Best practices in creating a model city

Best practices in creating a model city

Jaquar Design Confab reached Chandigarh, and the spirit of the iconic city was truly infectious

(L-R) Bibhor Srivastava (moderator), Mohit Hajela, Vivek Gupta, Surinder Bahga, Sabeena Khanna, Dr.Sangeeta Bagga Mehta and Sangeet Sharma.
(L-R) Bibhor Srivastava (moderator), Mohit Hajela, Vivek Gupta, Surinder Bahga, Sabeena Khanna, Dr.Sangeeta Bagga Mehta and Sangeet Sharma.

Chandigarh is known all over the world for being a modern master plan that envisioned something more than a city – a vision and a sign of a new, hopeful tomorrow. The fascination and deep love people have for this city is hard to ignore. This exceptional model city was a crucial pit-stop last month for the Jaquar Design Confab series that has been touring cities across India since 2018. Organised in association with ITP Media with the Jaquar Group, Design Confab has become a must-attend event for the architecture and design fraternity.
In his welcome address, Mohit Hajela, group head, Business Development, Jaquar Group, perfectly summed up what makes the series so attractive. “Design Confab essentially celebrates the spirit of design, creating an interactive space where celebrated designers share their design philosophy and contribute towards enhanced education and learning.”

Mohit Hajela talks about his impression of Chandigarh.

The gathering at Chandigarh was as much to acknowledge excellence in design as it was to create a knowledge platform and like-minded synergies with the design fraternity. Discussion, presentation and exclusive one-on-one conversations were held to confront and address issues that impact not just regions – but the country, and brainstorm unique design sensibilities from the most creative minds in the industry. Hajela stated, “For the Jaquar Group, the meeting of minds is the finest enrichment where we seek to understand from you and gather your valued inputs.”

At the Chandigarh edition, the deliberations were to revolve around building new cities with unique Indian inspirations. The keynote address ‘Indian Smart Sustainable Habitat’ by ‘airport king’ Prof. Charanjit Singh Shah, principal, Creative Group, was just the positive start needed for the exchange of ideas and knowledge. “God has been very generous, he made nature and we are part of nature… we as architects also create, we are godly,” Shah began. He compared the design process to nurturing human life and giving birth – a creation one is proud of. Design often involves “igniting minds, taking dreams into thoughts and thoughts into vision and vision into reality.” He warned, however, that while we need to design new cities, we do not need a new Dubai or Hong Kong or Singapore. “We need Indian, Sustainable, Smart cities of tomorrow. We must have a sense of belonging to the place, people and heritage.”

Prof. Charanjit Singh Shah gives the keynote address.

Built forms cannot be treated as brick-and-mortar, but need to be seen as a living organism that breathes and is embodied with nature, Shah explained. Our architecture needs to be global in terms of technology, but it should also have a sense of ownership to the place and people penetrating its roots to the great heritage of India. For Shah, this is more than idealism, it’s a belief he embodies in his work. He shared the design concepts behind some of the notable airports they are currently designing: local temple architecture influences are visible in Bhubaneswar airport; ghats, river Ganges, crafts, textile, temple symbolism are deeply ingrained in the architecture of Varanasi airport; and in case of the Chennai airport, inspired by the wings of the bird, principles of sustainability are the hallmark of the design. Shah’s success in airport design has helped his firm bag projects in other countries; proof that Indian talent, too, can contribute to the global design scene and not just the other way round. 

After the exemplary airport projects, Shah presented how effective passive design strategies can be employed across typologies. He spoke about “fanatic Vastu vs climatic Vastu,” stating that there is wisdom in working with the movements of the sun to create ideal temperatures in the interior spaces. From designing high-rises as connected architecture with different floors enjoying their own ‘ground level’ and ‘streets’ to a non-air-conditioned mall in Naya Raipur where ‘envelopes’ and layering elements result in mutual shading, it was an insightful set of projects he shared with the audience.
Through these case studies, Shah demonstrated that, today, there is an almost criminal use of material prevalent where the visual factor is given prominence. The behaviour of the material needs to be equally taken into account. Use simulation tools to create an architecture that responds to the sun, he advised. One can also look for inspiration from the greats and “copy” things from intelligent minds, he said – illustrating how he was inspired by Joseph Allen Stein’s India Habitat centre and used some of his principles in his work. For a low-budget industrial project, they designed and delivered a vault-style architecture with low-tech construction methodologies. “Be sensitive towards project, time, and financial and construction management,” he urged, while talking about that project. “Architecture today is not just the mother of all arts, but also the mother of all technology, and should be deliverable.”
Architects have to battle with the question, what comes first, form or function? Shah mentioned that only when the two complement each other, do we get truthful architecture. In the process, don’t hold back on your inventive prowess, he encouraged. “Industry plays an important role, and we need to work in tandem with them. We vision, they innovate.” Synergy, belongingness, passive design… Shah not only inspired the audience, but provided concrete wisdom to take back.

Rini Khanna in conversation with ace designer Sunita Kohli.
No one understands the impact a city can have on a person, like a designer can; Sunita Kohli is one such leading name in the fraternity who is testament to it. ‘Design Journey: Looking Back, Looking Forward’ was a probing, insightful conversation between the Padma Shri-awarded designer and noted Indian television news anchor Rini Khanna at Design Confab. “I do not think I could have been designer if I had not grown up in a city like Lucknow, and if I hadn’t studied literature,” Kohli responded when Khanna asked about the genesis of her career. Kohli and her parents had moved from Lahore after the partition, so her love for antiques began in the Nawabi city and regular family expeditions to historic places strengthened her fascination for all things design.

A self-taught designer, Kohli has a degree in literature, classical music and even learnt the art of restoring furniture purely out of interest. Serendipitously she is now known for her work in preservation and conservation, and considered to be an expert in Lutyens’ architecture. Responding to Khanna’s enquiry into the restoration process, Kohli shared that research and understanding the architect’s original intent is key. Only then can one sensitively restore the space such that, after two years, visitors are unable to tell that that a designer was here to restore the place. The integrity of the place is maintained unbroken.

Nita Khanna and Kohli discuss the elegance and culture of Lucknow.

Khanna asked if that conflicts with the architects need to leave a mark. In case of restoration, that is surely not the case, stressed Kohli. In case of other design projects, then, is there a ‘Sunita Kohli Signature’, enquired Khanna, to which Kohli responded, “I try not to leave a stamp, because I have worked in such different cultural milieus and types of buildings – from libraries to Parliament Houses, from residences to museums. I work for what that building requires, and I hope that my stamp is one of excellence.”

Design can’t be taught, it needs to come from within, Khanna stated, calling Kohli the perfect example of it. “You always had it in you, (you) only needed the perfect opportunity.” Being a designer or an architect is like being born a musician, Kohli replied, you have to have perfect pitch – but you have to study and hone that skill. “How you do it is what differentiates one designer from the other,” she added. In her own case, it was her research-oriented design sense that led her from project to project, to inevitably becoming an interior architect by sheer passion and determination.

(L-R) Rajesh Mehra, Nita Khanna, Sunita Kohli and Bibhor Srivastava launching ‘The Lucknow Cookbook’.

While talking about design icons she admires, Kohli admitted that, as much as she loves archaeological sites, she loves contemporary buildings too. She admires works by IM Pei, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid... What about Indian architects, quizzed Khanna. The architecture landscape has gone through many changes, the designer explained – from ancient civilisations like the Indus Valley, to being under colonial rule that altered our way of living, and the post-Independence era right after the second world war. But as the economy improved, especially around 1991, Kohli believes, so did the architecture. “Indian architects are now moving ahead with a lot more self-respect,” she stated, appreciating the Indian contemporary shift where architects are moving away from exclusive glass facades to jali façades, as described in the keynote.

But Kohli brought to light that we also have poor urban planning, lack of civic structures and street furniture, and we don’t plan at a master scale. Often our sense of jugaad and a knee-jerk reaction to design is invariably responsible for the apathetic condition of cities, she noted. But she is hopeful; we have always had planned cities and civilisation and it is all going to come back, in her opinion.
This train of thought led Khanna to ask her: “If you were given a chance to reimagine India, what do you think are the imperatives that our country needs to embrace?” Kohli had a non-design answer for it. “There can be no New India unless everybody is free from poverty, is educated, and is in good health. Design, I am afraid, is very much a lower priority.”

Mohit Hajela presents a token of appreciation to Rini Khanna.

Kohli herself is involved with two NGOs: one works with women literacy and vocational training, whereas Save A Mother works towards reducing the female mortality rate. “By spending 12,000 per year per village (about 12,000), we have reduced the mortality rate by 93%,” announced the designer.
As the conversation came to a close, Khanna exhorted Kohli to offer some advice for young architects and designers. She had something simple and honest to say. “Nothing can replace hard work, nothing can replace knowledge, and nothing can replace experiences. If you have these, you can go anywhere.”
Right after this conversation, the multi-talented designer launched The Lucknow Cookbook which was written by her mother Chand Sur and herself. She was joined by Nita Khanna to briefly discuss ‘Cuisine as Intangible Heritage & Culture’ and how the book is a celebration of the tehzeeb of Lucknow as well as its nazaakat (elegance), and simultaneously a portrait of the city and its storied history.

The spirit of Chandigarh was alive and pumping in the panel discussion that followed soon after, in a friendly banter with a good mix of humour and personal quips – a pleasant sight that made this event personal and lighthearted while still professional. The discussion around ‘Chandigarh The City of Beauty: Is the model city a joy forever?’ reflected the love and passion people have towards the city. Moderator Bibhor Srivastava directed the conversation by asking the panelists about their personal connection to the city and what makes it special, replicating similar city planning initiatives and the possible growth of the city in the near future.

Sunita Kohli being felicitated too.

For architect, preservationist and city councillor Surinder Bahga, the fact that Chandigarh has 35% green spaces – “which is uncommon in many cities” – is a matter of great pride. Countries like Singapore boast about having 250 parks, but Chandigarh as a city alone has 1,700 parks, he mentioned. When asked about expansion of the city and its growth, his opinion was that being landlocked offered it no scope for such plans. “It was designed for half a million people and it already accommodates more than one million – that’s more than a success story.” Bahga also recounted his interaction with an Aga Khan Foundation representative from Switzerland, who said that the greatest contribution to India has been by Corbusier. Mainly because the architect could convince the client about what was right and wrong (elsewhere, architects are known to bend over backwards for their client). “We should maintain this legacy,” insisted the architect in his final remarks.

“Chandigarh, unlike other cities, has no history; it only has a future,” began Sangeet Sharma, explaining how the city was built “out of chaos, out of pathos, out of separation loss. It has an emotional content.” The city’s ability to grow baffles him – “60 years hence, we are still absorbing,” he admitted, adding that the future growth can only be vertical. Even the satellite cities depend on Chandigarh. That absorption power has to do with the emotional quotient of the city, explained Sharma, because it was built for the people who were displaced and by an architect who lived in posterity as opposed to an aristocrat.

“There is something inherently conscious, sustainable, beautiful, full of EQ in the city. There is less glass (architecture), no sense of opulence (in the city). We go to Dubai you see opulence; in Chandigarh, it’s austerity and still people flock to the city.” It is MIVA that brings people to Chandigarh, quipped Sharma, explaining it as “Memories, Inspirations, Visions and Aspirations.” Growing up in the city, the lessons he has learned and the one he would like to pass on, are that hard work, perseverance, principles of nature and the human person as the base of planning, are the fundamentals we cannot ignore.
Another passionate resident as well as principal of the beloved Chandigarh College of Architecture (CCA), Dr.Sangeeta Bagga Mehta highlighted what makes Chandigarh a model modern city – planning and the political role behind it. “In order to make many more such models, there have to be very important political decisions. Because cities need money, they need vision, and they need visionaries. Politics and architecture have a great role to play with each other,” Dr.Mehta explained, later adding that “pride of place” is important if we want to build contextual cities.

Sabeena Khanna could definitely resonate with that sentiment, for she calls her once hometown “her heart and soul.” There’s a lot to learn about city planning from this “happy, green and open city,” Khanna believes, even though the city isn’t culturally rich in history like Delhi, her current place of residence. When Srivastava enquired if we could still build more Chandigarhs, Khanna responded, “We don’t necessarily have to replicate Chandigarh, but we can take certain learnings from it.” She pointed out that the city’s futuristic planning, intrinsic green open spaces and sizeable sectors where each sector is a self-contained unit, are all ideas one could extract and transport to new city planning models.

“Chandigarh was a smart city 40 years back,” was the unbiased opinion of Vivek Gupta, who was mesmerised by how well planned the city was when he came to CCA in 1979 from an organic city like Bikaner in Rajasthan. He mentioned how studying in Chandigarh gave him an identity as an architect, which he is extremely proud of till date. It’s his passionate opinion that, for cities like Chandigarh to continue being a planned city, a legislative rule is imperative. He cited Amsterdam as an example, where the local governing body issues car licenses based on parking availability in the area. “If we were well governed and legislated, we would have replicated the city with the extension of Chandigarh like Noida,” he maintained.

Joining the conversation from the audience side, Kohli enquired what the panelists felt about Corbusier negating everything that was vernacular in architecture. Gupta answered that the architecture vocabulary here was indeed different, but nevertheless still contextual. “You always design for context, climate and client. The client, in this case, was Nehru – and he had given the brief to design a modern city. Modern is a relative word, but in the cacophony of organic growth that every other Indian city was in, there had to be… a new beginning for city planning.” He explained how the structures were contextual to the climate, traditional elements like jalis were interpreted in brick, material were used consciously, and concrete was the symbol of new material – leaving a mark for other cities and the construction industry to follow.

Dr.Mehta, too, provided interesting insights to the question. Corbusier never designed individual houses, but Pierre Jeanneret’s team was responsible for it. She reminded the audience that the city was meant to be for “a socialist democratic egalitarian republic,” for people suffering from the trajectory of the partition with little money to invest. “All the idioms were borrowed from the surroundings,” she observed, adding that in his free time Jeanneret visited villages and surrounding areas in the hills to look for motifs – like jalis – that were seemingly lost, which could be brought back into the city. “It’s a modernist vocabulary, an East-West dialogue, and not really ‘isms’ from the past,” she concluded.

As facilitators of this discussion, Hajela summarised the discussion by recalling the old adage ‘we shape cities... and then cities shape us’. As a Delhi resident who appreciates the fresh air of Chandigarh, he agreed that well-planned cities leave a good impression – but most of all, it is the inhabitants who maintain and celebrate the city that truly need to be lauded for their fervour and effort.
Before the event transitioned into an evening of networking, Jaquar took the opportunity to celebrate their ‘60 years of Manufacturing Excellence’ with the Chandigarh audience. Rajesh Mehra, director, Jaquar Group, announced that as a brand they were “proudly made in India for the world” and are poised to make this cherished Indian brand a reputed global name.
In the end, Design Confab at Chandigarh was a celebration of excellence on many fronts.

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