Let’s create remnants for the future

Can we have a healthy form of industrialization that doesn’t replace our his­­­­torical urban forms, but rather co-exists with it? Can we create a synthesis of, rather than a battle between the old and the new? Does the culture of a place always have to do with something from the past, or are we shaping new cultures as we move away from the past while holding on to the past? These are some of the questions that I am attempting to answer through this position paper. The methodology that I am using is the study and analysis of Aldo Rossi’s book, The Architecture of the City as my primary text for fortifying my arguments with references to secondary texts and case studies to further reinforce my position. I am also using contrasting texts and contradictory questions to understand the limitations of the primary text and how I can overcome these limitations for the future of my urban design practice.

I believe that every city has a consciousness of its own. I believe that as an urban designer, I must preserve what is existing and conserve what is deteriorating before building anything new. I believe that I must respect our ancestors for their unimaginable contribution to our cities in terms of the built urban forms – a kind which is impossible to replicate today. My position as an urban designer is deeply rooted in the angst, I have felt in the demolition of centuries’ old heritage buildings, vernacular settlements as well as tribal architecture in my home country, India, when their beauty could have been preserved as well as learned from to design the surrounding development. A considerable portion of India is still going through the phase of modernism in the newly built architecture, and I have grown up seeing more and more indigenous settlements being replaced with modernist irreverence.

  Did you ever think about how every single experience and emotion that you have ever had in your life is associated with a place – this place could be a building, a crossroad, a street, an alley, or a forest. When you revisit a place where you have experienced something, you revisit that experience. These experiences may be short-lived but get relived through the urban/physical form. The built fabric of a city is more permanent than the ephemeral human activities that happen within it, just like how the walls and the columns within a building become witness to varying events. The city then becomes a collection of urban artifacts[2], a permanent framework composed of impermanent processes[3] crafted and modified by societal expression over time. Cities are human settlements that have seen thousands of years of history, while we, the people, come and go in relatively shorter spans while making (or not making) our mark in the urban realm. Though we make our cities, the fourth dimension of time[4], make our roles individually seem like a drop of water in the ocean of what a city actually is – “an artificial homeland as old as man”.1 The city then is not a collection of processes that constantly change as we shape it – but an urban morphological continuum consisting of remnants from the past that shape us.

Modernism and post-modernist architectural movements post the industrial revolution have led to a wide range of possibilities in architecture that was not possible earlier due to material constraints. These possibilities have however been insensitive towards the existing urban fabric. I want to question the industrialization[5] of architecture that has killed thousands of years of incremental growth in cities and the failure to address the socio-morphological layer, in the race for monetary gains. On top of this, the privatization of large parcels of land that came with capitalism also created a form of elite architecture that was not inclusive of all kinds of people. As a reaction to these two phenomena, there have been attempts at futuristic buildings that aim to break away from these patterns to create a blend of the contemporary and the traditional.

Rossi’s contemporary, Koolhaas, was way ahead of his time in identifying real urban issues, like the urban disconnect caused through lobotomy[6] and schism[7] in architecture. His architectural designs are brilliant executions of projects that broke away from modernist architectural blasphemies in an attempt to open out buildings using a variety of architectonical methods. But in my opinion, however big[8] buildings can get, instant architecture can never replace the charm of incremental urbanism. The concepts behind such architectural designs remain within the design drawings and diagrams as mere graphics but do not get translated into reality. Ultimately, as much as architecture can be thought about as a tool to connect, a human being is only the size of a human being, and hence human scale is something that we long to identify with, in a city, as a means of engagement with the built fabric. The Urban Artifact[9] that Rossi describes will any day win over the Avant-Garde Architectural Artifact in terms of the cumulative value that it has built up over time.

For example, about the CCTV Tower in Beijing designed by Koolhaas, I agree with Dunham-Jones about how its “shape-shifting forms and daunting seventy-five-meter, thirteen-story cantilever make for stunning views from within and from a distance, but they are least engaging from the sidewalk.”[10] What does this remarkable piece of ‘futuristic’ architecture mean with regards to urbanism? What does it mean to the country of China and the people living in the surrounding areas apart from it being the headquarters of China Central Television? Is architecture just a showcasing of power through difficult-to-comprehend structural strategies? To compare, let’s study the historical urban form in Beijing – the plan of the Forbidden city. The street plan and vernacular architecture style, create a composition of public spaces that represent monumentality as well as interconnectivity. The typology of traditional Beijing architecture speaks about a culture that goes beyond just functionalism. Can this essence be translated in present-day architecture – maybe even just how the ground level is redesigned while still being a skyscraper in China?

