Cities That Smell of Leather and Earth

December 6, 2016

All through the world, from Japan to China, the African continent to Europe, economic specialization and attempts to organize crafts, manufacturing and trading processes, have been integral to urban life. In Europe, medieval guilds that interacted, resisted or cooperated with the State and the Church have impacted political and social trajectories involving, power, monopolies and conflict for centuries. Even after the spread of industrial capitalism and the rise of corporate globalization, European cities still show traces of the influence of guild-based systems. This can be seen in the way economic activities from wine-making to copyrighted design, from brands and labels to architectural styles, try to bridge traditional practices and modern demands. While contemporary urban planning practices and norms do not always respond as flexibly to economic activities as they did in the past – the legacy of strong lobbies and traditional elites controlling the urban landscape is still visible.

According to scholars such as Max Weber, the role of guilds played a special role in the emergence of a certain kind of economic urban character – distinguished significantly by an attempt to control urban life, create protectionist systems as well as maintain secrets connected to trade activities.

The development of patents and intellectual property rights are specifically connected to the history of guilds, which have been equally vilified by both, right and left wing economists in equal measure. However – Weber points out that the special quality that European guilds had was their direct connection with city based spatial regimes, local resources and in-house apprenticeships, which were often open for anyone with skills who belonged to the city, town or village. At the same time guilds were also closed when it came to taking in people from outside – sometimes discriminated on the basis of region or language.

This was unlike in India where exclusion was based on a more abstract principle, caste. Caste was capable of making someone from the same village or town socially distant. Someone from a different caste could be from your village or neighbourhood but physical proximity did not transcend social distance.

What this caste based exclusion did was make people move more. India’s relationship with physical mobility, with individuals, families and communities constantly circulating across the subcontinent has been historically documented by scholars like Sanjay Subramaniam and Ravi Ahuja. People forged linkages with caste based professions across vast regions. This explains how Indian traders and labourers travelled the world over through navigation systems or spread extensively across the sub continent.

Of course, wherever people went, they took with them the same structures of hierarchy. Sometimes they could rise up the social ladder, but mostly the social structures reproduced themselves in new geographies. Which also explains how most Indian cities often tend to reflect spatial configurations like the traditional village, with poor and rich communities developing co-dependent relationships. The emergence of a slum narrative in a city like Mumbai is a reflection of such forces. Several – though not all – slums tend to be dominated by communities which are weaker in socio-economic and ritual terms. Leather workers and potters in particular are the most marginalized groups because the material of their crafts is deemed impure.

In the European context, while ghettoization and segregation did exist, especially in terms of the designated outsider – there was a deeper process at work in which economic associations played a strong civic role in shaping urban centers.

The guilds may have had several problems, as they were often monopolistic, exploitative of labour and resistant to the control of mercantile capital from elsewhere, which explains their antipathy to right and left economic practices. But they did leave a huge impact on urban Europe in terms of the development of cities and towns, and towards the modernization of several crafts and artisanal practices. The continued dominance of European design in contemporary production and manufacture, the strong control of local natural resources, innovation in technology, the persistence of high living standards in terms of habitats are to some extent continued legacies of systems that paid attention to artisanal skills, valued excellence and were open to all within the shared space. Leather based brands as well as pottery from Europe – represent a completely different trajectory then what we see in India.

European urban landscapes are definitely a direct consequence of the way in which economic associations played their role in shaping them. Combined live-work spaces and neighbourhood streets as economic sites of exchange were as integral to the experience of medieval European cities as in contemporary Asian ones. While modernization of urban planning practices destroyed older, hierarchical and exclusive systems, it is undeniable that the strong role of economic associations through guild systems also shaped the way in which these transformations happened.

In India spatial configurations have rarely had a unified articulation, split as they always have been along divided social lines. The co-existence of the rich and poor in Indian cities is as much a factor of codependence thanks to specialization of roles than anything else. While professional associations are highly organized across territories, almost always affiliating with their own kind, the principle of urban space is inevitably splintered within – making inequalities starkly visible.

A neighbourhood like Dharavi sits in a place like this. It is not simply a physical space. But one that is shaped by social and historical contours to which it belongs. Leather workers and communities involved in tanning, processing and making finished leather goods as well as the potters have shown great enterprise and been victims of traditional marginalization.

Our practice explores how factors deeper than simply distribution of resources, urban planning or political intention can change cities. These deeper factors have do to less with psycho-cultural mechanism than with historical factors that shape two important aspects of urban life – livelihood and shared living.

