Neighbourhoods in Bubbledom

June 30, 2011

Chez Nous bungalow in Bandra West (Mumbai): A freshly repainted 1950 art-deco building. Three of the builder’s children live in the building with their children.

The biggest casualty of the new wave of urbanization in India is not architecture or design, even though these have suffered a lot from the rapid and mindless pace of construction in and around cities. The biggest casualty is quality. So many new residential and corporate high-rises in Mumbai have been built so poorly that they would not qualify as high-end in any other context but the hyper speculative bubble in which we find ourselves today. In Mumbai, we can’t speak of real estate anymore. What we are witnessing is “surreal estate.”

Mumbai has a good stock 100 to 60 years old art deco buildings. It is known as the second art-deco city in the world after Miami. Marine Drive is famous for its elegant raw of mid-rise buildings facing the sea. Bandra has many 2 to 4 story-high building from that period as well. Many of which where built by East Indian owners for their children. The art-deco period in Mumbai was part of a new wave of urban development in the first part of the nineteen century.

Many observers then lamented the fact that these new constructions had a terrible aesthetic compared to the buildings they came to replace. Today find these art-deco buildings attractive. But this is not only nostalgia for an older golden age. These buildings were well built and this is why they are still standing today. They have endured Mumbai extremely hot and humid weather and its salty air. Many of these buildings have thick walls and high ceilings. They can last another 200 years without any problem if they are well maintained. It is quality construction.

In parts of the city one can still see the original Portuguese-style bungalows, which art decos buildings often came to replace. They can be found in Bandra, Khotachiwadi and other East Indian enclaves. Those that have not been destroyed by their owners or predatory developers still look beautiful 150, sometimes 200 years, after being built. Quality and care.

A street in Khotachiwadi (Mumbai) with a Portuguese-style bungalow

Roseville Bungalow, St Sebastian Rd, Bandra West, Mumbai: Original style East-Indian bungalow. Probably up to 150 years old.

In contrast, some of the new upper-class high-rises you see in Lower Parel and the Northern suburbs will look like nothing in 10-20 years time. This is because their first function is not actually to provide a long lasting quality experience to their residents. Architecture, design and durability seem to be the last concerns of this generation of developers. These new buildings are first and foremost financial products. They need to be sold quickly to fellow speculators who will not live in them, but instead resell them in a couple of months or a couple of years to another speculator. All this speculation is done with borrowed money, which must quickly return to the lender. This lasts until the bubble bursts.

One sign of surreal-estate bubbledom is the tens of thousands of flats lying vacant in Mumbai, waiting to be bought and sold. Their most important quality is to be easy to sell and for this they must remain empty. What developers want to maximize is the exchange value of their properties. This is done by standardizing construction as much as possible. Everyone wants easy products. That’s why most new buildings in the city and suburbs are monofunctional and offer more or less same layout on every floor. Any variation makes their market value harder to assess. Standardization means that the value of the building can easily be calculated on the basis of square foot price in any given part of the city. Each flat can also be sold individually to smaller investors who often bet with their savings. This speculative pattern trickles down all the way to affordable housing, with blessings of the government, which even incentivizes it through the SRA scheme and other similar market happy initiatives. This has disastrous consequences for the city of an order of magnitude that is still hard to grasp. Heritage is getting lost, a great potential for the city is wasted and people who end up staying in these buildings see them degrading very quickly.

New constructions in Lower Parel, Mumbai

India is home to some of the oldest, deepest and most sophisticated forms of urbanity anywhere in the world. Old cities such as those of Kochin, Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi, Haridwar, Varanasi and a hundred more encapsulate a sense of urbanity and cosmopolitanism that we have everything to learn from. They are still the liveliest parts of towns after hundreds of years of existence. These are not valorized at all. They are either being redeveloped or decaying. While a few old families actually want to stay in their historical neighbourhoods, most middle-class people left the city for the suburb. And the suburb sprawls into nothingness. One could argue for instance that in Delhi, the Old Town is actually the city and that “New” Delhi is everything else -for the most part being an endlessly suburban sprawl, with enclaves of urbanity here and there.

New India seems to be about urbanization without a city. Did we loose the city somewhere in Old India? The beauty of places like Khotachiwadi in Mumbai and Khirkee Village in Delhi is that they know how to be urbane. They have deep roots, they are connected to the larger context, yet also appear to be slightly detached; not fully buying into the development craze they see around them, as if they had seen it all before.

