By Hemang Desai
Urban India is the place where more than 300 million live. In fact the crisis of water and sanitation in urban India is greater than the one in rural India. The theatre of water in urban India is in conflict with rural India in many cases and the urban Indian built-form functions without even consideration of something basic like potable water! Only 47 percent of urban Indian household have individual water connection and only 37 percent of people are connected to piped sewer system.
But a city is a great artifact created by human ingenuity working on the material conditions surrounding it; all cultures thrive in cities. In fact the SIWI Water Report notes that “Cities and water are deeply connected. Water and sanitation services are critical to the health and dignity of urban populations and their ability to participate in urban life.
Water in cities can also be a natural resource, an ecological service provider, a public space, a wildlife habitat, a transport route and a source of energy, nutrients and services – all uses that provide opportunity for employment and sustainable economic activity. Yet the multiple potential benefits of water in cities have often been overlooked, as have the many ways in which urban decisions impact the state of urban water. Rather than a nuisance, water – in its many forms and uses – needs to be looked at as an urban asset.”
In the rapidly urbanizing scenario of India where building activity is naturally spurned on by the obviously rising demands for dwellings of all kinds, how does an architect view the crucial element of water while trying to unfurl beauty in his designs, both for buildings and for cities?
An interview with Rajeev Kathpalia, an award winning architect and urban designer based in Ahmedabad, on the place of water in his work:
Q: What is the place of water in the philosophy guiding your work as a designer of buildings?
Ans: Water is paramount in all the projects we work on, be it the design of a city, a campus or an individual home. If you consider water a manifestation of energy, something alive then your engagement with its many persona has to be thought out accordingly. Our ancestors were wise, over millennia they observed the nature of water and the fact that in a year our sub-continent was inundated with water for a few months but we barely had any for the rest of the year. A tradition of water collection, in tanks, ponds and wells was born and nurtured. This tradition banked upon myths and legends generated for the careful collection and usage of water and the maintenance of the receptacles for this collection. Interdependence, sharing and care become the ways of nurturing the cycle of water. The understanding of this tradition is what informs our work.
Q: Architects like Laurie Baker experimented with rainwater harvesting way back in the 1960s. Why is the idea not as widespread at present as it should have been?
Ans: It is not that Laurie Baker did not inspire many others to follow, he did. Many city governments have even made rainwater harvesting mandatory in their bylaws. But the implementation of this is the issue. Traditional communities were very conscious of scales of control over water resources. In the pols of Ahmedabad where densities of houses is actually higher than in the newer parts of the city even though they average about three stories versus eight stories in the newer parts of the city, each rooftop was used to collect the monsoon bounty. Individual control was the key. You can’t do that in a ten storey flat until unless collective action is better managed. Most importantly, people have to be made aware that water issues will affect their lives today.
Q: How does a designer negotiate between water as an element of consumption and its presence as a design element for the built-environment?
Ans: When we entirely remove a system by burying it in the ground we lose its presence and it ceases to be meaningful. Reveal the flow and collection of water. Celebrate it. At Sarkhej Roza even the water inlets of the tank are beautifully designed.
Q: How to enshrine water sensitive urban-design in planning and policy responses?
Ans: When we centralize control over its management and hand it to a faceless entity we do not engage with it. Water management has to become a community based act. Supposing the municipal government said that from now onwards each society has to manage its water and waste within its allocated land for all new housing societies. We would need to design very differently. The size of a society, the typology of houses, the densities and the usage and size of land necessary to sustain this, would all need to be relooked at with water and its consumption as a key factor.
Q: A particular instance of your design effort that has resulted in a vibrant water sensitive architecture in your repertoire?
Ans: The Nalanda University campus and the IIM at Udaipur are both designed with an acute consciousness of water. In both cases a series of interlinked lakes and wetlands are key in the location of the buildings. The maintenance of these water receptacles is essential for the survival and well-being of the campus community. Smruti Van in Bhuj is similarly nuanced for the entire city of Bhuj.
Adalaj step-well: A unique underground architectural marvel
The unique underground architectural marvels called step-wells have been constructed in Gujarat since the historical times. This underground construction peculiar to the Gujarat region (except for southern Gujarat) was the outcome of the hot, arid climate and the paucity of water available for human and animal usage in the region. These step-wells celebrate water and take the architecture of the region to its high point. There are such step-wells in towns of Gujarat like Patan, Jhinjuwada, Viramgam, Vadhvan, Sarsa, Dhadhalpur, Chobri, Anandpur, Gondal, Virpur, Jetpur and all the way to the coast in Somnath. Among the “water shrines” in Gujarat, the step-wells of Adalaj (near Ahmedabad) and the Ranki vav of Patan (the old Solanki capital in the north of Gujarat) are the supreme examples of step-well architecture.