The Slum Explosion Anxiety

June 28, 2015

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

Global anxieties about population growth have been around at least since Malthus, with a peak in the 1960s when American academics started talking about a “population bomb” that would throw the rich world right back into poverty -and annihilate India once and for all. The particular shape of that anxiety in the form of a housing crisis set to swamp the world is relatively more recent. We seem to now firmly believe that population growth will overtake the capacity of governments to house people at decent standards. Subsequently, the world will get slummed up beyond redemption. There is a prophet of doom – à la Mike Davis – for every urban crisis that we face in different parts of the world.

However the apocalyptic vision itself has a narrative thrust. In it, greed and fear dominate over humanity and creativity. It calls for drastic and swift responses. Our fear is that, unfortunately, these responses may actually be more catastrophic than the reality they wish to contain.

We believe that the most urgent thing we must do is step away from such anxieties as a starting point, while looking precisely at the factors that cause them. While we definitely must analyze why more and more people are getting constituted as the surplus humanity which modern urban administrations seem to have given up on, we need to look at the pressure points afresh. We simply don’t see the weak joints where others seem to– basically the dark horizons of megalopolises being invaded by multitudinous migrants – moving in hordes across national or rural-urban borders.

We believe that the preponderance of slums in a global landscape that continues to urbanize rapidly, is a legacy of faulty policy and worse – a lack of imagination about what makes for good cities. It is also a lack of memory about how slums have always been part and parcel of urbanization and the many ways in which they have been integrated in cities throughout history.  Architectural and planning professions and other urban commentators have an amazing capacity to forget how so many of the neighbourhoods that we love have gone through many stages of development before becoming what they are. Many of the quarters of New York, Paris, London or Tokyo were once slums, by any contemporary standards.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

It is our contention that the inability of incremental housing in cities like Mumbai, Rio or Nairobi to translate into a successful tool of urban transformation is due to factors other than its intrinsic merit or fault. The issue of affordable housing is a problem not because there are simply too many people lacking resources or means to find or make decent homes and neighbourhoods, but that there are a handful of people who refuse to see cities and habitats in any other way but as a place of fixed and limited choices.

Around eight years ago, we set up a small office in the famed and notorious so-called ‘slum’ of Dharavi. In the global map of slums, we placed ourselves at the epicentre of what was mistakenly referred to as the largest such settlement in Asia. We were the latest entrants in a field that was populated by activists, NGO’s, political parties and other do-gooders and got absorbed in heated waves of discussion, debate and dissent. The government’s redevelopment plan, originally master-minded by a New Jersey consultant of Indian origin, was slated to become a single point clearance agenda for redeveloping this neighbourhood.

We interacted with Mumbai’s diverse set of activists and citizens with more diverse viewpoints and ideological moorings. And even where there was an overlap, we often found ourselves saying things that were counter-intuitive.  Those conversations helped us sharpen our conviction more than ever, and over the next few years, we found ourselves being immersed in the practice of incremental development strategies in Mumbai. We have since then resettled our office in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi – a settlement which is not as much in the limelight as Dharavi, but which is struggling just as much to reinvent itself.

We worked with local community leaders, with local house builders, residents and children and began to understand what community and neighbourhood life in a ‘slum’ was all about. All through the years, what we saw seemed to be some kind of real-time unfolding of incremental development strategies – the way we had read about them, or quickly glimpsed in Latin American contexts. Our practice sharpened, convictions became firmer and communication became smoother as we started conversing more confidently.

We had started our journeys in diverse, overlapping and occasionally parallel worlds. Our practice became a mashup of urban planning, anthropology, economics, architecture and design. Our ideological make up reflected all the unacknowledged intellectual confusion and fierce ethical commitment that our generation had grappled with thanks to the tectonic shifts of national and political maps since the 90s.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo by Ishan Thanka for urbz)

We attempted to connect our practice in Mumbai to a larger set of conversations that happened as we found ourselves travelling to Tokyo, Barcelona, Geneva, Sao Paulo, Rio, New York, Istanbul, Perugia, Milan, Shenzen, Belgrade, Johahhnesburg – wherever we went we found ourselves making linkages to the city and coming back to familiar practices – which somehow or the other involved watching people make their homes and lives over a generation, creating bonds with each other, sculpting communities from basic human needs of co-dependency and good-naturedness. We found a bit of Mumbai everywhere in the world.
And the people who we encountered through these journeys – our colleagues, our supporters, our collaborators, our critics and intellectual comrades – were the real touchstones of transformative learning. They all helped shape our central argument that connects our work:

