Book Review, Mane: A New Initiative in Public Housing, Sandeeprints Publication

Residential community architecture for the common man has most often been seen as an extension of the ‘public works’ effort. Within this genre it has been treated as a low priority item, only befitting such terminology as “low-cost housing” for ‘low-income residents’. It has over the years become the preserve of out-of-favour civil engineers and economic statisticians.

Mane represents a significant departure from this stereotype. It catalogues the Efforts of the City. Improvement Trust Board Mysore and the Katakana Housing Board, who with support from the Housing and Urban Development Corporation, New Delhi, have called upon the services of private architectural consultancy firms to provide design solutions for their housing projects. Described in the book are 26 housing schemes located over the whole of Karnataka and meant for all economic types, from economically weaker section to higher income group. Also illustrated is one administrative-cum-residential complex designed to be located in the grounds of historic building in the heart of Bangalore city.

The projects are described through a statement of requirements and design intentions, architectural drawings and diagrams as well as three-dimensional representations of the finished buildings and Environments as projected by the designers. The statement of requirements for each project is in itself exemplary, Enunciating the diverse parameters (physical features of the site, climate, soil conditions, availability of water, sanitation and electricity, and the construction materials available locally) which help to define better the nature of housing provision. The design concepts emerging from these take note also of socio-economic variables, activity patterns and living styles of the people expected to inhabit the built houses, thus focussing on the civilizational aspects of housing provision.

The entire approach is characterised by a freshness and respect for human values, the ideal being of providing ‘homes’ rather than just ‘houses’! It is clearly an architectural approach as opposed to the usual engineering or statistical approaches do often found in public housing programmes. Even in the selection of appropriate building materials and construction techniques, normally the predominant preserve of civil engineers, there is a definite architectural quality reflected in the imaginative use of local material combined with techniques such as soil cement blocks and precast reinforced cement concrete planks and rafters. The construction order thus derived is set off by creatively designed layouts with house—clustering patterns catering for flexibility, growth and appropriateness to local living conditions.

To manage the kind of creative talent which finds expression in this book is by itself an exercise which requires some examination. The Housing and Urban Development Corporation has evolved a format for comprehensive design services of architects for public sector projects. This guarantees the architect a reasonable fee for a clearly specified range of services to ensure a high quality product. The book is thus also a record of how a financing institution can work with housing agencies in an enlightened manner to generate a delivery system for housing which can produce a good fit between economy and aesthetics. Economy, through efficient design and innovative construction methodology, leading to appropriate use of resources; and aesthetics resulting from a close look at user preference combined with a sensitivity to environmental concerns.

It is necessary, however, to sound a parting note of caution. Since we have in this book only a record of designed schemes, we have to reserve judgement on the final product of house/home until they are actually built and inhabited. Somehow quite often in the past similar initiatives at upgrading the quality of public housing have got frustrated at the time of implementation on site. In this case the public agencies, who have taken such an admirable initiative, have to continue doing their homework, and the architects, who have invested their sensitivity and design skill, have to demonstrate their tenacity and purposefulness, to overcome the range of problems which are likely to confront them through the various stages of the building exercise. Perhaps again the Housing and Union Development Corporation can come up with some fresh ideas on project management which can make the task of follow-through possible with minimum deviations from the conceptual premises.