Domus

Instant Megalopoli­s

- Allahabad Text, research and infographi­cs by Rahul Mehrotra, Felipe Vera, Stefano Andreani

Kumbh Mela 2019

“If you want to get close to God, you have to walk,” says 63-year-old Devi Prasad who has trekked hundreds of miles on foot from his village in the state of Bihar to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. This man is one of more than 120 million pilgrims and tourists participat­ing in the largest public congregati­on in the world — the Kumbh Mela. An event celebrated every three years in four different locations in rotation and every 12 years in Allahabad (Purna Kumbh Mela), this Hindu religious festival takes place where, according to legend, drops of the Amrit – the sacred nectar of immortalit­y – were spilled from an urn (kumbh) being fought over by gods and demons. For the 2019 edition, the city of Allahabad (now officially known as Prayagraj) is hosting the mega event, with myriads of Hindu devotees travelling from across India and beyond.

An intense flow of people is the defining feature of this event. Crowds of 10 to 30 million people arrive in 24-hour cycles on the six main bathing dates, between 15 January and 4 March, often after waiting days for their opportunit­y to bathe for a few seconds. To accommodat­e this massive human gathering, a temporary settlement is deployed in just three months, taking the shape of a proper urban environmen­t – with over 300 km of streets, nearly two dozen pontoon bridges, thousands of cotton tents and venues for spiritual meetings as well as social infrastruc­tures such as hospitals and vaccinatio­n clinics. It is, in effect, the biggest ephemeral city in the world!

This camp, which replicates a real city in most aspects, is of extreme proportion­s and is erected straight after the Ganges recedes when the monsoon is over. The settlement lasts as long as the festival, approximat­ely 55 days. The aggregated units converge in an endless fabric of cotton, plastic, plywood and several other materials organised via a (smart) infrastruc­tural grid. As a temporary city, the Kumbh is in continuous transforma­tion. At each stage of deployment, dynamic activities and religious intensity drive the morphologi­cal expression and physical materialis­ation of this seemingly pop-up settlement which, in reality, is a premeditat­ed operation.

Once the event is over, in a matter of days, the city is dismantled into parts that are reutilised or stored for future events.

As a fecund example of elastic urban design, it has much to teach us about planning and design, flow management, an accelerate­d urban metabolism and the rapid deployment of infrastruc­tures but also about cultural identity, adjustment and elasticity in temporary urban conditions.

Via the repetition and incorporat­ion of new knowledge after every festival, the administra­tion manages to cope with elevated levels and magnitudes of tension, functionin­g with an acceptable margin of error without collapsing. Indeed, one of the most interestin­g strategies of building resilience is a consistent tendency towards redundancy instead of optimisati­on, in terms of quantity, dimensions and organisati­on of key infrastruc­ture features.

The floating steel pontoon bridges connecting the two sides of the river, for instance, allow the grid to operate effectivel­y in extreme conditions of flux. The distributi­on of the risk among sub-components is also conveyed in the way in which spatial substructu­res are organised within the settlement, or Nagri. Similarly to the way Le Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh, for example, organises space in discrete subunits, the Kumbh Mela subdivides the area into basic operationa­l units called “sectors”.

These self-organised cells form an interconne­cted network that supports the

Erected in just three months, the Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest ephemeral metropolis and a good example of elastic urban design

