The increase in petrol prices and the shortage of some essential building materials have put us in a situation where it may be possible to re-examine some of our fundamental notions of what should constitute our physical environment.

The private motor vehicle, which has occupied a privileged position in our environmental structuring, is fast losing its charm. The same could be said of the large suburban house with all is status-making trappings. Even our institutional buildings, which in the past tended to have a monumental and prestige-establishing character can now be looked at afresh. If we have to re-examine the way we construct our buildings or organise any part of our physical environment, we must in all fairness also think about what we expect in terms of performance. We could begin by trying to establish exactly what we prize most in our environmental structuring.

The scarcity of materials and energy leads us to examine our choice of materials or energy source, as well as our criteria of what makes an efficient and aesthetically acceptable environment.

In spite of foreign rule, which disturbed our cultural tradition, the average Indian has a very highly developed aesthetic sensibility, which is constantly exercised in many rituals, forming an essential part of his daily life. This is really something common to almost all traditional cultures. The separation between art and life is non-existent. This fact can be the starting point for a fresh understanding of our environmental requirements.

But our architects and planers seem to be finding it difficult to involve themselves with local problems of late. A large number of the private architects and planners of Delhi, and especially those who may be considered to be the progressive thinkers and are involved in the education of architects and planners, have been making trips to West Asia since they cannot find sufficient work to do in this country. Apparently the Indian community in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as the oil rich Arabs have a massive building programme, and our architects are trying to pick up lucrative commissions there to offset the lack of money-spinning projects in India.

Thus, convenient avenues of escape are being found as an alternative to facing up to the difficult problems of environment which are before us today. It is clear that even to correctly define these environmental problems, a fairly major effort is required. This effort will involve not only architects and planners, but also sociologists, economists, political thinkers as well as members of the public. The lay people need to be given a lot of new information to explain the different options available for environmental structuring. Their participation and active involvement in the planning process could produce fresh ideas useful to the technical people. The architects and planners could create a useful new role for themselves by taking up the leadership in this task. They could define relevant problems in this country rather than be concerned about how to make money in West Asia.

If we take a close look at any big city where new building developments are under way, we will be immediately struck by the multiplicity of building styles, which already exist. This is understandable. Our whole culture is such a conglomeration of different religions, customs and manners that it is fitting to find this multiplicity reflected in the physical environment. Yet our new developments present the same kind of over-simplified and “clean” (euphemisms for sterile and dehumanised) aesthetic, which have dominated Western environments in the last 30 to 40 years. Is it possible that our new generation has already lost its traditional diversity in culture and life style? Or is it that our architects and planners have failed to study the problems deeply enough and are providing superficial solutions which are being sold as “modern”? Many contemporary buildings make one feel that one is trying to wear a dhoti made of "stretchion."

Of course the majority of architects and environmental designers respond very directly to the needs as stated by their clients. And somehow, a larger percentage of the clients are also keen to appear to be “modern” at any cost, even to the extent of forsaking their traditional comforts and overturning their established customs.

One of the most critical problems which face people in the city today is space. Space is at such a premium that most people building new houses or apartments cannot afford more than the barest minimum-size rooms. Then we crowd these little "boxes" with many pieces of furniture, which makes these rooms look even smaller. Yet, if we think a little more critically of our habits, do we not find it more comfortable to sit on cushions and durrees or carpets on the floor, with small, low tables or “chowkis”? If our Western dress is in danger of getting horribly creased because of this traditional custom, might it not be more sensible to get rid of the Eastern dress also? Most people would be amazed at the feeling of spaciousness generated in their houses if they could get rid of half their pieces of furniture and bring the remaining half nearer to floor level.

Even in the use of outdoor space, we have been subject to many inhibitions. Most of us still think of the open area with our house as beings ideally a well-manicured lawn with a nice border of flower beds. Yet our climate is such that at least for six to eight months we can perform a lot of our daily activities outdoors. Thus, the requirements of the open space become such that it should be like another room (or rooms) without a roof. Then again our house has the possibility of feeling much more spacious. And this method can be extended also to three and four-storey construction for apartments where parts of the roof can be selectively turned into open-to-sky rooms.

Another reason why people have tended to shy away from this sort of concept is because they could rely on air-conditioners and mechanical coolers. But again the present shortage of power and water should lead us to think afresh and find more down-to-earth solutions.

In this way a critical re-examination of many of our present habits and expectations could become a very fruitful exercise. Such an exercise, of course, requires inputs from both sides of the fence; the designers as well as the users of the physical environment. The time is ripe for working out a realistic environmental aesthetic one that will emerge from a deeper understanding of our present situation, and could lead to saner and more comfortable condition for us to live, work, play and think in.

The problems of providing shelter in a rapidly expanding urban environment have rarely been responded to adequately. The speed with which cities have grown in our country, and in most of the "developing" world, is a new factor in the planning equation. This factor appears to have not yet been fully understood by planners, and consequently the problems of the new and very mobile urbanites have not been properly addressed.

Professional and expert attention has been focused on this problem for over a decade, yet technically sound and convincing solutions do not seem to be emerging as easily as they should. Seminars, symposia, and workshops on "low-cost housing"/"shelter for the urban poor" have been held in great number. Several interesting prototypical projects of low-cost housing have also been executed, but the appropriateness of the designed shelter provision to the requirements of the new urban poor is, on the whole, questionable.

If we see that kind of technical disciplines have been engaged in trying to find solutions to this problem, we find that they are—urban planning, architecture, and social sciences (more particularly economics and sociology). All these disciplines are fairly old established, and although architecture and urban planning have been developing in an inter-related manner, social sciences have not yet found a settled common ground with the other two disciplines.

Architects and urban planners have concentrated by and large on the physical aspects of the design of the environment. Social scientists have been busy making socio-economic surveys of the "target" population, and working on social welfare projects for ameliorating the conditions of poverty in marginal settlements or slums. Many such welfare schemes have run aground because of unexpected politicization of the slum-dwellers, in itself an indication of their great mobility – social as well as spatial.

Given such a scenario, it is not surprising that satisfactory and sustainable solution of shelter provision for the urban poor have not yet emerged. It does seem quite essential that the concerns of the architects/urban planners and the sociologists be synthesised in a common language based on first-hand perceptions of conditions on the ground.

The importance of the work done by the team of the Centre for Minimum Cost Housing of McGill University rests on the fact that they have converted first hand information of actual living conditions in some of the slum settlements of Indore into data easily understandable by technical experts, as well as administrative officials. Based on such data, a more integrated approach to finding solutions can be evolved by a developmental agency. It should, of course, be pointed out that the present study is only the first part in a series of studies which, over time, would aggregate to produce fresh approaches to solving the shelter problems of the urban poor.