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India holds urban lessons for Africa

India holds urban lessons for Africa

Aug 6, 2014

By Kathy Gibson at #UIA2014Durban

South-South dialogue is vital for the emerging economies to share the experiences, ideas and solutions that the countries of the south all face. Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the department of urban design at Harvard University, outlines some of the issues that architects and designers face include social, environment and financial.

However, the architect doesn’t always interact with the context of the practice, but with the site. “Our approach in working in Mumbai has been to use the city as the generator of the praxis, of the vocabulary,” he says. “The word context is critical. We talk about climate, local materials even culture. But if you take the context we work with – the globalised world – into the other context, ideas can explode.”

India is characterised by contradictions, he adds, with an urban landscape that is both fragmented and polarised; with rich and poor all jostling for space and access to amenities.

In addition, with the government having declared an end to the socialistic state, urban development is being driven by the private sector, which are frequently divorced from the context of the city.

“This can have some bizarre results,” he says. And architects have to face the central challenge of inequity.”

Another issue that Mehrotra believes needs to be addresses in the non-productive nature of binaries. “Even the discourse of formal versus informal is useless. We tend to then locate ourselves in one of those worlds, and we either work in formal or informal cities. So these binaries for design are non-productive.”

Another binary that Mehrotra dislikes is the global versus local discussion. He says that these two concepts need to resonate with one another instead of being seen as opposing forces. “The context of the context is worth exploring – we need to set up new meta-narratives in this respect. The context of any development is obvious; the context of the context is not necessarily obvious.”

To achieve this, planners should do a lot more research, Mehrotra says, and find different ways of providing architecture to people in the new urban areas.

India has some of the biggest cities in the world, with seven mega-cities and 28 tier 2 cities. In addition, there are more than 400 cities with more than 1-million population each. “So 400-million Indians live in cities we don’t even know about,” Mehrotra says.

“The new way of architecture has to be valid on the ground – and it must embrace both global and local concepts. We have situated all of our narratives in binaries, but we need to develop a hybrid.”

To this end, Mehrotra advocates the kinetic city where all the models collapse into a single entity. “But the kinetic city not a design tool,” he warns. “It is a demand for versatile, flexible cities that are ambiguous.

“As the world becomes increasingly global, we have to be cautious of accepting that things should be more alike. What we need to do is talk about how differences are simultaneously valid. We have to continuously negotiate between the differences.”

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