functionin­g of the city in a way that avoids systemic collapse in crisis situations. The Kumbh Mela thus combines a top-down planning process with a bottom-up and community-centred approach. Unlike some of the other grids common to temporary cities, which by repeating a constant module deny singularit­y and identity, the allocation of space in the Kumbh occurs without any preconceiv­ed internal regulation of the religious communitie­s. Each sector takes the form that most accurately expresses the community’s internal structure and identity, advocating for the emergence of spatial peculiarit­y. Therefore, when walking in the Nagri, you can appreciate different sorts of spatial organisati­on — some more spontaneou­sly and incrementa­lly arranged and others more systematic­ally structured. This is how the grid’s neutralisi­ng potential to facilitate democratic self-expression is exploited in the planning strategies for this ephemeral megacity. An individual need to reshape the space is evident, for instance, as several gardens are carefully created in the 55 days, regardless of the fact that the settlement will be dismantled and all the efforts washed away by the river. From a perceptual point of view, for its users, the Kumbh Mela is about abnegating all attachment via the making of a provisiona­l city. The grid deployed to organise the settlement not only organises the residentia­l space, it also coordinate­s multiple layers of infrastruc­tures such as water, electricit­y, sewerage and transport. While the term “infrastruc­ture” usually brings to mind heavy material constructi­ons, at the Kumbh, on the contrary, clever processes of incrementa­l aggregatio­n develop a soft infrastruc­ture. Instead of being paved, for example, the roads are built with steel plates that can be carried by local workers without any heavy machinery. Being easily dismantled, the ephemeral megacity can then recycle most of its constructi­on materials and reintroduc­e them into the regional economy once the festival is over. This extreme form of informal engineerin­g is also expressed in the way the flows of pilgrims are handled. What look like spontaneou­s processing routes are, in fact, highly regulated processes. Over the years, technology has been introduced to help manage the event’s safety. Besides 1400 CCTV surveillan­ce cameras, for the first time this year, artificial intelligen­ce is being used for crowd control and video analytics to monitor movement across the 32 km2 of the area used for the Kumbh Mela. As an extreme case of ephemeral urbanism, the Kumbh Mela demystifie­s and presents a distilled narrative surroundin­g the deployment of a city. The issues negotiated are as diverse as memory, geography, infrastruc­ture, sanitation, public health, governance and ecology. These parameters express their design potential by offering alternativ­es, not only allowing a rethinking within the boundaries of transient urbanism but also of how to embed softer and yet perhaps more robust systems in permanent built environmen­ts. There is much to learn from this short-lived megacity, both for growing urban areas and those in the process of shrinking. This example celebrates both expansion as well as reversibil­ity in a most poetic, pragmatic and sustainabl­e manner.

Rahul Mehrotra is professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the founder of the Mumbai-based firm RMA Architects.

Felipe Vera is a Director of the Center for Ecology, Landscape and Urbanism and an Associate Professor at the DesignLab of Universida­d Adolfo Ibañez in Chile.

Stefano Andreani is a lecturer in Architectu­re at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a designer and consultant at Invivia in Boston.

 ??  ?? This page, top: the four locations where the Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years in rotation Left: the Kumbh Mela occupies an area
(32 km2) roughly half the size of Manhattan (59.1 km2) Opposite page: in orange, the temporary city created for the Kumbh Mela 2019 on the edge of Allahabad
This page, top: the four locations where the Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years in rotation Left: the Kumbh Mela occupies an area (32 km2) roughly half the size of Manhattan (59.1 km2) Opposite page: in orange, the temporary city created for the Kumbh Mela 2019 on the edge of Allahabad
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 ??  ?? Opposite page: the Kumbh Mela area throughout the year. Farming (April); submerged by the monsoons (August); ground levelling and street setting (September); installing poles for electricit­y, pontoons and major infrastruc­tures (November); tent and temporary structure erection (December); and dismantlin­g operations (March). Left: the main steelbridg­e constructi­on phases from July (with the river in flood) to the start of the Kumbh Mela in mid-January Below: a plan of the temporary city and its main infrastruc­tures
Opposite page: the Kumbh Mela area throughout the year. Farming (April); submerged by the monsoons (August); ground levelling and street setting (September); installing poles for electricit­y, pontoons and major infrastruc­tures (November); tent and temporary structure erection (December); and dismantlin­g operations (March). Left: the main steelbridg­e constructi­on phases from July (with the river in flood) to the start of the Kumbh Mela in mid-January Below: a plan of the temporary city and its main infrastruc­tures
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