Thursday, January 10, 2008

Where Architecture is a Rotting Corpse

Salt Lake, Calcutta.

In August 1995, while I was working as a consultant on an environmental management strategy & action planning project for metropolitan Calcutta, I requested my friend Devananda Chatterji, architect, to write a note about the nature of building regulations in Calcutta and how this affected architectural aesthetics and practice. Deva was kind enough to comply promptly. He wrote a note titled "Where Architecture is a Rotting Corpse."

I remembered that a couple of years ago, and searched in vain for Deva's note. Fortunately, Deva managed to find his copy and shared it with me. He wrote:

I have not changed the content though my views about urban densities have changed after doing the canal proposal (of Unnayan). In fact, in all other aspects the canal study demonstrates the ideas discussed here, as all these were done around the same time. I guess things are not so bleak now as compared to the situation when this was written, though current developments remain thoroughly lop-sided, as we had discussed in our long dialogue on slum development a year ago.

I reproduce Deva's note here.

A note on Building & Planning Regulations in Calcutta

Though one would understand that the object of formulating building and planning regulations would be to ensure an acceptable standard of public health and safety for the citizens, here in Calcutta we have a situation that is restrictive to the point of effectively shutting out quality and creativity in the built environment. As we know, a city can never be noteworthy without a high standard of architecture, urban design and public spaces. So where do we stand in contemporary Calcutta?

At present, building regulations here seem to be based on the premise that every individual or agency putting up a building is simply out to make the maximum profit from it at any cost, and therefore such intent must be thwarted. But in practice nothing is thwarted and in spite of the customary demands and impositions by the approval functionaries, real estate profiteering at all cost remains unchecked, thanks to the massive and well-oiled network of corruption and local politics.

In the context of the current industrial decay, property development is one of the few fields where business is flourishing and permissible building densities in Calcutta are high as compared to other Indian cities. Among other shortcomings, the regulations and controls are so framed, that to avail the maximum permissible saleable area at least cost, that every developer wants, in almost all cases the result is a monstrosity, even with frequent attempts at external cosmetics. While various rules concerning different parts of buildings prove to be unnecessarily restrictive in practice, increasingly the buildings are of dubious liveability and often unsafe.

Since exceptions prove the rule, what happens when for some reason, a well-meaning person or group sets out to put up some genuinely creative, innovative and pathbreaking project in terms of design or construction? But such a situation is off course a long shot and the situation at present is such, that even mainstream buildings of good and decent architectural quality are difficult to put up without the intervention of powerful backers.

Architects, non-architects and regulations

Because of past practice, a large section of building professionals allowed to prepare building plans and handle their implementation in the Calcutta area, are not qualified architects. Nor are most functionaries handling the statutory building approval process in the relevant departments. Few, if any, among either of the above groups have any concern for or exposure to quality, imagination and subtlety of design. Though architects are the only professionals trained to conceive buildings from different aspects and in their totality in the complex world of today, they remain marginal players in the building field in Calcutta and of very uneven abilities and goals. Though such trends are likely to persist for now these can only plunge the city into further depths of disgrace.

A way to address this impasse could be to develop different approval systems for different kinds of projects within a flexible system of controls and guidelines. First of all, building and planning regulations and urban design guidelines need to be framed for lower densities by a body of professionals known for their creativity, knowledge, liberal-mindedness, foresight and integrity. Departmental staff handling the approval process need to be adequately trained to understand such regulations and can then assess average building plans submitted following such regulations.

At another level, developers, or other promoters, organisations and patrons can be offered tax, FAR or other suitable incentives to put up buildings of architectural quality and creativity and with public oriented features such as arcades, open spaces, terraces and landscape. Only a body of appropriately qualified people can approve such projects. Some form of screening process may be required for submitting such plans for approval by such a body, as this is not just a matter of cosmetics or ostentation. But all approval processes need to be streamlined and flexible and avoid delays.

While professionals can be made accountable with respect to regulations laid down by their professional bodies and associations, unless the approval authorities are also made accountable, the prevailing chaos is bound to prevail. Some of the personnel in the municipality have even been known to act on individual whims and prejudices. In view of recent events in the city, although there may not be any foolproof and practicable method of extensive checking for structural risks and fire or other hazards, it may not be a bad idea to conduct some form of periodic inspection of premises and recommend steps to be taken by the owners and occupants.

