When Enmeshed Worlds Remain Parallel

January 25, 2010


Right from Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra’s evocative title (Bombay; The Cities Within) , to the trite images of slums juxtaposed against high-rise buildings – Mumbai’s many personalities have been alternatively celebrated and chastised. The diversity of built-forms, the many different urban sensibilities (small town enclaves in South Mumbai, coastal villages in  the suburbs) and the contrasting economic and cultural lifestyles are still very pronounced experiences in Mumbai – making any first time visitor feel disconcerted beyond the normal lag of time, space and culture. It does take a special level of composure to walk from a street, crowded with makeshift homes with children playing around dizzily speeding cars or being accosted by a demanding beggar for your sandwich and then walking into a mega-mall lined by the latest branded items even if you do see the shocked face of the girl behind the counter marveling at your ability to buy goods worth her entire years salary. You don’t have to be a card-carrying socialist to know that these are- at the very minimum – moments demanding some element of erasure, forgetfulness and glossing over if you want to continue living with a semblance of normalcy. Visitors still wonder at how easy it is for such worlds to co-exist without erupting into easy violence. That’s when you realise that there are many ways in which people live around and through contradictions. Its not that you need Johannesburg style gated communities with electric walls to keep people apart. There are all kinds of gates – many a times invisible and even more effective. Older feudal structures in the mind are pretty strong, easily making a rebellious soul stop short of pushing the envelope. Combined by good old brute police force – this helps in creating a perfectly gate-less secure society. At least for the moment.

When we came across the theme of China Mievelle’s  wonderfully wierd fiction story ‘The City and The City’ (introduced to us by Carol Breckenridge) it lent itself easily to a comprehension of Mumbai’s extreme contrasts. In his novel two cities are enmeshed in each other, but citizens of one are conditioned to ignore the evidences (sometimes staring at them in their face) of the other. The office of the ‘Breach’ ensures that the urban worlds remain parallel (even though enmeshed intricately) and disconnected. When a body from one city is found in the other – the narrative starts to flow and the reader discovers the rules through which people can co-exist and remain disconnected.

For anyone in Mumbai who has rolled up a window in an air-conditioned car – in the face of a highly professionalized beggar economy, or walked over a sleeping homeless body, or appreciated the new arty graffiti on a wall once housing streams of homeless families, the novel touches a raw nerve. Reminds you, with the same moral force of your conscientious school teacher – that there is a world out there, which you see and need to respond to in a manner beyond glazed eyes. And yet that would be a ridiculously simple allegorical connection to make with the book. Thankfully our comparison is not moralistic nor intended to create victim – based hysteria. There always are deeper reasons behind the resignation to accept contrasts, particularly when they are so obvious.

But what Mievelle’s world conjures is the ability to see how deeply etched are the invisible worlds that exist around us in many scenarios. It is an ideologically divided Europe that is the inspiring context of his novel. It can work in several ways. Reminding us that there are schisms in several cities – energetically cosmopolitan New York, aggressively regenerating Moscow, ethnically complexed Paris, or migrant enriched London. Its possible for the office of the Breach to operate in all kinds of ways. Its possible for us to be oblivious of the obvious in more ways than simply not seeing the faultlines that are all too evident. Its about finding out where the faultlines actually are. And they may not at all be where you look for them.

Haiti Viewed from Asia

January 17, 2010

Tokyo in 1945 after being flattened by USA Air Force firebombs.

The standard approach to residential redevelopment projects is to take ground zero as a starting point — even if it means creating it. This often translates into shifting people from substandard but incrementally developing environments into apartment blocks that cut them off from their social networks and livelihoods. These projects often become housing-centric and blind to the relationship between neighborhoods and economic development. They end up benefiting the construction industry much more than the population they are supposed to serve.

Haiti’s shattered urban landscapes were about communities, street life, resourcefulness, aspirations and dynamic local exchanges. As we have seen in the Dharavi area of Mumbai (the setting of “Slumdog Millionaire”), poverty often generates creative responses and initiatives. Local actors tend to produce piecemeal development that directly supports neighborhood-level activity.

As we consider how to rebuild Port-au-Prince, we can find an alternative to the usual top-down redevelopment model in postwar Tokyo. The Japanese government didn’t have the money to rebuild housing and so focused instead on roads, sewage and rail transportation. It also encouraged lenders to give families money to build homes. A decentralized and highly participatory urban redevelopment process produced areas of low-rise, high-density structures built with local skills and material. This not only strengthened communities but also stimulated the local economies. Tokyo today has a landscape that is futuristic and yet retains many traditional Asian urban features including street markets, small-scale businesses and family enterprises. The incremental redevelopment of Tokyo was thus intricately connected to the rise of its middle class.

If aid in Haiti aims specifically at regenerating local economies, if it promotes existing skills and collective initiatives, if it consults with grassroots groups and residents directly, it may well bring about a real transformation.

