Fictions for a User-Generated City

August 9, 2010

Abstract of paper selected for presentation at a conference on Architecture and Fiction in Lisbon.

Cultural theorist Donna Haraway astutely observes: both fiction and fact are rooted in an epistemology that appeals to experience. However, there is an important difference; the word fiction is an active form, referring to a present act of fashioning, while fact is a descendant of a past participle, a word form which masks the generative deed or performance. A fact seems done, unchangeable, fit only to be recorded; fiction seems always inventive, open to other possibilities, other fashionings. (1989: Primate Visions, New York, Routledge).

We place our urban activism firmly in the space of fiction as understood in this epistemological sense. Besides writing, we use other fictional devices as starting and ending points of our theoretical and activist explorations.

In our presentation we focus on:

1. The circulation of a fictitious image about an urban neighbourhood.

2. The presence of a piece of architectural fiction – the ‘Tool-house’ connected to our work in Mumbai and Tokyo.

The purpose is to show how these have played a crucial explanatory and expressive role in our practice.

1. Fictitious Images:

Sometimes it makes sense for us to see concepts in the Weberian sense of being ‘useful fictions’. The word ‘slum’, which is the most common description of Dharavi in Mumbai (the main site of our engagement for the last four years), is more often than not a manipulated concept. It is evoked strategically to become a tool in the story of urbanism expressed in a particular way. It has been understood as such by a wide variety of commentators, groups and agencies. One such voice is that of urban historian Mike Davis.

We have been huge admirers of Mike Davis as a commentator in his analysis of the political economy of built form in LA from so many unusual angels. His intimacy with the city, his passion for its past and its present, allowed him to seamlessly connect a deeper imaginative engagement with a sharp political and economic eye. It allowed him to blur or delineate the boundaries of fiction and fact in ways that are concretely experienced.

Eventually LA comes across as a place with history, complexity and cultural depth that is an active backdrop to its volatile political economy.

We also owe him a debt in his attempt at providing a global perspective on the issue of habitats in terms of poverty and the false security of liberal economics connected to it. Few scholars have been able to pull out the issue of the political economy of housing from pure audit based analysis and locate it so strongly in the space of contemporary economic and political practices.

However, we also have a few points of disagreements with his analysis. The world of slums is homogenized by him as a discrete category, and the sense of history and depth he attributes to urban spaces such as LA are simply missing. It is an overwritten category and we believe it is possible to get out of this framework and still stick to a critical analysis of economic processes.

In fact we see ourselves as inspired by his gaze on Los Angeles, which we project on own urban experiences. Our fieldwork in places like Dharavi, Mumbai, reveals a complicated story, one in which history, imagination and fiction interact in special ways. Where the memory of a village is intertwined with that of caste and physical spaces, economic aspirations and mobility. We believe that Davis does not adequately critique the category ‘slum’ as a pre-fabricated, fixed, idea. When the slum is evoked at a global level – it follows a kind of apocalyptic moment, which ends with scenarios of wars and rioting converging effortlessly with cinematic representations of such habitats – evoking movies like City of God, Slum Dog Millionaire and District 9.

We see a complex variety of habitats subsumed under the label ’slum’  – all of them anchored in economic systems that cannot be framed in a narrow framework of choices. However, for us as activists, we do not choose to contest the label by suggesting it is fictitious but by rewriting its story altogether.

We therefore start our work in Dharavi by literally creating a fictitious image – in which a street of Dharavi is merged into one of Tokyo to reveal how the stories of these two mega cities – Mumbai and Tokyo get connected in a way that can only be brought to surface when one enters a terrain that perceives the relationship of fiction and fact in the way Haraway conceives of them.

We produce a narrative that connects Tokyo and Mumbai to each other. Both cities have neighbourhoods that are seen as “messy”, non-functional, irrationally laid out, hard to navigate, even harder to map out, nearly impossible to access by car, not neatly zoned, and happen to be mixed-use, full of narrow pedestrian streets with crowded storefronts, mobile vendors and groups of people hanging out.

In Tokyo, such a pattern of development emerged during the post-war period, when the government concentrated on transport and infrastructure and left housing to the people and private sector. Since land-holdings were small and resources scarce, many urban neighbourhoods in Tokyo mutated into urbanized versions of the villages they emerged from. They did not delete the earlier form. Add to this, you had a massive pressure of population and a growing economy that allowed informal production practices, mixed-use urban areas, and artisanal production to complement the countries growing global economy. What you got at the end were urban landscapes that looked astonishingly like the dense, economically dynamic neighbourhood of Dharavi. We became audacious and suggested that there was something more to the similarity seen in the landscapes of some neighbourhoods in Tokyo and those in Dharavi.

And that these are fairly deep and connected to the way in which urban economies, land-use and urban forms emerged historically. This made us re-look at the so called slummy world of Dharavi and asked the question; what was the main factor that brought these two cities closer on these counts?

