The Tool-House (Expanded)

September 9, 2009

This article was published in the Mumbai Reader 2009 (Urban Design Research Institute)


One of the most enduring artifacts of pre-industrial society in contemporary times is the tool-house; the habitat of the artisan where work and residence co-exist amicably. Conceptually located between Le Corbusier’s machine for living and Ivan Illich’s convivial tool, the tool-house is an apparatus fulfilling economic and sheltering purposes.

In the past, production practices took place mostly in the artisanal homes of rural areas, while cities were political and trading centers. Today, in a post-industrial hyper-urbanized era, versions of the tool house can be found in an artists loft, a web-designers den, a hidden restaurant in an immigrant enclave or in an up-market artisanal shopfront behind which an old family continues to perform a traditional occupation.

Tool-houses can be found across cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Middle-class homes in housing colonies often double up as clothes stores over the weekend while their kitchens service huge clienteles. Parisian hôtels particuliers are conceived to provide a range of professional services for their owners and guests, acting as semi-private salons and gentleman’s clubs.

Yet, as a structure epitomizing such dual use, the tool-house, does not have the legitimacy it deserves. In fact in many places it is considered outdated, or worse, an invalid urban form, thanks to strict zoning laws and rigid conceptions of urban order. With the universalizing principles of the industrial revolution becoming mainstream, homes and workspaces have been decisively cut off from each other.

The modern city emerged through an atomic division of functions which had for long cohabitated in space and time. As working and living became spatially segregated, they also started being regimented along temporal lines. When the self-employed artisan became a factory worker he splintered his workshop-home and his days. He would have to commute to a separate place and compartmentalize his time in strict schedules demarcating work and leisure time. Ever since, the practice of separating residences from places of manufacture has shaped much of the way we think of cities, work, and time. In particular, the organizing of space according to these principles became the main purpose of urban planning.

In practice however, several parts of the urban world are littered by sprawling collections of built-forms that do not reflect this neat divide. In fact informal settlements around the world are the best expressions of the enduring presence of the tool-house. The reason for its resilience is basic economics. In a context where more than 40% of people are self-employed, and urban development keeps pushing up the price of space, the home needs to double up as a productive site. In low income neighbourhoods, it is not uncommon to find a small tool-house partially rented as storage space, used as a shop in the front and as a workshop space in the back in addition to serving as a shelter for an extended family. Interestingly, several economic commentaries these days talk of the return of the home-based workspace (in the US this is supposed to be a good anti-dote to outsourcing) and the re-emergence of the post-industrial artisan. The contemporary world is proving to be a live exhibition space for different eras and epochs to be displayed, with regard to the world of industry and commerce.

With a little bit of imagination, a walk through any Mumbai slum also becomes a trip through a moment in the dawn of the industrial revolution. When the economic regime had still not drawn the rules of how we should live, work and sleep. Several of Mumbai’s informal settlements are shaped by the contours of the tool-house. You can see every wall, nook and corner becoming an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitants, where the furnace and the cooking hearth exchange roles and sleeping competes with warehouse space, with eventually a cluster of tool-houses making for a thriving workshop-neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, in spite of the way things actually unfolded, perceptions about industrial society were often limited. The movement from the home to the factory was mostly described as representing progress for humanity, and measured in terms of output increase. The discourse looked at the village as a counterpoint to the city, and as being culturally and economically backward. Not surprisingly, over the last century, it is agriculture more than any other economic activity that has been scaled up to fit the requirements of the industrial age.

Voices such as Gandhi’s were a few of the critical ones that questioned such narratives. His vision of rural India was essentially an artisanal one – with the tool of the charkha becoming a potent symbol, linked to narratives of economic self-sufficiency in a colonial age dominated by the frenzy of industrial production. However, rather than isolating the space of the artisan, Gandhi’s vision encapsulated a totalizing notion of rural self-sufficiency and located the village exclusively within this landscape.

