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How to Build a Biological City

Shrimp farms run by the World Wildlife Fund on the outskirts of Hong Kong. Credit Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times
Shrimp farms run by the World Wildlife Fund on the outskirts of Hong Kong. Credit Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

Turning Point: A World Bank report concludes that more than 143 million people will become “climate migrants” escaping crop failure, water scarcity and sea-level rise.

When culture and recreation come together communities emerge.
When communities become societies a settlement is formed.
In those realities we inhabit our aspirations of togetherness.

Sustainable cities are like a forest: ever-growing and diverse. In a forest, each branch, each trunk, each tree is unique, blossoming in its own way. Yet everything is connected. Everything in the forest has its role in a cosmic symphony. The city is no different.

The city, too, is an organism, both stable and fluid, static and constantly transforming. Humans are a part of the city’s inner mechanism, just as our cells are a part of us. Streets act as veins, connecting us to a network of life similar to a bio-diverse forest.

So why do we not see our cities, our towns, our hamlets as biotechnological entities? Why do we do not plan and build them in natural ways that reignite the spirit of community, the spirit of a positive participatory culture?

Consider Jaipur, where Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II ruled in 18th-century India. He envisioned the city as a paradise on earth. Taking into account the constantly changing climate, as well as the movement of the sun, Mr. Singh created a city built around guilds and clusters of sustainable, cooperative housing. As Jaipur cultivated the body, the mind and the spirit, it thrived socially, economically and culturally.

Jaipur recalls the ancient vastu purusha mandala — a philosophy of design that aims to create a balanced and healthy environment. This ancient science shaped most of India’s traditional settlements, where seasonal activities such as festivals and fairs take place. The mandala adapts to totally different climates and places, and, in turn, inspires them.

Unfortunately, we have since forgotten this soulful approach to architecture and design, following instead the prevailing planning model of big budgets, large-scale structures and isolated behaviors. Consequently, our habitations have become fragmented and we fail to see the city’s infrastructure and life in an integrated way.

Instead of building more megastructures — which constantly consume time, energy, and human and natural resources — should we not follow a more natural, biological approach to architecture that would foster small but comprehensive clusters of settlements and perhaps create a new world?

These smaller settlements would be sustainable and replicable. They would be full of energy and vitality, but they would not grow beyond a certain size. They would possess the same virtues as a bio-diverse network.

Such settlements would not waste time or energy or natural resources. The inhabitants would have global skills and a suitable, fulfilling lifestyle. This, as a result, could help salvage our planet from the present disasters and disparities that spawn anxiety and doubt about the future.

Often while visiting ancient towns and cities, which are socially, economically and culturally well-knit, we are struck by a strange, unexpected silence and slowness. Our desire to push, to achieve, to conquer dwindles, and we think more of how nature connects us and how we can share and revere our intrinsic selves.

In addition to such quietude, other aesthetic measures of settlements include grace, love, compassion and humility. To animate a settlement one must create humble and tender connections, which encourage humans to come together and to share and to feel themselves a part of a larger order, a part of Mother Earth.

In ancient Indian texts, the sthapati (the architect or planner) has to be aware of the sustainable cycles of nature, following the laws of time and energy, just as our ecosystem does. The sthapati is obliged to integrate this natural flow with the lives of a settlement’s inhabitants. This method of interdependent planning allows for cultural activities and social integration. This form of sustainable architecture gives all individuals, regardless of class or creed, the ability to connect with their true natures.

Balkrishna Doshi is the Pritzker Prize laureate for 2018, the first Indian winner of the architecture world’s most prestigious award.

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