Friday, August 7, 2009

A new Urbanism

The Tamil Nadu post-tsunami reconstruction had many lessons to teach. The lessons were primarily about what should not be done in the next disaster.

A new urbanism has come about in the rural, coastal regions of Tamil Nadu. The landscape has changed dramatically. Where earlier it was dotted with small hamlets, made up of mud and thatch houses, with little clumps of greenery around, clinging to the beach and its environs, it now sees a wave of concrete boxes. Rows upon rows of cheerfully coloured concrete boxes seemingly marching to nowhere. The coastal, rural villages have been transformed into semi-urban ‘townships’. The populace has been precipitated into a new “urbanism” and now adjusts to its implications.

"New urbanism supports regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. ……", or so Wikipedia informs me.

But the new “urbanism” that came about in the wake of post-tsunami reconstruction scenario, has a different form, a different substance. The transition from rural to urban/semi-urban has meant severe adaptations for the community – environmentally, economically, psychologically, socially. The villages have had to suddenly face all the issues of dense, urban slums. The disaster did not end with the disaster.

Markedly different from what is “normal” or “traditional” in the area, the design, material and structural response has wholly concentrated on “safety”. An extreme response, no doubt, from a panicky government, to allay the fears of a population that was recovering from a never-seen-before and probably once-in-a-lifetime disaster.

The entire resettlement and reconstruction process was controlled by the Tamil Nadu government in a way that rendered NGOs into mere contractors, and the community into ‘beneficiaries’. The contract was between the government and the NGO and the construction and process was monitored by the local bureaucracy. The designs had to be submitted to the local technical bureaucrats for approval. The government, thus, became the ‘super client’ with all interventions responding to the priorities expressed by this entity.

Added to this, was the fact that in most cases, the beneficiaries did not know which house was theirs, so even if so desired by an implementing NGO, the design, could not respond or be adapted to the lifestyle, occupational needs, community relationships, size of family, special needs etc. of the beneficiary.

The architect/ designer/ planner too, helpless in the face of a political and bureaucratic ‘whip, was forced to adhere to prescribed building codes, to RCC-column-beam-structures and had very little scope to negotiate a better design response.

The uniformity, while trying to eliminate inequity, also eliminated creativity and sensitivity.

The design response very visibly comes from an urban, educated, and a ‘western’, mind, which perceives a compartmentalized lifestyle to be an ideal. Where rural, communal interactions happened seamlessly in a variety of ways – at the well, at the borewell, under the tree, at the tea centre, at the bus stop, at the market, these are now expected to happen in specified, marked-out areas – parks, ‘open spaces’, community centres, and sometimes nowhere. Where the rural home flowed into the street in a single fabric of private and public life, they are now on demarcated ‘plots’, that encourage territorial fencing, insulating the family in a way which is new to the community. The earlier clustered, meandering layouts of the villages have given way to albeit efficient but unfamiliar and rigid grid formats. Where one fostered interaction and connection, the other has transformed communities to nuclear families.

Ramnad, TamilNadu ... an organic layout

Except for a few exceptions, the site planning response has been a disaster in itself. Where earlier the acquired sites were undulating, covered by shrubs and trees, and dotted with small water bodies, they now are ‘prepared’ and ‘treated’ - cleared, leveled, or filled. The sites lost their character, their ambience and their soul. The sites are bare, featureless, and the few remaining water bodies only threaten to become potential waste pits. The environmental costs of such hasty action will be borne by the communities for generations to come.

People took what they got, knowing that eventually they will modify their environs to suit their needs and lifestyle. The real architecture, design and reconstruction will begin, once the designers, the contractors, and the donors have gone.

There is a learning here.

If we are going to be faced with climatic extremes – cyclones, earthquakes, drought, heavy precipitation etc., as foreseen by Climate Change, we will be responding almost continually with reconstruction. Will this be our continuing response?

Reconstruction response itself needs to undergo a revitalization. It needs to become a subject to be deeply reflected upon. With solutions and responses to be theorized in the hallowed halls of education, so that eventually it will not remain a knee-jerk ‘response’ but will transform itself into a well-thought out, considered ‘approach’, a method, where sustainability and humaneness become embedded in it.

So that the disaster can end in the disaster, and does not spillover into reconstruction.

(this article was first published in the Indian Architect & Builder; January 2009).


  1. We find that using shuttering for the structure is the most cost effective way to construct a structure.
    This is called "total design concept"
    The formwork for these structures included all elements, structural, non- structural, and architectural. The architectural elements include, radius headers, decorative columns, pitched concrete roof, and rain gutters cast directly into the decorative moldings. Casting all elements achieves a cost savings of 10-20% over traditional methods. Casting all elements also speeds construction 30 - 50% over traditional methods. This is achieved by the speed of the formwork system, the reduction follow on trades, and the ease of finishing the surfaces.

  2. We could use cast cement and iron railings around the streets and a line of greenery with green islands in the crossroads. Paint each house differently and give them picket fences. Have a line of swimming pool, volleyball and badminton courts and maybe a cricket pitch!

    Who wants to live in thatched huts anyway with sand in your bums :)

  3. manick: i am glad you are not designing settlements in post-disaster reconstruction :) :P lol