‘Benefits of design should percolate to the masses’

Nitin Killawala, Mumbai-based architect and director, Group Seven Architects and Planners Pvt Ltd, is vigorously campaigning for an integrated transport plan for Mumbai. Recipient of several national awards, including from the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) and the Institute of Interior Designs (IID), he believes masses and slum-dwellers should benefit from newer infrastructure projects rather than left to fend off speculative real estate operators. Excerpts from interview:

WORDS: KOMAL RAO

As someone who has been associated closely with the Indian architecture sector for four decades, what are your views on its evolution, especially in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata?
Every city grows progressively and it is the responsibility of both authorities and citizens to strive constantly for better quality of life. Although our cities have grown quantitatively in terms of population, infrastructure, wealth, education and technology, none of these components are qualitative. So the result is chaos, despair and deteriorating human values.

Do you see a gradual change for the better in terms of architectural standards, in our structures and buildings over the coming years, or will profits and finances overshadow such changes?
I do see some change for the better, but that is fragmented and happens not collectively but in isolation.

nitin-killawala_1
smruti-vile-parle

That’s why we do not see the positive impact. One of the most important aspects is that of the housing sector which is totally neglected by successive governments.
This is evident in flawed housing policies. The entire housing industry is in the hands of private developers; hence it is speculative and profit-oriented. Gone are the days when MHADA, CIDCO and DDA used to hold even competitions for excellence in housing across all typologies such as HIG, MIG and LIG including large public spaces.

vallabh-ashram-school
chinmaya-ashram

Mumbai has been one of your focus areas and you have been vociferous in backing some projects and opposing others. Where do you see the metropolis headed for over the coming years in terms of the development of mega projects?
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is the richest local body (Rs42,000 crore in FDs alone) and the most corrupt public institution of the world. So Mumbai is a milking cow for any government and so long as it remains that way the city will continue to deteriorate.
All the chief ministers over the last two decades have had no concern for the city. Therefore, even though it is not a city-state (like Delhi, London, Singapore and New York) it should at least have its CEO to govern the city.

The situation now is so pathetic that we do not know who is the mayor of the city – when he’s appointed or removed, or even what he does?
We must realise that 90% of civil construction and building materials are consumed by infrastructure projects promoted by the government. The decision-makers for these projects are corporators and political parties across cities of India.
Many corporators are not even matriculates, lack basic civic sense and ethics. Unfortunately, they control infrastructure projects worth thousands of crores across the country.
The present government keeps on announcing populist projects such as the bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad but the real lifeline of suburban rail work is neglected,

There are plans for coastal roads with huge costs, but they never improve potholed roads.

What are the challenges confronting the Indian architectural segment – too many complex laws, political interference, or financial issues?
I strongly advocate that in our architectural curriculum, we must have elective subjects like law, politics, finance and management because these streams will add tremendous value to the profession as well as society at large.
Look at the bizarre political decision to make a new capital complex of Amaravati on the lines of the sets of Bahubali. Or the ruthless demolition of architect Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations and Industry at Pragati Maidan.

Due to rapid advancement in information technology and frequent cross–country travels even emerging cities are losing the sense of belonging. Look at Pune, Bengaluru and even Kochi and Guwahati – you do not find the uniqueness that was there about a decade ago, but there is bizarre urbanisation without any goals.

Bye-laws should be fine-tuned to adapt to new challenges, but our political sensibilities are so low that every government works for the next election, and real problems are never resolved.
I do not consider this as political interference but our helplessness because for a common person there are so many other issues on a daily basis that we have become immune to many important issues around us.

d-c-house
getz-pharma-ambernath

What are the prospects for Indian cities over the coming years? Will authorities pay heed to the warnings of architects and urban planners?
Due to rapid advancement in information technology and frequent cross–country travels even emerging cities are losing the sense of belonging. Look at Pune, Bengaluru and even Kochi and Guwahati – you do not find the uniqueness that was there about a decade ago, but there is bizarre urbanisation without any goals. Today as architects/planners we do not have constitutional appointments in any local planning authorities. This is one more reason that architects must educate themselves beyond architecture to use their strength legally and politically.

You must often be interacting with architecture students learning. How different is this generation as compared to those from yours?
Yes, students are more intuitive than our contemporaries, naturally because of unprecedented access to information, which is very good. However, implementing in practice in today’s social scenario as well as competitive world is becoming tougher for the young generation.

You were part of the design team for the Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial, Nashik. Could you tell us about the design philosophy behind it?

The Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial is a very old project realised through an architectural competition sponsored by Nashik Municipality in 2001.

The main concept and execution was relentlessly carried out by our friend and mentor late Akhil Dadkar.

I am happy to see that such large public space is used by citizens and is one of the attractions in Nashik City, although the campus needs constant maintenance and upgradation.

Could you talk about some of the interesting projects that you – and your firm – executed in recent years in Indian cities?

All our projects are in India and we make an attempt to make it interesting, by implementing Indian ethos in a contemporary manner.
However, there are a few projects which keeps us on our toes like a few school campus in south Gujarat, a training institute for the Reserve Bank of India at Prabhadevi in Mumbai and a couple of R & D centres for the pharma industry.

Your own house is a very interesting design as far as layout and use of materials are concerned. Can you please tell us about its uniqueness?
Our newly built family residence is an outcome of nurturing ancestral

assets and make it work for future generations. We have been staying in this property for over five decades.
The rebuilt structure is totally in steel – MS columns, fabricated ‘I’ beams and galvanised deck sheets. The reason for this option, although not economical than conventional RCC frame, was mainly the time factor – small plot size in developed neighbourhood and exploiting technology in steel structures.
Moreover steel structures provide tremendous flexibility in planning and sleeker yet strengthy aesthetical feel. In short it’s a typical urban house to suit individual needs – not necessarily opulent but adaptable.

The government has taken up the ambitious smart city project. What according to you makes a city smart?
Everyone in government is talking about smart cities and in equal breath we say it is ‘hyped’. The present government is thriving on hope, which is not bad per se. But every time there is renewal of hope, we do not reach anywhere.
This is yet another item for propaganda like Vaastu, green / environmental friendly cities, sustainable living and so on. To me there is nothing like ‘smart’ cities.
Cities should have sense of belonging. They should be simple, interactive and promote democratic spaces for every local citizen and even visitors. Today the rich-poor gap is widening and could lead social unrest in future.