The Broken City Model of Urban Growth

ramblinginthecity:

Valid thought! We need to fix our cities before they break and if they are already broken, what then?

Originally posted on Decisions, Decisions, Decisions:

Are some cities so ‘broken’ that they are prohibitively expensive to fix?

That thought has occurred to me considering the growth of Dubai, where its problems are being fixed, too late maybe, and at too great a cost if they were fixed earlier, and probably the much needed public transport and other investment is not occurring at a rate fast enough to overcome the problems caused by rapid growth.

There are examples of cities that have grown so fast and with so little public investment that the urban dis-economies of scale (congestion) are higher than the urban economies of agglomeration which drives city growth.  In those cases the growth of a city slows down as the city simply cannot afford, without very high local taxes, to continue growing at the same rate, and attempting to tax at this level can lead to a downward fiscal spiral, of the kind we…

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My actions do matter, making sense amid chaos #MyDearAmericans #Sikhism #identity

One of the most viewed posts on my blog is my experience of visiting the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. This morning, as I logged in to WordPress and saw that this post from  October 2012 was once again viewed and that too, from someone in North America, I began to imagine the kind of person who would search for information on the museum. Sikh immigrants of course, besides students of architecture and those researching museums of culture. What’s more interesting is that Moshe Safdie, who designed the museum, is of Israeli origin. It’s confusing, these cultural and nationalistic identities. It’s tough to be accepting and think beyond the stereotypes propagated around you.

I thought about this film- My Dear Americans, made by my friend Arpita and how, in a very short span of time, it explores the overlap between cultural and religious identity and human individuality.

In its own way, the film tells us that we need to think about who we are and what kind of a world we want to live in and how we can, with our own small actions, create a world we love. Disturbed intensely by all the violence in the world- the rapes, the killings at Gaza and the shooting down of another Malaysian Airlines plane- and struggling with how to reconcile these with the daily ups and downs of our lives, I see films like these as slices of truth. Small vignettes that keep me sane, that tell me that life is complex and that, despite its overwhelming complexity, my actions (however small) do matter.

You can help My Dear Americans win at the 2014 PBS online film festival by voting for it here

 

 

Visiting the Dinosaurs! What kids loved in #Berlin 2/3

No, it wasn’t just the dinosaurs. Yes, they were the major attraction, but once we got there the  Museum fur Naturkund (Natural History Museum) turned out to be so much more. It was as if a physical force took hold of the children and we were barely able to keep up, chasing after them as they ran from one exhibit to the other, fascinated by creatures preserved inside bottles, by the science of taxonomy, by the preservation techniques on display and all the stuffed birds and animals, by the sheer biodiversity on our planet that hit us when we were in there. It was like an ocean of information, so well presented and it was an absolute pleasure to be here. To quote from their website, this is “one of the most significant research institutions worldwide in biological and geo-scientific evolution research and biodiversity.”

But let’s start with the dinosaurs!

This gallery, the very first one in the Museum, is a result of a highly successful early 20th century German expedition to Tanzania to collect dinosaur fossils. The Germans were prolific discoverers, very strong on scientific rigour and Berlin is a city full of museums because of this. In this one hall, we saw the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world, the Brachiosaurus, which stands 13.27 metres and whose bones were found during the Tendaguru expedition that took place in 1909-1911. The Tendaguru Beds, as they came to be known, yielded many significant dinosaur skeletons and added hugely to our knowledge of this fascinating species that once inhabited the Earth. A skeleton of the herbivore Kentrosaurus or ‘spiky lizard’ that lived  in the Upper Jurassic Period and a reproduction of thos period’s largest carnivore, the Allosaurus with its short front legs and enormous jaws with blade-like teeth are some of the other Dino friends we met in Berlin. Take a look…

Ancient dinosaurs in a heritage building made for a killer combo!

Ancient dinosaurs in a heritage building made for a killer combo!

The tall guy is the Brachiosaurus, the (relatively) shorter one the Kentrosaurus

The tall guy is the Brachiosaurus and this is the largest mounted skeleton you can see in the world today. Hurrah!

And here's the Allosaurus, a bit in dissaray but menacing even so!

And here’s the Allosaurus, a bit in dissaray but menacing even so!

Take a good look at his teeth!

Take a good look at his teeth!

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The Kentrosaurus with his spikes

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General fun clicking the Dinos!

