In 1914 as he was writing Cities in Evolution and espousing a philosophy of ‘think globally, act locally’ Geddes was about to step onto the global stage. And, with the work he did in India, he was to act in a very local way indeed, with the needs of people and culture predominant in his plans.
Geddes set out for India with his son Alasdair. Under separate steam sailed the Cities Exhibition as cargo. By the time the cargo ship was nearing Madras, World War I had been declared and it was sunk by enemy fire. Undeterred, father and son reassembled the exhibition: it was displayed at Madras University in 1915.
Success and tragedy in India
Whilst many of us are rediscovering Geddes in the West, his reputation has never dimmed in India. Between 1915 and 1919 he wrote a series of “exhaustive town planning reports” for at least eighteen Indian cities. From 1919-1925 he was Professor of Civics and Sociology at Bombay University. He made three trips to the subcontinent, with Alasdair (1914-15) with Anna (1915-17) and with Arthur (1919-23).
Tragically, Anna contracted typhoid fever in 1917. Making the situation worse for Geddes was the news that Alasdair had been killed in action on the Western Front. He spared Anna the news, continuing to read Alasdair’s letters to her as she was dying.
Revered in India
Geddes is remembered with such reverence in India because his designs considered local context and tradition alongside being aware development needs.
American Urban theorist Lewis Mumford, who Geddes met in 1923, wrote: “Few observers have shown more sympathy…with the religious and social practices of the Hindus...” Geddes believed that Eastern philosophy more readily conceived of “life as a whole” therefore “civic beauty in India has existed at all levels, from humble homes and simple shrines to palaces magnificent and temples sublime.”
An extract from his Bombay Town Planning Act of 1915 reveals the heart in his thinking:
- Preservation of human life and energy, rather than superficial beautification
- Promoting trade and commerce
- Preserving historic buildings and buildings of religious significance
- Developing a city worthy of civic pride, not an imitation of European cities
- Promoting the happiness, health and comfort of all residents, rather than focusing on roads and parks available only for the rich
Fully realised in Tel Aviv
Geddes also worked on projects in Israel. In 1919 he prepared a plan for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was never implemented. In 1925 he submitted a town planning report for Tel Aviv. The city is the only one whose core is entirely laid out according to a plan of his.