As much as capitalism freed the society in many ways, capitalism has made everything driven by the economy – including architecture. When money alone drives projects, and they become instruments of cash flow, the buildings tend to shoot up more and more into the sky, and the social layer of urbanism is avoided. Koolhaas’ angst about the Berlin Wall is as much the angst that is present, but rather subtly, against many Avant-Garde architectural artifacts today, as they are simply not accessible either economically or physically at the ground level that is flooded with parking spaces. Dunham-Jones mentions that Koolhaas’ approach is his approach is more “au present”[12] than “avant-garde” which again comes to the question of whether Koolhaas’ projects help in city-making or whether all it did was redefine a new form of icon-making that still did not address public territory and local communities. Architecture can address equitable urbanism only if the ground where the building meets the people is dealt with sensitively.

The over-romanticization of Manhattanism

Let’s move to another part of the world – Manhattan. A city that is a dream, a marvel of urbanism incomparable to any other place. However, eradication of the existing systems – ecological or cultural systems – to build afresh, is something that I don’t agree with in Manhattan’s development. When the natives of a place, along with their traditional housing types and their societal fabric are slapped on with real estate development dividing up the land into plots, the history of that land is lost forever. However much developed, ‘new age’, walkable, diverse, and dense the present-day New York is, what does it mean to the Native Americans who originally lived there – what Manhattan is today? Is the ‘culture of congestion’[13] something that we celebrate then, or something that we question as to what cultures it ousted to create a fantasy landscape?

Another case study about the Cherokee Nation can be studied to understand the yearning for community-oriented urban artifacts. The spatial history of the Cherokee Nation[14], who were forced to relocate from the south-eastern part of America to the present state of Oklahoma, one can observe how architecture was a tool for them to rebuild their traditions in an alien location. They were trying to recreate their collective will[15] by constructing monumental buildings, thereby exhibiting resilience even after their dislocation. I, as an urban designer, will always be an external agent in the design of communities that I am not a part of, by birth. However, with deep sensitivity and understanding from a point of view as if I am a part of that family, I can design more meaningfully.[16]

Multiculturality and No Man’s Land

Does that mean that I can never build anything new that replaces history or replicates nothing of history? What if I am faced with a design project that is for people who are from different cultures – whose culture do I try to serve in the design? What if the project involves people from multiple historical cultures? Do we then get to pull down some old buildings to replace them with ‘contemporary’ buildings, to be sensitive, through neutrality, to multi-ethnic groups? What about people who don’t know where they are originally from? These are challenging questions to the position I am taking in this paper. But the counter-question to that would be – is everything that is built or torn down a decision based on pleasing and serving the people that surround it?

Certain things exist, and I would like to co-exist and simply respect what exists. Maybe co-exist not for educational, economic, or ecological needs, but for its inherent right to exist in its authentic state[18]. These urban artifacts may not be a part of your inherent culture, but they are a part of that land’s history and they deserve to be worked around with, and not replaced. When I say ‘they’, I am not talking about UNESCO heritage sites – but the millions of small temples and mosques and churches and small housing settlements that are undocumented or uncared for, especially in a country like India where I am from. Like Rossi said, “I am not speaking of the monumental character of these works of architecture, nor of their stylistic aspects: I refer to their presence, their construction, their history, in other words, to the nature of urban artifacts. Urban artifacts have their own life, their own destiny.”[19]

Another challenging question is what if you are faced with a site where nothing ever existed before?  The answer to that would be that every place has a history – if not a social and cultural history – it would have an ecological history or adjacent places that it could relate it with. Also, one can learn from other places in similar climatic zones what kind of built form worked in a similar location, and still, develop a completely new typology. When the Agoras were being built, the Greeks did not know that they would create an urban typology that would be adored for centuries post its completion. They did not have anything to take reference from for their designs. I would in my future practice, understand typology in urban design as the smallest element of a city that gets generated beyond just functionality[20] but also develop an innate style that it can be associated with.

