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Small Scale: Big Change

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As Indian mega-cities are increasingly getting urbanized and overpopulated, the small and medium sized cities residing in between the rural hinterland and hyper urban growth are witnessing decentralized form of urbanism. The architects practicing in these cities form a vital link between the hierarchy of settlements and the diffusion of development, technology and knowledge in the region. Taking away the spotlight from renowned architects and construction projects of the metros,Sapna Srivastava speaks to architects practicing in smaller cities of modern India to understand the architectural scenario there.

There are certain conspicuous difference in architectural preferences between small towns and big cities. For starters, in big cities, affordability and land costs are the two important parameters of architectural design. Cities grow vertically with ‘high-density-high-rise’ concept so the luxuries of lawn and backyard are more often than not absent. On the contrary, smaller towns have good happiness index. Commuting time is less, green space percentage is more and with horizontal growth pattern people interact more. The design inclination in general is towards traditional planning but the trend seems to be fast changing. Ar. P. Mathew Joseph & Saira Mathew practicing in Cochin for past 27 years add,” Vaastu still plays a major role in client’s life, but there are some cases where homeowners refer for innovative style and newer materials. Most clients opt for a mixture of vernacular and contemporary style with emphasis on cost effective buildings.

The internet access plays a tremendous role in shaping up the thought process of designs in the region yet, there is a lack of exposure for architects to global practices, innovations and materials compared to the professionals in metros.”

Nowadays, smaller city clients too are opting for metro city styles like steel and glass tall towers though, adoption of technology is happening only at small scale.Though small city needn’t clip the wings of ambition, the challenge is to preserve the local architecture in the present, while shaping the city architec ture for future. On the other hand, this may also present an opportunity to explore new design possibilities and “fresh” architectural ideas.– Ar. P. Mathew Joseph & Saira Mathew

What is Indian architecture lacking?

In the pursuit of modernity, structural steel and glass cuboids are taking over, not just the metros, but the culture-rich smaller towns and cities as well. Contemporary Indian architecture lacks public awareness and vernacular inspiration as much as the fast developing cities lack efficient urban spaces and public transport. Also, we don’t produce enough architects. Presently, the non-core professionals are majorly compensating for the shortage of ‘core professionals’ in the built environment sector. There are a number of factors responsible for the shortage of design professionals – inadequate number of design institutes, outdated academic structures, limited student exposure to innovation and market needs, lack of adequately trained faculty and failure of colleges to keep up-to date with new technologies. The scenario is bleaker in smaller urban centres as the graduating architects tend to gravitate towards bigger metros where large capital intensive projects are more. So, unfortunately the cauldron of design innovation remains mainly the urban capitalist centres.

The strategy to address the challenge has to be two pronged. Design education and public awareness has to be modified so that architects see smaller owns also as opportunities. Recounting his experiences,

Ar. Chandan Parab says,” After working with an American architectural firm Bent Severin & Associates in Mumbai and Ar. Dean D’cuz in Goa, I headed for a research project in Lisboa Portugal with a scholarship from Fundacao Oriente. I started my design firm in Goa in 2001 and have realized that if one values growth in terms of monetary benefits, Goa may not be a very good option. The market is very small, slow and offers no variety of projects. It is a place for passionate architects who do individual practice and are focused on small details. It will continue to be like this for at least another decade till urbanization and economic realities overpower the Goan’s obsession to live and work in laid back style.”

In small cities like Goa, architects reach a point of saturation very early. The biggest test of patience and perseverance for an architect is when he realizes that the size/ type of projects does not grow/change and neither his profit increases. – Ar. Chandan Parab


The Design Challenge

Indeed, in many smaller urban areas even today the rules and precepts of architectural practices are markedly different from modern methods. The communicating of architectural ideas remain as basic narrative drawings drawn by a local contractor or mason relying on vernacular wisdom. As one of the architects from Manipur states, “In most cases, the person who plans to construct rely too much on a “boro mistri” and not an architect. It is alarming that there are no engineers consulted on the amount of steel, reinforcements to be used, the type of footing, thickness of slab and other engineering factors. This is because, the client shies away from giving professional fees to the architects and engineers. R.C.C is a relatively new technology in Manipur. The damages for unplanned and ill-designed constructions can be in terms of leakage, which will result in corrosion of steel, reducing the life span of structures and structural frame. There is lack of awareness among the people that paying professional fees to architects would highly be cost effective and in wow value to aesthetics and design terms of layout and ventilation.”

“Architects don’t just provide drawings but are aware of the new construction practices, technology, quality and rates of the materials and manage and supervise the project till the end in coordination with engineers and other consultants. The architects are relatively underpaid when compared with IT and other professionals. Even the corporate and government undermine the value attached to the profession and pay only 3-4 percent of the estimated cost,” says Shiva Leelanand, chief consultant – urban design, Associate of the Indian Institute of Architects, Hyderabad.

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