The architect and author on the need for plural voices in architecture, rethinking urbanism and the Kumbh Mela as an ephemeral city

Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art will host a series of talks, events and exhibitions on contemporary architecture in India and South Asia early next year, organized by Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), an independent think tank based in the city. The exhibition has been co-curated by architect Rahul Mehrotra, cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote and architecture critic Kaiwan Mehta, with the objective of bringing the discussion on architecture back to the centre stage.

The big plan, and you alluded to it, is the smart city—100 over the next five years. The central government has allocated Rs. 98,000 crore for this. What do you make of the idea of smart cities?

I have no idea what a smart city means because this is a universal term that has no real value except for the people who are sloshing capital around. The problem with smart cities is that they are founded on capital and investment, but don’t consider the human being as part of this equation. I fear these will end up being gated communities for an elite, skilled, upper middle-class population. People say a smart city is one that uses technology to create connectivity and efficiencies. So I can stand at a bus stop and know that the bus is going to arrive in 10 minutes, and that’ll save me 10 minutes, but if it’s an inhuman city then I’m not interested in saving those 10 minutes.

The first time the idea was articulated was by IBM during the depth of the recession in the West, when companies like that were looking to export their goods and politicians like Narendra Modi and others picked this up, because it becomes a justification (for foreign companies) to invest huge amounts, acquire lots of land, emulate in a fascile way, Dubai and Shanghai, which are autocracies. Those are architectural expressions of autocracies, not of democracies. The architectural expression of democracy will naturally be messier, more pluralistic.

If I had to make an agenda for India, I’d say by the time we are 75 years old as a nation, let’s have 100 great cities. More specifically, let’s make small towns more efficient in terms of sanitation, education and other parameters. Of course we can use technology in how we network these different aspects. Technology needs to be the instrument that facilitates this. We can’t put it before the cart.

Your new book is on the Kumbh Mela as an ephemeral city, and your new research delves into small towns of India. Tell us a bit about this.

The Kumbh Mela is the smartest city I have seen. The government should start by saying we will create more smart cities like the Kumbh Mela. Mapping The Ephemeral Mega City was a mega project, involving many researchers and students. My interest in the Kumbh Mela is looking at it as a temporary mega city. How does one build in six weeks a mega city, which lasts for 55 days, and is then dismantled? It is the cleanest mega city I’ve lived in and what we have celebrated in the book is the efficiency. We found that governance is a key aspect. In the planning stage, the mela has a structure which is top-down (chief ministers, chief secretaries, etc.), but in the implementation stage, it flips and the adhikari gets the power of a district magistrate and he sets up the whole structure. Here the flip led to empowerment. In a lot of our cities, we take for granted that the policymakers supervise the implementers, but this is highly problematic. ...