General fun clicking the Dinos!

I’ve noticed time and again Aadyaa is deeply interested in nature while Udai is on a mission for gleaning facts and will read every written word inside a museum (we call him the paisa-vasool tourist, meaning he will eke out the full value from whatever he spends!). And so, the two kids were comrades-in-arms at this museum, Udai reading things out and explaining to Aadyaa, she running ahead to identify the most interesting exhibits. The visual variety in the museum had a lot to do with keeping the kids engaged I feel.

Rows and rows of creatures in bottles, not for the faint-hearted!

Rows and rows of creatures in bottles, not for the faint-hearted!

This fantastic display allowed to see the wonderful biodiversity on Earth all at one go! Fascinating

This fantastic display allowed to see the wonderful biodiversity on Earth all at one go! Fascinating

Stuffed birds with artists sitting around sketching them! All Aadu could ask for!

Stuffed birds with artists sitting around sketching them! All Aadu could ask for!

I have to tell you about this incident inside the museum that really tickled me. Udai and Aadyaa were trying to build a 3D model that shows the different types of outer coverings that Dinos might have had, scaly or feathery. But a piece was missing. Off they marched off looking for it, managing to find the thief and communicate with his German grandpa, finally getting their missing piece back. They went on to toil at the model and posed when it was done, pleased as punch! See the tale in pics!

Fotor0718122824At the tail end of the Museum, I saw all these people lying on a round couch. It was only when the screen overhead began to flash images that I realised this is some sort of planetarium equivalent. The voice over was in German so we didn’t really understand much. But I captured here that aha! moment for which the crowds had been waiting. At one point of the film, the Google Earth image on the screen zooms in to show an image of the people down there on the couch. At the instant I clicked this image, the camera was already zooming out on the screen, but you can see that people spontaneously started pointing to their own faces when that image was shown! Such excitement! Such a simple way to get people to come back again and again!

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Lego madness! What kids loved in #Berlin 1/3

Udai is crazy about Lego. He has been that way since he was say a year old. He made the choice to visit Berlin, inspired in part by the German lessons in school that are still a novelty and mostly by my mention of a Lego Discovery Centre in the city. We found ourselves at the stunningly beautiful and modern Potsdamer Platz at the end of our excursion to the Berlin Wall. It was evening time and we dashed to get into the Lego place, barely stopping to admire the architecture of the Sony Centre, in which the Lego deal is located. Rahul opted out owing to the high ticket charges (Euro 18 per person, unless you book in advance) and I spent two hours with my super excited Lego-crazy kids.

What was inside? Well, I really liked the lego reproductions of Berlin city. They were amazingly detailed and vibrant. I didn’t care much for the Star Wars section and even the kids weren’t captivated by it, though there were spacecrafts moving around and everything was made with Lego. There was a dragon themes ride that puts you in a car and takes you into a castle, with ogres and dragons and knights, all mads of Lego again. There are Lego figures standing around- batman, Hagrid and Harry, you get the drift…

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It’s a small place and the highlight for Udai most certainly was the zillions of Lego pieces at the workstations and time to sit and make stuff. What did he make? Airplanes…duh! Aadyaa just ran around and explored the place. And we topped this all off with a short Lego film at a built-in theatre they had inside.Fotor0718110043IMG_7284IMG_7286IMG_7287

It’s not a very large place and perhaps not exciting for grown-ups, but little detours like this is what keeps children engaged. Especially when we travel to cities that are high on culture and sightseeing, we’ve found to useful to mix it up a little. Once the kids know that we’re willing to do ‘their’ stuff, they are quite happy to do ‘ours’!

PS- I did get some shots of the Sony Centre plaza once we got out of the Lego place, and here they are….

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Not a brick in this Wall: Profoundly affected by the Berlin’s history

Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.

Exhibit below, wall on top. Ain't that neat?

Exhibit below, wall on top. Ain’t that neat?

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Ruins of a Gestapo building. Poignant, that's the keyword here

Ruins of a Gestapo building. Poignant, that’s the keyword here

Our fellow tourist as engrossed and silent as we were. I saw people shaking their heads in absolute disbelief at some of the stories told at the exhibit

Our fellow tourists as engrossed and silent as we were. I saw people shaking their heads in absolute disbelief at some of the stories told at the exhibit

Trying to wrap our little heads around perhaps the most turbulent phase of European history in recent times

Trying to wrap our little heads around perhaps the most turbulent phase of European history in recent times

The thinker!

