Naming the ineffable city

May 10, 2015

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Khotachiwadi, Mumbai

The homegrown city is a global reality. Mumbai is predominantly homegrown. So is contemporary Berlin. Even seemingly well-planned and controlled cities such as New York and LA are internally shaped by their users. Tokyo too, of course, has a long history of unregulated local urban development.

The homegrown city cannot be defined against the planned city, simply because the planned city is itself a rare breed, which tends to be quickly overwhelmed by other forces from within and from outside. For the most part, cities have grown opportunistically, following the fortunes and misfortunes of history. Places that may once have been planned are later re-appropriated and reinvented by their users.

‘Homegrown’ refers to habitats that have been developed and adapted by people who live and work in them. They are homegrown because they have been generated locally –from within. This can happen in any context and within any pre-existing typology, including planned cities, high-rise buildings and historical quarters.

Homegrown development is irrepressible in booming cities, which grow faster than their administrators can manage. The phenomenon has reached an unprecedented scale in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. Half of the residents of Shenzhen live in overgrown ‘urban villages’ for instance. In Mumbai, Cairo, Istanbul or Nairobi the proportion of people who live in places that have been developed locally and incrementally is even higher.

The term homegrown city describes a process rather than a pattern or a typology. In that sense it is not quite the same as the “organic city”, which according to Kevin Lynch has “differentiated parts, but these parts are in close contact with each other and may not be sharply bounded…The whole organism is dynamic, but it is a homeostatic dynamism… So it is self-regulating. It is also self-organizing… Emotional feelings of wonder and affection accompany our observation of these entities.” (Lynch, 1981: 89)

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Hong Kong, backstreet.

The homegrown city is internally organized rather than ‘self-organizing’ and it is certainly not homeostatic – it is always mutating into something new.

No matter how hard planners and urban administrators try, the homegrown city can never be killed. Even the most controlled man-made environments can’t suppress the propensity of people to shape places and make it their own. In fact, the more we repress the homegrown city, the uglier it gets. Clear up a slum, pack up people in high-rise boxes and see the homegrown city come back in the form of cars being set on fire, garbage thrown out of the window, graffiti on the wall, tattoos on the body, spit in the face of whatever represents the authority.

Like blobs of spit, the homegrown is “informe”, to use George Bataille’s words. The homegrown city is ineffable and its form cannot be described. Therefore it has no (formal) right and recognition. It “gets crushed everywhere like a spider or an earth worm.” (Bataille, 1929: 382)

The homegrown city is everywhere yet it can’t be seen, until it emerges as a bigger than life hillside settlement or street festival. The reason it eludes definitions is that it is composed of a multiplicity of things that crisscross and get enmeshed creating new assemblages. It is like a wild sacred grove, left to grow on its own. Sometimes predatory weeds suffocate other species to colonize the grove. At other times, plants exulting an exotic beauty appear. The homegrown city has the aesthetic appeal of rawness. Which is pretty much what makes it possible to slide into its folds with comfort and ease. It is a quality and condition that is attached to the actions and lives of its residents and users who take what is there in their environment and make it more of their own. Rather than only rely on it to make planned and organized cities work, it is worth relying on its creativity in more fundamental ways – and see them as ingredients that are active from the start.

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Berlin, May 1st, 2015

Homegrown Slum Improvement

February 13, 2015

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Final touches for a flower bed on the first floor of a home in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai, challenging the norm – of a deliberately shabby look that most prefer, to avoid municipal attention.

There are some lanes in Govandi’s Shivaji Nagar, a neighbourhood in northeast Mumbai, where residents deliberately avoid making their house look good on the outside. Some local contractors even make an extra effort to ensure that recently done-up homes look old and shabby. This is mainly to avoid attention from local municipal authorities who work hard at maintaining the slum-like quality of Shivaji Nagar. The tension between the willingness of residents to invest in their homes and a hostile civic environment is a major cause for the perennial presence of slums everywhere in the city.

Shivaji Nagar stands on soggy ground that was once reclaimed from marsh. This is one of many things it shares with the more notorious ’slums of Dharavi’, only a few kilometres away. Other shared features include hyper-density, a dramatic lack of infrastructure and a population that has historically been discriminated against.

Whether they are poor Muslims or low-caste Hindus, most of them have to make do with some of the lowest quality of life levels in the city.

Residents of Shivaji Nagar are well aware that the gas fumes emanating from the nearby dumping ground – the largest in Mumbai – are not exactly salubrious. Large parts of the neighbourhood do not have running water, and most streets have open drains – all to be expected in places that have grown outside any planning and regulatory framework. However, Shivaji Nagar, now called a slum even by municipal officers, was originally a planned resettlement colony. It was created in the 1980s to house displaced slum dwellers from other parts of Mumbai.

How it became a slum is a story of prejudice, inadequate and inflexible regulations, institutional corruption, and lack of political vision.

The result is a neighbourhood that today develops without any support and against all odds. Residents push above and beyond the once well-gridded street network, palliating the poor infrastructure with makeshift systems that are both innovative and insufficient.

Yet, for a vast majority of residents, leaving is not an option.

Having a home in the pulsating economic capital of India means access to employment and education. Being in Shivaji Nagar is no sinecure, but what could be more precious than a better life in the making?
Yet, visitors expecting to see a slum populated by depressed souls begging for subsistence are quite surprised to see something else altogether. Far from the clichés of the villa miseria, Shivaji Nagar is – for the most part – an upbeat neighbourhood, where the sound of houses being repaired and rebuilt syncs with everyday life, and where street markets are as busy as suburban trains. In Shivaji Nagar, as in Dharavi, many houses double up as home-factories producing all kinds of goods ranging from embroidery to cosmetics. A web of local artisans takes orders from all over the city for iron grills, wood furniture or polystyrene models.

Nowhere is the enmeshing of livelihood with living spaces as obvious as in the construction sector. Squads of specialized masons, plumbers, bricklayers, concrete mixers, plasterers, and electricians serve the insatiable local demand for improvement. A 300-feet house would typically take just a little over a month to build with nearly 100 people working in a well-choreographed construction ritual. Most of these labourers live in the neighbourhood, which means that at least part of what they earn is spent back in the local economy.

Shivaji Nagar’s artisans of construction are experts at dealing with constraints that would make most architects balk: limited availability of space and resources, the shallowness of the ground and corrosive weather. Add to that an indifferent or antagonistic middle-class opinion. But the biggest hurdle of all for neighbourhood builders is the generally hostile bureaucratic and legal context in which they have to operate. For instance, antiquated regulations mean that building a second floor, reinforced walls or a toilet inside a house are illegal.

People’s basic aspirations for better living are monetized in the form of bribes, which represent millions of dollars of informal revenue for some unscrupulous officers. The problem, however, is not as much corruption per se as inadequate policy, which create a black market for construction permits, much in the same way fixed exchange rates create a black market for currency. The worst case scenario would be to address corruption without addressing its root cause.

While incremental improvement by capable local builders and perseverant residents is virtuous and deserving of support, it won’t be enough to realize the potential of Shivaji Nagar and other burgeoning, struggling neighbourhoods in Mumbai and elsewhere.

