Cities around the world have always shown a progressive evolution right since their initial sprawl. It is every inch square area that goes into the inception of cities, every square of the city that goes onto moulding a metropolis and every weave of the metropolis that shapes up a beaming megalopolis. Demand plays a vital role in shaping the socio-cultural-economic stature of urban settlements. Utopia by definition is a hypothesis, but by nature has become an intangible part of the planning processes all around the world, since the advent of the 20th century minds and processes of building.
It is an ongoing search for solutions to make better and more efficient urban stems. Over the years, architecture and urban design have had an entwined relationship in shaping the cities of the future. There have been concepts of Walking Cities, Plug-In Cities, Garden Cities, just with the intention to contour a sustainable humane habitat, a place with the most ideal of conditions, where a melange of communities strive and thrive together. With influx of migrants to major cities, the crunch in the availability of ambient habitable localities has with time become more prominent. Be it, New York, Paris, Tokyo or Mumbai, the need to expand and the need to facilitate requires clarification.
Alongside towering population, one of the fears that mankind faces today is the fear to cope with natural hazards. Designers have devised several proposals such as underground and underwater citadels, flotillas, incremental housing projects and many more to address growth and help decentralise cities by having contributory zones. Form and function have been the driving forces for such concepts.
Utopias can be generally categorised in two based on their distinct natures – the world within and the world without. Utopian concepts that constitute individual aspirations of the inhabitants of urban settlements, with respect to aspects such as their right of way, the freedom in communication etc..and other such inclusive requirements, fall within a microcosm. This is where the manifestations of the inhabitants are taken into consideration at an individual level. It deals with their interactions, that balance the social milieu. On the other hand, there are utopian projections where cities have been foreseen to be detached from the existing. They act as plug-ins in scenarios of requirements and can very quickly detach themselves. Here, the city as a whole is the cosmos, where everything is modular, and citizens are considered to be of a consistent character.
The Tokyo bay Master plan project conceived by Kenzo Tange in 1960 was one such proposal to decentralise, an exhausted future Tokyo, by moving seawards. The proposal encompasses linear distribution of roads emerging from the bay area in to the sea. The first step was creating the civic axis and a cycle transportation system at a height of 40 meters above existing Tokyo that only touches the ground at points of interchanges. This system connects to all major highways and railroads. The traffic circulation system is detached from the ground and suggests a strong separation between traffic and pedestrians. It was designed to carry up to 5,000,000 people daily. The grid on which the street system is based consists of squares with side length of one kilometre. The system allows for a step by step expansion from Tokyo to the other side of Tokyo bay. Public buildings are located between the two parallel highways while residential areas are attached to the civic axis through a perpendicular street system. Like leaves of a tree the residential area seems to grow away from the civic axis. The buildings reside on huge platforms on the water and propose the old relationship between the population of Tokyo and the sea. This proposal was an extension of the Tokyo life, but in a way insensitive to the footprint it would have on the aquatic life around the bay. It is comparatively easy to propose expansion as a green field project, but what happens if the same expansion is super- imposed over the existing fabric is what concerns urban designers today.
A general slogan of the hour is “Go high with low impact”. One needs to understand that a city constitutes of people, their communities, some of them indigenous. The sentiment of human relations needs to be very well understood in order to have retrofits of newer microcosms over the prevailing ones.
In order to support the idea of retrofitting, the Shinjuku suburban transformation project proposed by Toshio Ojima in Tokyo, can be put forth to understand symbiotic development. Shinjuku is a suburb in Tokyo well known for its historic Imperial Palace and the adjoining heritage precinct with residential development on the eastern side and the highly commercialised western front with sky risers. Both these zones are very distinctly divided by the centrally running railway corridor and the station precinct. Ojima had proposed three alternative ways to enhance the human network by bridging these areas. In the first proposal, he conveniently segregates the layers of circulation i.e. vehicular and pedestrian. The proposal shows an elevated pedestrian corridor with landscaped gardens and plazas meant purely for pedestrian access. In his sketches, the corridor is shown to have voids for visual connection with the vehicular pass beneath. A second proposal was the creation of a landmark, a visual symbol of fusion. This proposal can be found to be in lines with the Paris Arc de Triomph boulevard reaching out to the commercially surrounded La defens building. The third proposal was of having an “urban complex” over the commercial areas. It was to have rooftop housing and pedestrian pathways connecting buildings. The houses open inwards creating smaller community spaces atop the commercial buildings. Another layer of the MRT system was proposed on top of it all to have better access throughout the suburb. A very complex system of networks, this proposal however, looks into the communal alcoves that are the cells of the urban realm.
In a similar orientation, development of Indian cities can be projected as urban complexes. There can be layers in the fabric, in terms of the functions and their segregated links could act as alcoves for community activities. For example, the streets and roads can be lined with Commercial setups like shops, showrooms etc… and the floors on top of that can be used as inward looking residential units. Such a system of housing can be found to be existing in the chawls in Mumbai, where common passages and central courtyards, socially connect all the individual units in the built form. Also, the pedestrian and vehicular access ways can be segregated, by having pedestrian activity on higher levels and the ground level used only by cars. By raising the pedestrian realm, sympathetic responses can be observed among the residents and the infrastructure. Since the existing land is majorly agricultural in nature, such a proposal ensures protection of the environmental fabric of the area. As per categorising is concerned, such a development proposal is a blend of the microcosmic and macro cosmic characters of utopia.
Predominantly residential in nature, such complexes can be envisioned as to be the ‘lifesavers’ for the piling low and middle income group migrant population that flock to the over burdened metropolises every year. In terms of housing, proposals can be made to promote low cost prefabricated housing units, with an utility terrace assigned for every house, so that the terrace becomes a neighbourhood connector. The ground can be left completely open only with stilts to support the units on top. This would help in revitalizing the ground cover as well as retain the existing agricultural character of the land, wherever deemed fit. A re-generist housing model fits the requirements of such a proposal, wherein, a single unit can be divided into mid levels to create hexagonal faces for the inward houses to respond outwards.
To summarise, Utopian concepts to enable an increment in the layers of a city, can have no definite end. Morphogenesis around the evolving use and future needs of the people of the city is what defines Utopia, where both the world within and the world without are functionally driven and are need based solutions provided by urbanists & futurists. These are outcomes of democratic socialism and capitalism. The concept of having a retrofit to a city can definitely improve the quality of living, provided, it caters to the human perception of an ideal settlement . As John Simmonds states, the city is perceived by its inhabitants, based on sight, sound, smell and emotion. The transparency along the cores of the city, the sound and its envelopes that audibly create an aura that beholds the levels of human interaction are all kits and measures to creating affable spaces in the city as it progresses.