The law is always an ass

Why do our cities have such dull architecture? The answer, says Suparna Bhalla, lies in our rigid, antiquated building laws

Architects and planners like to believe they direct the shape of the city. But the truth is that the Indian city grows and spurts with all the autonomy of a living organism. Design is not the culprit here rather it is the victim, enslaved within the clutches of policy or what is infamously called the ‘system’.

For an architect, what starts as a journey paved with idealism often skids on the “practical” roads paved by cynicism. It is a constant battle between the brush and the canvas, where policy — enshrined in rigid, antiquated building laws and byelaws — dictates the height, width, shape, volume and even open space networks in the city. The result: there is no room for imagination, for anything unprecedented, and the architect is forced to surreptitiously bend these laws or take advantage of their lack of enforcement.

Take city fire norms, the inadequacy of which were exposed by the fire at Stephen Court in Kolkata last year and the more recent one at Bombay House. You only have to walk into the basement parking of any commercial building or mall in the National Capital Region to see the glaring gaps in fire safety. How are the old or physically-challenged to exit from a third basement in a fire, with the elevators not working and pedestrian ramps not being the “norm”? Even ramps above the surface like the one at Spire Edge, Manesar, had to be cantilevered from the building at a higher cost to the conscientious developer — or it would have been taken into the floor space index (FSI). It is hard to persuade promoters to give up saleable area for a ramp “not required as per the law”, and even harder to reason with the authorities that a sloping ramp cannot be considered a “liveable” space! Worse, thanks to the lack of enforcement, fire escapes are blocked — as happened in Uphaar Cinema — or fire refuge areas and staircases meant for rescue are rendered inaccessible to the public given because they’ve been given as sops to tenants, as is happening in many new commercial buildings from Gurgaon to Jasola.

Fire norms for builder apartments — the typical 500-800 square yard plotted structures that dot the Indian urbanscape — are no different. Thus in many instances, eight apartments share one stairwell and exit, so that the only way out in a fire is the window!

To further complicate matters, most new builder flats use the basement for living purposes, flouting the law that says basements in residential areas may only be used for storage and parking. Architects have no way to argue against this outmoded law, pleading the availability now of modern ventilation and lighting systems.

Even parking, though legally permissible in residential basements, is a design impossibility as car ramps are not allowed in the front, back or side. According to the new parking norms for residential properties in Delhi, apartments and large single family homes have to provide for close to 15 car parks on their ground area! Why cannot there be a judicious understanding of ownership, rather than a blanket law that is designed for the worst rather than the best?

Then take buildings that are within 100 metre of a monument. In Europe this would increase its value; here it would be a restriction, since you can’t make any changes or additions to the structure. But then not every historic monument is of the same value as the Taj Mahal. There are homes in Sundar Nagar or Hauz Khas in New Delhi that suffer a further misfortune because only half the home lies within this 100 metre area!

Architects must first grapple with these convoluted laws and then, as in the case of Adarsh building in Mumbai, find loopholes to allow basement use, maximise built areas, cover courtyard spaces, and violate parking and fire norms after completion.

In a country with an urban populace larger than the entire population of the US, and slated to double in the next two decades, Indian cities will grow at an unprecedented rate. Given this, urban policy needs to work with and not against architects, civic progress and public aspiration to address issues of identity, ecology and inequity that plague our cities.

Suparna Bhalla
Published on February, 19th 2011

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