What Mumbai needs more than ever is an official strategy based on the recognition of the internal dynamism of spaces that have been marginalized and repressed for far too long, and a clear mandate for the government to provide infrastructure and amenities that they lack so badly.

It is also time for authorities to come up with new policies for slums, which would formally recognize the occupancy rights of residents of Shivaji Nagar and other ‘homegrown’ neighbourhoods, so they can at last build on solid ground.

For this to happen, the government must turn the page over several decades of failed slum rehabilitation policy and realize that the most radical and innovative path may be the one that residents have carved for themselves.

This article originally appeared on NDTV.com and can be accessed on their website here.

URBAN FUTURES: A Series of Possibilities

February 9, 2015

From the Future of Cities Exhibition

From the Future of Cities Exhibition

The 2010 Saturation City project imagined Melbourne in 40 years’ time, when sea levels have forced the city to concentrate into ‘superblocks’ rising above the water. Photograph: Bild Architecture/A Visual History of the Future

The future is a resource – it helps raise expectations, hopes and even capital. Creating anxieties about the future or dramatizing risks, rewards and calamities about what it has in store for us have been used by prophets, religious beliefs and other ideological systems for centuries to attract followers.

In this stage of globalized capitalism – the idea of the futuristic city – a particular kind of city – has entered into our sub-conscious to such an extent that people who help produce it – or evoke it in the present – can raise huge capital to translate its visions into reality.

Architectural visions depend on images that have emerged from a variety of thought processes – space age technology, post – industrial design, neo-medieval contemporary narratives to craft structures and through them whole cities, that feed all kinds of fantasies about the future.

They are embedded in larger narratives about the city at large. Cities of the future seem to be following the path of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies – being imagined in a particular way – and then having them translated tangibly.

This is a series of posts dedicated to several more possibilities that have not necessarily been tapped by city makers. Architectural visions tend to be caught in certain narratives and become the anchoring points for imagining cities as a whole. Urban visions and celebrations of certain kinds of architecture create a co-dependent world of design and contribute to expanding and limiting our ideas of what the future could be.

We kickstart this series by connecting with this piece from the Guardian that reviews the exhibition opening today in London.

Random Fragments from 2014

December 31, 2014

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Airoots was pretty inactive on the web this year but hyper-active off line. If this blog is our usual space for reflection, pontificating and processing, then all of it was happening – but somewhere else. We did a crazy amount of new things  that made our learning curve so steep that it was a challenge not to fall off..

URBZ.net showcases all the work done last year. Our show at MoMA in New York, the pilot house that we helped make in Shivaji Nagar, the several products and structures that our team designed were all animated by our imagination and interventions in different ways.

We present here one random image chosen for each month. They take you behind the scenes of all that we did – fragments of the many fluid processes that make up our world.

They will stimulate and inspire us to come back to the space of writing in 2015.

January was frenetic. Our team members were busy making designs for a Shiva temple in Shivaji nagar. (shown above) This interior vision of the lingam shaped shikhar is a calm image, balancing the frenzy that surrounded it.

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February saw us return to complete the proposal for a mosque we were working on, with local residents from Baiganwadi in Shivaji nagar. A model maker from the neighbourhood helped translate the paper image into a 3-D structure.

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March was our month for the Handstorm workshop. This rapidly produced graphic – made during the sessions by team members – was a crucial step towards completing the structure. It is now regularly used by kids in the neighbourhood.

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April saw this little image circulate in our office as we brainstormed on the best way to construct our terrace refuge, using EPS blocks. It needed to be dismantled and ready to re-use at short notice. Besides, it had to withstand heavy rains and winds. This challenge was responded to by this tiny seed image that grew into a full fledged office space a few months later…

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May sees a fair amount of  construction in Shivaji Nagar, where the race against time is mainly to get ahead of the impending monsoons. At the same time its not easy to get workers who need to leave for vacations around this time. The period became an opportunity for us to observe and learn.

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June saw a eureka moment when our team figured out how to cut through EPS and carve the blocks into exact shapes and dimensions.  About time, since the office had to be constructed pretty quickly as the rains could come any minute. These little trial figurines gave us confidence that the main cuts would be a cake walk.

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July saw the monsoons bless the city, and thats when our pilot house construction started. Thats also when we came out with the idea of the We-beam – as opposed to the I – beam. It more accurately represents the co-sharing and intricate collaboration that makes inter-dependent structures the norm here!

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August was the month of heavy on-going construction, deep discussions with structural engineers and architects. This is an image from a drawing that experiments with columns and their optimum placement.

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September saw the terrace office get heavily used. This sign, cut in the neighbourhood was a small triumph.

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In October the office turned into a movie studio where the shooting, editing and scripting for the video loop – that documented the construction of our pilot house – got into a heightened groove. This little camera was our main tool.

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In November we found this little horseshoe in the office. It used to hang on the door of the structure that was replaced by the new pilot house. We plan to keep it as a memento of 2014!

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For December we chose this image for a special reason. It was taken as part of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in BDD chawls in April 2014. December 6th is also an important date for Ambedkarites, the followers of this intellectual and political giant who transformed the lives of millions in this country. It was great to see his alma mater commemorated as part of his celebrations in BDD chawls Worli. His image props up everywhere in Homegrown neighbourhoods and continues to inspire us. We would like to remember him through this special image as we step into 2015.

Happy New Year!

Weaving an Urban Fabric

March 28, 2014

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Homegrown Settlements and New Metaphors for Urban Practitioners

Rebecca Houze in her essay ‘The Textile as Structural Framework: Gottfried Semper’s Bekleidungsprinzip and the case of Vienna 1900” (2006) analyses how significantly Europe’s rich traditions of textile design interwove itself into architectural practices.

Semper was one of the few architects who engaged with the dimension of architecture that was connected to weaving and the textile industry.  She explains: “The concept of cloth as a symbolic building material is contained in Semper’s enormous, unfinished compendium, ‘Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics’ (2004 [1870-73]). The first and longest volume of this text is devoted to a detailed analysis of the textile arts. Architecture, according to Semper, originated in the primordial need to demarcate interior and exterior spaces with dividers–fencing made of branches, for example, or hanging tapestries of woven grasses. Some of the earliest built structures were temporary tents of real cloth stretched over scaffoldings, often festively decorated with garlands, ribbons, and other kinds of soft ornament that today we might characterize as “fiber art” (Semper 2004 [1870-3]; Wilson 1995: 42-8).

While the use of new materials was absorbed into modern construction practices, what characterized Europe’s dominance in the world of architecture and design was building on its rich traditions of textile related creativity.

Anybody familiar with Indian history will immediately be compelled to make comparisons. And recognize the wide gap that existed and exists between artisanal practices and the development of institutional knowledge linked to contemporary design related professions.

While the great architectural schools, and specialized institutions dedicated to design have paid academic attention to the enormous resource embodied in India’s artisanal traditions, especially textiles, a translation into practice has not always been as successful.

What is particularly relevant to us about Semper’s observation about architecture is that he sees textiles as integral to its evolution, along with the world of masonry, ironwork and carpentry.  European architectural practice seemed to have built on technological innovation of physical materials along with integrating design processes of textiles into it. They evolved masonry, ironwork and carpentry, making technological breakthroughs while also letting loose imaginations from the world of textile design to produce an aesthetic – either through restraint or elaboration – that continues to dominate architectural practice globally.