Human beings as productive agents have the collective capacity to create their own built environments. If their environments are degraded in any way – that is to say if they happen to be slums – this state of affairs is connected to a set of factors that has little to do with their capacity or ability to create quality built environments. These factors include land arrangements that do not recognize occupancy rights as a valid mode of living in a city. They also include legislation that prohibits them to improve their environment because that would mean developing a sense of ownership towards the land on which they exist.

This is not allowed simply because cities today are shaped by speculation on land and space which is so tied down to its exchange value that it becomes out of reach for most of its residents. Especially those who find it more economical to use it for productive means. And it has to be deliberately kept out of reach as only then would the exchange value become genuinely lucrative. Due to this, civic authorities refuse to acknowledge that the city’s workers and the poor who contribute to its economy, need a different regime of occupying urban space, one which is based on use-value.

It is in this state of affairs – more than anything else that the urban crisis of today is predicated and this is what needs to be unpacked and understood – in the greatest of detail possible.

Shvaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo Ishan Thanka for urbz)


People are Places – Mobile Mumbai and the Konkan Coast

June 24, 2015


For the last four years, Urbanology, through its research institute based in Goa and Mumbai, has been working on a project that connects these two seemingly disparate places on India’s west coast. At one level, ‘Tracking the Indian Rail Trail’ looks at the significance of the Konkan railway in the urban force field of Mumbai, spreading all the way down to Mangalore along this route. At another level it looks at mobility as the lens through which India’s fast transforming urban reality can be better understood.

Factoring in mobility remains a favoured approach of social scientists from the late 90s onwards and today has become a specialized field in its own right. One that looks to integrate the gaze of mobility into very fundamental thematics within the social sciences.

As urban practitioners, we have always been trying to make sense of built-forms, habitats, aspirations, and modes of sharing resources in our primary location of action – Mumbai, India’s poster-city of extreme spatial challenges.

In this light, the idea that our chosen site of operations stops at the formal frontiers of what constitutes the city’s municipal limit never made sense to us. Right from day one we saw how the varied landscapes of the city’s several habitats – homegrown or mass-produced -were part of a larger reality that was constantly pushing onto the horizon. We saw how the settlements that were the homes of millions of workers and service providers – mostly dismissed as slums or informal tenements – were part of a living breathing system of connections that ferried people to and fro, in different temporal rhythms using the country’s cheapest mode of long distance travel, the Indian railways.

It became apparent to us that Mumbai was not just a place, a city or physical location fixed in time and space but a moment in the life of millions of its residents that was meaningful to them on a much larger chain of interdependencies.


It was with this hunch that we started to develop a set of inquiries that would provide details and insights to raise more illuminating questions about what constitutes urban reality in India. Is it just about the teeming crowded cities that are refuges for hordes of rural migrants? When we talk of increasing urbanization should we only point towards the standard geographies that show depleting rural areas and rapidly densifying cities and stop at that ? What do migration patterns actually demonstrate when they reveal multi-directional movements ?

We started out with the idea that Mumbai as a city could not be force-fitted into the narrow definition of a ‘city’ and pushed for the notion that it is an urban system in which a wide variety of habitats are enclosed. The railway system within the urban frontiers of Mumbai are the basis of a much larger reality which possibly connects a whole set of urban systems,  inter-linked by different transport and communication networks. Trains appeared clearly as a very integral part of the story at various levels – within the city and outside it.

