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I envisaged an Eco Valley not a Riverfront: Prof Bernard Kohn

Sunday, 6 January 2013 - 11:48am IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: DNA
During a tête-à-tête with DNA’s Paras K Jha, Prof Kohn reflected on some of the societal issues, which are the same globally, cutting across political boundaries.

As you are reading this, the cynosure of Amdavad, the Sabarmati
Riverfront, will be swarming with enthusiasts who will be milling to the site for the first biggest event of the year, the Sabarmati Marathon 2013. However, the man who has been credited for envisaging the Sabarmati Riverfront project, Prof Bernard Kohn, 82 doesn’t want to associate himself with the project.

Shocked? Well, that’s not all. Kohn, one of the founders of Cept University, in fact refused to talk about it. The American French architect, who believes in the concept of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ likes to identify himself as a sociologist and educator, rather than a professional architect.

During a tête-à-tête with DNA’s Paras K Jha, Prof Kohn reflected on some of the societal issues, which are the same globally, cutting across political boundaries. He also talked about his visualization of a project about the Sabarmati River, which is far more interesting than the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. Excerpts of the architect's views on...

...Ethics and Values
Ethics and Values can be different. For some people economics is an ethics and for others it would be physical value. My ethics have to do with the sense of responsibility, sense of equity for each one of us. I believe that we don’t have enough sense of equality and equity towards the world in which we live, or towards our natural habitat.

I don’t think we have enough respect for the people, the lesser fortunates. We don’t have access to equal education, equal health, equal space, equal housing — and it is totally unbalanced. It’s not only here in India, it’s there in United States, which is very rich, and it’s there in France, where I live. 40% youth in France are unemployed. Even the middleclass there have problems.
 
...not Sabarmati Riverfront but a Sabarmati Ecological Valley
What I am trying to suggest is that if you look at the 400-km long Sabarmati River, you will find problems all along the stretch. So what I was interested in was the ecology alongside the river. Ahmedabad has only a 9km stretch of the river. What I had suggested was a Ecological Valley — a valley where I respect you, you respect me, where I respect nature and nature respects me. Such a valley where I can produce things — what we had done in our study!
 
...creating social consciousness
It is based on the concept of Russian dolls. Like the small one fits inside the big ones. So the small doll is the house, a residence from which we throw garbage over the fence, the sidewalks to the streets and the river bank and the whole river. So, by developing this valley, my idea was to build what I call ‘a social consciousness’, social equity, institutional equity, where a school for the poor is as good as the school for the rich.

The idea was to find some area that could balance the cost. It depends what it could may be 5%, may be 20% or 50% or 100%. That’s just a question. Now I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t want to know.

My argument is that who is going to benefit out of it; how the total amount of people can benefit from it equally? My brainchild was not the Sabarmati Riverfront but the Ecological Valley. My project was socially-oriented — it was an ecological valley for the entire 400 km stretch from Dharoi Dam to Gulf of Cambay. Ahmedabad was only a small part in it.

If you are doing it for only Ahmedabad, you are putting your hand into a bucket of dirty water! I am a simple man. I am not involved. What’s done is done. The whole ecological valley is far more interesting concept than this. Sabarmati River basin, ecological valley, forest, orchards, agriculture…
I am involved with the principle of civic, social and public responsibility — i.e., I am responsible for you, you are responsible for me. You could be a poor man, but I should feel responsible for you. Architecture should have relationship with nature.

…on his ideals and inspirations
I am involved with two people — Patrick Geddes and Gandhiji. Geddes was in Ahmedabad from 1915-1920. It was his book that made me come to Ahmedabad. He was a biologist and then he became a sociologist, then a planner and then an architect. He talks about every small thing that lives in an environment.

‘India is developed country; France a third world country’
India is developed country, while France is a third-world country. We do not make anything in France. We make guns and planes. There is no more craft but we have huge shopping malls. There aren’t any more industries left, it has gone outside. If something breaks, you can fix it in India; but in France, with no craftsmen left you will need to throw it away or buy a new one. That’s why I say we are a third-world country.

...what makes a culture?
Culture is made by all these people — those that sell things on the sidewalks in Sunday markets — but look at how they are treated. They are unwanted and yet they can live on  — that’s culture. It’s not only a Tata car. So again it is the same thing. It goes from the person on the sidewalks to a guy who has a car and it goes all the way to the brand.  The Sunday Market is being shifted.

People selling their wares on the sidewalks have been pushed away. Thousands of people come to the Sunday market — the economic importance of the place can only be imagined — but poor people who sell their stuff there even do not have toilet facilities. We don’t respect them.

…respect for each other
All this comes to a fact that only the economic power hubs rule the world. As an architect, or a planner or a landscape architect or an engineer, I think we all have responsibility. I would go back to issue of equity. I think it touches every aspect of architecture, planning, landscape architecture to engineering. It touches the footpath or even its absence.

I believe, the respect for people or idea of equity starts from the house. It starts when I throw something out of my home to the open space. It starts with the sidewalks, and it starts with the pedestrians. If one tries to cross the Ashram Road with a child in the arm or as an older person, one just cannot do it.

The person will have to walk 200 meters to cross it — where is the respect for people? We don’t have respect for people who don’t have a car or a scooter or a motorcycle. As I said, it starts with throwing dirt over the fence.

Even though I was very impressed seeing that parks here (Parimal Garden) are very clean and well maintained, the balance between the build spaces and the open spaces is very unequal.
 




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