Taking a relook at old cities
One of the most riveting lectures/presentations that I have heard in recent years was delivered by architect/urban planner Rahul Mehrotra who holds the Urban Planning Chair of Harvard University’s South Asia Institute. Mehrotra was delivering the Cyrus Jhabwala memorial lecture in Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC). I had planned to make a perfunctory visit for the lecture, but when I sat down, I was blown away by his vision and the range of his work. What was really striking about his amazing presentation was that he succeeded in re-pivoting an individual to see or perceive those places/events that he or she has been watching forever.
I was born in the city of Agra where trips to Taj Mahal, Sikandra, Agra Fort were usual. And it never occurred to me that there could be another way of visiting the various monuments of the city. Mehrotra edited a book planning for Conservation-Looking at Agra. The book is an outcome of research and speculation by scholars from Harvard University on how South Asian cities like Agra in India can explore the “agency of design between architecture, critical conservation, urban planning and design, and landscape architecture in heritage conservation, economic development.” This explanation pulled out from the volume may sound complex, but what I could comprehend from his presentation was that seeing Agra from river Yamuna provided a different perspective altogether. He also suggested that Emperor Shahjahan, too, visualised Agra from the banks of the river and there are many monuments and old buildings that can only be seen from a boat. Roads just miss out on many of these old structures. I am not sure whether the Agra Development Authority or the state government has heeded to this perspective to develop this old city that is struggling to dispose of its waste and sort out its traffic and pollution problems, but what’s apparent is that Mehrotra and his researchers provided a most creative approach to reworking a city like this.
Mehrotra, who divides time between Boston and Mumbai, has also applied his research and creative tools on the Kumbh Mela that is organised every 16 years in Allahabad. His fascination with the fair was for the manner in which 35 million people live in a temporary “pop-up city” built at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna after the rivers have retreated. These river banks are taken over by the Kumbh Mela authorities and a temporary city is built with basic elements like strings, bamboo, plastic sheets etc. This megacity is a classic case of temporary urbanism where the city comes up for a purpose and then comes apart when the event gets over. He believes that every city has both permanent and impermanent components, but town planners build permanent cities. He wonders why the same kind of planning visible in Kumbh Mela cannot be applied to other urban centres. He also suggested the possibility of constructing impermanent cities for India’s floating populations that are in the vicinity of about 330 million. Mehrotra put these ideas in his book, Kumbh Mela: Mapping the ephemeral Megacity.
Emperor Shahjahan, too, visualised Agra from the banks of the river and there are many monuments and old buildings that can only be seen from a boat. Roads just miss out on many of these old structures. I am not sure whether the Agra Development Authority or the state government has heeded to this perspective to develop this old city that is struggling to dispose of its waste and sort out its traffic and pollution problems, but what’s apparent is that Mehrotra and his researchers provided a most creative approach to reworking a city like this.
Another remarkable exploration of Mehrotra was to build a permanent abode for the hard-working elephants that scale the Amer fort in Jaipur everyday. His understanding of the elephant’s needs made for a fascinating hearing. He explained how his project benefited when the government paid less attention to him and also on how the elephant caregivers and their families prospered due to this project. Some of the enterprising children of these mahouts turned it around as a major attraction for foreign tourists who are allowed to give a bath to the elephants or feed them for a price. Mehrotra was also mindful of the need to generate fodder and he created check dams on a little stream that contributed to greening an area which had mostly dry bushes. It was truly fascinating to hear Mehrotra share many of these projects, which should inspire our young architects and urban planners to be conscious of how future buildings will look alongside earlier structures.It was indeed an enriching presentation and I am still playing in my mind the possibility of the government creating temporary Kumbh-like cities and providing dignity to many of those who lose their dignity when they migrate to cities.