The architectural wonder of impermanent cities | Rahul Mehrotra

The architectural wonder of impermanent cities | Rahul Mehrotra


On this planet today, there are about 50 cities
that are larger than five million people. I’m going to share with you
the story of one such city, a city of seven million people, but a city that’s a temporary megacity,
an ephemeral megacity. This is a city that is built
for a Hindu religious festival called Kumbh Mela, which occurs every 12 years,
in smaller editions every four years, and takes place at the confluence of the Ganges and
the Yamuna rivers in India. And for this festival, about 100 million people congregate. The reason so many people congregate here, is the Hindus believe
that during the festival, the cycle every 12 years, if you bathe at the confluence
of these two great rivers you are freed from rebirth. It’s a really compelling idea, you are liberated from life as we know it. And this is what attracts these millions. And an entire megacity
is built to house them. Seven million people
live there for the 55 days, and the other 100 million visit. These are images from the same spot that we took over the 10 weeks that it takes for the city to emerge. After the monsoon, as the waters of these rivers
begin to recede and the sand banks expose themselves, it becomes the terrain for the city. And by the 15th of January, starting 15th of October
to 15th of January, in these weeks an entire city emerges. A city that houses seven million people. What is fascinating is this city actually has all the characteristics
of a real megacity: a grid is employed to lay the city out. The urban system is a grid and every street on this city goes across the river on a pontoon bridge. Incredibly resilient, because if there’s an unseasonal downpour
or if the river changes course, the urban system stays intact, the city adjusts itself to this terrain
which can be volatile. It also replicates all forms of physical,
as well as social, infrastructure. Water supply, sewage, electricity, there are 1,400 CCTV cameras
that are used for security by an entire station that is set up. But also social infrastructure, like clinics, hospitals, all sorts of community services, that make this function
like any real megacity would do. 10,500 sweepers
are employed by the city. It has a governance system,
a Mela Adhikari, or the commissioner of the festival, that ensures that land is allocated, there are systems for all of this, that the system of the city, the mobility,
all works efficiently. You know, it was the cleanest
and the most efficient Indian city I’ve lived in. (Laughter) And that’s what it looks like
in comparison to Manhattan, 30 square kilometers, that’s the scale of the city. And this is not an informal city
or a pop-up city. This is a formal city,
this is a state enterprise, the government sets this up. In today’s world
of neoliberalism and capitalism, where the state has devolved itself
complete responsibility from making and designing cities, this is an incredible case. It’s a deliberate,
intentional city, a formal city. And it’s a city that sits
on the ground very lightly. It sits on the banks of these rivers. And it leaves very little mark. There are no foundations; fabric is used to build this entire city. What’s also quite incredible is that there are five materials
that are used to build this settlement for seven million people: eight-foot tall bamboo, string or rope, nails or screw and a skinning material. Could be corrugated metal,
a fabric or plastic. And these materials
come together and aggregate. It’s like a kit of parts. And it’s used all the way
from a small tent, which might house
five or six people, or a family, to temples that can house 500,
sometimes 1,000 people. And this kit of parts,
and this imagination of the city, allows it to be disassembled. And so at the end
of the festival, within a week, the entire city is disassembled. These are again images from the same spot. And the terrain
is offered back to the river, as with the monsoon
the water swells again. And it’s this sort of imagination
as a kit of parts that allows this disassembly and the reabsorption of all this material. So the electricity poles
go to little villages in the hinterland, the pontoon bridges
are used in small towns, the material is all reabsorbed. Fascinating, it’s amazing. Now, you may embrace
these Hindu beliefs or not. But you know, this is a stunning example, and it’s worthy of reflection. Here, human beings spend an enormous
amount of energy and imagination knowing that the city is going to reverse, it’s going to be disassembled, it’s going to disappear, it’s the ephemeral megacity. And it has profound lessons to teach us. Lessons about how to touch
the ground lightly, about reversibility, about disassembly. Rather amazing. And you know, we are, as humans,
obsessed with permanence. We resist change. It’s an impulse that we all have. And we resist change in spite of the fact that change is perhaps
the only constant in our lives. Everything has an expiry date, including Spaceship Earth, our planet. So what can we learn
from these sorts of settlements? Burning Man, of course much smaller, but reversible. Or the thousands of markets
for transaction, that appear around the globe in Asia, Latin America, Africa,
this one in Mexico, where the parking lots are animated
on the weekends, about 50,000 vendors, but on a temporal cycle. The farmer’s market in the Americas: it’s an amazing phenomenon,
creates new chemistries, extends the margin of space that is unused or not used optimally,
like parking lots, for example. In my own city of Mumbai, where I practice