For many artisanal traditions (including textiles) outside the European experience the path of change was much more complicated. One reason could be in the structures that energized artisanal traditions in Europe – which were based on apprenticeship and a model of skill learning quite different from India. In India artisanal practices were enmeshed with the logic of caste and were responsible for a high level of productivity in terms of quality and scale – but were simultaneously anchored to values quite incompatible with modern impulses.

In contemporary times, to extract aesthetic and design skills while filtering away social bonds that sustain them, became enormously challenging to say the least.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts made in that direction. Government initiatives to preserve artisanal traditions were reasonably funded and their attempts to be integrated into contemporary economic exchanges were partially successful – but the difficulty in reconciling caste based modes of organization with them remained difficult.

How do you preserve traditional modes that are encoded into social structures for their talent and skill and yet demand radical changes in those structures for the sake of modern social objectives?

This contrarian challenge lies at the heart of many urban realities in India and confound visitors. Its poorest neighbourhoods inevitably have some of the most formidable talent and skill in fields as diverse as embroidery, leather work, intricate wood-carving, stone sculpting and others. It is not uncommon to see exquisite craftsmanship embedded in simple designs up for sale in grubby shops on polluted streets. Dharavi, Mumbai’s most well-known settlement that has the distinction of being referred to as a slum, is also considered to be the most productive space in the city. Traditional skills of ironwork, textiles and pottery constantly adapt, like these skills have always done, to contemporary economic needs. In Dharavi, its not just old leather work, that are sold in shops in India and abroad, but manual skills that have adapted to new needs of technologies connected to computers, mobile phones and automobiles also thrive. Not being able to deal with the social and economic knots into which these highly prized skills are tied, has made India pay a huge price, evident in its poor social and economic indicators and under-serviced urban neighbourhoods.

Another example of this state of affairs has been the inability to build on design traditions that were enmeshed in India’s textile related artisanal histories and weave them creatively into a contemporary sensibility of building and architecture. While Indian talent tied down directly to those traditions seem to have made some sort of mark in the field of fashion design, architectural practice in India does not seem to have  built as seriously on those traditions.

What it did manage to do is align itself more with traditional building practices as a source of ideas and creativity. There is a body of work based on older spatial and structural principles and a spirited defence of indigenous styled in response to  ‘western norms’.

The most recognized and renowned architectural practice in India today – is typically embodied in the hugely successful work of an architect like Bijoy Jain, who has developed a practice connected deeply to local artisans. He involves carpentry, iron smith and stone work into his studio that works like a collective crafts workshop. His strength has been recognising these processes and developing an elegant framework around them. His emerging aesthetic often reminds one of Japan, which constitutes a story of similar encounters with crafts and architectural practices.

However, Jain’s work is so authentically embedded in traditional arrangements that they echo some of the problems connected to the socio-economic knots we refer to above. Just as artisanship could not quite escape royal patronage in the past – in fact it thrived on it – India’s peculiar caste story traps Jain’s practice in much the same way. His dependence on rich clients does not allow genuine experimentations in aesthetic terms as well as to explore new markets.

It may well happen that in the coming years, more innovative young architects from India try to consciously evoke the Semper moment by building on design elements from textiles and interweave them into contemporary building materials and practices by combining them creatively with Jain’s processes.

One such Mumbai-based architect, already exploring these themes, and someone we work with closely, is Sameep Padora. Coming from a family historically involved with carpet weaving, originally from Kashmir, he builds on textures of textiles and combines them skilfully into structural principles using parametrics modeling, to come out with flexible and sound designs that move through all kinds of contexts. His works exist in luxurious shopping malls but also slide easily into Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, a re-settlement colony in north-west Mumbai, where he worked with us to experiment with light construction material to create a roof-top office. He exhibited artefacts that residents could use in their homes as well. What we find particularly striking about Padora’s approach is his ability to be adventurous with material, weave in the flexibility of light and heavy moments, derive an aesthetic from all kinds of sources including textiles and carpet weaving, and work with artisanal skills in the way we find most productive – well adapted to contemporary and even futuristic technological and economic needs.

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We realise that building on tradition is never easy. Moments from the past can never be revoked or recreated – least of all through simply ideating change.

The European relationship to construction, artisanal histories and textiles produced an equation that still sustains its sense of supreme confidence in the world of design that no amount of mimicking will ever recreate for another set of practices from another history.

What may be more productive is to look firmly at the present – at the existing realities that confront us and – if we want to be inspired by Semper at all – translate his moment more delicately into the present.

What we would like to draw on from him is the observation that building traditions emerging from textile and its rich allied practices – like weaving – are as valid as the ‘hard’ world of stone, masonry, ironsmith and carpentry – as architectural practice itself.

Besides this – what we would also like to pay attention to is the other element of skill formation that our world today is networked into – information and knowledge – and see how these come together to produce a new language of architectural and urban practice.  We see specific processes of thought and practice as having becoming enmeshed to produce new ways of understanding architecture.

Thus a specific building as a starting point – its spatial logic, its dimensions and its aesthetic touch is created through negotiating several anxieties about the role of the mason, the architect and the engineer.  Similarly, when a neighbourhood in a city is the site of operation, the anxieties get enmeshed differently, with the architect and engineer working together and evoking the citizens in a specific way.

In the European tradition the architect, at some historical point, became the master of practices involved with building – in terms of an appointed role. Someone who worked with engineers, masons, carpenters, artists and provided his signature to the work produced. Typically his structure was usually commissioned by the Church, royalty or an aristocrat.

Yet, there remained a world of building outside his appointed role, a world that did not require his signature. This world – for a long time remained closer to Semper’s primitive building spaces in which the metaphors in use were closer to textiles than masonry. Homes made of reeds, cloth and the use of mud as flexible material dominated simpler societies, peasants, slaves and tribal communities. Where the arch builder – the master was not needed. It must be said though that some more technologically advanced societies like China and Japan also used woodwork and paper to produce very sophisticated building traditions that used weaving as a principle rather than masonry – to produce exquisite structures.

This space of weaving homes also produced a rich source of imagery to think about places. Textiles as metaphor related to construction and design is not something that must be reduced to materials and its direct uses whatsoever.  In fact that has been the biggest problem when contemporary societies try to work with the idea of traditional artisanship. Historians point out that all kinds of productive work has been in a constant state of change and transformation and to look at the past in terms of specific material use and skill sets as if they never adapted to markets and changing contexts would be myopic.

For us the richest interpretation we could possibly make of Semper’s observations is to think through new metaphors derived from architecture and textiles. And one very powerful metaphor is that of the Urban Fabric.  In an earlier piece in this blog – we spoke about the Aesthetic of Habitats while reflecting on the idea of aesthetics in urban spaces as a whole – navigating the world of architecture and design and trying to value the gaze that looks at neighbourhoods and cities.