Published in the New York Times on January 16, 2010.

Mumbai: A Port City?

January 15, 2010

Ferry Wharf, Or the Brother’s Push (Bhau-Cha-Dhakka), Mumbai

Some years ago, the idea of the Eastern Waterfront was thrown into the public realm by several planning and design centres to show that much more can be done to explore the city’s island status and its vast shoreline on both its sides. Right now, the Marine Drive, Priyadarshini Park, small stretches up to Bandra, Andheri and beyond legitimately demonstrate what the western waterfront has offer to the public of Mumbai.

On the east you have Colaba, Mazagaon, parts of Sewri and then the vast saltpans that are relatively open. Most of the eastern waterfront is controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust – an entity that officially handles a huge amount of cargo – most of which is consumed by the city itself. It offers employment to several thousand people with many more being dependent on it directly and indirectly.

According to the port authority representatives it is difficult to evaluate the eastern and western waterfronts’ contribution to the city only in terms of open spaces. The fact that it is an economic engine cannot be discounted. It points out that many spaces which are restricted to the public are done so by the defence authorities. In many cases it has opened up public gardens and provided access to people to visit historical structures even though large parts of the front is in poor condition in terms of infrastructural facilities.

However many of them feel that in the name of opening the waterfront to the city at large – the real estate lobby can simply take over pockets of the land and still keep the place inaccessible to the not so privileged public. Citing the case of the mill lands and the way the state government ultimately gave in to the building lobby they feel there is no guarantee the same may not happen here.

The opponents are not fully convinced. They feel a lot more can be done in terms of rationalizing the use of surplus land that the port authorities have control over, now that many lease terms are coming to an end. Many feel that there is no place for a port in a modern cities and give examples from all around the world. This is countered by the fact that the Mumbai port trust is actually in a state of expansion and a phase of economic growth. There are also newer streams of thinking in which city ports have adapted to their urban status and turn their location to an advantage.

All in all we have a situation in which the city seems to be very divided and in which debates tend to get heated and passionate. Personally we have witnessed several situations in which good intentions have been overridden by commercial interests and so one has to be doubly cautious of tall claims. At the same time to have an economically dynamic functioning port is vital for the economy of a city – especially if it can also develop a powerful relationship with the city by helping through transport issues and opening up parts of its waterfront for the public at large.

These issues are currently being explored by a joint Eastern Waterfront studio by the Urban Design Program and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, together with the JJ School of Architecture and the School of Habitat Studies at TISS. Mumbai’s historical relationship with the sea and its trading networks, the question of land availability, as well as environmental concerns about rising sea levels and mangrove preservation are likely to spark much more passionate debate and ideas in the years to come.

Aerial Roots: Geddes and Tagore

January 14, 2010


At the moment we are reading this inspiring text. Tagore is a legendary figure within the Indian intellectual, literary and public realms – as legendary as Gandhi and therefore almost as taken-for-granted and relegated into picture frames. As a poet, he was India’s earliest Noble laureate and invested substantially in the vision of Shanti Niketan, a special space of learning, about a hundred and fifty odd kilometers from Calcutta, which combined the magic of forests with intense urbane, cultural and learning experiences. Patrick Geddes is a more than special name in the world of urban practice – providing inspiring ideas on cities, regions and connections between the environment and habitats. He lived for several years in Mumbai and established the department of Sociology and Civics at the Bombay University in the late nineteenth century, besides doing planning surveys in several Indian cities. The fact that the two met a few times and had a great correspondence on issues linked to cities, forests, rural lives, and cultural practices, around the early twentieth century, fires our imagination. A detailed review to be posted very soon here…

Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes, the Correspondence
Visva-Bharati Press (India) and Edinburgh University Press (Scotland)
ISBN – 1-85933-203-X

Architecture and Fiction

January 5, 2010

The First Issue. There are 3 out already.
The First Issue of Pedro Gadanho

We ended 2009 with an imaginative blurring of District 9 and Dharavi with the help of some extra-terrestrial help and found ourselves stimulated by the power of fiction to visualize context, space and location in the most unexpected ways. The relationship of aesthetics to design related practices is obvious, the fact that imagination is the fountainhead for architectural practices is even more so – but the capacity of fiction to infuse that relationship with a full-blooded, wholesome stream of subjective connections is something that tends to get overlooked. We pay light-hearted tributes all the time to the power of speculative fiction to influence the architectural imagination but dont always acknowledge how deeply cross-influential those forces really are in the way we think of urban futures. That is why we were so happy to come across the work of Lisbon based writer, curator and architect, Pedro Gadanho who has started a bookazine called Beyond – Short Stories on the Post-Contemporary (through Sun Architecture) which is dedicated to the relationship of fiction and architecture, where architectural projects are conjured through writing, where builtforms can be seen as fiction and much more.

Look for more Airoots writing celebrating this relationship in 2010… A Happy New Year!