as an architect and a planner, I see this in the everyday landscape. I call this the Kinetic City. It twitches like a live organism;
it’s not static. It changes every day, on sometimes predictable cycles. About six million people live in these kinds
of temporary settlements. Like — unfortunately, like refugee camps, the slums of Mumbai,
the favelas of Latin America. Here, the temporary
is becoming the new permanent. Here, urbanism is not about grand vision, it’s about grand adjustment. On the street in Mumbai,
during the Ganesh festival, a transformation. A community hall is created for 10 days. Bollywood films are shown, thousands congregate
for dinners and celebration. It’s made out of paper-mache
and plaster of Paris. Designed to be disassembled, and in 10 days, overnight, it disappears, and the street goes back to anonymity. Or our wonderful open spaces,
we call them maidans. And it’s used for this
incredibly nuanced and complicated, fascinating Indian game, called cricket, which, I believe, the British invented. (Laughter) And in the evenings, a wedding wraps around
the cricket pitch — Notice, the cricket pitch
is not touched, it’s sacred ground. (Laughter) But here, the club members
and the wedding party partake in tea through a common kitchen. And at midnight, it’s disassembled, and the space offered back to the city. Here, urbanism is an elastic condition. And so, if we reflect
about these questions, I mean, I think many come to mind. But an important one is, are we really, in our cities, in our imagination about urbanism, making permanent solutions
for temporary problems? Are we locking resources into paradigms that we don’t even know
will be relevant in a decade? This becomes, I think, an interesting question
that arises from this research. I mean, look at the abandoned
shopping malls in North America, suburban North America. Retail experts have predicted
that in the next decade, of the 2,000 malls that exist today, 50 percent will be abandoned. Massive amount of material,
capturing resources, that will not be relevant soon. Or the Olympic stadiums. Around the globe, cities build these under great contestation
with massive resources, but after the games go, they can’t often
get absorbed into the city. Couldn’t these be
nomadic structures, deflatable, we have the technology for that, that get gifted to smaller towns
around the world or in those countries, or are stored and moved
for the next Olympics? A massive, inefficient use of resources. Like the circus. I mean, we could imagine it
like the circus, this wonderful institution
that used to camp in cities, set up this lovely kind of visual dialogue
with the static city. And within it, the amazement. Children of different ethnic groups
become suddenly aware of each other, people of color become aware of others, income groups and cultures and ethnicities all come together around the amazement
of the ring with animals and performers. New chemistries are created,
people become aware of things, and this moves on to the next town. Or nature, the fluxes of nature,
climate change, how do we deal with this,
can we be more accommodating? Can we create softer urban systems? Or are we going to challenge
nature continuously with heavy infrastructure, which we are already doing,
unsuccessfully? Now, I’m not arguing that we’ve got to make
our cities like a circus, I’m not arguing that cities
must be completely temporary. I’m only making a plea that we need to make a shift
in our imagination about cities, where we need to reserve more space for uses on a temporal scale. Where we need to use
our resources efficiently, to extend the expiry date of our planet. We need to change planning
urban design cultures, to think of the temporal, the reversible, the disassembleable. And that can be tremendous in terms of the effect
it might have on our lives. I often think back to the Kumbh Mela that I visited with
my students and I studied, and this was a moment
where the city had been disassembled. A week after the festival was over. There was no mark. The terrain was waiting
to be covered over by the water, to be consumed. And I went to thank a high priestess who had helped us and my students
through our research and facilitated us through this process. And I went to her with great enthusiasm, and I told her about
how much we had learned about infrastructure, the city,
the efficiency of the city, the architecture, the five materials
that made the city. She looked really amused, she was smiling. In any case, she leaned forward and put her hand on my head to bless me. And she whispered in my ear, she said, “Feel blessed that the Mother Ganges allowed you all to sit in her lap
for a few days.” I’ve often thought about this, and of course, I understood what she said. She said, cities, people,
architecture will come and go, but the planet is here to stay. Touch it lightly, leave a minimal mark. And I think that’s an important lesson
for us as citizens and architects. And I think it was this experience that made me believe that impermanence
is bigger than permanence and bigger than us all. Thank you for listening. (Applause)

89 Replies to “The architectural wonder of impermanent cities | Rahul Mehrotra”

  1. How about a bunch of self assembling 3D printed skyscrapers

    Oh sorry we are about 1000 years too early for that
    NEVERMIND

  2. I hear it like people despise this life here on earth. I don't understand that you hope in 12 yrs you get another chance for a ride out of earth to hopefully life in the hereafter or like.
    It's all just a moment So choose good at where you stand and you get the same granting of the truthful way of the journey of the hereafter. Ian.