India’s traditional urban forms – like those elsewhere – were once part of river based mobility systems. The colonial infrastructure of the railways dovetailed into this process to create its own channels of flows, forming large pools of urban accumulation in the colonial port cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

Since independence, the Indian government continued to expand the system and ensured that it remained within the reach of the common person  – allowing for the poorest to travel the lengthiest of distances. If this important network has been ignored by social scientists, urbanists and analysts in India, its mostly because the related disciplines have not been able to factor in movement and mobility within the conceptual framework of understanding habitats and urban economies as deeply as they should. We have tons of studies on migration, seasonal employment, rural-urban movement, rural infrastructure and economy, urbanism – but almost hardly anything on the apparently invisible connector- the railways that seem to provide special twists to all these topics. How do people actually move to a city so far away? How do they return so frequently? How do they manage to keep two homes going ? Clearly cheap railway travel has something to do with it …

It is certainly true of India (though not rare in China and Latin America as well) that the biggest cities are not only magnets of migration but also points from which people return and fortify their home villages and towns – especially as they keep parts of themselves at both places through simultaneously divided and shared use of land, homes and families.


Try buying a train ticket in a second class compartment from any of the big cities through most of the year and you will see a teeming movement of people to and fro making your purchase a challenge. The Indian census too throws up all kinds of complications with regard to the nature of rural areas as well – constantly confusing and confounding categories. For example, the latest census points out that non agricultural related activities are increasing in rural areas – under-cutting almost at once of what defines a rural area in a traditional administrative sense.

The field of mobility studies questions the idea that a place, city or village can be isolated as units of analysis at any given point of time.

In the words of Mimi Sheller and John Urry –

‘Places are thus not so much fixed as implicated within complex networks by which hosts, guests, buildings, objects, and machines are contingently brought together to produce certain performances in certain places at certain times. Places are indeed dynamic places of movement…In the new mobilities paradigm, places themselves are seen as travelling, slow or fast, greater or shorter distances, within networks of human and nonhuman agents. (The New Mobilities Paradigm, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, pages 207 226)

India’s complexities have been documented ad nauseam – and it has been straight jacketed into various grids – the most overwhelming been urban and rural. The pendulum of defining the nation’s essence has moved from one end to the other over several decades and today has been set on a fixed trajectory – entering into a seemingly irreversible urban tunnel – with its teeming millions in tow.

Within this story Mumbai appears as one gigantic node set to face many challenges in the process – forcing people like us to take on this expectation.

This is the point at which our research comes into play.


We decided to work on the Konkan railway for several reasons. Firstly because Mumbai was its starting point, Goa an important intermediate node and Mangalore its final destination and both Goa and Mangalore have a very special place in the social and physical history of the city. Secondly, the Konkan rail was a relatively new one, coming into full functioning only around twenty years ago. It would allow us to understand the process of movement with two layers of memory – before and after the railways actually started. Thirdly, the city itself had a powerful political connect to this region in terms of the residents with whom we engaged – mostly in working class neighbourhoods all over the city. Either because of the erstwhile textile mill-workers of early twentieth century Mumbai or political importance of the dominant nativist  electoral parties like the Shiva Sena – the Konkan coast remains a crucial presence in the metropolis.

We began exploring the various urban systems that constitute the region and which had got connected recently by the railways. We focused on six urban nodes – Roha, Chiplun, Ratnagiri, Thivim, Udupi and Mangalore which were major train stations on this route. We followed the movements of 100 plus travellers starting from each of the nodes and tracked them to the places they would eventually go to, forming intricate networks along the trail of the urban systems that each node spawned. One of the most thrilling aspects of our study was the gradual realization that the coast was not simply an interconnected network of urban systems which was serviced by the railways, substituting older modes of travel – but that the movements in the system were part of circulating rhythms revolving around specific functions – religious, familial and economic.

We began to refer to our study as one of Circulating Urbanism in which the Mumbai story became more integral than we initially started out with. Mumbai was not just one urban system connected to several but was the most overwhelmingly powerful forcefield in which the whole region was embedded. Of course, the Konkan had its own emerging centers as well – but Mumbai continued to play an important role due to its history.

Mumbai had played a very significant part in the life of the Konkan for more than a hundred years, using sea-routes prior to the railways to forge bonds across its hilly terrain. Those bonds, were more than just about physical movement between localities and were shaped by relationships mediated by families. In fact the family as a vehicle of mobility, through which individuals managed to traverse large distances by maintaining points of connection between both places became an important focus. The ability of an individual to use relationships and the related metaphors of familial connections and bonds also became integral aspects of our study. We were also aware that the family in India is deeply connected to community history. This can clearly be seen in a tangible way through the built-forms of urban settlements. If they belong to poor communities and families their habitats in Mumbai correspond to a similar spatial configuration in the city as well.


