Social capital is defined as the interaction between inhabitants of a community, their camaraderie and goodwill. In today’s world, communities exist more in the cyber world rather than the built world. Unfortunately, architecture and the built environment, especially in Indian cities, contribute to this effect of virtual communities being preferred over physical communities.
The first culprit in this regard is the ubiquitous compound wall. People build compound walls for various reasons – marking their boundary, security, as a status symbol and keeping out encroachment and unwanted filth. Does it really succeed in all of the above? Many arguments could be made to support the notion that the compound wall does not really succeed. However, the primary hypothesis of this paper is that the compound wall has ridden society of its camaraderie.
I do not mind large bungalows or mansions having compound walls around them, but extending their presence to commercial buildings and public buildings is a social crime. Coming from a society where we fronted every house to the street with a ‘thinnai’ or built-in seats,this departure to an enclave culture is alarming. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Indian society today is chock full of intolerance? As they say “Charity begins at home”, probably true that “Tolerance begins with thy neighbour”.
I would like to present two instances from my projects where I have experimented with not having a compound wall and also having a ‘thinnai’-like structure in its place. The projects are shown in fig. 2. The experiment had two goals – to check if it encourages or tempts people to encroach or steal property, and to check if a ‘thinnai’ still holds any social relevance to our society. The results are encouraging. There has been not one attempt to encroach or even park a car in that open space for over a year now. The ‘thinnai’ is the most favourite spot in the building. It has attracted a lot of people in the area and has slowly started churning out a small social group around it.
The second culprit in the degradation of social capital is the omnipresent automobile – cars and 2-wheelers, with cars playing a bigger role, combined with the consistent desecration of pedestrian infrastructure. Human capabilities for interaction have been built around small communities and short distances. While automobiles have succeeded in making distances shorter they have decimated local communities, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. What is sadder is for campuses to become automobile dependent. One of the prime reasons a campus is built is to foster interaction, and if that were to be made in a mobility-hampered manner, the term campus tends to be oxymoronic.
It is not only the distances in a campus that make it mobility-hampered, it is also the type of buildings that are built. Porosity of buildings in a campus makes the campus livelier and more mobility-friendly, especially in hot climes as ours. Pedestrian infrastructure in a campus or a community is the sure shot way of building social capital in a physical community. Certainly porous buildings and other pedestrian friendly detailing can make campuses and communities feel much closer not just physically but socially as well.
I would like to present a couple of projects done by my firm in this regard. The first was a landscape project where we had to create a landscape in an empty field outside a class room block in a campus. We have tried to make it a social space where the entire campus gathers and can interact among themselves in small groups. The design calls for small pods that contain shading trees and the pods themselves act as seating spaces. The second is an academic building in the campus where we have opened out the entire ground floor as social space and also created an exhibition space along the wall that fronts the main walkway of the campus. This way we intend to have the building communicate with the rest of the campus, while providing a shaded walkway.
The obvious question that arises – can this work outside campuses in real communities? Of course it can. In communities where people walk rather than zoom past one another, it can and it will work. Singapore is a great example of this where the architecture has helped create a pedestrian infrastructure in the entire city. It is possible to walk in Singapore, rain or shine, without getting exposed to the elements and this is entirely possible because of its architecture.
While designing a building in such a porous community, it is prudent to note that the ground floor and the subsequent two-three floors are the most important parts of a building that contribute towards social capital. It denotes the limits of pedestrian capability and should ideally house uses that foster community interaction. Higher floors naturally become enclaves and can be put to more private uses. The revival of American downtowns is purely based on this.
Social capital is a vital ingredient for any community to thrive. The success of Facebook or Twitter is its social capital and not some computer wizardry. The ingenuity lies in the design of these websites that enables the proliferation of social capital. In the same manner, the design of the built environment can create a foundation upon which the society can construct itself. Human society was built on and for interaction and it makes no sense to suddenly design our buildings introverted to its surroundings.
Aparajithan Narasimhan is an architect and planner from Chennai, India. His fledgling design firm practices architecture with a focus on community building and exploring new materials and methods of construction. He is also involved in various urban planning initiatives in Chennai and has been an enthusiastic researcher and contributor to the planning issues of the city. He has presented a part of his research at various conferences like the Ecocity World Summit in San Francisco, Sustainable Chennai Summit, World Habitat Day conference hosted by UN Habitat Chennai, etc. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org