Utopian Futures vs. the Fictional Present

July 3, 2016

This is the summary of a talk given at Oris – House of architecture, Zagreb, Croatia on June 16th 2016, which was part of the the Future Architecture Platform. Illustrations by Ismini Christakopoulou, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava.

The modern notion of the future is based on a Biblical timeline, which has raised messianic expectations ever since Daniel’s prophesies. Such an understanding of the future even spills over into worlds where a more cyclical notion of time dominates – for example in the Asian context – and generates constant excitement of impending change. It prevails also in secular milieus, which believe that our future should be in our own hands rather than in those of the divine.

The quest for a better future is something that seems to infuse modern life, from political revolution to consumerist aspirations, from technological fantasies to ecological utopias (and dystopias). The strong faith in the possibility of a future that is radically different from the present has fueled architectural ambitions throughout the twentieth century. And it still prevails in some of the most dominant architectural practices today. ‘Parametricism’ being its latest and most hopeless expression.

Such moves are locked in linear time, where the past becomes a source of nostalgia or a vast archaeological site to be preserved in museums, while rendering the future into an amusement park of technological wonders, which promises to leave the misery of the world outside. Such grand architectural gestures always seem to provide the future in a self-contained form, managing to exclude misery out altogether in that ideal world.

The present becomes an awkward point of transitioning from an imagined past into a desirable future. It also has the irritating habit of tripping big plans and visions, by asking mundane and profane questions. It is in the present that ugly, mistaken or confused architecture sits cheek by jowl with political problems that challenge architectural ambitions.

Narratives of injustice and poverty may clearly go beyond the scope of architecture as a discipline. However, that doesn’t prevent the well-meaning architect to make a valiant attempt at becoming a saviour. He gathers as much of political energy as he can and gifts his architectural solution to the world, which can either emerge in the form of a master plan (for instance to rehabilitate millions of slum dwellers) or as a small but perfectly controlled architectural object (such as the $300 house project -R.I.P.). That these projects actually have no relationship to the context they are supposed to transform doesn’t bother him the least.

To the young heroic architect aiming at making a difference, looking at the present is not as straightforward as it seems. Especially when the dominant gaze is already coloured so heavily by a linear notion of time. The present is infinitely complex and dynamic, fusing the familiar with the unknown with disconcerting fluency.

Thankfully, linear time is not the only way to relate to the world. If anything at all – it only seems to distract us from a creative, imaginative and direct engagement with the present.

The present contains its own ‘becoming’. It inevitably moves in different directions, pushed and pulled by all of us. But we, who produce the present, are also firmly embedded in it. The present absorbs the future – not through the projected fantasies of a few visionaries but through the chipping and shaping away of the present by those who live in it – the unruly multitude of inhabitants.

The full range of architectural concerns, where the language of space, time and depth shape worlds and animate built-forms are all pervasive processes. These are important and exciting holistic moments. It is a real pity to split them up along a linear representation of time.

What would a practice of architecture and urban design that is not projecting ‘the future’ look like? One which is rooted in the present, rather than in a nostalgic notion of the past, or a wonder of the future, even though it may be inspired from and powered by those fantasies?

The notion of ‘recognition’ provides an important clue. Forms would not simply be projected out of nowhere, but are based on the recognition of processes at work in the production of places (economic, cultural, political). ‘Form follows recognition’ is the tagline of our current exhibition at the House of Architecture in Graz. In our introduction to the exhibition we explain that:

The process of recognition involves a reorientation of our gaze, and the way we interpret and deal with the world around us. It is about framing the reality in a way that allows us, and everyone else, to become legitimate actors. It is about the acceptance of our world as an unfinished and imperfect, collective work in process. And taking part in that process.

According to Amitav Ghosh, “Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge… The knowledge that results from recognition … is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.” (The Great Derangement, 2016, pp: 5-7). The act of recognition thus involves the establishment of a relationship between the subject and the object – which may be almost fusional. It is not a passive observation but an active engagement with the present and the potential that it embodies. Pre-cognitive forms of intuition and creativity thus have a central role to play in the act of recognition.

In another exhibition, currently showing at the Maxxi in Rome, we show wood, steel and acrylic models of ‘dream tool-houses’ designed by artisans in Dharavi, Mumbai, with the help of the urbz team. A tool-house is a typology that is very typical of unplanned settlements such as Dharavi, but which is also pervasive throughout Asia – from India to China and Japan. It merges residential functions with productive functions, thus optimising the use of space in dense neighbourhoods.