And as mobility is a variable as much of communication as it is of transport, we also saw the importance of new technologies such as mobile phones and web based systems such as facebook and whatsapp becoming part and parcel of the circulating urban rhythms we were describing.

In the first part of the study we managed to provide a detailed profile of the circulatory urban system that shapes the Konkan region’s connections with Mumbai, even as it pulsates with its specific movements around its own circularities. We created several maps that demonstrated this.

In the ongoing second part of the study we enter more deeply into the field of mobility as a phenomenon that Sheller and Urry describe :

Places are about relationships, about the placing of peoples, materials, images, and the systems of difference that they perform on the enormous complexity of traversing an apparently single place…  And at the same time as places are dynamic, they are also about proximities, about the bodily co-presence of people who happen to be in that place at that time, doing activities together…

The social and the physical are conjoined dimensions and if we depart from the static imagery that traditional social science explanations evoke while talking of individuals, families and communities (or homes, settlements and cities),  we will appreciate at once how a detailed ethnography of these dimensions enhances our understanding of mobilities and urban life more than mapping physical movements along static points.

What we are doing in the second phase is looking at the lives of four families – keeping in mind their individual mind spaces and community affiliations. They hail from the historically significant district of Ratnagiri down the coast, and are simultaneously embedded in the urban fabric of Mumbai. They occupy dynamic social and economic positions through their communities – even though all of them would broadly qualify as belonging to the lower bandwidth of India’s social spectrum. This status would reflect on both, their locales back in the village as well as their homes in Mumbai.

What we hope to do is to demonstrate the mechanisms through which circular movements happen between two locations in the lives of individuals and families. We focus on travel (trains and others) as well as communication systems that have become very advanced in recent times.

What is emerging are stories of places and people, of belonging and leaving behind, of morphing landscapes and new horizons. We hope that this small study will open the way for a larger set of observations on urban reality in India as a whole. One in which the static imaginaries of rural and urban, of fixed identities gives way to mobile concepts that reflect the complexity of life that its residents actually embody.


(All photo credits – Ishan Tankha. The study is part of an on-going project with the Forum of Mobile Lives, Paris)

Beyond the Boundary

June 16, 2015

Inside Bhandup, Mumbai, in a settlement dominated by residents from the Konkan

Inside Bhandup, Mumbai, in a settlement dominated by residents from the Konkan

Classifying habitats as distinctly rural and urban is not as straightforward as it seems. What a city has come to mean today – a discrete unit cut off from rural ways of living – has not always been understood in the same way all through history.

An urban conglomeration that acted as a political center for a kingdom, or as a market place for trading goods, did not necessarily see its population as markedly different from the rural hinterland it was embedded in. In fact there was a greater sense of fluidity and movement that was accepted as part of the existence of those units.

In the age of the British empire on the Indian subcontinent – the great presidency port-cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, merged with the hinterlands they ruled with a similar sense of continuity. And people moved from habitat to habitat across the presidency sprawl – sometimes rural to urban and sometimes the other way round without marking the movement as a shift in terms of identity.

Thus a resident of Ratnagiri, a district, 400 kilometers south of the old Bombay city, left his village to come to the city to work – but still managed to keep a sense of connection to his or her erstwhile home. He could even work in the fields during the rainy season and return to his textile factory after that.

Maybe it is for this reason that a city like Bombay, during the years it was also emerging as the economic powerhouse of western India, absorbed a wide variety of migrant – itinerant communities, allowing them to flow through its streets and by-lanes. Some of them were officially marked out as nomads who were practicing their trades and occupations moving in and out of the city –  just as they moved from village to village practicing their trade. The earliest ethnographic account of Mumbai – written by Govind Narayan in the mid-19th century, dedicates a significant portion to the city’s itinerant communities.

Of course, as the decades passed by, the city’s attitude changed.  As urban identities became stronger – the authorities tended to become suspicious of such communities in particular.