Retrofitting the Heritage Form

Taking from all the aspects that we have discussed till now, I believe, as an urban designer, that conservation is the first step to take in urban design. For me, conservation is not just about deciding which all historical buildings I will keep in my design, but conservation is about engaging myself in deep research about the essence of a place that will help me preserve or even revive the lost intangible elements associated with a place through the tangible elements that I can create through design. I agree with Sitte’s admonition towards modernism and support the creation of new buildings that are site-specific, which is very important to respect the historical identity[21] of our city and honor our forefathers’ efforts. We cannot build in the same way as our ancestors and build a Greek Agora or Roman public plaza exactly as they were designed before, because many aspects in today’s context do not allow for that. However, we can still take inspiration from that while designing for the ‘contemporary’ world.[22]

In my opinion, retrofitting is the way to move ahead with the future of cities since it is using the existing rather than creating something new. Cultural aspirations can be maintained based on how creatively the architectural or urban space is retrofitted. Conservation of the tangible remains to preserve the intangible heritage[23], to recognize the individuality and spirit of a place, helps us identify the evolution of the present activities from the past traditions. Considerations of the local communities as the stakeholders of the land helps in preserving the collective memory of a place. Peter Calthorpe mentions how conservation[24] of “historic buildings, institutions, neighborhoods, and cultures is as essential to a vital, living urbanism as is preserving its ecological foundations”.

As a young architect right after earning my undergraduate degree, I worked with Architect Benny Kuriakose in Chennai, India. One of the projects that I worked on was the ‘Alappuzha Heritage Project’. Alappuzha is a coastal city in Kerala, India with canal systems that run through a historic urban fabric of unused and used buildings. The project involved research about the history of the yarn industry in Kerala, India and the social and economic advantages of reviving the industry as Kerala has one of the highest yields of coconut fiber in the world. The old warehouses were retrofitted into a Yarn Museum, Labor Museum and civic amenity buildings. Other aspects of the project involved the canal regeneration as a new system of urban transportation in the small city. I also worked on writing a book which was about the restoration of an old Jewish Synagogue in Paravoor, Kerala, India. When I look back at these projects now, I realize they have influenced me in my current perspective as an urban designer.

From the point of view of the climate emergency, even if you create a net-positive building, making use of the existing built fabric is always more sustainable because you are not wasting those resources that are already there. Everything from the collection of raw materials to manufacture and transportation of materials to the construction process is a huge environmental cost at this point when we are facing a global climate crisis. “Saving buildings means saving carbon.”[27] because the moment I use resources that have already been used to build a building – I will be saving an equal number of resources that would have to be put into the project otherwise. “A study conducted in 2004 by the Brookings Institution reported that if we continue with national trends of development, by 2030 we will have demolished and rebuilt nearly one-third of our entire building stock – a staggering total of 82 billion square feet.” [28] Climate change was obviously not a criterion that Aldo Rossi had to deal with in the 1900s, and at this point, it is interesting to note that his ideas about conservation serve a whole other purpose altogether.

What’s in store for the future?

Have I become too resistant to change by making myself embrace historical typology to address my present and future designs? Am I against new technologies that are necessary for a ‘new-age’ development? Will I be limiting my understanding of the world by devoting much of my time studying the past? I would say, no, to all the above questions. Understanding traditional types as a ‘frame within which change operates’[29] to create architecture and urban design that relooks at the past to get over its ‘partial obsolescences’24 is the point of understanding architectural and urban types. Instead of getting stuck in a ‘frozen mechanism’24, I would create a synthesis of the old and new, to address the future of urban design. Technologies like GIS has become very useful for the efficient analysis of urban morphological data[30] at the city and regional scale. This is something that was not possible in the past. A combination of data analytical tools for smart work combined with a deep understanding of the soul of a place which is only possible through empirical research will be a powerful way for me to move forward with urban design at different scales in this age and time.

