The quest for sustainability

Ashok Behari Lall builds to a different beat, mindful of the nature of the relationship between architecture and society, the obligation that the practical art he practises increasingly has to be the sustainable way, and the transformative power for social and economic advancement that can, and should, be wielded as a consequence.

Among the leading architects of his generation, the 75-year-old Mr Lall has been at the vanguard of the effort to bring sustainability to the forefront in the crafting of urban dwellings and spaces, especially in the context of affordable and inclusive housing. Naturally enough, environmental sustainability and social responsibility are the principles guiding the Delhi-based firm set up by Mr Lall, a graduate of architecture and fine arts from the University of Cambridge.

Mr Lall, who has won multiple awards for his work and has also been an educator, speaks to Philip Chacko about architecture and urban design and planning, what needs to be heeded and what ought to be examined critically. Excerpts from the interview:  

Ashok Behari Lall

As a discipline, architecture has constantly had to balance a host of elements to be truly relevant, from the practical and the aesthetic to the cultural and the social, and now the sustainable. How complex is it to get all the pieces right in these times?

Architecture as a profession has always had to grapple with all the dimensions you mentioned. At a certain time in history, the sustainability of social dimensions was implicit in the practice of architecture, in the sense that architects were in service to society and, therefore, were generating some social value or the other. When populations were small, our needs were relatively simpler and the exploitation of resources was limited, which meant you could do that in more natural ways, using what was available at hand in an intelligent manner and not seeking to convert all raw materials into a set of magic materials that could do wonders. 

The challenge for architecture as a practice and as a profession is to take responsibility for the social as well as the environmental.”

The difference in this age is twofold. One, the practice of architecture has shifted away from a profession that carries responsibilities beyond what you are called upon to provide to clients. It has responsibilities to the environment and society; it has cultural responsibilities. But the way it has evolved, architecture has become a business where professionals seek opportunities to further their own wealth without paying heed to much else. That is a serious concern.

Second, there’s the scale and complexity of construction that is now happening. You are trying to cope with the needs of a growing population that has a bit more access to wealth. You seek to control the environment, provide greater comforts and conveniences, and also express wealth through the act of building. The processes involved here have a significant impact on the stability of our environment and that’s why we are faced with the climate change crisis.

The challenge for architecture as a practice and as a profession is to take responsibility for the social as well as the environmental. We have to rise to that challenge, develop the ethics for it and be a developmental force for a more sustainable life. That’s the challenge and very few of us are engaged with it globally.

You cite your interest in developing strategies for sustainable development, specifically affordable housing in the face of rapid urbanisation. Given the ever-worsening state of our cities, how do you go about what seems to be an intractable task?

If you look at the trends we are going through now and the predictions for the next two to three decades, what we are going to see is the inevitable result of the type of economy we have been drawn into. There will be more and more urbanisation across India, but there is an opportunity for much of the resultant growth to be directed toward tier-2, tier-3 and tier-4 cities.

In the context of per capita carbon emissions, it has been found that cities that are spread out tend to have higher carbon emissions than cities that are compact. In a compact city you have less moving around to do and mixed land use, and therefore your carbon emissions on account of transportation are controlled. Also, the distribution of services, including social services, in compact cities becomes much more accessible and economically viable.   

However, there is a sweet point with densification, beyond which it becomes negative. What we are witnessing in the big metros may affect their smaller counterparts. “Oh,” they say, “double the FSI [floor space index]” or “triple the FSI”, which leads to buildings being 10-20 storeys high. When you analyse something like this, socially, culturally, and from the point of view of construction costs, maintainability, embodied carbon and operational carbon — it is terribly negative on all these counts. 

A preliminary study reveals the likely optimal pattern of urban development, generally speaking: four-five storey buildings — low-rise or medium-rise high-density, in the language of urban design and town planning — in compact cities are the best option from the point of view of affordability, environmental impact and resilience. There’s potential here for a policy shift if these aspects are recognised.

Critically, we have to consider our situation as a developing society where income disparities seem to be growing alongside GDP growth. In the circumstances, the making, remaking and extension of cities can be an engine for the distribution of wealth. This will happen when the grain of construction, or making cities, is relatively small, because that grain of construction enables many more participants with appropriate levels of skills, capacity or capital — instead of just big builders with deep pockets — to service the demand push. 

You have been quoted as saying that “only when we commit to appropriate policies … that the health and wellbeing of our growing urban population can be ensured”. Do you see those policies and that commitment?

If you read the documents at the highest levels of policymaking, all the lovely words are said: environment, social justice, equity, affordable housing and so on. On top of that, there is our global commitment to reducing the intensity of our carbon emissions. So, yes, there is a declared intention. But converting that declared intention into commitment is a different story. 

What’s happening at the moment is that the solutions for dealing with urban growth are about enormous infrastructure investments in large cities and the pushing of all development into high-rise types of construction. There’s a numerical need for more shelter and we think the numerical answer is the right answer, but this numerical answer has its implications. These implications — rising carbon emissions, increased construction costs, lower resilience, and social and psychological stress — have not yet come into the frame of consideration at the highest levels of governance.