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By re-visiting Semper we would like to argue that the patterns and elements of collective construction – as seen in the world of homegrown settlements is something that needs to be valued deeply – both as a practice and as an aesthetic. The idea of an urban fabric is a powerful one. It at once values the role of several weavers – home makers – tied to a logic of relations that produce patterns while being constructed. This represents a completely valid form of urban life that exists all around the world. Constantly improving favelas in Brazil, uncertain occupied spaces in Kenya, highly productive, skilled but marginal settlements in Mumbai, and incrementally grown neighbourhoods in Tokyo have started being recognized as having an aesthetic of their own.

Unfortunately, the reason most people see them as illegitimate spaces is not so much linked to their occupancy rights, poor quality, or misplaced and anachronistic exoticness (as in the case of Tokyo ) but as Ivan Illich would have reminded us – because they are produced in ways we consider illegitimate.

They are made through a collective intelligence, through processes that weave entire neighbourhoods with actors working in dedicated ways – without the master-builder providing a signature. Homes are woven into neighbourhoods through processes that produce their own patterns – which – through a historical gaze – have an aesthetic. But seen without imagination are considered to be without any whatsoever.

Our work in Mumbai’s homegrown settlements, provide us with new learning experiences everyday. And several more questions. What exactly is the role of an architect within such a densely and intricately woven fabric of networked homes? – is just one among them. We get some glimpses of answers in the small moves we make – project by project. A co-designed temple, a mosque, a tiny house – each of them a cacophony of intense dialogues and debates, but collectively being embraced into a landscape that seems to be emerging with its own pattern, its own style. We look forward to see what the future holds for us, as we take these small steps, we wonder what the pattern in the fabric will look like…

(These reflections were stimulated by discussions with Yehuda Safran who introduced us to Semper and Sarover Zaidi, who shared Rebecca Houze’s essay, during the Handstorm workshop organized in Shivaji Nagar Govandi – March 14-20th 2014. Photos by Tobias Baitsch)

Architectural Practice for the Living Present

February 10, 2014


Aditya Vipparti of URBZ showing different options to Sunni Chishtiya mosque committee members in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi (Mumbai). (More photos here).

Professional practices change and adapt to the times. Some take longer to respond to new challenges while others are adept at being dynamic. A few, like architectural practice and urban planning, tend to evolve in a more ambivalent way. They are preserved and legitimized by the transmission of technical knowledge, but also aspire to be creative and visionary in bolder ways than, say, law. It is not uncommon to find well-known architectural names or urban leaders prominent in public debates on urban spaces. Their pronouncements about the world tend to be taken seriously. Their visions have the potential to shape choices people make.

Yet, the economic and institutional logic that frames such practices, weigh down the inherent creativity that exists within. Architects often complain about the world being limited by narrow choices. Their projects can be constrained by political cycles or economic downturns. Sometimes it is the local circumstances that seem hostile or too messy. Or it is their client’s taste that is the cause, affected as it is, by popular culture or an apparently irrational faith in old-fashioned ways of building.

Architectural studios, offices and publications are often full of futuristic and visionary images about the way the world and its constituent buildings should look like. These speculative designs seem to be floating in space, free from the constraints of the lived world. That these designs tend to rehearse clichéd notions of the future that have all been seen already in B-grade science fiction is not what we are most concerned about. What is more preoccupying is that even talented architects, who have the ability of imbuing meaning and possibly even beauty to their work, often get frustrated when it comes to inserting their vision into a piece of urban reality. Their exigencies then become about reproducing the impossible condition of the blank Autocad document into the lived world: No financial limitation, clean square plots, obedient and invisible workers, and ideally no client – or a rich client that keeps quiet.

Unfortunately, these conditions are not available, especially in the world of the proverbial “99%”. The environment of choice for many architects who want a faithful rendition of their visions thus include galleries, biennials and classrooms, which keep the messiness of everyday life at bay. The same architects land up in teaching positions, inculcating generations of students with a certain scorn for the world that they are supposed to contribute building.

The mismatch between the world out there and the way architects are trained has produced the most bizarre amount of speculative drawings that have no connection whatsoever with anything alive. For the most part, architectural education assumes that the tabula rasa is an available condition. But when can we ever start anything from scratch? Every place has a pre-existing ecology and history, as well as on-going social dynamics. These conditions define any built space, whether we want it or not. Tabula rasa is the primmest of all architectural utopias.

The desire to reproduce the condition of the white page, where supposedly the creative input of the architect is unconstrained, has lead to the cult of starchitects, who seem to be the only ones in this world who have enough aura to impose their grand design visions. On a closer look however, even a Koolhaas or a Gerry are constrained by power structures above them. Their agency is always tempered, in ways that would hurt the vision of idealists. This is why most starchitects cannot afford to be purists in action. They are well aware of the trade off between getting grand commissions and being free to express their individual agency. What comes out as frustration for the greater number of architects, becomes cynicism for those at the top of the professional hierarchy.

Yet, there are a variety of entry points available to anyone willing to engage with the exigencies of the living world. We want to examine what could the architect in particular do to respond to these challenges.


Model for the Ahle Sunat mosque in Baiganwadi, designed in collaboration with Torino architects Studio Marc. The model maker, Sanjay Sonawane is an artist and sculptor in Shivaji Nagar, here with Shardul Patil of URBZ. (More photos here).

It has become very common to see students of architecture take their learning from the university into the world – only to find that it doesn’t quite match. Living contexts are dynamic and multi-dimensional in ways that routinized learning just does not prepare them for, while their own individual personalities and choices create other uncertainties.

It can be argued that the full potential and genuine possibilities are not presented to them so the paths laid out to them appear limited. For example, in a highly competitive professional world, aspiring architects often find that work is scarce. And yet – the amount of construction going on around the world is enormous.

The thing is, a lot of it is taking place outside the radar of known professional choices. Millions of people build their own homes with the help of local construction workers without the help of architects, simply because the conventions of construction, their occupancy status, the political location of these settlements is not one that most architects are willing to negotiate.

It is also true that students of architecture and other urban practitioners can be found in favelas of Latin America, and settlements of Africa and Asia in fairly significant numbers. But rather than only channelizing their surplus energy of goodwill – like barefoot architects – what would go a longer way is a little re-arrangement of professional practices.

Work environments in this day and age are located in the interstices of many new configurations and fault lines. The virtual, spatial and temporal collapse of experience has become part of everyday reality.

A small contractor working in a homegrown settlement in Mumbai has access to the Internet, some robust local finance and the needed political support to start a project. An office in far away Torino can connect with him to produce a conversation that in the near future can become a wholesale professional arrangement. A pedreiro from Sao Paulo may want to make a visit to India and compare construction techniques. Researchers working on new material technologies in Boston can experiment with live applications where it matters most. A practicing architect from anywhere can mediate all such conversations.


Contractor Ataide Caetite in Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo, where he is building his own home with the help of the local URBZ team. (More photos here).

Of course – for this to become a reality, an emergence of a new kind of politics is also important. The role that architects can play even in this regard is very significant. Politics is imbued with idealism and idealism needs visions which architects of today are specially trained to provide. The only reason they have not stepped into that space with more confidence is because they are constrained by professional considerations and economic concerns. Even while millions of residents around the world keep doing what the known professional world also does – finance and build homes.

The tools for reaching out to this world are already there. Why not shape and sculpt an architectural practice specifically for the living world and living subjects?

