Cities have been shaped over time by political successions, nationalist agendas and economic motives. The intersecting spheres of imperialism, nationalism and consumerism have pushed Indian cities through shocks and stresses extending beyond the conventional range of the political, posing a serious challenge of deciphering authenticity, something which is layered with manipulation and rendered highly subjective. Transformed at an unprecedented rate in the past century, the city has grappled with two seemingly opposite forces. One desperately trying to keep pace with the highly globalizing world and the other struggling to find expression for cultural identity. A fusion of new-found aspirations and historical residues, the former dominating the scene. This has resulted in extremities of both kinds; endless replication of the mundane (building blocks of malls, offices and houses standardized to great efficiency to multiply even faster), and poor imitations of heritage done with the materials and time crunch of today, in the perpetual quest for “character”. However, as noted by Zeynep Çelik, ‘universalization of urban forms and architecture’ has marked the end of an era giving way to ‘dispersed heterogeneity’. Merging and re-plotting of physical boundaries, triggered externally or from within, has created hybrid cultures to be accommodated in hybrid spaces. In this context, resilience is examined as the city’s ability to adapt to change (not resist it) without losing its spatial vitality and sense of place. This adaptation ensures the continued survival of urban centres threatened with brutal erasure or slow devolution into the generic. At the same time, it also helps align newer development to respond to local conditions and needs. The city of Mumbai has benefitted from lending its colonial buildings to be converted into expensive storefronts, while simultaneously allowing the Victorian arcades outside to be used by vendors selling antiques and clothes at prices almost mockingly low when compared to the display inside. ‘As an architectural or urban design solution, the arcades display an incredible resilience; they can accommodate new uses while keeping the illusion of their architecture intact.’ Their intended use was, of course, to beat the heat of Bombay and avoid unpredictable showers of rain.
Instances of adaptability that are proving some cities more resilient than others can be classified into three types; Preservation, Reinvention and Association. These can be observed overlapping each other in a given urban space to cater to multiple interests. Here, ‘preservation’ does not result out of a compulsive desire to museum-ize the past, but is rather a conscious attempt to attach value to architectural remnants belonging to different historical eras. Effective conservation of the French buildings in Pondicherry has not only made it a popular tourist destination, but has also acknowledged a cultural legacy that is distinct from its surrounding region. ‘“Preservation” and “heritage” do not act as brakes against development; in some strange way, they further a developmental agenda…Invoking a continuity with the legendary past- no matter how ambiguous that past might have been- enhances the city’s attractiveness, gives it historical cachet, and hence equips it to compete for foreign investment and the tourist trade on more favourable terms. The past is kind of symbolic capital. Furthermore, the preservation of ecological interventions that date back to the city’s inception, like the inter-connected system of lakes in Udaipur, acts as a reminder of a pre-colonial existence; of capacities, skills and resources that must have been the basis of a formalized settlement. While Rishikesh attracts spiritual seekers and yoga enthusiasts from all over the world each year, hence acquiring a unique cosmopolitan vibe, it is the city’s ancient ghats flowing along the length of the river Ganga that ‘display an incredible resilience’, just like the Victorian arcades in Mumbai. Traditionally, the ghat(or a stepped platform embanking a river) was seen as a sacred space to perform daily bathing rituals, prayers and last rites for the deceased. Attracting development along its linear axis that provided everyone equal access to the waters, the ghat is also a suitable buffer that protects permanently-inhabited-areas from the cyclic flooding of the river. Presently, the ghat continues to serve its original purpose in addition to functioning as a public promenade to support a wide range of vibrant activities. Its preservation has prevented the disruption of an ethos and the cultural spirit that binds people to their land, while proving to be an asset in the city’s future growth. In essence, it harmoniously ties together the old and new.
Besides monumental buildings and public squares, the old can also be thought of as cultural practices and festivals that continue to be celebrated collectively, thereby temporarily transforming the city’s urban pockets and streets. Here is where ‘reinvention’ comes in. As elaborated by Rahul Mehrotra with yet another example of Mumbai, the city’s formal infrastructure, largely perceived as ‘static’, is dynamically adapted to accommodate the proceedings during Ganesh Chaturthi in the months of August or September (the dates always differ every year). ‘…New spaces are created to house the idol of Ganesh for ten days. On the last day of the celebrations, a large part of the city’s population carries the idol in long processions, ultimately immersing it in the sea.’ This reinvented use of the streets and shared spaces in every neighbourhood challenges the singular image of the city projected by the new-urban, with weddings and festival processions, street vendors and hawkers, emerging as a ‘spectacle’ against the backdrop of the city’s permanence. Innovated usage of space can also be observed in the gradual and incremental adjustments made by people residing in city cores to fall in step with the larger economic scheme of the city. The opening of many luxury hotels in Udaipur and its historic appeal, as captured in a Bond movie of the 1980s, may have helped feature the place on the international tourist map. However, it is the reinvented experience of the old, as offered to the visitor, that is perhaps found to be most fascinating, where layers of time can be viewed in an overlay of spatial frameworks. This is a consequence of old havelis converted into bed and breakfast, terraces into rooftop cafes and narrow lanes lined with sweet shops and art galleries. These small, bottom-up endeavours help build the city’s resilience by providing a means of sustenance to the ‘locals’, and thus allowing the co-existence of subaltern and elite cultures. It also furthers the level of social tolerance by introducing a multi-ethnic footfall in the city.
With the prevalent notion (and hope) that cities can afford a privileged lifestyle, there has been an overwhelming influx of people from the villages. The urban population in India is projected to double in the next 30 years, surpassing 800 million. Either in desperate panic or for commercial viability, cities have swelled to replace forest with farmland and farmland with brownfields. Now more than ever, ‘association’ of the new-urban (which is majority of the city’s built-environment) with the existing can elude the dominant exclusivity of space that may result from the concentration of global flows and capital.
Krushi Bhawan in Bhubaneswar, a rare example of a public building commissioned to incorporate community spaces in addition to its administrative purpose, has found its links both in the symbolic and practical domain. The ‘distinctive brick façade inspired by Ikat patterns of Odisha handlooms’, among other such visual gestures, is a tribute to the craft traditions that have been passed over many generations. More importantly, it has been designed to employ a variety of artisan-skills and build ‘a contemporary narrative of agricultural folklore’. The choice of local materials and spatial elements has proven effective in the hot and humid climate of this coastal region. Needless to say, this is an instance of top-down planning plus architectural sensitivity benefitting the city at large. However, a significant chunk of the Indian city is a product of self-build ventures, some of them flexible and temporal in nature. Like a daily evening ritual in Ahmedabad, after the jewellery shops have pulled down their metal shutters, the cars in Manek Chowk are replaced with fervent human activity. Pieces of tarpaulin are hoisted up with bamboo supports, live cooking counters brought in and rows of plastic tables erected to attend to a mix of people from all parts of the city. While many cities have such identifiable spots that are associated with local street-foods and host a vibrant atmosphere, Manek Chowk becomes a powerful node for social and business exchange that keeps the peripheral city connected with the core. This example perhaps illustrates the ‘enormous skill of city-building, particularly in Asia’ that Rem Koolhaas mentions, also suggesting that it is ‘never about the new but always about the more and modified.
Since resilience lies in the city’s adaptive capacity, it can be read into the juxtaposition of the formal and informal. The resilient city accommodates a healthy proportion between the two and addresses its social and cultural heterogeneity with mutating urban forms. With the city emerging as ambiguously complex, it can hardly be perceived, described or ‘solved’ in one way. In fact, resilience surfaces only when the urban narrative is pluralized, with different spatial forms vying for validity, through optimization.