The tool-house models we produced with local actors in Dharavi are fictional and idealised representations of the reality they live in. They represent a potential that is at once hopeful and pragmatic, which draws on local skills and responds to local needs better than any utopian urban design for the future of Dharavi ever could.

Speculative Urbanism and Concrete Fictions

September 5, 2015


(image source:

Future as a resource

Urban practice has become increasingly speculative about the future. If there is a world where utopias are literally a commodity, bought and sold as little pieces of dreams, it is here. Full of futuristic and visionary images about the way the world should look, buildings, neighbourhoods and entire regions seem afloat in space, free from the constraints of the lived world. They do seem to have a clear source, however, derived largely from fictional scenarios of the future of humanity. While apocalypse, paradise, utopia and dystopia are the moral anchors for several speculative fables, the city is evoked as double-edged – at once the pinnacle and tipping point of human choices. This essay demonstrates how speculative fiction limits the idea of the urban future and with it restricts choices we make in the present. If fiction is another mode of activist expression, it is being sculpted and shaped in concrete and glass as well.

(Abstract of the essay by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava to be published by THE JOURNAL OF SOUTH ASIAN FILM AND MEDIA VOL.6 NO.2)



(Metropolis: Image source -

In movie lore, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the fountainhead of subsequent futuristic urban imagery in cinema. The director is known to have been inspired by his first glimpse of New York that bloomed into his gigantic futuristic, art-deco cinematic city in which a twisted class war and biblical themes came together to carry forward a strange tale of control, love and human choices (Minden and Bachman 2002). The authors point out that the imagery in the film – tall skyscrapers, looming giant urban landscapes, machines merged with built forms – is said to be inspired by the futurist Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia, but the film’s own design influenced the art-deco movement substantially in Europe and America as well. This interplay of early twentieth-century architectural movements and cinematic representations produced a set of images that became hugely influential, continuing to be the template on which notions of urban futures kept echoing through the twentieth century. Widespread notions of the city remain anchored to similar or related visions.

The city, thus, very much remains entrenched as the alter ego of the rural: a very twentieth-century and industrial idea (Leeds 1994). If we detach such a notion of the city as we have imagined it in the twentieth century (thanks in no small measure to movies like this one) and actually take a hard look at the way urban forms proliferated in the contemporary world, we see a gap that needs to be filled in more creatively than simply by a temporal logic of urban development where everybody would eventually catch up.

The actual processes through which cities relate to density and space, how they create habitats, their relationship to what they call home in different parts of the world, the surprising ways in which they use transport and mobile systems rarely become the starting points of imaginative reconstructions that circulate in the media and, subsequently, in our minds. Research emerges year after year from India, Europe, China or Africa, which reveals complex patterns of urbanization, unexpected directions that people take in shaping and using habitats that certainly does not point towards the vertical, speedy, hyper-dense spaces that presently haunt our stories and minds (Brenner 2004; Kaufmann 2014 ; Echanove and Srivastava 2014). Such research reveals that villages are becoming a part of urban living, populated forests, and high-technology rural habitats are as much a conjoined living reality as mobile phones and the Internet, and populations are circulating and moving in unexpected directions. Thus, the urban landscape of the future may be much more varied than we imagine. The reason why it takes much longer for these observations to become the knowledge stock and springboard for imaginative constructions is because they challenge very deep taken-for-granted notions about the future.

Natural City

July 20, 2015

Organic metaphors for cities have been in fashion at least since Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932). A biologist by training, Geddes turned to city planning when his eyesight became too defective to use a microscope. He imagined a city as not fundamentally different from any other living organism.

A city seems to follow a logic of its own, complex and mostly spontaneous. It grows and mutates taking different forms and functions. The only difference between a city and an organism, is our conviction that we can plan the former, while we see an organism’s internal capacity to grow and structure as divine.

Tampering with biological cells, whether animal or vegetal, is seen as sacrilegious. Think of the strong movement against genetically modified organisms. The fear is that we may create types of organisms that could get out of hand, go viral and threaten biodiversity. Playing god may endanger and impoverish the realm of our own existence. The related worry we have with GMO is that these extra-dominant strains tend to become the property of corporations that control and impose their terms on farmers and consumers.