The thinker!

Daddy's girl is giving mumma a break now....

Daddy’s girl is giving mumma a break now….

To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.

Catching tourists do the touristy thing at the Wall

Catching tourists do the touristy thing at the Wall

We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.

More pics of The Wall ahead…

MADNESS....Bang on! That's exactly what the wall represents, the craziness of the human race

MADNESS….Bang on! That’s exactly what the wall represents, the craziness of the human race

Gaping holes offer a view to what's beyond, particularly love this shot!

Gaping holes offer a view to what’s beyond, particularly love this shot!

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People walk by real slow, staring at The Wall

People walk by real slow, staring at The Wall

My touristic shot with the Wall

My touristic shot with the Wall

Dragging the reluctant Rahul into the frame, the Nikon positioned in Udai's able hands!

Dragging the reluctant Rahul into the frame, the Nikon positioned in Udai’s able hands!

And this is my favourite shot of my two darlings posing in their Greek tees, my Poseidon and Athena, always inspiring me to do more and better, my constant admirers and critics. Love you kiddos!

And this is my favourite shot of my two darlings posing in their Greek tees, my Poseidon and Athena, always inspiring me to do more and better, my constant admirers and critics. Love you kiddos!

Rained out at Checkpoint Charlie

Nearly everyone who’s been to Berlin, every travel website and brochure, puts Checkpoint Charlie at the top of its list. And so, after a look at the insides of Nikolaikirch, we set out to tick the infamous CC off our list.

Historical info: Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point between East and West Germany, manned by the US. It is perhaps the most poignant physical symbol of the Cold War along with the Berlin Wall itself (post coming soon), which was built to prevent East Germans from crossing over to the other side.

As luck would have it, we were rained out before we got there and it was a bit of an anti climax to see the poor guards positioned there (for touristic value only, I presume) scurrying around for umbrellas, not looking one bit stern but rather, hassled and helpless. The sad stack of cement bags was something we folks from Delhi see at every Metro station and for some reason, despite knowing the enormous historic significance of this point on the earth’s surface, I wasn’t really impressed! The lines to get into the Checkpoint Charlie Museum were long and forbidding and we did not even try. Plus, the place was way too touristy, advertising itself blatantly to American visitors complete with morabilia stores and even a giant Mc Donald’s that looks straight onto CC!

We detoured into Mc D’s for a pit stop (a mandatory visit thanks to Aadyaa who is something of a loo-tourist!) and ate a sausage or two off a streetside stall. Udai then had the bright idea of asking someone where The Wall is (he was obsessed with the task of finding the remains of the Berlin Wall) and off we marched to explore some more…

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Memory tools: A bombed out church turns into urban scale artwork

I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!

This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.

It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist  Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.

A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.

We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.

The artwork peeks out at us on a rainy day

The artwork peeks out at us on a rainy day

It fills the space, yet you see forms beyond it

It fills the space, yet you see forms beyond it

We return another day, under a blue sky

We return another day, under a blue sky

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The sculpture next to the church’s frame represents the everyday things the refugees left with. I didn’t take to it much!

 

The explorers are at it!

The explorers are at it!

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This is my favourite view of the plaza. And heya Johnson House now clearly visible in the background!

This is my favourite view of the plaza. And heya Johnson House now clearly visible in the background!

 

Fabricating hope from ingredients like poor education & poor ideas

I see a child at the traffic light. He is about two years old, in tattered clothes and howling away. He looks like he has been abandoned, perhaps temporarily. What’s new about that, you might ask? It’s a regular sight in any Indian city. Life is harsh for many out there! *shrug*

One the same day, our Finance Minister was presenting the nation’s annual budget and there was much talk in the air about the revival of investment, the promise of growth and development, the changing fortunes of India.

I was having a hard time reconciling the two strains of thought. I gulped and what I had the taste of bile in my mouth.

Of all the dismal facts about India, it is the ones about children that are the hardest to come to terms with. The trafficking, the child labour, the sexual exploitation. Today’s Hindustan Times carries a full-page editorial about the number of children out of school in our part of the world and this is disturbing too.