Maybe the only reason not many are jumping onto this bandwagon is because of a paucity of visualizing the future for such a world. For some reason, the present in architectural practice is intertwined with visions of the future and there seems to be no appealing horizon for the world that these millions are aspiring for. That’s why the voices and exuberant energy seem to be easily and abruptly dissipated on Youtube videos after every surge of protest.

And yet – if you google images of an architecture of the future – and examine what you get, you will discover a mirror set of images from the results of a similar search for medieval architecture. Either way, you get images as disconnected from the living present as you can possibly imagine.

Maybe this is where architectural practice as we know it today is trapped in. A timeless zone, firewalled from the living present, which is a reality for hundreds of million people around the world. To escape such a predicament, all one has to do is what most of us so easily do in this day and age. Get connected.

Yet, connecting to the lived world is not as easy as it sounds, especially for those in the architectural professions that have taken comfort in their labs and studios. Connection means the establishing of a relationship that has the potential of destabilizing certitude and comfort zones. This is because, the feedback one gets from the field, from people, is less polite than a Facebook poke and more real than a symposium. The kind of connected practice we think about is based on the realization that knowledge flows in more than one way; that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence to be gathered in worlds that were once only thought of as too distant, hopeless or backward.

For the architectural practitioner, this necessarily implies another relationship to his own creative agency. It is not about imposing one order onto another, or bringing more rationality into an existing local practice of construction. The authority of the architect as an expert in design, material and structure can only be played out when it is connected with the knowledge of other actors who are rooted in their imminent reality. What happens otherwise is mutual dismissal. The context and the actors reject architectural design as being incompatible with their reality. The architect rejects the context as one that doesn’t have the channels in place that allow him to express his professional expertise. This is a loss both ways.

Why should architectural practitioners have to reproduce the same inflexibility and directive approach as some of their own patrons, only to find themselves being frustrated by the fact that unlike those powerful players, they don’t have the means of imposing their vision onto a defiant world?

So what would “live architecture” be like? What does it mean to practice an architecture that doesn’t require a contextual vacuum to express itself? One that acknowledges the depth of any departure point, and the nonlinearity of the process?

This would not be a utopian architecture. It would rather be something between pragmatism, boldness, optimism and playfulness, emerging from whatever exists while drawing inspiration from it. Even if it aims at totally subverting all that’s there, the living present still provides its starting and ending points.


URBZ teamsters Giacomo Ardesio, Shardul Patil, and Bharat Gangurde on the site of a Shiva Temple in Shivaji Nagar (Govandi) with shuttering contractors. (More photos here).

Connected to the context would mean more than using the physical reality as a backdrop for clever designs. The context, however fucked up, (or fuckable as some repeatedly like to say) is ultimately the most creative and challenging of social, economic and psychological canvases. Avoiding a messy collaboration with what is in there is a cop-out and can only produce more outdated and anachronistic architecture that hides behind easy labels.

The biggest threat for an established architect, when engaging with such a live architectural process is that one can never be sure of the outcome. If the outcome is a built object, then one has to accept that the way it ends up looking may not quite be what the architect initially had in mind. Some of his ideas may be reinterpreted along the way to become something else altogether. This means that the agency of the architect should no longer be limited to producing a design that must be executed precisely. And the agency of others can play with that of the architect. All this must not be suffered through. Rather, they must be acknowledged as objective and subjective forces that one must use to compose with. The respect and non-hierarchical relationship that such a process promotes are ethical, aesthetic and pragmatic at once. They are based on the recognition that mere imposition of a design is neither desirable nor possible.

Is all this possible or desirable? Only experiments will tell. The biggest challenge in this process seems to be to connect worlds that have taken comfort in ignoring each other for so long. It may be a bumpy ride, but one full of the kind of thrill that even Autocad can’t provide!

Elusive periphery

January 3, 2014

periphery
The village of Paspoli, behind the Renaissance Hotel in Powai, Mumbai’s North-Western suburbs.

Urbanists and architects love to produce archetypes, physically as well as conceptually. These often reduce messy, complex realities into one simple image. For instance, Cedric Price has playfully described the medieval city as a boiled egg with a neat internal hierarchy and a hard shell delineating the inside from the outside. In his world view, the modern city is a fried egg, with a clear defining core and a sprawling, unruly periphery. The postmodern city becomes a scrambled egg, where everything gets mixed up. The core explodes into darker chunks of a yellowish spread. The scrambled egg city defies dualistic notion of a core and a periphery. These are lost in a blur of movement and information that connects everything indiscriminately.

Price’s scrambled egg city is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘informe’ (sometimes unsatisfactorily translated as “formlessness” or worse “informal”). The informe challenges the academic compulsion to label, categorize and organize the world. Price’s postmodern city resembles nothing. It is informe, like a “spider or a spit” to use Bataille’s words (1929-1930: 382).

It is temping to describe Mumbai as a scrambled egg, a spider or perhaps even… as a bit of spit.

The analogical power of the spider and its web has of course been fully explored with the advent of the World Wide Web, the self-developing network of which has been researched and represented ad nauseam. Indeed, of the most appealing features of the Web is the absence of central control. Governments can, as we know now, hack into databases and censure some of the new information that pop up. But they can’t foresee its evolution, fully muzzle it or shut it down.

Content on the Web is user-generated, just as Mumbai’s neighbourhoods – which are being reshaped by both an absurd, ‘surreal’ estate market responsible for its vertical makeover, and by the efforts of millions of “slum-dwellers” who rebuild and improve their tiny homes day after day.

But perhaps, the humble spit is a better analogy for Mumbai. The city to some is a disgusting, incomprehensible thing. Polluted to the point of being frankly toxic, arteriosclerosed by traffic jams, overcrowded and overbuilt, corrupt and rotten, dirt poor and filthy rich at once, unbearably hot and humid most of the year and drenched and muddy the rest of the time.

Our love for the city is a perverse one for sure – we love its apparent chaos, which constantly stimulates our imagination. And for us the question is not “how does it work?” as much as “what potential does it have?”.

Mumbai’s appeal is not to be found in its glorious colonial past, or in its shining, bubbling and speculative present. Attempts at containing its growth (by encouraging rural self-sufficiency as in the post-colonial Gandhian development strategies for India), at decongesting its crowded dwellings and roads (by creating a twin city – New Mumbai), at transforming it into a “world-class city (by razing its slums and replacing them with high-rise housing projects) have all miserably failed.

Mumbai defies urban planning like few other cities do. The city’s strategic “development plan” is notoriously flawed. It has “characterized by non implementation” and as “a ground for denying basic services to the slum” (Bhide 2011: 79-81). The fact that over 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in “slum areas” characterized by poor public services and infrastructure, only attests to the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to “plan” or simply to manage the city’s growth.

Paradoxically, the absence of central control and the powerlessness of its planners have perhaps turned Mumbai into one of the most sophisticated urban systems in the world! One that doesn’t get organized from the center out, but follows a totally different logic altogether. At some level this statement appears to be pure provocation. Most people can only think of Mumbai at best as a dysfunctional system and at worst as a total urban failure.