A look at the living conditions of contemporary rural India reveals that Gandhi’s vision is desperately lost. Yet, if we turn our eye to our much decried dirty and messy cities, we actually see post-industrial versions of the village form flourishing in all kinds of ways. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that if the Gandhian village was the soul of his India, the tool-house was actually its heart. If we detach the village from its exclusive rural setting and accept it as a valid urban form, we soon realize that one of its most persistence features, the artisanal home, deserves much greater attention.

Through the twentieth century, the modernist urban imagination was firmly tied to the industrial age, even though in actual experience, processes of living, production of goods and the evolution of structures were discontinuous and fragmentary. Formal and informal economic practices have co-existed in several ways. Manual energy has supported mechanical energy and vice versa. Yet, the idealized vision of this age was always one that saw human scale economic operations as redundant, or on the verge of disappearance. The reality is absolutely to the contrary. A lot more production takes place in informal settlements with a combination of manual and mechanical energy than we would like to acknowledge. Cheap human labour is what energizes and subsidizes such a gigantic economy as India. A substantial amount of that energy is located in informal settlements, slums and urban villages, and a million tool-houses where massive and decentralized production processes take place.

The reason why urban landscapes formed by tool-houses are so crucial for urbanists is that it makes explicit the relationship between production, livelihood and spaces that expresses the lives of more than half of humanity. Not to be able to see this dimension in slums reveals a terrible lack of imagination and aborts the complex and organic evolution of urban forms.

In reality – tool-house landscapes indicate a need for a sharp restructuring of the way in which labour, work, and capital are understood in the post-industrial city. They can help us to concretely visualize a future in which the dated dichotomy of the formal and the informal organization of production and services is transcended. Where the new spatial-temporal order that internet-based and mobile communication technologies have introduced in our lives are acknowledged, and the complex dialectic between the artisanal/organic, decentralized and industrial mass-based product in the contemporary economy is recognized.

Cities of the future can keep being formed by the empty development and one-dimensional growth of real-estate development or they can rearrange themselves in less predicable ways following our aspirations and localized needs. Where urban development is left to local actors we observe the (re)emergence of live-work spaces that are in fact less dehumanizing than the housing block and its twin office tower that are being systematically promoted by urban developers all across the ideological spectrum – from real estate investors to NGOs, passing by the government, as the only acceptable way towards modernity.

It might be time to acknowledge that for all its lack of infrastructure and overcrowding, several informal settlements reveal a trend that can be well integrated into a post-industrial landscape. They will then emerge not as much slums in dire need for redevelopment but as a highly successful model of bottom-up development, with the tool house being at the core of its system.

The Dharavi Redevelopment Project’s latest design produced by Mukesh Mehta – that accommodates the recommendations of a panel of experts – pretends to respect the living and working conditions as epitomized in the tool-house dominated landscape of the neighbourhood. Actually it only reinforces a segregation by superimposing economic and residential functions onto each other, in distinct layers.

The fact of the matter is that the logic of the tool-house is intimately linked to the larger economic context of informality, decentralized production and the subsidizing of costs by using space in complex and layered ways. It is organically connected to the unit of the family, the community and the persistence of the village form in the modern metropolis. By ignoring these complexities, the attempts at making over Mumbai’s informal settlements will simply not hold water.

More airoots writing on urban villages, tool-houses and user-generated cities in the upcoming book What We See: Advancing the Investigations of Jane Jacobs


  1. [...] The Tool-House (Expanded) | airoots/eirut tool-house; the habitat of the artisan where work and residence co-exist amicably. (tags: slums slum_arch) [...]

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  3. hey it is mumbai reader ‘08, not 2009. the next one should be mumbai reader ‘09

    Comment by isaac mathew — September 16, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

  4. [...] more than a house (a place where they work, store, produce, sleep and live) – what we refer to as tool-house – is the simplest expression of this intensive use of space and is the DNA of many so-called [...]

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