2. The Tool-House.

The possible answer emerged over a period of time. Our research revealed that the slummy quality largely attributed to Dharavi’s messy, chaotic look emerged from the preponderance of the work-living combined function that each spatial unit of Dharavi represents. Its artisanal, village-like foundations made it possible for the typology of what we refer to as the ‘Tool- house’ to dominate its landscape. Seen by itself there is little to defend it from accusatory labels such as being a slum. And yet – when you juxtapose its architecture to a similar structure in Tokyo, you start seeing how limited the term is. What actually differentiates one from the other is simply they way they are both perceived. In Mumbai the structure and habitat is undervalued and in Tokyo it is simply accepted and retrofitted with inventive technology.

What we call the ‘tool-house’ emerged in Tokyo and Mumbai unselfconsciously – from their artisanal urban-village roots and became an anachronistic architectural presence. Seen without the label, the structure can be seen as either primitive or futuristic, with the label it represents a significant architectural rupture in the hi/story of urbanization.

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 s/he splintered the workshop-home and days of work. S/he would have to commute to a separate place and compartmentalize 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.

For us, the tool-house is a piece of architectural creation that brings to surface the contradictions embodied within the history of urbanization. It has a cyborgic quality if juxtaposed against the exaggerated zoning logic between places of residence and places of work that are the norm in urban arrangements today.

It is true of course that the logic of the tool-house is intimately linked to the larger economic context of what is often referred to as ‘informality’, basically referring to decentralized production and the subsidizing of costs by using space in complex and layered ways. However if we get rid of the reductive label of informality and see it for what it is: as a valid economy in its own right with a corresponding architectural form (almost like global finance and glass buildings!) we see the tool house as having a dignified space in a valid urban landscape.

It would be useful to go back to the coinage of the term ‘informal economy’ by the anthropologist Keith Hart. It was meant to qualify the transactions of the shadowy world of gambling in Ghana in the 1970s – as an economy. We should remind ourselves of the need to put an emphasis on the word ‘economy’, instead of ‘informal’. From this perspective, the term ‘informal economy’ attempts to dignify all transactions outside the space of a regulated and controlled economy by acknowledging that these are also economic transactions. They follow certain rules and are rooted in some form of rationality. By focussing on the word ‘informal’ we get an impression that this is not a real economy at all, just something shadowy, or imperfect.

Today, the usage of ‘informal settlements’ places such habitats in some kind of a limbo, as it represents them as candidates for their formalization through some form of redevelopment or the other.? And its euphemistic use for the other fiction – ‘slum’ does not help us understand most of the world’s habitats.

Places like Dharavi are ultimately 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, by oversimplifying their location and meaning, contemporary urban planning and architectural practices or analysis, do not mean much to many parts of the urban world.

3. User Generated Cities:

Both these examples – the Slum and the Tool-House, converge into our urban practices. At present, while we evoke and engage with Tokyo, our main site of activism is primarily in Dharavi, Mumbai. A site that has been fictionalized in unsatisfactory ways by cinema – both locally as well as globally. Where, reality often becomes a special effect that then contributes to more hyper- real narratives of political emancipation or change.

Documentaries on news channels ultimately frame their stories exactly like their fictional counterparts. These then find their own way into the space of policymaking – covering a huge bandwidth of useful or abusive fictions of their own  – from literally building on speculation, to manufacturing urban utopias through planned redevelopment projects or straightforward real-estate takeovers.

However, as mentioned above our response is simply to produce more narratives of all kinds. The process of doing so is a collective one. The modus operandi is the interactive workshop. (The Urban Typhoon and the MASHUP). We have a portal – part online – part on the ground called URBZ – User Generated Cities, which provides a set of tools for residents and users to start the process of taking charge of their neighbourhoods. The online side is an interactive website that allows users to work with a global community of supporters. It provides a way for them to showcase and upload their city/habitat/neighbourhood onto the virtual world in a manner that connects to a hyper-local scale where the smallest of information, the most unexpected image, the unlikeliest of stories becomes a source of local control. We use all existing online technologies and make them accessible to the residents through on-the ground activities. The goal is to eventually facilitate the emergence of a user generated space, a collectively authored piece of urban fiction, that is really, as Haraway put it..’ an active form, referring to a present act of fashioning’, making afresh, being inventive and opening up new possibilities for the world of cities at large.

Main References:

1. Davis Mike: Planet of Slums. Verso, (2006).

2. Brigman Jeb: Welcome to the Urban Revolution. How Cities are Changing the World, Harper Collins India, (2009).

3. Echanove Matias and Srivastava Rahul: ‘The Village Inside’ in Lynne Elizabeth, Stephen Goldsmith (eds), What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, New Village Press, CA, (2010)