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RURBAN SOCIAL SPACE AS A PRECURSOR FOR ECONOMIC RESURGENCE IN POST-COVID BENGAL

RUKMINI MUKHERJEE

In a continuous cycle of owning and disowning cultural and social practices, India has been returning to its constitutional roots of socialism after three decades of neo-liberalization. The post-socialist landscape has let to hyper-urbanization. From a forced market-driven economy to a rural India making its voice heard through droughts, unprecedented farmer suicides, and urban activism for regeneration of the "Essential Commodities Act", post-socialist India is rethinking its stance through new government policies of "Make in India", addressing the rurban production system of integrating rural output with urban technology.

Of the many post-apocalyptic scenarios, a virus was never one of the seriously taken theories, always being superseded by nuclear armament, terrorism, human-induced natural disasters. Despite massive measures taken in policy, design as well as social wisdom for other disasters, a global-scale health emergency has been one of the least addressed through time, despite the world grappling through bouts of widespread diseases. "If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades it's highly likely to be a highly-infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, microbes", (Bill Gates, 2015). As the priority of a pandemic-plan is realized globally, followed by failure of infrastructural, medical and social efforts, urban strategies in preventive measures are being re-thought of, as part of long-term resilience.

As a global crisis of COVID-19 changes perspectives and brings into light new failures of the post-socialist urban structure, rurban society is emerging as a breakthrough in stagnant urban issues, forging different meanings for different classes of the society – as a return to sustainable agricultural practices by migrant workers, a need for community bonding and support during difficult times for the middle-class working population, and a partial escape with farmhouses or villas for the business class that is fed up with over-concretization of the city.

The essay will take the form of an analyzed narrative, exploring the rurban-scape and its rapidly changing status, not only as a source of primary production, but also social requirements of the urban people. The context will be explored through a social portrayal based on different scales of architectural interventions and their performances in the lives of a rural community in Bengal.
A RURBAN CULTURAL DIASPORA
"In 2030, the world's population will be a staggering eight billion people. Of these, two-thirds will live in cities. Most will be poor. With limited resources, this uneven growth will be one of the greatest challenges faced by societies across the globe. Over the next years, city authorities, urban planners and designers, economists, and many others will have to join forces to avoid major social and economic catastrophes, working together to ensure these expanding megacities will remain habitable." (Gadanho, Gilbert, 2015). In 2014, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, presented the exhibition "Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanism for Expanding Megacities" as a culmination of a projective design initiative.

It brought into focus the need and success of grassroots organizations and practices that create on-ground solutions to urban issues, breaking the mold of the trending post-modern approach towards urban solutions. One of the featured works was the Bamboo Pavilion of the rural settlement Bansberia in West Bengal. Designed by an urban-based architectural practice, Abin Design Studio, the innovative temporary pavilion, installed surprisingly in a rural area, highlighted the experimental potential of rural centres, as incubators for developing long-term solutions to global urban issues. The perennial architectural and social challenge, prioritizing sustainability and community ownership over the continuously growing built environment, may be iterated contextually in urban fringes and rurban developments, where social outlook is evolving towards the more aspirationally and technologically abundant urbane, while the built environment has still the fluidity and scarce density to allow for experiments on spatial quality – an opportunity that is exceedingly lost in megacities.
FIGURE 1

BAMBOO PAVILION A TEMPORARY INSTALLATION FOR A CULTURE FESTIVAL IN THE RURAL COMMUNITY OF BANSBERIA.

CREDITS: ABIN DESIGN STUDIO

ALTER-MODERNISM IN ARCHITECTURE?
With the growing acceptance of the success of certain vernacular building practices in each global region, more experiments in materiality, craftsmanship and social practices in architecture are being fused with upgraded technical knowhow. This return to the roots and raised cognizance worldwide calls towards a parallel movement in spatial design technology, as compared to Nicolas Bourriard's theory of an "Altermodern" art movement, where cultural values of communities are connected to the global network, each fighting for identity autonomy against a global culture of increasing standardization and commercialization.

The integration of said practices find a place for social experimentation in non-commercial projects, tending towards rurban precincts, minimizing risk of the investors, and allowing for more community participation and eventual cultural ownership. The model of development is being widely followed, in Wang Shu's architectural work on the Ningbo History Museum, Rem Koolhaas' vision of Countryside as the Future, and now David Hockney's cover for the British Vogue issue for August, "Reset", explicitly raising the value of environmental and rural wisdom, especially in the current (and possibly future) world of pandemics and lockdowns.

A similar understanding of building technology as a possibility towards social and economic upliftment has been applied in the now-rurban community of Bansberia. Inspired by the historical relics of terracotta temples, and imbibing into the present industry of brick kilns and ceramic casting in the region, the contemporary architecture of the community has evolved into a compromise between the immediate cultural context and modern building technology. The repetition of such ethos in practice in a small community has created an awareness of the value of public space, such that land belonging to private clients have been negotiated and shared willingly into creating social nodes. One such example is the Gallery House, bricks sourced from a local industry, ceramics from industrial waste, labour and craftsmanship entrusted upon workers of the community through skill development and training, creating a successful collaboration between the stakeholders and beneficiaries.
FIGURE 2: EXPERIMENTATION WITH MATERIALITY, STRUCTURE, AND ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSE WITH RESPECT TO LOCAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT.