As things stand however, Calcutta has neither a development plan nor any urban design guidelines for different areas, not to speak of any environmental or conservation policy, but only some lopsided building rules, resulting in a situation that only contributes to the degradation of the city. There is an urgent need to bring together the best minds in each of the above categories and frame relevant regulations and guidelines. Things being what they are today, it should be noted that, contrary to popular perceptions, the best minds may or may not be among those who are commercially the most successful or able to hold senior positions in government departments or academic institutes.

In this context, one may think of certain approaches to building that have been practised in various cultures at different periods of history, including ancient India, and some form of these have been considered across the world in recent times. For the bulk of building activity such as mass housing and commercial and office accommodation, systems of different building patterns and details can be developed by highly talented professionals and popularised through building manuals. Engineers, technicians and even some architects, can then adopt such systems, within the framework of imaginative and farsighted planning, urban design and environmental guidelines.

Naturally, such systems of building patterns and details must offer sufficient variety and flexibility for individual needs, with the possibility of extensions and alterations and of combining different systems, but involving simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly construction methods and technical systems, as far as possible. Before they are propagated, the systems for adoption need to be carefully selected on the basis of their merit. Exercises such as these would require intensive studies and public discussions may be considered.

All public, prominent or important buildings, facilities and areas must be designed and supervised by registered architects, landscape designers, urban designers, planners etc. as the case may be. Aesthetics, originality, innovation must be encouraged rather than suppressed for all levels of building activity but such projects, large or small, must be done by professionals who are fully qualified in the relevant field. Obviously, such work can only be assessed and approved by a body of people who are likewise qualified in that field. This approval body can have discussions with the authors of the plans and should have the authority to make allowances and exemptions from specific provisions of the regulations, if need be, to achieve a high standard of excellence, at their discretion, as well as the authority to reject substandard work or suggest improvements.

At present, though the Calcutta Municipal Corporation allows different professionals to prepare building plans and handle their implementation, registered architects are permitted to take up any project, whereas others are permitted to take up projects of any size, complexity or importance, provided these do not exceed a certain height. It is meaningless to impose restrictions in terms of height alone but should also involve project size, type, importance and design manoeuvres. In architectural terms, tall buildings are not necessarily difficult projects but because of their civic prominence, they need to be designed and implemented with care. As mentioned earlier, in practice the abilities and ideas of architects and related professionals vary widely and if need be, truly unconventional or pathbreaking work may be referred to an independent panel of relevant professionals of proven creativity, discernment, openness and personal integrity.

The city beautiful

Whatever exists in the name of a planning process in Calcutta, there seems to be little awareness of various aspects of modern day city building. For instance, a diversity of street and plot layouts can be encouraged rather than the same gridiron pervading the entire city and leading to dreariness, monotony, uniformity and confusion since most places appear the same. Urban design guidelines specific to different areas need to be framed with adequate attention being given to public open spaces, heritage conservation, mixed-use areas with multi-use building complexes. Pedestrian plazas, alleyways, covered streets, arcades, overhangs, terraces, different levels above and below ground, pedestrian bridges and underpasses etc. are some of the features that can greatly enhance and enrich the urban experience.

Row houses with inner courtyards and other building typologies can be viable in specific situations. Landscape or other features such as the recently built musical fountain in the maidan need to be located with much greater care. Public amenities with barred access and heavy railings around them are a testimony to the pointlessness of the whole exercise. As mentioned above, all public areas must be designed by talented professionals with relevant qualifications. Needless to state, the entire planning approach needs to be in tune with the unique riverine ecology of the region with sufficient consideration for greenery, water, wildlife, fisheries, recycling and renewable energy systems.

Though it not within our scope here to discuss infrastructure, it may be pertinent to make certain observations in this regard. Apart from the small road areas in Calcutta, the chaotic mix of different types of transport and the pathetic condition of the road surfaces, much of the traffic congestion is a result of disruption caused by digging. When new areas are developed, public road networks and their widths and parking areas must be predetermined after careful studies of projected building and traffic densities. Separation of slow moving vehicles and adequate bays for bus stops are essential even at the cost of saleable plot area.