However, once we start reconceptualizing Mumbai’s urban organization and look at what makes it function, in spite of all odds, we can’t help but being amazed at the way end-users of the city have negotiated and driven its development. If we look beyond center/periphery relationships, what we see is that the city is made of countless little nodes each with their own power structures, networks, and geographies.

Mumbai’s millions of nodes are like tiny bubbles on a large informe blob of spit, each of which are accidents of history – struggling to create their own space and to contain their implosion.

Another way of putting it is that it is a question of scale. At the macro level, Mumbai is a 20 million people strong urban agglomeration, where the center and the periphery seem to have disappeared in an enigmatic blur. The historical colonial center built by the British throughout the eighteenth century on the Southern most island of the Mumbai estuary (long before the many islands that compose the city where connected and before Bombay was renamed Mumbai), is now an old city. While the old center retains most public institutions and some important bazaars, businesses and corporate houses have moved to areas that used to be suburban but which are now central in the agglomeration. It is not that the center has shifted as much as that it has exploded into various locations.

At the micro level we find relationships of dependency reproduced all over the city. The most archetypical relationship being that of the upper-class high-rise building served by the slum next door. These relationships, usually rooted in old caste histories, remind us – as Umberto Eco puts it – that our civilization has never quite left the Middle Ages. The cathedral and the bazaar, the castle and the village, the master and the servant are binaries that keep flashing before our contemporary eyes as we navigate Mumbai.

Relationships of social and economic domination and subordination are central to critical representations of cities since Walter Benjamin –to the point of becoming another archetype. They are expressed in contemporary urban terms as the binaries of the center and the periphery, the high-rise and the slum, the formal and the informal. These have become so dominant in representation of the city that it any attempts at describing the city outside this framework is seen as heretic. Yet, we find it essential to overcome these binaries.

The full text is available in the publication of the Moscow Urban Forum on Urban Peripheries.

Mumbai’s Boom and Bust

July 12, 2013

mhadahousinggovandi
Rehab housing in Govandi, Mumbai.

Op-Ed published in the New York Times on Friday July 12, 2013.

A recent wave of building collapses has brought attention to this city’s large number of poorly built structures. It feels as if every week brings fresh reports of a new disaster. The death toll is expected to rise with the monsoons.

News media and political attention have mostly focused on the vast stock of old buildings from the pre-independence period and immediately after. Yet old age wasn’t the cause of the collapse of a building in Thane, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, that killed around 74 people in April. That building was still under construction. (And, like a majority of buildings in Thane, the construction was illegal — neither authorized nor overseen by any official agency.) Old age cannot explain the caving in of a 34-year-old building that killed at least 10 people near here last month either, nor the collapse of a building, about a decade old, that killed at least six people and injured more than two dozen last week.

Intangible factors, like faulty urban policies and unchecked real-estate speculation, bear the prime responsibility.

Most of the recent casualties have taken place in the far periphery of Mumbai, where one finds a sprawling landscape of hastily built residential blocks meant to absorb white-collar middle-class Mumbaikars who struggle to find anything even remotely affordable in the city. Many of them commute for hours daily in trains so packed that people routinely fall out — collateral damage of the speculative euphoria.

A bombastic real estate sector has simultaneously pushed up the price and heights of buildings, accelerated the speed of construction and lowered the quality of new structures in and around Mumbai. Many properties are conceived primarily as assets, to be bought and sold to investors. Owners often prefer empty flats because they can be traded more easily. This partly explains why, according to a government census in 2011, nearly half a million houses and flats are vacant in one of the most crowded metropolitan areas on earth.

Officially, the promotion of a vertical skyline has been justified on the grounds that high-rise structures are the only possible response to Mumbai’s huge population and land shortage. Dozens of skyscrapers, 300 feet high or higher, are under construction in Mumbai. Investors are planning to build, at around 2,300 feet, the world’s second tallest structure.

But the argument for verticalization has long been rejected by architects and city planners. Every vertical push also requires a horizontal spread — new high-rise inhabitants need access roads, open space and other services. Besides, the higher you build, the more expensive the construction and maintenance. High-rise structures are also outside the budget of India’s low-income groups, which explains why, in the last decade, south Mumbai has seen both more high-rise buildings and a declining population.

Following the same faulty logic, the authorities are promoting the transformation of slums, which can be found in all parts of the city and where over 60 percent of the population is said to be living. Since the 1990s, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority has offered to let investors raze slums and redevelop the land, so long as they devote part of the site to new housing for the displaced residents.

Inevitably, that housing is squeezed into high-rises, in order to leave as much land open for development as possible. These structures are often shoddily built disasters. Maintenance is expensive, and rust, leaking roofs and cracked walls are common after only a few years. In addition, the buildings are not amenable to the kind of home-based economic activities and street retailing that characterized the old neighborhoods. Eventually, many sell and move out to a slum.

What the government calls “slums” have infinitely more potential to become functional neighborhoods than the hurried development that replaces them. They are habitats where extreme population density is made bearable by pedestrian streets that come alive during bazaars and community festivals, and where children can play under the watchful eye of socializing neighbors.

The problems faced by these neighborhoods, like inadequate water and sewage systems, are serious, but they do not justify wholesale redevelopment. Updating the infrastructure of dense urban environments is not rocket science. It was done successfully in Tokyo and parts of Mumbai in the 1980s, and is being done in many South American cities today.

Moreover, we found that the quality of construction is often much better in these neighborhoods than in other parts of the city. In most cases, local masons build the houses. To get contracts, they rely on their good reputation among their neighbors. This is unlike large developers, who are usually nowhere to be found after a building is sold, let alone if it collapses.

As civic authorities try to stop these tragic building collapses, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the vernacular neighborhoods that they now see only as raw material for redevelopment. And big developers could learn from the work ethic and craftsmanship of local builders. The city will not solve its overcrowding problems by promoting buildings that could become lethal liabilities in the near future.

A Soft Approach to Slum Rehabilitation

June 25, 2013

Bhandup is densely populated ward in Mumbai, with about half a million residents — 85% of which are said to be living in slums.

James F.C. Turner, a British-born architect who worked in Lima in the 1960s, spent much of his professional life looking at the way people provided for their own housing needs using their know-how and locally available resources. He wanted to find out how planners and architects could support those processes, rather than impose their own technocratic and context-insensitive “solutions” from the outside.

On one level he was tremendously successful and influential. His ideas led to innovative housing development schemes in many parts of the world, including in Mumbai where, in the mid 1980s, the World Bank financed “sites and services” and slum upgrading schemes directly inspired by Turner. Over 10 years, tens of thousands of people benefited from policies that encouraged them to build their own dwellings on land provided by and equipped with basic infrastructure by the state. Others were encouraged to form cooperative societies that would be given leases to the land they occupied, at once converting their status without simply “giving away” the land or privatizing it.

Community ties are particularly strong in parts of Bhandup. Many residents come from coastal Maharashtra. The presence of wells as well as the architectural typology of the area attest of the the enduring presence of village ethos in homegrown neighborhoods, even at the heart of Mumbai’s 20 million-strong urban agglomeration.

