Diversity is necessary for life to thrive against adversities; however, disparity is an extended dimension of diversity and threatens to truncate its very sustenance. Taj Ganj is a typical Indian example of this urban excess: it simultaneously exhibits urban decay and vibrancy. A highly dense fabric, crumbling infrastructure and acute lack of open spaces are juxtaposed with buzzing cultural life, socio-economic ingenuity and a built environment exhibiting amusing resourcefulness.
Comprised largely of erstwhile markets appropriated into residential quarters, few heritage monuments, and fifteen slums, Taj Ganj shares the extremities of its characteristics with the historical districts of numerous other Indian cities. However, it enjoys the distinction of a green envelope: river Yamuna flows to the north of the Taj Mahal, while the vast expanse of Shahjahan Park lies in the North-West of Taj Ganj and a large forest block is situated in the North.
The Taj Ganj Urban Redevelopment Project was already underway when archohm was brought on board. The proposed design at that stage was a typical example of noncommittal urban design prevalent in the country: an indifferent instrument of perpetuating the status quo of ambiguity in responsibility towards public spaces – lacking a sense of both ownership and belonging. The amorphous spread of banally black bituminous road surface continued to run through the area with complete disregard, if not disdain, to the potential and opportunity of ‘redeveloping’ such a rich context.
The significant identifiable markers in the context are its rich historicity struggling with the disorientation of present day, the conflicting densities of the built and the green fabrics, swarms of pedestrians and the restricted vehicular movement. The design emphasizes on a drastic change in the vocabulary of the urban environment to reconcile these conditions. The carriageway is resurfaced with stone cobbling, its width is restricted to 7.5M and leveled with the footpath to allow an expansion of the latter, while planters and bollards are interspersed between the two to segregate and animate.
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Amenities such as landscaped seating areas, parking/boarding areas for tangas, cycle rickshaws and battery operated carts, security check posts, toilet blocks and drinking water facilities have been located at various places across the project extent. Lighting and signage add stimulating layers of navigation and experience to the place.
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Community Centers have been built to cater to the fifteen slum areas constituting a population of about sixty thousand. Although the project mandate was of establishing seven community centers, owing to severe contestation of space and impending litigation, only four sites could be secured. Each of the seven designs address the scarcity of open space and the need for sizeable and adaptable indoor spaces, resulting in compact architecture of courtyards, verandahs, rooms and terraces. The aesthetic and construction vocabulary has been borrowed from the context – employing load-bearing walls, spanned with steel girders allowing stone formwork for concrete floors.
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Families living in Taj Ganj practice several household craft traditions – marble inlay, zardozi, leather artifacts and so on. However, the excessive focus on the Taj Mahal seldom leaves tourists with patience, energy or interest in visiting and engaging with them. A one acres site, less than 100 M from the East Gate of the Taj complex, offered the opportunity of gathering tourists and orienting them towards Taj Ganj. The proposed Visitors’ Center, as a program to integrate local livelihood with tourism, was the result of a workshop in Washington between archohm, the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institute and the World Monument Fund.
The proposal comprises of a low-key, two-storey cuboid with 6m structural grid, and a truncated pyramid surrounded by courtyards. While the cuboid is aligned to the south-east boundaries of the site, the pyramid is placed diagonally – its axis of symmetry orienting towards the Taj Mahal. The entire complex is sunk into the ground by one floor; the orientation of the green sunken square is cardinal. This lowering of the datum helps addressing two problems: one, the architecture is scaled down as an urban gesture of respect towards the world heritage site; and two, it saves on the expense towards foundations. The tourist facilities are accommodated on the ground floor of the cuboid, while its lower level houses multipurpose workshop and training spaces and the Taj Gunj Heritage Cell. The pyramid acts as a gallery showcasing Taj Ganj’s crafts. The Terrace is the space of connecting with Taj Gunj and the Taj Mahal visually and experiencing the dramatic tension radiating from this urban context which includes a world heritage monument, a dense built fabric and forest.
The institution did not see the light of day due to stiff and opaque heritage protection policies. However, plugging into Taj Ganj’s redevelopment, the Taj Orientation Center and the Mughal Museum are the necessary extensions which should provide an impetus to local economy by making tourists stay longer in Agra.
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The primary stakeholder of the project is the UP Tourism, which in turn appointed Uttar Pradesh Rajkiya Nirman Nigam as the nodal agency for commissioning the design and execution to the consultant and contractors. Through the course of the project, though there has been no interaction with any elected representative at the city level, the project itself was made possible due to the political will of the highest office in the state – the Chief Minister. On the other hand the project had to qualify the scrutiny of the country’s highest judicial authority. A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court over-saw the project and its implications on the environmental and built heritage; the Forest Department and the National Monument Authority, assisted by the Archaeological Survey of India, vetted the project and its impact on their respective domains. Prior to these approvals, consent had to be sought from the Taj Trapezium Zone, besides including provisions for the project to conform to Fire and Pollution norms. In addition to all the vetting and approvals, as would be expected in an urban redevelopment project of this scale, multiple agencies and departments had to be negotiated with, due to both segregated as well as overlapping domains with respect to the project’s scope of works. All while navigating the interstices of the design process, which, besides the established and emerging context and program, also has to respond to swathing bureaucratic interjections, swaying loyalties of mercenary contractors, superfluous media trials and swinging public perception.
Right through the chain of command, every link employs procrastination as a strategy to delay decision/action as much as their position in the hierarchy can afford so as to turn the situation in one’s favor. The evident disjunction in processes is a consequence of this indifference. The Taj Ganj Urban Redevelopment Project, in this sense, is a lesson in democracy: the opportunity is now or never.
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Notwithstanding the premature judgments in praise or pity, only time will tell how the project qualifies in threading together the diverse and disparate facets of the place through common strands of spatial design. The transformation affected at Taj Ganj, perhaps for the first time to such a significant degree since India’s independence, should encourage state and city governments, practitioners of spatial design and people in general to mobilize towards the possibilities and potentials of rejuvenating historic urban cores.