Building rules need to address the problem of dumping building materials on roads and pavements. Although urban roads are unthinkable without pavements, when these are completely appropriated by stalls and dwellers, movement of people is reduced to naught. The present system of door-to-door garbage collection in some parts of the city needs to be rigorously enforced and maintained in all areas and local people must be organised to prevent any form of litter in the streets and public spaces.

Sewerage, underground drainage, conduits for underground cables and pipes should be laid out at the time of road construction to avoid disruption once the road is in use. Surface drains are not just unsightly but also breeding grounds for disease and cause of accidents while overhead wiring is also unsightly as well as hazardous. Unless there is adequate supply of treated piped water, the proliferation of tubewells can only lead to the lowering of the water table, arsenic and other forms of poisoning and soil subsidence leading to building collapses. All this is well known but what is lacking is the political will and administrative mechanism to make things happen.

Construction alternatives

In the present economic situation all but the moneyed classes are being priced out of the city. The issue of land prices is also too complex to be discussed here but the other aspect of real estate prices is construction cost. The most expensive construction materials here are cement and steel. Where tall structures and large spans are involved there is at present no alternative to large quantities of cement and steel. But where smaller structures are concerned there are several sound techniques to reduce the input of these materials. Since labour costs are low in India and unemployment high, labour intensive construction techniques can reduce construction costs appreciably and many of these techniques have been included in recent editions of the National Buildings Organisation (NBO) code.

Although the current building rules of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation officially accepts the provisions of the NBO code, in practice only standard construction methods in RCC and brick are acceptable to the Corporation functionaries because they lack the awareness of, and the competence to deal with other systems. This is certainly a good situation for the cement and steel industries and their dealer networks since, no matter how much under financial strain, prospective house builders or purchasers have no alternative but to beg, borrow or steal to afford buildings constructed with conventional materials and technology.

As a matter of fact there are various construction methods such as hollow walls made of brick, thin folded, curved and mullion walls in brick, arched and corbelled openings, vaulted, domed and corbelled roofs, reinforced brick and filler slabs and roofs, hollow RCC slabs and roofs, jack arches, lime plaster and mortar, lime concrete, composite lime-cement mortar and plaster, which are only some of the methods in use outside Calcutta or in other parts of the country.

Hollow walls and roofs as mentioned above, not only economise on material but also provide insulation from heat while being strong enough for smaller buildings. Construction with soil-cement blocks with brick or RCC inputs where necessary, can reduce costs and are environmentally friendlier than burnt clay products as they eliminate the energy required for firing. These are all included in the NBO code but it is unlikely that much of these construction methods would be acceptable to the Corporation and neither professionals nor house builders, developers or organisations would take chances for fear of work getting held up.

One can think of CGI roofs with adequate insulation, which can be perfectly viable as a cheap roofing alternative and so can terracotta tiles, if their quality is improved. Though asbestos is controversial, in the form of sheets and other building products it is known to be harmless. In certain situations, thatch roofs with fire retardant chemicals can be quite feasible. Plastic sheets may be used as a waterproofing backup if need be. Composite roofs of tile or thatch with CGI or asbestos backing are also possible and economically sound. Some of these are standard approaches yet they are no longer considered respectable and it is doubtful whether their use will meet with approval, except in the case of sheds or temporary structures.

The brickfields in Ranigunge and nearby areas used to manufacture beautiful glazed terracotta floor and cladding tiles with different colours and designs till the early part of this century. If such products can be revived and sold at reasonable prices, it would be a welcome addition to the aesthetics of building. The feasibility of manufacture of hollow concrete blocks, micro-concrete and foam-concrete products etc. in this region needs to be explored as these can provide various constructional options.

At larger scales of operation, various prefabricated systems were considered promising not so long ago. Although some attempts were made in this direction by government agencies nothing much came of it eventually. Much more R&D work needs to be done and the setting up of building centres by non-profit organisations and funded by government or industry should produce results, since there is no dearth of people with talent, ideas and experience, but good marketing and promotional skills are equally important. However, if the local bodies reject all new development the whole enterprise would be reduced to a colossal farce.

Finally, no amount of legislation and regulation can improve matters unless these can be enforced in the face of mounting corruption, vested interests and political and factional one-upmanship.

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