Unfortunately for Mumbai, these schemes were scrapped in the mid 1990s as the real estate sector reached surreal heights and kept rising throughout the 2000s. (It continues to boom to this day). Public land became too valuable to let the poor occupy it. At the same time, officials refused to regularize the situation of its slum-dwellers, routinely referring to them as squatters and thieves despite the fact that the land they’d reclaimed was often formerly uninhabitable. Thus, Mumbai and the World Bank turned away from the progressive policies of the 1970s and ’80s in favor of “public-private” schemes that incentivize top-down redevelopment projects like the ones Turner fought against his whole life.

Today, Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is the authorities’ chief response to the challenge of improving the living conditions of slum-dwellers. It encourages private developers to clear areas classified as slums by the municipality and build high-rise housing blocks in which each family receives a free 225-square-foot unit. In exchange, the developer gets valuable “transferable building rights” on public land. This has led to the most toxic kind of developer-government nexus. A government report on the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme described it as “nothing but a fraud, designed to enrich Mumbai’s powerful construction lobby by robbing both public assets and the urban poor.”

Moreover, the quality of housing produced through the scheme has been widely described as appalling, the new buildings quickly becoming less livable than the slums they replace. Many original “beneficiaries” of the scheme have moved back to slums and sold their free flats to middle-class families who simply cannot find anything else in their budget. After decades of failed policies, the official slum population keeps rising. Today, 62 percent of Mumbaikars live in slums, according to the latest census.

We at URBZ have been actively involved in different neighborhoods of Mumbai – some of them classified by the authorities as “slum areas” – for the past six to seven years. Our office is based in Dharavi, a neighborhood that more than anything else struggles with its reputation as an immense “slum.” Along with many others, we have described how reducing this diverse and dynamic part of the city, where anywhere between 500,000 and a million people live, to a “slum” is the biggest disservice we can do to it. Dharavi and many other slum-classified areas in Mumbai have grown over the years, from small villages into densely populated urban neighborhoods. Their history and identity is marked by the influx of low-income, low-caste migrants from all parts of India over the past six or seven decades.

Many of these neighborhoods have improved incrementally over the years to become self-confident lower-middle-class areas. From the point of view of the new migrant, or that of the suburban slum-dweller, parts of Dharavi are aspirational. It is, after all, a centrally located, superbly connected business hub with seven municipal schools and dozens of private or NGO-run educational institutions. It has decent medical facilities and countless shrines and temples tailored to its fantastically diverse population. Over the years people have replaced their shacks with brick and concrete houses, which often double as retail or production spaces. Yet, like many other areas of Mumbai it remains under-serviced by the municipality. Excess garbage piles up, community toilets are overcrowded, and storm drains often double as a sewage system. These are some of the torments that residents of Dharavi cannot solve alone, without the active support of the authorities.

Like Dharavi, many other settlements have matured into neighborhoods that have more to lose from the rehabilitation schemes and redevelopment projects than they could ever hope to gain from them. These schemes are still at degree-zero of urban, architectural, social and economic development thinking. Extraordinarily, they are of exactly the same nature as the centrally administrated “massive housing schemes” and “high-rise buildings” of the ’60s and ’70s that Turner denounced. Isn’t it a rather unsettling thought that after all these years of trying different models and approaches, often at the expense of concerned populations, we are back to square one? The only difference is that now, instead of leading the process itself, the government seems content to simply provide a policy framework and let real estate developers and speculators do the job. Back to the 1960s – but minus accountability, and with infinitely more economic and technical means to do better.

Thanks in part to the protection granted by elected ward representatives, which have shielded them from the worst abuses of the public bureaucracy, many parts of Mumbai have developed fairly autonomously in spite of the hostile policies. Residents of slum-notified areas are certainly suffering from the government’s biases against them, including heavy restrictions on local construction practices. Yet the scale and complexity of the matter mean that the legal framework is only loosely enforced, if at all – as is the case in most cities around the world (U.S. cities included). Many construction-related decisions in Mumbai are – by default, not by design – determined at the local level, instead of being determined by government or developers.

Like Turner, we believe that decision-making and initiatives on housing-related issues are better dealt with at the local level. In what we call “homegrown neighborhoods,” users and construction workers are often neighbors. This proximity does something that is seldom acknowledged: It increases the agency of the end-user, and along with it, her sense of identity and attachment to the place where she lives. It also keeps precious resources within the area, distributing jobs and salaries locally. Finally, it reduces the cost and increases the quality of housing. This is because local contractors rely on their reputation within the neighborhood to get more jobs. They cannot afford to break their oral contract with their client and neighbor.

Our contention is that only by working within the existing fabric and with local actors can urbanists, architects, engineers and policy-makers contribute meaningfully to ongoing user-led improvement in homegrown neighborhoods. This is why we have just started a new project called Homegrown Cities that aims to demonstrate that an alternative to “redevelopment” is possible. We want to combine our observations with relevant aspects of Turner-inspired schemes and adapt them to the contemporary context of Mumbai.

This project will start in Bhandup, a hillside “homegrown neighborhood” located in the northeastern suburbs of Mumbai, where we have been active for a few years documenting local building techniques and contributing to the construction of a Hindu temple. From above, Bhandup looks a lot like a Rio favela. Within, it has the same vibrancy and similar issues – the biggest of all being prejudice from the middle-class and the administration. This neighborhood is typically low-rise, high-density and pedestrian. It is also mixed-use, hosting a great variety of businesses within its residential fabric.

Each time we visit the area we see new houses being built by local masons and residents. Most of them are one or two stories high on a 150-to-200-square-foot surface. Bhandup residents have access to water, and electricity is available to each house. Most people have television and cell phones. No one there is dying of hunger, and there are no beggars. What this neighborhood needs most is to be recognized as a viable model of urbanization – not as a slum. Our intention is to support the efforts of its residents and local builders.

Our long-term aim is to help improve construction techniques and promote the creation of a cooperative housing society that can take an active role in managing and planning the area. We also want to provide opportunities for cross-learning and technical collaboration between residents, local builders and professionals from outside. This is a long-term project, which will develop incrementally, along with the neighborhood.

These two houses were completed in the last 6 months by Amar Mirjankar, who is our local partner for the pilot project.

Our departure point is modest and ambitious at once. We want to build a house, together with its future users and local masons that we have known for some time. Once completed the house will be sold at the same price as any other small house in the area. Houses that are put on the market locally are usually sold within two months at most because there is an enormous demand for affordable housing in the city. We will then repeat this process until we build a critical number of houses. We want to innovate as we work, learn and deepen our relationship with the residents. One of our many projects is the creation a trust fund that would allow us to put houses on lease, so that even those with no access to capital can get access to housing. If successful, we intend to repeat that model in other places.

We do not aim to revolutionize the way construction is done in homegrown neighborhoods, and we certainly don’t want to impose a new process. We simply want to contribute to the incremental improvement that is happening already, and share our knowledge and network. This will help us highlight the good practices already existing, and show that there are alternatives to the wholesale redevelopment of unplanned and incrementally developing neighborhoods. We want to demonstrate that architects, planners and others can engage meaningfully in local processes, by respecting existing morphology, supporting the local economy and bringing in their skills and creativity.

We’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign, which we hope will allow us to raise enough capital to demonstrate the validity of this approach. This pilot project can then be repeated again there and at other places, each time bringing global exposure to local actors and contexts. This hybrid model, relying on local market dynamics and the solidarity of the global crowd, should allow us to revive some of the best features of the Turner-inspired schemes of the 1970s and ’80s, while addressing some of their shortcomings.