PROJECT CREDITS: ABIN DESIGN STUDIO
PHOTO CREDITS: EDMUND SUMNER

The involvement of local participants in the planning and building process, not just limiting to the integration of cultural identity, but also social integration, has led to a successful model for development of the area. The role of buildings have transcended the need for just 'image-making', evolving into containers for cultural preservation and creating a flexible space for future upliftment. The need for a democratic space, especially in tropical regions, extends beyond open courtyards and public plazas. The autonomy of movement and the subsequent generation of self-preserving activity patterns is consistent with a flexible system of "insides" and "outsides", where the transference is, at times, seamless. It provides for adaptability of use, accessibility of times, as well as connectivity with a wider community ownership.
FIGURE 3: GALLERY HOUSE, A PUBLIC CONFLUENCE CENTER DEVELOPED THROUGH THE INITIATIVE OF A PRIVATE CLIENT.
PROJECT CREDITS: ABIN DESIGN STUDIO
PHOTO CREDITS: EDMUND SUMNER

FIGURE 4: GALLERY HOUSE, A FLEXIBLE SPACE MERGING WITH SOCIAL IDENTITY
PROJECT CREDITS: ABIN DESIGN STU
PHOTO CREDITS:
ABIN CHAUDHURI
The multi-functionality of such forms of development have allowed for wider community uses such as skill training, social bonding, leadership roles, trade and economic development, and as awareness centres. The availability of such spaces have led the way as disaster management centres, generating the physical space required for collecting and distributing financial, medical and material assistance, while creating the social space for higher community involvement. Structures meant as coaching centres, auditoria, dormitories are easily adapted to accommodate emergency activities such as temporary shelter and community kitchen during cyclones, medical and awareness camps during pandemics, and youth mobilization nodes for volunteer training towards community support. The flexibility of open-plan systems have performed well to meet the physical distancing during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
PRIVATE OR PUBLIC: CHANGING REAL ESTATE TRENDS
One of the offshoots of expanding megacities is the need for "getaways" – energizing the tourism and travel industry. The tourism value chain is estimated to contribute to more than 9% of India's GDP, translating into $270 billion, even excluding rising associated demand for fuel, food, manufacturing (auto and aviation) and building services. The tourism industry has been creating employment for more than 90 million people in the country, (Nayar 2020, par.4). This boom in the real estate and eco-tourism development are an effect felt directly on rurban settlements (especially ones with cultural/ architectural value) at an approximate 250km radius (distance of major travel over a weekend) near megacities. The trend is estimated to grow exponentially once the pandemic lockdowns are lifted, considering the psyche of breaking away from repressed long-term indoor environment, and investing in areas of "healthier" means of living.
FIGURE 5,6: WALL HOUSE, A PRIVATE RESIDENCE ADDRESSING VISUAL ACCESS AND CONNECTIVITY IN A SOCIAL SETTING. .
PROJECT CREDITS: ABIN DESIGN STUDIO
PHOTO CREDITS: EDMUND SUMNER

The trend has been beneficial to independent developments in urban areas that have addressed the need for improved public-private interface. The adaptability of a private residence into a resort, vacation stay, or even visual accessibility from social spaces, bind these independent units with the larger social context.
RESILIENCE THROUGH BUILDING ECONOMY
The culmination of a contextual architectural envelope as the container and a responsive social space as the content, is one of the keys to creating resilient building communities. The economic and technical value of such an adaptable living system can lead to improved adaptability of participant communities. It is not always possible to raze an entire city to the ground to create Haussmann's Paris, but it is possible to explore contextual solutions to cultural aspirations of regional settlements, and learn from successful experiments to create surgical retrofitting, towards the efforts of revitalizing spaces as well as its people.
REFERENCES:
1) Online, ET. "Not Missiles, Microbes: Bill Gates Had Warned the World of an Epidemic 5 Yrs Ago." The Economic Times. Economic Times, March 18, 2020.
2) Gadanho, Pedro, and Zanna Gilbert. "Uneven Growth: Reflections on a Curatorial Process." post. MoMA, 2015.
3) Nayar, Lola. "Money Is In The Journey: Tourism Sector Is Key To Revival of Indian Economy: Outlook India Magazine".

AUTHOR'S BIO
Rukmini Mukherjee is a practicing Architect, Urban Designer and Curator, based out of India. In 2017, she co-founded the Kolkata Architecture Foundation, a non-profit body for raising awareness of spatial quality and architecture in Kolkata, mediating dialogues with governing bodies to re-inject a sense of civic pride and spatial ownership in a dynamic demography, creating urban intervention through art, open access and public policies.