The formulation, formation and function of a city has always intrigued me. To understand it better, I began by studying architecture, and now, the pursuit has led me to learn about planning. I would like to take this opportunity to illustrate how, in my own experience, architectural practice has evolved and how the role of the architect seems to have expanded from the master mason to a master planner.
Some experiences more than others (some of which were also more frustrating than others) have played an important role in making me—the architect—want to pause, learn more and grow up to become a planner. I say grow up, because in order to even attempt at changing the world, it is essential for architects to broaden their skill sets. Only then, with their spatial sensibility and experiential sensitivity, will they be in an extraordinary position to make a tangible difference.
Having lived in five different cities in India—Gandhinagar, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Mumbai—I never had any particular attachment with one place. Instead, I would compare: People in Kolkata were friendlier, while they were more conservative in Chennai; our house in Chennai was twice the size of our house in Mumbai, though it cost the same; it would take 40 minutes to drive from one end of Chennai to the other (10 miles), 40 minutes to drive from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar (20 miles), 40 minutes to drive from Andheri West to Andheri East in Mumbai (4 miles). And I could go on. Once, I asked my grandfather what the difference was between Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad and Kolkata. He said, “Gandhinagar is a town, Ahmedabad is a city and Calcutta is a very big city.”
For a long time, that was my definition and standard understanding of scale.
When I looked back, I realized that I didn’t remember those cities by their architectural language or by their road designs and infrastructure, not even by their urban fabric. What I remembered best was houses I lived in and friends I made. This changed radically when I began studying architecture.
Only during my Architecture degree in Mumbai did I learn that Gandhinagar was planned on the principles of Swiss-born modernist architect Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Ahmedabad was filled with buildings designed by American master architect Louis Kahn, and Mumbai and Kolkata featured some of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic and Gothic revival architecture (like St.Paul’s cathedral in Kolkata, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai). As I revisited all those cities, I viewed them through a completely new lens. I began labelling and defining everything I saw. Suddenly, cities became diagrams that allowed me to criticize and experiment. The more I analyzed a place, the more I distanced myself from it. I did indeed learn more about each city, but with knowledge came awareness, and with awareness came power.
In order to use the power more responsibly I decided to travel more. I went to other Indian cities: Jaipur, New Delhi, Chandigarh and Agra—cities where architects and planners worked closely with the king (Jaipur and Agra) and the state (New Delhi and Chandigarh) to build identities and define imaginations for kingdom and country to follow. None of these architects were natives to the cities they designed. They just needed a canvas to express their ideas and spread their imaginations.
Walking through those buildings, I understood architecture’s universal appeal: In the Assembly building in Chandigarh, I felt as if the building was designed for me. Although there was a spatial explosion of volumes, the fun detailing on the columns (concept sketches on some, marks made in the concrete by Corbusier, some cut-outs sculped out in the concrete) made the space more perceptible.
Following the three-week long trip, I began working on my thesis in which I re-imagined the architect’s role as one who reveals infrastructure and makes it an integral part of the citizens’ experiential realm. In doing so, I hoped to not only provide citizens with knowledge of how the city works, but also to enable them to experience its workings in their daily routine. Thus, I made the human experiences of traversing physical infrastructural systems a prerogative.
Over the next two years, following graduation, I worked as an architectural intern in Turku (Finland) and then as an architect in Mumbai (India). First, for six months, a friend and I worked under Italian-Finnish architect, Marco Casagrande, on a proposal to erase the modernist gridiron highway stretch that divides the Turku cathedral from a public park, and to instead connect them as one large public plaza. Our drawings were published in the local newspaper and the designs brought back memories of pre-1960s Turku. Citizens wrote on the newspaper's website that they were reminded of cobbled streets, trams connecting different parts—and they wanted it back. Today, Turku is considering an ambitious project, transferring the highway to the underground and freeing up the surface space for pedestrian and public transport use only.
The architect planted an idea, the people exalted, and the city obeyed.
Back in Mumbai, I worked on projects ranging from private bungalows to vehicle showrooms and industrial sheds. Being budget- and client-driven projects, they revealed a world of compromise and manipulation. Here, the architect had become the draftsman and construction supervisor who had to deal with corrupt municipal officials, devious contractors and shifty clients. The more I learnt about the city, the more I despised it. From the simple place where people lived, worked and made friends, it became a place where people plotted, manipulated and networked purely for selfish benefits. The machinery that the city runs on had started crumbling.
The architect needs to break the shackles and take on larger responsibilities. Not as Howard Roark (The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand) but as Dominick Cobb (Inception by Christopher Nolan), the architect needs to plant an idea, and then let the people develop it as their own, giving them ownership and making them responsible for it.
One semester into the planning program at UC Berkeley, I feel that the architect’s sensibilities can flow very seamlessly into the planner’s visions, and together they must synergize into one solid alliance. The time has come for Frank Lloyd Wright’s words to come alive – “Maybe we (architects) can show the government how to operate better as a result of better architecture”.... and planning!.
Arijit Sen is a First Year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. He is an architect from Mumbai, India and has worked and travelled extensively in Europe and India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.