into the hands of those people themselves. (Mohirta, 2006) The modern urbanscape in India would be characterized by independent but interconnected production, with the designer serving as a curator, catalysing the collective-individual scale. People will inhabit naturally, based on their preferences, yet exist harmoniously in the shared spaces. In the words of John Lennon, “The people have the power. All we have to do is awaken it.” Designers will just mediate. The people will preside.

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