Architectural Ethics?

Do they teach ethics to architecture students? I ask this because there is a conflict over urban space in this country – how it looks, how it’s used – and I think architectural renderings have played a part into turning this into a class conflict.

For example, in Delhi, before the Commonwealth Games next year, the city government is making a lot of efforts to hide all visible manifestations of poverty. They’re rounding up beggars, trying them in mobile courts, and holding repeat offenders in “unspecified locations,” or sending them back to where they came from. Since 2004, they’ve been regularly evicting slums, beginning with the massive eviction of the Yamuna Pushta. Before the games, they’re covering slums that they cannot remove with bamboo “curtains” to hide them from view.

Honestly, it’s hard to tell from these newspaper reports just how seriously the government is taking these efforts; they obviously make for great stories, so all the papers write about them. But most have just begun, so it’s unclear what kind of resources have been committed to them.

But here’s my question: why do they even think hiding slums, beggars, and street vendors is necessary? It’s no secret to the world that India is still a poor country.

Obviously it’s hard to draw causal arrows, but don’t you think that drawings like this one below have contributed to a particular aesthetic vision for the world-class city that Delhi has openly aspired to be in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games next year? The image is taken from a government advertisement in the papers, and there are no people and only one car on an Indian road. Unless it’s 4 am, this scene is highly unrealistic – but apparently this is what the city wants.

Commonwealth Games Road

If all the architects involved had drawn in street vendors, commuters shopping on their walk home from the train station, cycle rickshaws, in their drawings for the Games-related transport projects, then maybe we would have had a completely different kind of clean up effort. I know architects work at the whim of their clients, but drawings that look more like the one below – taken from an IIT – Delhi presentation on buses – seem to be far more in tune with their context. Shouldn’t that sensitivity be a prerequisite for every architecture graduate? And a part of professional ethics as much as following building codes and zoning regulations?

Delhi Real Road Imagination

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6 comments
  1. Mac said:

    True enough, but I don’t think architects are the only elements here, but part of a wider social and class issue on how we romanticise about our space. I mean look at Indian car commercials as well – they often show their cars zooming along super-well paved, empty streets through wonderful wilderness or pristine urban environments. I’m convinced they are either taken in another country or on film studio lots because that is not the India any of us have ever experienced. Nor should it be. I really hate the sense of being ashamed of how things really look.

    The other sad, but sympathetic point is that Delhi in removing any visuals to poverty is not doing really any different than every single other city who has hosted the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. All the Western cities have been heavily cricised for rounding up homeless people from their downtowns during the games for example, Atlanta even housing them in prisons for the month, if I am remembering right. Such show the real priorities and respect for the people politicians everywhere have of the people in “their” cities.

    Sad to hear Delhi is following that classic playbook.

    Seriously though, what is with that single car on the flyover though. I mean, aren’t flyovers supposed to, designed to, ease traffic congestion problems aka be used by lots and lots of people. If you shows me a drawing of a flyover like that, I would conclude, “great, clearly this flyover is not necessary since no one seems to be using it. Let’s save a ton of money and cancel it.”

    • nraman said:

      Vali, This is really interesting, but the strange thing is that taking a taxi or an auto in Bombay is so easy, especially in comparison to Chennai. There’s no haggling with the drivers about the fare, and I have had multiple experiences where I have been pleasantly surprised by how nice the driver is. It’s really only Chennai where the auto drivers are notoriously rude. Meru cabs is also SUPER expensive, much more than double the auto fare, and I think it’s more than 40% more than the regular taxi fare in Bombay. I can’t imagine that the Meru cabs are really stealing much of the market from the other autos and taxis — there’s only a limited percentage of the population for whom a difference of that much would not matter. even with the added comforts of an a/c.

      Regarding your next question — I’ve spoken to auto drivers about their profits. It costs them rs 150 to rent an auto every day, plus around Rs 200 on top of that for petrol. Anything on top of that is their takings. I’ve heard that they make anywhere from Rs. 200 to 600 a day. So doubling the fare for a single customer can really make a huge difference in their daily takings. So maybe that’s why they’re so willing to do it? And to lose you as a customer if you’re not willing to pay that much?

  2. Vali said:

    To follow up from my last comment: It seems crazy to me that every auto driver I’ve talked to in Chennai initially requests (at least) double the fair rate for a trip. At first I thought they did this because I look American, but I’ve seen drivers treat locals the same way.

    I just did a quick Google search and Google scholar search for academic explanations for auto-rickshaw charging practices in India, but couldn’t quickly find anything. However, I’m sure there’s a literature on this. India produces too many analysts for there not to be. Can any VFC readers with better research skills or research search engine access scrounge up anything?

  3. Arvind said:

    @Vali :
    I don’t know what you meant by “auto-rickshaw charging practices in India”, but if I were to read that literally, the answer would be : The charging practices are so different even within Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Trichy) despite having the same fare structure for the entire state.
    To travel 3km in Tiruppur, it could cost you Rs.80 (Rs. 60 if you bargain really well), in Coimbatore it would cost you Rs.50 (bargaining doesn’t work), in Chennai it would range from Rs. 40 (“Anna! Please Anna. Student Anna!”) to Rs. 100 (“Mylapore ke liye kithne?”) and in Trichy it would cost you Rs. 30 or Rs. 35.

    Do note that while people will be extremely polite in Coimbatore and Trichy, it will radically different at Chennai and Tiruppur (which is only 40 km away from Coimbatore). I think it has something to do with the fact that most people in Chennai and Tiruppur are immigrants from other districts looking to earn more than they did at home. (@Nithya, correct me if I am wrong in this assumption about Chennai, but I think I am right about Tiruppur).

    Also, “autokarans” in Chennai weren’t so ridiculous until around 2002 or so. Yes, IT boom, and more people from North India coming to Chennai. They didn’t know what the base fare structure was, they didn’t (and still don’t?) know the language … in other words, easy prey for our friends. I definitely remember quite a few times in the mid and late 90s when I paid around 50 bucks to go from Besant Nagar to Central Station (13 km), sometimes using the meter and sometimes when the autodriver initially asked for 60.

    Bangalore, I’ve noticed, has some mean auto drivers too. But you can force them to use the meter so it’s not as bad as in Chennai.

    But that still doesn’t address why there is no fleecing in Mumbai (or in Trivandrum, where the auto drivers even return change if it’s only 10 paise!). Mumbai is very weird in many ways. I’ve heard that there’s lane discipline on roads there and that people stand in a queue to get on to the bus (They don’t do that in Ann Arbor!).

    Oh well, that’s just a lot of conjecture and hot air I guess 🙂

    (One more thing about Chennai’s auto drivers : Compared to the rudeness of the average Chennaivasi, they don’t fare too badly, I think)

    • nraman said:

      Arvind, thanks for the inputs on differences in auto drivers’ attitudes and fares even within the state where the fuel taxes etc. are all the same. It also might be a cost of living difference — are Tiruppur and Chennai far more expensive than Coimbatore and Trichy (certainly more than Trichy!)?

      My personal feeling is that the differences stem from the strength and the character of auto-driver organization in the cities. A stronger and widespread union might result in higher rates, because auto drivers know that no driver will go for less than a particular price. And a particular kind of leadership within the union might lead to more cantankerous professional behavior towards customers.

      What do you think?

      –Nithya

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