At one level these fears are real. We don’t want any cartel to dominate the food industry. Organic food, farmers’ markets and guerrilla gardening are healthy reactions to a form of capitalism that threatens the livelihood and autonomy of producers and consumers.

At another level, we can’t treat nature as sacrosanct and out of bounds of human engagement. We’ve always been tampering with it and always will. However much we pollute and exploit it, we are part of nature.

Forests have forever been inhabited by humans. Their ecosystem depends on us as much as we depend on them. Even “pristine” forests have relied on intricate and interfering knowledge systems, which humans living in and around them possessed for their co-dependent survival. We can’t reduce nature either to something pure that must remain untouched or a raw resource that we should freely exploit. Either way this amounts to physically and conceptually evacuating human presence, and makes way for nature’s total sacralisation or devastation. Both of which are happening simultaneously today.

Nature is messy, contradictory, predatory. Harmony is a beautiful invention of the mind but as green-architect and nature-lover Michael McDonough once told us pointing to a harmless-looking creeper growing around a serene-looking tree: “it is a war out there.” He saw his role as that of a peacekeeper. There is a lot humans can do to monitor and support nature that doesn’t involve destroying it, as the greening of arid regions in Israel and India have shown.

Could the same thing be true of cities? Can we manage them without killing their diversity and spontaneity? Geddes certainly thought so.

We are only starting to understand how we can alter an organism’s genetic code, while we have been planning cities and neighbourhoods since Sumerian times. The problem is that we have never been very good at it, or perhaps we lost those skills in modern times. Master planned cities usually turn out to be disasters, and our proud megacities, which are colonizing the planet from Shenzhen to Santiago are the result of the same Monsanto brand of capitalism that kills diversity in the name of efficiency and profit. The problem with this model is that it is crisis-prone and offers a highly uneven quality of life.

Maybe it is time we start recognizing human agency as an active principle in urban growth. We must see beyond planning and engineering as ways of organizing habitats, and invent methods that involve users and residents and their dynamic acts. We must start seeing people as the building blocks of cities and open the planning process to them.

Unfortunately, even as the rhetoric of participation dominates the urban planning discourse from Tokyo to Toronto, and at a time when hundreds of thousands of communities of users interact in responsive networks and games, we seem unable to open up urban practices. Urban development still tends to be managed by technocratic planning agencies, which serve the interest of real estate speculators more than that of end-users.

There are a few concepts that we love to use, like the title of this article, precisely because they evoke an oxymoronic world were nature and city not only coexist but blend into each other. This vision is not one of LEED-compliant buildings with floral facades and smart cities surrounded by green belts that preserve “nature” out there. No, we do not need to preserve the city from nature or vice-versa. The two work best together.

Above all, the natural city is one where human nature can express itself. Where the act of making a home is as natural as plucking fruits from trees. It is a place where habitat develops continuously, in response to the changing needs and means of the people who live in them. And where objects, homes and places can be produced locally by mixing native skills with the most advanced technology available. Where the architect is also a builder and a resident. Where the users are the developers. And where rules follow forms rather than the other way around.

While this sounds like a utopia straight out of a Jehovah’s Witness brochure, it is in fact a reality that exists in rather complicated “slums” the world over, from Mumbai to Madrid. Destitute people have demonstrated what the dark side of this vision looks like. They live in homegrown neighbourhoods, built locally by resident contractors in vernacular fashion, using whatever resources they can access. They usually lack resources, but what they lack most is the right to improve their habitats on their own terms.

What policy-markers, planners and architects usually do when confronted by what looks like feral urbanization is to ghettoize or destroy it. Sometimes the authorities can’t cope with the magnitude of such growth, and let it be. Some enlightened souls praise the “informal city” – but this has become a catchall phrase as flabby as blobs in architecture. Others suggest “tactical” interventions, but as Neil Brunner observes these are not antidotes to “the vicissitudes, dislocations, and crisis-tendencies of neoliberal urbanism.”

What we need instead is a fundamental reshuffling of our conception of how a city grows. Growth must be redefined and reclaimed if what we want is a city that is diverse, fertile, creative, but also inclusive, beautiful and resilient. We may have to stop trying so hard to plan and control, and recognize the city’s inherent capacity to evolve.

