A living pedagogy


The story of the Sabarmati river project

1964-2010, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Small streams, rivers, oceans, public parks, or large forests, all have been weakened or strengthened according our individual behaviors.


In 1964, Ahmedabad, 1,200,000 inhabitants.

Bernard Kohn, then participating with the architect BV Doshi and Dr. R.N.Vakil in the creation of the Ahmedabad School of Architecture, today one of the faculty of CEPT University submits a proposal for the development of the banks of the Sabarmati River which flows through the city.

At the time, it is a truly unique idea that projects to make the city’s most potentially significant public space accessible to the largest number of people in a spirit of social equity.

In 2000, after a multitude of discussions and proposals, the proposal is taken over by the design office HCP. Today, the project is largely completed. But its initial intention as a profoundly social project has been modified top to bottom, and turned into a project that will favor development by real estate promoters.

In 2008 and 2009, at CEPT, Bernard Kohn initiates an interdisciplinary workshop on the 400 km of the Sabarmati river basin.

The initial project of July 1962-1968

Within a citizen's Town Planning Group Bernard Kohn suggests the development on of both sides of the river of the nine kilometers Ahmedabad stretch, as a part of a far larger river valley proposal.

The project suggests the raising of a planned downstream dam in order to control the height of the water all year long while respecting the other activities that used the riverbed: markets, sand extraction, ritual celebrations, agricultural produce...

Wide ghats like succeeding platforms are planned, without riverside thru traffic, and a limited number of strictly defined building areas are decided upon in order to fund the project.

The project receives the approval of the government, and hydraulic studies validate its feasibility, and the dam is raised up. From 1969 to 1999, everybody keeps talking about the project but only the construction necessary to channel wastewater directly into the river is undertaken.

Evolution of the Project 2000-2007

In 2000, the Indian architect Bimal Patel of the firm HCP commits himself for several years in promoting the project.

He profoundly changes the meaning, and from of a social and cultural project, it evolves to a design, which facilitates economic development.

The platforms become one single flat level with an eight meters high retaining wall, running for the entire ten kilometers. Large highways occupy the two banks.

The stage is set, wide open to receive investors.

Bernard Kohn follows the evolution of the project, trying to reawaken public interest in the original social objectives, and attempts to suggest the exclusion of the proposed roads, and a few entry points permitting easy access to the river's edge.

The Workshops - Sabarmati 2008 -2009

With both an educational and political goal, Bernard Kohn organizes a multidisciplinary workshop at CEPT “Ecological Potential for the 400 kilometers of the Sabarmati river basin.”

An underlying objective is to interest citizens and university students in reintroducing the original objective: “a river for all”.
To favor the fluidity and easy accessibility between the inhabitants of the densely woven neighborhoods of the city and the river, the highways, who are built basically for the serving of anticipated future real estate development must be questioned.

After a single workshop in 2008, which concludes with a marvelous exhibition in the Sunday market, the success of the approach with different sections of the University: landscaping, city planning, architecture… leads in 2009 to the opening of eight multidisciplinary workshops on different themes.

Public conferences and exhibitions accompany these endeavors. However, these positive initiatives are not followed thru.

In India, it is a quite innovative step.

For the first time, an educational and political project indicates the academic world's involvement with the daily life of the city and the broader public instead of staying in its cocoon.

Other citizen and university projects are added to the project.

A significant article calling for the creation of an ecological Sabarmati valley is published in many newspapers.

To be continued…

Regarding this 1960's project for the development of the river, what assessment can be made?

In the very beginning, the design was entirely focused on creating, on both banks of the river, ten kilometers long natural parks, which were a totally original, first of its kind, certainly utopian idea.

It was a project that was part of a broader ecological vision for the 400km stretch of the Sabarmati Valley.

It would have allowed the people of Ahmedabad, of all the people to be able to benefit from an exceptional environment.

The project's main consideration was easy and free access, which obviously implied the total absence of longitudinal roads. It was in the lineage of ethical social equity close to the ideas of Gandhi.

In fifty years, like the rest of the world, India is totally immersed in the hegemonic economic development favorable to the upper classes.
Unfortunately, totally without criticism, the different professions answer favorably to this reality.

What does this allow us to conclude?

It is obvious that over the years, a rapidly expanding society evolves in different and even totally contrasting economic spheres. Past values and ethics are challenged.

Extremely large urban proposals of this kind, which obviously will take more than a generation to be implemented, must receive, from the very beginning, acceptance from the society as a whole, and obviously, with the corresponding administrative public and private institutional legal support.

As the original initiator of what is referred to as the River Project, I am of course forced to accept, though reluctantly, that situations evolve, and even, that they may totally turn away from their initial objectives.

A permanent and very definite communicative strategy, constantly re-invested, which recalls the original concept, must be implemented. But, even with that, one cannot go against the tide.

Does this imply re-adapting one's objectives to the evolving realities?, or simply "letting go" and "letting be", against forces that are too complex to oppose?

To learn more, A three-generation project: riverside development divides Indian city in The Guardian.

The release of the water, following work on the downstream dam, reveals an incredible mass of rubbish, which lines the river bottom. Obviously, the idea of an edge-to-edge "lake-like" but basically stagnant water body is in complete contradiction with the climate and the cultural habits of the inhabitants of a city of now six million.

The original proposal of large platforms, stepping down, as opposed to the now constructed walls would make the discarding of refuse directly into the river impossible, while controlling the width of the water in the river.