Colonial acts in the Bombay presidency, targeted nomadic groups, classifying them as criminal tribes – after having destroyed their pathways, or installing strong road-blocks on their traditional routes. They often tried to integrate them into the political  system by settling them down, sometimes in the metropolis, sometimes in smaller towns or on the peripheries of villages. A clash of cultures produced narratives of criminality, much in the way the Romas (or gypsies) of Europe) became victims of the political re-configuration and hardening of boundaries on that sub-continent in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These attitudes spilled over into the political discourse of civic administration. The city’s workforce – most of them disorganized – were seen much in the same way as the nomadic tribes. Their criminality was associated with their habitats – which reflected their fluid status – not quite rural or urban – existing on the fault-lines of various newly constituted legalities. The seasonal nature of the workforce – with workers leaving during the monsoon season, became entangled in notions of indiscipline. Yet – the city carried on and even today, much of its work-force is constantly part of movements and mobility patterns that connects them to points of origin that are far away – often in villages. Today the footprint goes all the way to Bihar and Orissa.

Families and communities also reproduced their traditional habitats within the folds of the city’s boundaries to create a very diverse weave of urban forms – some of which were markedly ‘rural’. This happened at different moments in the city’s history. When the port area was the dominant economic activity, educated middle classes from the East Indian community arrived from the peripheries and set up homes outside the port precinct. At that time, the village template worked well. Today the same habitats, like Mahtar Pakhadi and Khotachiwadi, have become anachronistic spaces, only making sense as the city’s heritage narrative.

The same process also happened with working class groups from the mill areas – but along a different timeline. Initially, they were all part of the urban working class neighbourhoods, typified by the chawls (barrack like single room homes with common toilets). Then with the decline of mills – especially from the 1980s onwards, the same families moved up north, to places like Bhandup and reverted to homes that evoked their villages in Ratnagiri, even calling the neighbourhoods Konkan Nagar, after the coastal region that connects Mumbai to Ratnagiri.

Inside a village in Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan

Inside a village in Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan

Going deeper in this process – we find thinkers like Anthony Leeds and James Scott – clearly pointing out the moments in which the hardening of the categories rural and urban emerged.

Leeds suggests that it appeared during the industrial revolution while Scott believes that it accompanies statecraft procedures that tried to settle down movements of communities over large terrains from much prior to that.

Either way, it revealed a process that became increasingly rigid as communities were labelled and classified as being rural, urban or nomadic as per the interests of state control.

In the context of India, colonial impulses moved in many contrary directions. Force settling of societies, the development of the railways, new agrarian and revenue systems, disciplining subaltern urban populations, criminalising nomadic groups due to their persistent propensity to be mobile created a messy template – the after effects of which can still be seen in their impact on the physical landscape of the city.

Mumbai continues to have urban villages within its fold and its many so-called slums share characteristics with villages from miles away. Moreover, many of its citizens cannot  be clearly marked out as having ‘urban’ characteristics. At the same time, the hinterland around Mumbai, even at considerable distance from the nucleus of the city itself, carries traces of a much larger political imagination. Goa is still legally controlled by the High Court of Bombay, and the University of Mumbai imposes its jurisdiction three hundred kilometers down the coast in Chiplun town.

Of course, today these processes are seen to be vestiges of a faded past. Most contemporary urban experiences have moved down a completely different path today, especially after the second world war. This moment, in many ways, became the starting point of urban practices that started to universalize and harden urban boundaries and definitions even more – collapsing it with new economic policies that saw the city as sites of consumption and financial management.

In fact cities like Bombay and Calcutta which still see imprints of an earlier era, especially in their uneven textures – Bombay more than Calcutta – have resigned themselves to being part of narrative that classifies them as backward in the context of a pure urban moment. The image of the slum fits neatly into such readings – becoming a short hand way of expressing impatience about what they are – neither really rural or urban in clear-cut ways….

Streetscape of a village, deep inside the Konkan region

Streetscape of a village, deep inside the Konkan region

(These notes are part of a series starting this week that explores the nature of circulating urban systems that characterize much of India – with a focus on Mumbai and the Konkan, as part of our study with the Forum for Mobile Lives, Paris. All photo credits: URBZ).

Naming the ineffable city

May 10, 2015

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)

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.

Berlin, May 1st, 2015

Homegrown Slum Improvement

February 13, 2015


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 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.. 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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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!


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.


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


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.


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!

Ambedkar Columbia

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


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.


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.


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

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.

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