The word ‘sustainability’ is used — and abused as well — in relation to all manner of things. What does sustainability mean in the context of architecture and urban planning?

Sustainability, simply put, is that which can stay stable for a long period of time. Environmental sustainability has become the dominant theme over the last two decades and there are two prominent factors involved. One is climate change and the other is the stress on water to meet the needs of urbanisation and growing populations.

With climate change and carbon emissions there are, broadly speaking, two different dimensions. First, emissions triggered by the production of building materials; that’s one of the major causes of climate change. The second point is about the operational energy requirements of buildings, which are increasing due to rising temperatures and heat waves.

These two factors are respectively called embodied carbon and operational carbon; we have to minimise both. We can do this by adhering to some very straightforward design principles. Unfortunately, our developer, design and construction communities are not paying attention to these simple principles.

When it comes to embodied carbon, the peak is taken by steel consumption. Steel comprises only 2-3% of the building mass but it accounts for 50-60% of embodied carbon in construction. That makes it very important to use steel judiciously, and the same goes for concrete.

On the operational energy side, what we call passive design — the external shape of the building, its orientation with regard to the sun and breeze, windows, shading, insulation of roof and wall, etc — can do a great deal to reduce the impact of conditions of heat or cold. It’s just a question of design. Do this right and energy requirements can be halved when compared with a poorly designed building.

We here in Mumbai appear to be living in an age of architectural submission, where the tyranny of glass and steel dominates, where the nature of the relationship between architecture and society is muddled at best. Where do you see this headed and how can citizens get more involved in the participatory planning method?

My first advice to Mumbaites is this: leave the city. Otherwise, let Mumbai be, let it find its own destiny; we don’t know where it’s going. Mumbai has become the highest per capita carbon emission city in India for sure and there is no way for it to be on the right side of the sustainability equation, no way.

Mumbai is lucky on one count, though, in that it still has enough water to meet the needs of its people. But the city has cut the very branch it is sitting on by overbuilding like mad. Yearly flooding is a certainty and no engineer is going to stop that. But, believe it or not, many cities around the world have got depopulated and that may be the solution for Mumbai. 

There is no way for Mumbai, says Mr Lall, to get on the right side of the sustainability equation

Architecture has forever been employed as a tool, even a weapon, to reinforce ideologies and solidify nationalistic inclinations. What’s included and what’s excluded when such tendencies take hold?

If you consider the historical perspective, I would have to say that the people who are celebrated as master architects in any culture across the globe were those patronised by the powerful and the wealthy. That continues and examples of it are the buildings of the big global corporations, which are like governments themselves: they seek to express their power and wealth one way or the other. 

Most of what we are building today in our cities and towns is an expression of architects and building design professionals serving the public and society according to their means. But when architecture turns into a business, it seeks to go up the ladder because that’s where more money will be spent. What I say is, “Take your professional status seriously because your responsibilities go beyond serving the interests of your immediate client. Bring the environment and society into the picture; become a development practitioner.” 

Would there be relevance in India today for an architect such as Le Corbusier and a city such as Chandigarh?

Yes and no. There’s a difference between Le Corbusier being brought into Chandigarh and the refashioning of the Central Vista in Delhi. Le Corbusier brought the offerings of the new world to establish a new kind of city, one that had its environmental balances, one that celebrated its institutions; he brought a vision of service to society. But today, whether it’s with the making of the new capital in Andhra Pradesh or what’s happening in New Delhi, the equation is somewhat reversed. The vision is that of the grand patron and of the professional being brought in to give expression to that vision. 

Charles Correa, BV Doshi and Laurie Baker are the three gods we have had in the recent history of architecture in India. This triumvirate is my inspiration and they were never servants responding to the dictates of the patron. They were servants of social and cultural needs and, in that sense, they had a vision well beyond what we consider professional service today. Their time has passed; I don’t see the architectural or planning professions playing that role.

In the modern milieu, what sort of space is there for architecture as art and the architect as artist?

There is a lot of space for that. There are three dimensions that an architect combines in a society such as ours. The first is thinking of the product of architecture as a cultural artefact, a creation that gives joy, expresses beauty and can be memorable. That facet of architecture cannot be taken away. But at the same time, the production of this cultural artefact has to weigh in the other two dimensions: security of the environment and being a development agent or a development practitioner. Bring these three together and you are a complete architect.

As for the future of this profession called architecture, those of us who think we have to change direction and wrestle with development problems and environmental issues can no longer be mere service providers to clients. We need to move out of that and set up companies that bring together multiple skills: building design, structural engineering, construction engineering, environmental sciences, and law and finance. That’s the way to make a real difference. It means the future lies in architecture becoming part of an entrepreneurial culture.

Please tell us about your interests outside of work proper.

I’m a great fan of the Urdu language and I have, over the last few years, learned it. I enjoy reading and writing in Urdu and I also indulge my love of calligraphy through it. A second interest is Delhi, where I was born and where I have links to the old city and its history. I like to inform myself of all the changes that are occurring and attempt some literary or illustrative work to express ideas for the reinvention of this beautiful city.

Le Corbusier brought the offerings of the new world to establish a new kind of city, one that had its environmental balances ... he brought a vision of service to society.”