Design master plans, from Edinburgh with love

Design master plans, from Edinburgh with love

 

May 24: Miles away from Kumartuli, in a small architecture studio in Edinburgh, the potters’ colony is being imagined and recreated on the banks of Adi Ganga or Tolly’s Nullah “where it all flows up finally”.The architect-academics and would-be architects of Edinburgh University’s Architecture and Urban Design (AUD) department take care not to interfere in Kumartuli’s distinct “architectural and spatial nature”.The AUD department has been studying Indian scapes, that of Mumbai, Delhi, Amritsar, Ahmedabad and Calcutta, for some time. Dorian Wiszniewski, senior lecturer, AUD, along with his team and faculty members Christopher French, Kevin Adams and Maria Mitsoula have been to India with their postgraduate students for “intensive fieldwork”. Another visit is planned for January next year when 29 postgraduate students will study the “water edges” of Calcutta.

“We here are much more inclined to learn from Indian history and not impose European paradigms. We see the river as land-water exchange. The river edge is a strange concept, it varies from season to season. The river is in a flux and the edges are not aligned. The question changes from frontages to depths,” Wiszniewski said.

The edges can be more like fingers, he suggests, like piers pointing into the water. The river edges of Hooghly have witnessed different phases of development – pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial – where there have been different tendencies towards the water. “Take the ghats, for example. The ghat architecture is like rocks on the side of the river, there is this transition from land to water,” said Wiszniewski, who agrees with Amitav Ghosh when the author looks at the shifting island patterns in the Sunderbans as “a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable”.

For the team at AUD, the Sabarmati intervention by the Gujarat government “is not our way of doing things”. The Sabarmati frontage replicates the western paradigm of concretising the riverfront with landscaped promenades and bridges, sweeping away the “ugly” and dispossessing and dislocating its people.

“To have a 10m concrete drop where Gandhi used to bathe in the Sabarmati is disastrous. It is an important place in history, it creates a rupture in that connection. We would take Gandhi’s walk to the water as a metaphor and try and design around it,” said Wiszniewski, who is influenced by Balkrishna Doshi’s idea of “ecological subsidy” that the river edges or any of the other scapes like the cemetery in Calcutta offer.

What AUD is doing in Calcutta and other cities is developing master plans under what Wiszniewski calls The (Loving) Metropolitan Landscape project. “It is up to the governments whether they want to look at our master plans. But we get to learn a lot while doing them,” said the architect whose project is part of the Edinburgh India Institute.

“We as urban designers and architects are developing master plans, which belong to a very different type of paradigmatic operation. We offer our ideas of reconstituting the metropolitan city or mother city with love and care and develop a broader landscape. Loving is not risk avoidance. The ghats, the frontages, the fingers of space are specific parts of the relationships,” he said.

In Calcutta, the AUD is studying Kumartuli, the Baranagar jute mills on the water edges, the South Park Street, Lower Circular Road and Scottish cemeteries and other spaces.

“Kumartuli is fascinating for us. To see clay forms in their various stages, clustered together, is to see human forms frozen,” said Christopher French, a faculty member of AUD.

The Baranagar jute mills offer a unique interplay of “light and shade”. The walls and structures, the team feels, can be readapted for low-cost housing where one room leads to the other to allow the community living of the slums and yet create new spaces.

The AUD has a two-fold plan that operates on multiple scales for three of Calcutta’s cemeteries. It incorporates both preservation as well as revitalisation.

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