Two aspects of the editorial struck me. First, that it wasn’t just poverty that keeps children out of school. India has unleashed a slew of legislation to reinforce primary education- the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the National Programme of Nutritional Support and others. Yet children stayed out of school. Experts attribute this to the poor quality of education that is unable to keep the kids interested. In my research with migrants in north India, I find access to private sector education for their children drives poor households away from villages to small towns, but they are hopelessly disappointed in the quality of these private schools, that offer English-medium all right (as compared to govt schools that teach in Hindi) but no knowledge whatsoever. Also, experts point to the availability of funds but the utter poverty of good ideas that means new investments in the sector are hardly ever realised, especially at the primary and lower secondary levels.

The other idea that struck me was the familiar argument that couches the entire issue of children’s education in the garb of productivity and loos of potential on a national level. To me, more tragic is the experience of the child herself, the family to which she belongs or worse to which she does not if she is an orphan or being trafficked.

We aren’t able to create enough jobs for the ones we do manage to educate, so perhaps instead of worrying about creating a higher volume of educated workforce, we should focus on improving the quality of the education and the experience that children have in school. And higher education? The majority of youth in rural and small town India do not actually attend college, but get their degrees through correspondence and part-time engagements or by simply appearing for exams without ever being taught.

I find it hard to be hopeful about a generation that is barely getting a real education. And yet when you speak to young people, it’s hard to feel so low. They are charged with energy and ambition and I can only hope that we can find a way to not let them down!

Our first glimpses of Berlin

After a congenial and comfortable train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin, we weren’t exactly tired. And so, shortly after we dumped our bags in our hotel room, all four of us were eager to walk around and explore our new destination.

At first sight, I found Berlin hard to read. So much was happening around me visually. Heritage structures abounded, but the skyline was dominated by the slender and modern TV tower, the 4th tallest structure in Europe. Cranes dotted the horizon as well and I could sense the energy of a city that seemed to be in a constant state of re-invention.

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Impossible not to feel the buzz in Berlin

Peek-a-boo TV tower! You see it from simply everywhere

Peek-a-boo TV tower! You see it from simply everywhere

Despite the broad research I had done, I hadn’t dwelt on what it would be like to walk the streets of Berlin and I loved the feeling of taking in a new place, the tingling sense of curiosity, the eagerness to discover. Rahul and the kids seemed to share this feeling as well and we found ourselves walking around the Nikolaiviertel (St Nicholas Quarter) that was adjacent to our hotel.

Aside: We stayed at the Novotel and Aadyaa called it the No-Hotel for two whole days to our utter amusement. A decent place to stay, not luxurious but well located.

Interestingly, this is the oldest residential area in Berlin dating back to medieval times. We circled Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in the city, which was to become a familiar landmark over the next few days. We walked past the ornate Ephraim Palace and the red Rathuis (Townhall). We admired the River Spree and paid our respects to St. George slaying the dragon.

The Nikolaikirch too is hard to miss as you walk in this area

The Nikolaikirche too is hard to miss as you walk in this area

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The quaint church square has been entirely reconstructed as it was bombed out in the WWII, a familiar story in Berlin

The quaint church square has been entirely reconstructed as it was bombed out in the WWII, a familiar story in Berlin

The Rote Rathuis opr Red Townhall. An architectural delight with great detailing

The Rote Rathuis opr Red Townhall. An architectural delight with great detailing

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We ate under the shadow of this gorgeous statue of St George slaying the dragon.. The kids were quite fascinated by it!

We ate under the shadow of this gorgeous statue of St George slaying the dragon.. The kids were quite fascinated by it!

We all find our own interests. While I admired the architecture and sense of history, Aadyaa loved the summer blooms!

We all find our own interests. While I admired the architecture and sense of history, Aadyaa loved the summer blooms!

This is what I mean. You find gems like this unexpectedly all around Berlin. This particular structure fascinated me for some reason

This is what I mean. You find gems like this unexpectedly all around Berlin. This particular structure fascinated me for some reason

Everywhere, I saw the infill new buildings that had been fitted into the fabric of the older city and it took me some time to shake off the visual symmetry of the Dutch landscape and accommodate the more kitschy urbanscape of Berlin. Somewhere in between our wanderings this first evening, we sat down to a hearty German meal of bratwurst and potato salad, beer and schintzel. A good beginning to a packed 4 days ahead in one of the most interesting cities in the world!

Tired and satisfied, sleepy but excited to resume our exploration the next day...

Tired and satisfied, sleepy but excited to resume our exploration the next day…