The vital force at work in cities is not divine, but eminently human. We must trust users and give them the right and means to improve their habitats and shape it in small and big ways. Users should be empowered to meddle with the code of their urban environment and create new urban genomes – as they have always done. We should not allow real estate developers to monopolize the engineering of cities in ways that only benefit them. In this process, the users best ally could well be the architect, the urban planner and the policy-maker –if only they learned to observe the natural city before planning it, as Geddes already did a century back.


Photos: Banganga Tank, Mumbai

What’s Your Motility Rate ? – The B and T of Movement…

July 12, 2015

Maamaji Chai

Our office in Shivaji Nagar is treated to streams of chai through out the day – most days of the year. However – there are sudden droughts that punctuate this experience. This piece explains such momentary lapses and what they actually mean…

The academic field of mobility (with a ‘b’) has thrown up many concepts in the last couple of decades – out of which, that of ‘motility’ (with a ‘t’) is particularly intriguing. Coined by Vincent Kauffman in 2002, it refers to resources that enable people to move from one place to another. These include access to transport, income levels and skills needed to access necessary infrastructures of movement. However – and this is where ‘b’ becomes ‘t’ – the concept is crucially predicated on whether a person can actually activate an aspiration or choice to do either – remain sedentary or become mobile. The capacity to be mobile is a resource – a wealth in itself – Kauffman argues. And this is really tested through the ability to use it at will – the crucial something that distinguishes a highly motile person from one who is merely mobile.

What the concept of motility also does is caution us about the slippery quality of the word mobility – which can delude us into believing that increased physical mobility is attractive and desirable in itself. And it can somehow increase social mobility as well. There is a kind of accepted idea that people will move up the economic ladder as they start moving about more easily (bigger markets, more migration to lucrative areas etc.)

It is for this reason that governments can invest billions of dollars in infrastructure related to faster transport – on the faith that it will provide increased opportunities for socio-economic mobility as well. This accelerates into policies encouraging smart cities with fast mobility networks – so on and so forth…

It is on such an intersection of presumed social and physical mobility that the concept of motility is located – by sharply reminding us that the concept of mobility needs a qualification.

The capacity to be mobile needs to be infused by resources that enhance genuine choices – and that includes that of remaining sedentary and controlling how and when one chooses to move.

Anyone who has been forced to be a commuter, following clockwork rhythms of movement for the sake of livelihood – basically most of humanity today  -will immediately recognize this. People who can choose when to have a holiday, when to go to work or have the freedom to draft their own timetable are finally the ones with high motility.

So while it is important to celebrate and laud the latest advances in transport technology – especially if it overcomes one more barrier of speed and distance – it makes sense to locate ourselves within the motility index and check how much of that advance can be accessed by us or others.

Konkan railway, Mangalore by Ishan Tankha for URBZ/Mobile Lives Forum

Now – while the concept is a powerful one in terms of helping us differentiate between those who have the choices to travel and those who don’t – it is also important to locate those choices not just in terms of access and resources – but other more insidiously social factors.

This is where the question of accessing cheap modes of travel over great distances or possessing enough security to allow people to make choices to move or not at their convenience – whether they are rich or poor – becomes important. And it is at this point we can take the concept of motility out of resource rich Europe where it originated – and test it in a place like India. If motility is relatively high even in the context of India – then we know the concept needs to be paid greater attention to – and that it is alluding to other things besides simply material resources.

This can be understood better using an analogy from another field altogether – communication technology. While it is true that instantaneous communication collapses distances – it is also true that if social barriers continue to exist – people in the same room won’t be able to communicate with each other at all. If we just needed to be physically close to each other to communicate better – then we would not have breakdowns within families. Anthropologists typically like to point out that the biggest barriers to good communication are often not just technological or based on physical distance but social. Age, gender, ethnicity can act as huge barriers of their own.

It must be immediately said of course that technological advancements in communication are extraordinarily important and nothing can be more precious to modern life than the ability to reach out so quickly and over vast distances the way we do now. What the above observation does is point at something a bit more tangential but important nevertheless – that what modern technologies also facilitate is the break down of social barriers – wherever possible. Social media deliberately uses informal rhetoric – mimicking friendship (relatively more egalitarian) as opposed to kinship (hierarchical). Thus while it obviously collapses physical barriers in communication it is wildly powerful also because it also helps break down social distance as well – whether in terms of how we speak and relate to each other – or the style of language – and its accompanying irreverence, or how we all become empowered as journalists, reporters, film makers or how we relate to celebrities and have access to authority in a way we never did before.

Motility – in a com