In one respect Donald Trump seems less autocratic than Narendra Modi.

Just as Modi and his administration have sought to completely redesign the area around Parliament in Delhi, Donald Trump wants to “make federal buildings beautiful again” by mandating a return to “the classical architectural style”, according to a draft executive order.

But there is one essential difference.

Trump’s order has drawn widespread criticism in the U.S. but he has only made a proposal, at least he has not gone about suddenly implementing his ideas. He has only issued a draft unlike the Modi administration which is seen to be riding roughshod on the issue amidst intense criticism from architects and democracy lovers who feel that the redevelopment will seriously limit people’s access to the celebrated, loved public space in Delhi.

The White House would now be require, to start with, a rewrite of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, issued in 1962, “to ensure that ‘the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style’ for new and upgraded federal buildings”, the Guardian reported.

The Pulitzer prize-winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger said the problem with the order was “not with classical architecture per se”.

It was, he said, that “the mandating of an official style is not fully compatible with 21st-century liberal democracy”.

As for the Delhi project,Anuj Srivastava, architect, has said that back of the envelope calculation throws up a cost of Rs 25,000 crore for the project though no information is available in the public domain on anything apart from the consultancy amount. Spending public money of this quantum is a definite waste in the present state of the economy keeping in view the fact that this project is poorly thought in the first place. This doesn’t seem to deter the powers that be from trying to rush this project and others of a similar nature in time for the next general elections. This unseemly haste bodes a gloomy future for a much loved area of New Delhi.

The land use involves converting at least 80 acres from public uses to restricted government use.

Mr Bimal Patel, the noted architect, who has been chosen to execute the major transfomation project in New Delhi, was in the city last week to talk on the eastern waterfront development on port trust land in Mumbai at the invitation of Urban Design Research Institute UDRI. He faced some sharp questions from students who had gathered in large numbers. One student sarcastically asked without referring to him directly as to how other architects were going to find work if one person was going to bag all the contracts. It was clear from the audience reaction that many shared this view.

But Mr Patel is clearly a very cool and clever person. He replies to the most inconvenient questions without getting ruffled. Obviously, he anticipates them and is prepared. He cleverly begins replying to such questions saying – Let us put it this way. And so he goes on.

He also cleverly skirted questions about housing for the poor and the responsibility of those in power.

He spoke a lot about creating streets in his new project in Mumbai and also mentioned that one of his gurus was Allan Jacobs, the noted architect in the U.S.

The point is the vision of streets envisioned by Jacobs is entirely different from architects like Patel who want to create streets not so much for more interaction among common people but for the high rise densification they are so devoted to and which is so much loved by property developers.

See how different is the vision of Allan Jacobs from his disciple’s..

Jacobs has said “Streets are places of social and commercial encounter and exchange. They are where you meet people – which is a basic reason to have cities in any case.”

“As well as to see, the street is a place to be seen. Sociability is a large part of why cities exist and streets are a major if not the only public place for that sociability to develop. At the same time, the street is a place to be alone, to be private, to wonder what it was once like, or what it could be like. It is a place for the mind to wander, triggered by something there on the street or by something internal, more personal, a place to walk while whatever is inside unfolds, yet again.”

“It’s no big mystery. The best streets are comfortable to walk along with leisure and safety. They are streets for both pedestrians and drivers. They have definition, a sense of enclosure with their buildings; distinct ends and beginnings, usually with trees. Trees, while not required, can do more than anything else and provide the biggest bang for the buck if you do them right. The key point again, is great streets are where pedestrians and drivers get along together.”

“For at least 60 years, city engineers have been anti-urban, anti-pedestrian and anti-mixed use. As a philosophy, they moved to segregate uses and then they moved to segregate people and cars under the guise of safety, with an emphasis on size — wider, larger — and this is anti-pedestrian. Existing standards are not even based on research, they’re mostly based on queuing problems. We’re told by traffic engineers that intersections where pedestrians and drivers get along together are dangerous, mostly because of the multiple turning points and complex interactions required. But this is the exact opposite of what real research and observation of existing great intersections tell us.”

“Great streets have 9- to 10-foot lanes and 7- to 8-foot parking maximum, if they have parking. Though present more than not, parking in great amounts is not a characteristic of great streets. At great intersections we’ve found that every movement is often possible.”

“The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.”

“Most of the great intersections and streets I’ve observed could not be built today. But based on real accident records, they are not more dangerous than currently ‘normally designed’ streets and intersections — and have similar if not higher throughput.”

“There have been times when streets were a primary focus of city building — streets rather than individual buildings.”

“If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be — community-building places, attractive for all people — then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest.”

One does not see that kind of approach or vision in Mr Patel who is very urbane and sophisticated but he is seen to be too close to the powers that be in Delhi.

He is also an architecture guru as he is head of CEPT university in Ahmedabad, a leading institution engaged in work on architecture and urban planning. If only people like him took more interest in improving our urban life, especially street life, rather than engaging in big ticket projects, our cities would be so much more liveable.

His lecture in Mumbai was held in the All India Local Self Government institute in Andheri which also should be devoted to such efforts as it is the umbrella organisation of urban local bodies in the country. This obviously is not happening.

It became once again clear to me as I walked from this institute to Andheri station, a distance of over one km. It was a torture. It was not just the heavy traffic and fumes it was the horrible state of footpaths. And this is the condition everywhere.

Our administrators have suddenly woken up to the idea of providing last mile connectivity to the proposed Metro railway stations in Mumbai. They are ready to spend millions for this connecting elite residential and commercial areas with Metro stations.

This is because the Metro is a dream show case project. They do not even realise how they have neglected the suburban railway network and the bus network all these years and continue to discriminate against them.

What prevented them all these years from building proper walking connectivity to existing railway stations.A lot can be done to improve footpaths without spending any money. The civic corporation simply has to issue a directive to multiple corporate, commercial and upscale residential buildings which are wrecking the footpaths all over Mumbai while building the driveway for their cars. So they turn the footpaths into a deep slope so the cars can slide smoothly down the road even while this creates torturous conditions for walkers for whom the footpaths are meant.

So the MCGM must get its act together. This won’t cost a pie, as mentioned earlier. It only has to discipline a lot of people who are criminally encroaching on public space.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on the need for democratization of street and urban life


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