I believe we can shape new cultures by embracing the past. History need not be looked at as a cause of redundancy but a way of tailoring new possibilities. Is utopian urban design about starting city design on a blank slate? Why should we do that when we already have something beautiful or something ugly that can be turned into something beautiful? We are moving forward into a world of mass-produced objects and buildings, a digitally fabricated world that has been made only over a fraction of time within humanity’s existence. In this world, if we create lasting urban artifacts that could be reminders of our current culture and societal values that we collectively want to influence our future, we could be creating history for the future right now – because the city always has and will be, “an object of nature and a subject of culture.”[31]

[1] In my undergraduate urban design studio we worked around Ulsoor, a region in Bangalore City, with mixed communities who had a common attachment to this library that was lost to the neighborhood forever when the government demolished it in 2017; Image source – Twitter; my portfolio

[2] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 21.

[3] “form persists and comes to preside over a built work in a world where function continually becomes modified; and in form, material is modified.” – Also Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography, (MIT Press, 1981), 1.

[4] The form of the buildings, resolution of scale (lot, block, city, region), and time constitute the three fundamental components of urban morphological research – Anne Vernez Moudon, Urban morphology as an emerging interdisciplinary field (International Seminar on Urban Form, 1997), 7.

[5] Leon Krier, Leon, Houses, Palaces, Cities – Critiques and Urban Components, (St. Martin’s Press, 1984). 238.

[6] Disconnect between the exterior and the interior of a building, 1009

[7] Disconnect between floorplates of skyscrapers, 1059

[8] Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL – Bigness, (The Monacelli Press, 1995)

[9] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 21.

[10] Ellen Dunham-Jones, The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas, (The Places Journal, 2013).

[11] Image Source – The Guardian

[12] Ellen Dunham-Jones, The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas, (The Places Journal, 2013).

[13] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, (The Monacelli Press, 1978), 125.

[14] Ellen Dement Hurd, Rebuilding a Nation: Cherokee Tribal Architecture, (2019), 1, 113

[15] “Monuments, signs of the collective will as expressed through the principles of architecture, offer themselves as primary elements, fixed points in the urban dynamic”- Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 22.

[16] “All architects design from prejudice. Whether designing an office tower for a corporate entity, retail space for a clothing boutique, or a private home for monied clientele, architects do not, in the normal course of a project, seriously question the cultural foundations on which they premise their design proposals. A thorough cultural understanding offers a degree of latitude that allows designers to immediately engage in design specific issues.” – Denise Pieratos, Implicit Ordering: A Tribal Center to Connect Land, Community and Creativity, (1998), 3.

[17] My undergraduate thesis project revolved around recreating the community life of Kanikkars, an ethnic tribe from Kerala, India, whose are not allowed to practice their traditional occupation of ethnomedicine since their herbs are patented by MNCs.
Image Source – photographed by myself

[18] Melinda J. Miligan, (2007) Buildings as History: The Place of Collective Memory in the Study of Historic Preservation

[19] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 101.

[20] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 41

[21] Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, (London: Phaidon Press, 1965),

[22] Rossi’s criticism about Sitte reducing the city to one ‘artistic episode’ rather than the whole urban artifact composed of the totality of the street systems and the urban topography is something important to be noted here. – Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 35.

[23] Ehab Kamel-Ahmed, What to conserve? Heritage, Memory, and Management of Meanings, (Archnet, IJAR, 2015), 74.

[24] “…the idea of “conservation” in urban design applies to more than energy, carbon, and the environment; it also implies preserving and repairing culture and history as well as ecosystems and resources.” – Peter Calthorpe, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, (Island Press, 2011), 16.

[25] Image Source – The Hindu

[26] Image Source – The Deccan Chronicle

[27] Nathan Lott, Saving buildings means saving carbon: how historic preservation fights climate change (PRCNO, 2020). Available at: https://prcno.org/saving-buildings-means-saving-carbon-how-historic-preservation-fights-climate-change/
[Accessed on 7th June 2021].

[28] Arthur C. Nelson, “Towards a New Metropolis: The Opportunity to Rebuild America,” (The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, 2004).

[29] Rafael Moneo, “On Typology” – Oppositions, (The MIT Press, 1978), 27.

[30]Anne Vernez Moudon, Urban morphology as an emerging interdisciplinary field (ISUF, 1997), 9.

[31] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, (MIT Press, 1966), 33.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *