by Jerry ElengicalJun 02, 2021
The architectural landscape of India has undergone marked changes in the recent years. Cities are struggling to meet mounting needs for housing, infrastructure, and recreational facilities brought on by urban migration. Rural areas are gradually catching up with modern civic infrastructure and technological aids in one of the most densely populated sections of the world. However, there is another set of challenges the country has to address, which includes pollution, wasteful resource management, and ecosystem degradation. Considering the environmental goals set by the United Nations for the next decade, India is actually well equipped to meet its aims in theory. With its rich history of grassroots initiatives and indigenous design solutions, there is no shortage of innovative ideas that can facilitate possible solutions for many of the issues currently plaguing the nation's urban and rural domains. The challenge here lies in their appropriate implementation.
At the ongoing London Design Biennale, the India Pavilion’s exhibition titled 'Small is Beautiful: A Billion Stories', represents a collective voice of over 200 grassroot ideas cultivated from within the country. The exhibition showcases their feasibility across a broad range of scales through an interactive digital installation at the Somerset House. From product design to reforestation initiatives, urban design interventions to low-cost energy-efficient housing programs, the pavilion comprehensively covers concepts and schemes that mark out routes on which India's architecture can move towards a sustainable future.
Spread across the domains of cleanAir, cleanEarth, cleanEnergy, cleanWater, and forest, its stories bind and weave threads that have run throughout the nation's vast history, for centuries. The five categories are woven together by the pavilion’s curator and architect, Nisha Mathew Ghosh, in an exhibition that showcases how many of these ideas are still used by leading architects and designers across the Indian subcontinent - proving their pertinence. With this in mind, here are some of the highlights.
Every breath we take - cleanAir
Among the five, cleanAir is of particular relevance, given that India's borders contain a significant number of cities possessing some of the poorest air quality in the world. In Bangalore, a city afflicted by air pollution and vehicular congestion, local firm Cadence Architects, when enlisted to design a naturopathy centre and yoga hall in a tight urban plot, choose to address the pollution and noise as part of the site context. The designers conceived a solution that created a 'living skin' out of the structure's facade, reinterpreting traditional jaali patterns filled with vegetation. While acting to filter out pollution, the plants also provide a serene environment for healing.
Conversely, in Mandvi, Gujarat, SPASM Design Architects created 'breathing walls' in the Shri Khimji Ramdas Kanya Vidhyalay Science Lab. Making clever use of the Venturi Effect by using terracotta cones inserted in concrete blocks, the structure is ventilated and cooled with the aid of passive design. This method depicts how small towns can mimic metropolitan construction in a more sustainable, economical, and effective way.
Building from the ground up - cleanEarth
Wallmakers, a Kerala-based firm, illustrates how architecture can exist in harmony with the earth through their design for 'Shikhara', a private residence set against urban hilltops. Using shuttered earth debris walls, the home is built from the very soil procured during excavations, supplemented by recycled materials in its interior and exterior detailing. Alongside this, Morphogenesis, one of India's leading architectural firms, was influenced by the subtractive qualities of cave dwellings in conceptualising accommodation for one of the most perilous pilgrimages in the country. At high altitudes with inhospitable conditions, their concept for the Amarnath caves, bermed into the mountain's faces, presents an answer that heightens spiritual experiences without disturbing nature.
Powering the future - cleanEnergy
Tackling the challenge of cleanEnergy is Prestige University by Sanjay Puri Architects. Using traditional brick screens, contextual design, and landscaped terraces to create an integrated learning experience, the project draws on local design methods to ensure energy efficiency. Additionally, presented as the first of its kind among solar-powered, self-sufficient, and carbon-negative modular homes, PowerHyde by billionBricks and Architecture BRIO tackles the oncoming energy crises while providing affordable housing to millions of informal housing residents across India. Merging passive income generation with housing solutions, the project creates miniature solar power plants on the roof of each unit, utilising only a small portion and allowing the rest to be sold by homeowners for profit. If fully realised on a large scale, this system could potentially revolutionise both the nation’s affordable housing crisis and its shift towards clean energy.
Treasuring every drop - cleanWater
Closely tied to the theme of cleanWater, Mindspace Architects uses fluid, cascading terraces and a bio-lake to alter microclimates and harvest rainwater at the Titan Integrity Campus in Bangalore. Landscaping imbued into the terrace design attracts flora and fauna, to forge a dialogue with surrounding ecosystems.
On the other hand, addressing the trials faced by migrant communities in flood-prone, low-lying areas, 'Aqueous Communities' by Mad(e) in Mumbai is a proposal that reconciles issues of land and water-based habitats using stepped modules built with sustainable, low-cost construction techniques. This solution might be of particular value in the near future with the ever-present threat of rising sea levels.
A trail through the woods - Forest
With the task of rehabilitating depleted forests in Mumbai, damaged by human habitation along the Mithi River, Somaya and Kalappa Consultants presented 'A Line Across History' among the proposals for the Maharashtra Nature Park design competition. The proposal includes sustainable features such as solar power generation, reforestation, and water harvesting. Adopting a divergent approach, The Glamping Refuge by doro attempts to forge sentimental connections between man and nature in the wilderness, serving as a haven for nature enthusiasts and ornithologists constructed using bamboo and patu walls to limit environmental impact.
This sheer abundance of ingenious, sustainable ideas and solutions shows that the unique architectural landscape of India, in spite of its shortcomings, is not inept when it comes to fostering game-changing innovations to combat climate change, proving that there is enough cause for optimism about the future of the country's built environment. But there is still a long way to go before these ideas are brought to fruition on larger scales. While showcasing the wealth of ideas already being implemented, the plea for recognition presented by the India Pavilion is also a vehement call to action for designers and architects to challenge the deficiencies of the current status quo and encourage the exploration of viable alternatives.