The poetics of space: How Church Street paves the way for Bengaluru

Bengaluru's Church Street has gone from a chaotic mess to a prototype of \"what India should be\" as architect Naresh Narasimhan puts it.

“A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time,” said cultural activist, Patrick Geddes. Bengaluru's Church Street has gone from a chaotic mess to a prototype of "what India should be" as architect Naresh Narasimhan puts it. Broad pavements, a cobblestoned carriage way adorned with a Kasuti pattern and music playing from the speakers overhead have transformed the busy street into a space of culture and merriment. Naresh Narasimhan tells Darshana Ramdev about the journey.​

In 2015, architect Naresh Narasimhan described an idea for a Times Square on the MG Road boulevard. On March 1, City Development Minister KJ George, who joined the CM and Shanthinagar MLA NA Haris on an inauguration spree, echoed a similar idea. Narasimhan is among a handful of people, including activists, architects, urban experts and of course, the political class, who have developed and attempted to execute a vision for Bengaluru. Vision, often blurred in the din of politics and conflicting enthusiasm, with Church Street, despite its many tributes as a pioneering project, nearly met with a similar fate - the inauguration quickly turned into a political rally. That’s a small hitch, though.

The revamp of Church Street is what Narasimhan describes as a “confluence of the right funds, meeting the right people at the right time,” a triumph in people-friendly, holistic urban design. It’s been a hands-on job, made possible by the BBMP, the then Mayor Padmavati, MLA NA Haris who took the project under his wing, and City Development Minister KJ George, an integral driver -– he even took to the idea of cobblestones so much that the budget was increased to ensure the job was done right.The BBMP engineering team of Kabade, KT Nagaraj, Ramesh,Lokesh and their engineers supported the project and ensured the vision became a reality.

The last of the winter breeze ripples through Church Street on Saturday evening and crowds mill about, pouring happily onto the cobblestoned carriageway. Vehicles labour through the throng, resigning themselves, perhaps, to the fact that this road belongs to the Neglected Urban Pedestrian. Naresh Narasimhan surveys the scene with a mixture of satisfaction and exasperation – the remains of the inauguration from the previous morning– decorations and political posters - lie scattered across the pavements. He grins as he stands in the centre of the street for a picture, “It is the only road on which I can do this,” he says. As he walks down the carriageway, vehicles speed past, missing him by a whisker – “I’m hoping that at some point, we will all realise we have to deal with this and stop driving through here! The government can only do so much. After a point, it’s up to the people to take responsibility for what is theirs and not speed or litter.”

(Photo: Venkatessan PeeVee Perumal)(Photo: Venkatessan PeeVee Perumal)


The project was complete in a little over a year, remarkably quick for a revamp that involved a complete overhaul of the 100-year old road. This meant wading through miles of archaic cable networks, a labyrinth without a map or any written records - a scene an urban expert once wittily described as a "Mohen-jo-daro situation." The idea began in 2015, when Narasimhan sat with a group of BBMP officials to come up with a solution for Church Street. One of the busiest, most crucial parts of the city’s Central Business District, it lay in abysmal neglect for years, with broken pavements, a pothole-ridden carriageway and a terrible flooding problem during the monsoon. Naresh’s firm Venkataramanan associates, a five decade old architecture and urban design firm did the detailed study and redesign on a probono basis . “In the end, we concluded that all the infrastructure was broken and had to be fully replaced.”


The preparatory work alone took nearly two years to complete and the political leadership was brought in. "Credit needs to go to NA Haris, who visited nearly 40 times in the last year. He knew what questions to ask, organised material when the workers ran short - he micromanaged the project." There were a number of things to work past – the chaos of the underground utilities and a spell of torrential rain in August that undid much of the good that had taken place. The road, Narasimhan adds, was 30 feet wide at one end and double that at the other.

A contractor's representative stops by and joins in the conversation. He is part of the Kudroli group, the contractor that withstood a great deal of pressure coordinating with the BBMP and BWSSB. The tteam has worked tirelessly over the last three days to have everything ready for the inauguration. “It’s been a tough job, our focus is on quality and doing everything right, but it also needs to be done fast,” he says. “We had no map of the underground utilities to work with, so that took a long while. Then there was laying the cobblestones with the Kasuti pattern – it’s a slow process. We got the pattern wrong at one point and had to pull it all up again.”


Why is Church Street so special? Narasimhan responds with another question. "What's wrong with Indian roads? Why don't they last?" Authorities are happy to buy pothole filling machines to fill the ones that do appear, but nobody asks the right question, he remarks. "Why do we have these potholes in the first place?" To elaborate, he walks over to the pavement, to a small bit that's still dug up.

Power and optical fibres run on both sides of the road under the footpath, says Narasimhan, and an upgrade or repair doesn't involve touching the road at all. “ You never have to touch the cobblestoned carriageway because there are cross ducts every 30 feet." High density polyethylene ducts carry power cables to the buildings - “If this goes wrong, you come here and fix it without disturbing anything else."

The problem with Indian streets, he says, is the lack of drainage and poor infrastructure provisions. "Before we came here, there were 30 cables underneath, all jumping on top of each other, all under the road. Now, for the first time, there's nothing under the street itself. All utilities run beneath the pavements." Bengaluru has a history of bad civic infrastructure design, because storm water drains are next to the property line. Everything comes up through that and most of it spills over onto the road."


The pavements, made in keeping with national standards, are minimum two metres wide on either side, and the cobblestoned carriageway is consistently 5.5 metres throughout. Places where the road runs wider have been set aside for parking – a complete ban on vehicles would have been impractical for the businesses in the area and the families who live here, Narasimhan adds. “Their inputs were taken at every stage – we spoke to everyone, from the traffic police to the residents. We even made a video, Humans of Church Street.”

The pavements themselves, which came under some criticism for being too wide, are a part of a futuristic vision for the city - the creation of pedestrian-friendly urban spaces. The cobblestones themselves are arranged in a Kasuti pattern, which snakes elegantly down the length of the street. This pattern marks another victory in people-oriented urban design, the pattern was decided upon through a “crowdsourcing” technique. Narasimhan laid out a group of patterns on various online groups and it was fashion designer Prasad Bidapa who hit upon Kasuti.

An embroidery pattern practiced by artisans in Karnataka seemed the perfect tribute to the state's rich cultural heritage, a welcome diversion from the geometric patterns that usually make up cobblestoned paths. "I said I didn't want anything too Western either, I was looking for an iconic Indian pattern we could use. It had to be Indian - I don't even like people saying the road looks like something they saw abroad. It looks like what India should be." Even the granite has been sourced locally. "It will also last forever if you know how to detail it," Narasimhan explains.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges, what with an unceasing public outcry over missed deadlines, despite the fact that the project took only a year to finish. Arguments erupted over the smallest details, the BBMP’s choice of tree – the java fig, came under massive criticism – that most people might not have heard of that tree before that point didn't curb their enthusiasm for a good fight!

Even so, Church Street is all set to do one thing: Pave the way for people-friendly urban design. “It’s very rare to find spaces where people can just be, without having to buy anything,” says Narasimhan. “We have food and entertainment along the stretch, but people can come here anyway and just be. That’s what urban spaces are about.”

With Museum Road already in line for a TenderSure revamp, one hopes that Church Street will be the harbinger of change for every neighbourhood in the city.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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