How You Can Help

You could contribute financially via our crowd-funding page. You could “like” Homegrown Cities and share the project with your network of family, friends and colleagues via our Facebook page. You could follow us on twitter @HomegrownCities. Or you could offer your expertise in the following realms: Legal, political, engineering, fund-raising, or design. If you wish to read more about the project, please click here.

This article was first published in the Next City blog.

The Aesthetic of Habitats

June 18, 2013

In her contemplation on subjectivity and aesthetics in the public realm of architecture and living spaces, Pauline von Bonsdorff, author of The Human Habitat: Aesthetic and Axiological Perspectives asks some thought-provoking questions: ‘What is the relation between everyday – tacit, uninformed, confident – environmental experience and the significance of the built environment? What are buildings and how do they become what they are, on the street?’ (p. 10) ? Is there stability in the roles of the elements of the built environment and in their capacity to be valued?’ (p. 13).

Her attempts at answering these questions provide powerful conceptual tools to understand contemporary urban realities – and of course, much more than that.

In the reflections that follow, we use, interpret, and maybe even distort some of her insights (due to our own limitations) to come closer to answering our questions as urban practitioners working in Mumbai city.

Individual architectural subjects have been a perennial feature of practice and criticism. In the medieval past, the biggest and most glorious practices of architecture were shaped by an economy of sacred power and imperial strength. These influenced themes, sizes and costs of each structure. The aesthetic could spill over cultural boundaries and reflect all kinds of fantasies, providing for a pastiche that only in retrospect became respectable with dignified and definite narratives. Thus Islamic influences on Christian styles and vice versa, themselves amalgamations of a myriad local influences got naturalized gradually, with a play of remembering and forgetting. However, strong pronouncements of what is beautiful and truly glorious were integral to the process of construction, even though the particular constituents of aesthetics were debatable.

Today, in mainstream practice, it seems as if technological advancements in the fields of spacecraft technology have become new frames of reference, based on contemporary notions of the sacred – with faith in modern technology and its accompanying aesthetics. Futuristic universal structures punctuate cities all around the world, and create comfortingly familiar environments, becoming naturalized as smoothly as before. Glass and steel structures in Bangalore sooner or later become part of the local scape like colonial structures once did. There is a reaction to this as well – with grunge, organic aesthetics inspired by environmental discourses doing their own thing. Artistic and creative counter or sub cultures play their role in shaping such forms and expressions.

However, it is doubtful  if either of these templates go deep enough in satisfactorily addressing the full range of expressions of built environments and the needs of users, dwellers, inhabitants.

According to historian and novelist scholar Umberto Eco, our contemporary responses never really transcend medieval impulses. Whether in terms of the glories of grand structures or the sacralizing of nature. It is not transcended in popular culture, nor (in more insidious ways) in high culture, where aesthetics, with all its post-modern twists, continues to have its say. It continues to pass judgment about what is good and bad about buildings, cities, neighbourhoods and all kinds of cultural artefacts. Here past and present, medieval and modern get mixed and re-mixed to create their own anxieties about what is appropriate and beautiful and what is not.

There are other things that remain the same as well. In the medieval past, it was rare that the habitats and dwellings, bazaars and streets surrounding sacred structures got the same investments in terms of attention, expense or investment. In our appreciation of historical architectural grandeur, we sanitize memory all the time. It is only in realist works of fiction and detailed historiographies that we become aware of the everyday contexts as they existed in the past. It is difficult to remember those realities since they have now been sterilized for tourism or to appeal to contemporary tastes. In the past, peasant quarters outside feudal estates, bazaar streets or artisan quarters at the fringes of religious and royal grounds, were not perceived differently from primitive habitats that existed at the edge of or in forests. They were rarely bought into any frame of aesthetic appreciation.

Similarly, in contemporary urban worlds, habitats and dwellings within cities often become invisible or obscure in the public imagination. In visual culture they get subsumed within gated colonies, and high security buildings on one hand or shanties and dark, dangerous alleyways on the other. The aesthetics of the habitat itself, where people live and work have become about interiors or  – at the most – about inner protected worlds within open cities – like gentrified streets, heritage enclaves, tourist friendly villages and art neighbourhoods.

When the economy and polity cannot accommodate people who are unable to afford any of these spaces – their habitats and dwellings are only seen in the most extreme of anti-aesthetic terms. In which words such as slums, shanties, run-down neighbourhoods become both, the embodiment of all that is not beautiful and something more absolute – those which can never become beautiful. Unless they completely undergo a metamorphoses.  Any attempts at seeing an aesthetic within those spaces becomes immediately immoral – as if one is validating the context as a whole – including its apparent brutality.

More than anything else – it is this burden that our work carries when we engage with small parts of the 6 million people strong so-called slum-world of Mumbai. We see in the consistent efforts of the inhabitants living in them, a desire to improve their dwellings, their neighbourhoods, using their own benchmarks of beauty and desire. Which often overlaps with what the practice of building and construction in the rest of the city also wants. We see smooth tiles, steel and glass and much else that is all too familiar, even futuristic.

Along with this, there is a deeper structure that pulls the habitat into coherence. You can still see the genus of older dwellings underlying those spaces. The spirit of the place is evoked from the act of people coming together and building their own environments, using local networks, and all kinds of affordable technologies, relying on community and family networks and using living sacred sites to organize the neighbourhoods. Shadows of the pasts, or from elsewhere, persist. They reproduce structures from villages far away, even accommodating primordial markers of habitats like wells and orchards, within a contemporary urban fabric of immense density.

However, to say this aloud makes us vulnerable to the worst of modern political slurs. We get accused of being romantics and supporters of poverty. Accusations come even when we demonstrate the resilient and robust economy that underlies the making of these spaces. Arguments like ours may have been made several times before. They represent a small part of a vast archive of similar commentaries made by a host of observers and practitioners. Yet they are all dismissed or ignored.

It is for this reason that we found Bonsdorff’s work giving us some new openings. Maybe it is important for us to go back with more fierceness into understanding what exactly is the aesthetic of a habitat. Why has it been subsumed within a larger discourse of architectural practice? Or a sub-set of planning in which it is rarely expressed with the same sophistication as architectural or planning practices are? Is it possible to understand it with more useful tools than what Avatar – style eco-fantasies provide us? Which after all are part of the same neo-medieval worlds that Eco suggests we are trapped in? As absolute as the world of spacecraft technologies and equally ineffective.

Mumbai’s thousands of so-called slums, are composed of habitats that include a wide variety of forms linked to distinct histories. Traditional villages, artisanal colonies, working class tenements, temporary structures, modern dwellings, – all of them are subsumed within a generic category that has little basis in reality. To tell the stories and distinct histories of each of these neighbourhoods is a very important exercise. And an effective way of doing that is by understanding their form, their specific story.

The gaze from the outside and the inner experience of living in those spaces must converge at some point. Such a convergence will make it possible to appreciate what these neighbourhoods really mean to the story of urbanism as we experience it today. And the question of aesthetics as it applies to habitats and dwellings is crucial to this story.

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