  3. 11:15 pause and see a trade mark track of the night time farmer being's of earth. See tree's on right side and the bark with all the white amber colors exposed beneath the tough look of exterior bark protection. Well the bare wood Should not be exposed (no look at other examples not in a flood) this type marking is actually a physical change, micro helps with seeing widdled wood and no shavings left behind etc.
    Cheers on making this real.
    Ian Armstrong aka Tinman Bigfoot Tracker Channel Canada British Columbia BC.

  4. Huygens is a major problem of such vestivels, the rivers are severly polluted includind corpses of cows, it affects downstream villages and cities.

  5. This would be an elitists dream. Shove the majority of us in a tent city while they live in a "castle in the sky" directing the unwashen masses from above.

  6. Mildly interesting presentation about how not too bright people doing not too bright things in the name of not too bright religion.

  7. As an architect, I never once heard any of my professors talk about 'impermanence'. It was usually about making some kind of permanent architectural 'statement'. This should be discussed and embodied in every school of thought, especially architecture. What a fabulous presentation!

  8. It’s honestly a cool concept, but I then remember, it this “temporary “ city is literally no different from a slum.

  9. Thank you, Rahul, for sharing your experience and perspective with this talk. It made me think differently and echoed in my mind for a long time. It's also amazing what can be achieved when a large group of people have a common goal, and, from what I hear, how egos get marvelously packed away. We need more of that here.

  10. I live in L.A. and over years time cement seems relatively impermanent. They are always doing construction and repaving the roads.

  11. "Urbanism as an elastic condition" is such a powerful phrase because it reminds us that our congregations as people aren't about the infrastructure but, rather, the people themselves! Awesome 🙂

  12. Temporary City architecture means houses made out of mud or wood. Sewage system running through narrow Forrest and the trees cleaning it. cities design in a way that most of the things are available within walkable distance. No cement no plastic…

  13. I am very fascinated with abandoned buildings and I have thought of this many times. Why is everything so permanent? People change all the time.

  14. Пригласите меня на передачу я вам расскажу о вашем мире без прикрас!!! Закрывать глаза – это не значит, что этого НЕТ!!! Это всё дерьмо есть и скоро оно придёт и к вам!!! Оно перельётся через край!!! И ни кто не выживет!!!

  15. i say the way we currently use cars is massively inefficient. a) cars take up a lot of space while parked. b) most people that drive to work use a four-seater, with only one person in it. it's a giant waste of resources just to get to and from work. more investment should be made on public transit and encourage the use of bicycles and other forms of human-powered transportation.

  16. The problem is not the structures we are building. Rather it is the fact that we live in a society where want and need are interchangeable. I agree with his reasoning but it would still be much more efficient to build permanent structures to satisfy the needs of a growing population if that was the only goal in mind. What we need to stop allocating resources to is war but that is being idealistic and naive.

  17. Holy crap. Are there any documentary of this tradition? Architectural and engineering perspective? I wanna read! I wanna watch.

  18. Are we making permanent solutions for temporary problems. An ephemeral religious megacity in India supporting 100 million people comes together every year and then disappears. Temporary is the new permanent. Softer open systems, instead of heavy infrastructure. #TEDTalk https://twitter.com/tedstalkin

  19. Always Remember !! This is INCREDIBILE INDIA still many things to go and learn from this country. !! This is just a Dot size,
    This is Not it !!

  20. Not only temporary problems, but the ever changing scenario.. life style needs such futuristic orientation and thinking… Thanks prof.rahul Mehrotra for such a wonderful presentation.

  21. This is how the Olympic stadiums in Rio de Janeiro should have been built. Now they're just empty structures lying about; a reminder of the millions of dollars spent to create a facade of a thriving city while the government neglected those in poverty. If even a few of the buildings were created in a way that Mr. Mehrotra is talking about, the resources could have been recycled and used to create better housing for the poor or for schools and such.

    What is explained in this video is the kind of innovation the world needs moving forward

  22. The first thought was about Refugee Camps, but it's the "sewage" part that I have GREAT doubts about… Cuz I've been to India, and let me tell ya…

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