A 200 years old house in Ahmedabad that has been restored with the help of the Alliance Française. The current owner, who is the third generation in his family to live in the house, welcomes overnight guests.

These neighbourhoods are their own universes. Like the Pols in Ahmedabad, they are self-contained and preserve a very strong sense of identity, without being exclusive or closed to the rest of the city. They stand in sharp contrast to the gated colonies that are the norm in middle-class suburbs. A closed gate marks the end of the city. It is the beginning of another logic, which is not that of the urbane trader or artisan. The gate belongs to the culture of the settler who wants to work the land exploiting it to the maximum. The settler seeks to profit directly from the land rather than from the social and commercial networks that crisscross it.

New Delhi is full of gates, which it seems to have inherited from its farming past. It is not as much a city of villages as a city of fields. As soon as people can put a gate somewhere they do it. In Mumbai the most gated spaces are five star hotels, which by the way all try to look like airline lounges. When you enter their compounds you are really made to feel that you are leaving the city (if not the country).

View of Khirkee (Delhi) from the Masjid

There are no closed gates in Old Delhi, no gates in Khotachiwadi, no gates in Dharavi. The city is a place that anyone can enter freely. Khirkee Village has gates. But it must be by mimetism. Or maybe that these gates are better understood the other way around. They are encircling this enclave of urbanity, leaving it outside New Delhi’s totalizing suburban spread.

When you enter Khotachiwadi you feel safe even though there are no gates. In fact you feel safer because there are no gates. People are walking in the street. Neighbours are talking to each other, sometimes shouting at each other. But when something goes wrong they know how to come together. Our friend James who is a life-long resident of Khotachiwadi leaves the doors of his 150+ years old bungalow open all day. People come in and out all the time. He has sparrow nests in each corners of his house.

Waking up in Dharavi somewhere in a house on a small street –and almost every street is narrow and pedestrian- it is not unusual to hear a birdsong or a rooster cocking. It is only when one looks outside the window that one realizes this is not the countryside, but the heart of the city.

dharaviA back street in Dharavi

The best neighbourhoods we can think of have all in one way or the other preserved village-like qualities. A beautiful neighbourhood is a neighbourhood that has roots and people to keep them alive. Khotachiwadi was once a plantation and the shore used to come to its doorsteps. Somehow this past is still alive there. Sometimes the link with the origins is not as old, direct or as spatial. In Dharavi people have often brought the village along with them, preserving old community ties, along with an ability to use spaces to fulfill many different functions, and a high degree of local autonomy. Most people in Dharavi go back to their village at least once a year. Khirkee Village proudly preserves its identity and a sense of its origins. The beauty of these neighbourhoods is not architectural –although some places like Khotachiwadi have outstanding self-standing houses– it is rather the way people are invested and involved in their habitats. The way they have shaped them over time, and the way the neighbourhood is experienced as a moment, which continues the historical journey of the people who inhabit it.

This is why Guy Debord says that when we destroy such neighbourhoods, we don’t only destroy people’s social networks and livelihood, but also their collective history and sense of identity. The point is not at all that places like Khotachiwadi, Dharavi or Khirkee village should be turned into Archeological Survey of India sites and barricaded, with a ticket booth at the entrance. It is in fact, exactly the contrary. In order to exist and survive, neighbouhoods must continue their journey through time and keep on evolving continuously. It is the dynamic interaction between people and the space they inhabit that must be preserved at all cost.

Cheap Stories, Expensive Subjects

June 1, 2011

Structures like these emerge over time. Their flexibility and adaptability is invaluable.

Structures like these emerge over time. Their flexibility and adaptability is invaluable.

The following text appeared as an op-ed on June 1, 2011, on page A27 of the New York Times with the headline: Hands Off Our Houses.

Last summer, a business professor and a marketing consultant wrote on The Harvard Business Review’s Web site about their idea for a $300 house. According to the writers, and the many people who have enthusiastically responded since, such a house could improve the lives of millions of urban poor around the world. And with a $424 billion market for cheap homes that is largely untapped, it could also make significant profits.

The writers created a competition, asking students, architects and businesses to compete to design the best prototype for a $300 house (their original sketch was of a one-room prefabricated shed, equipped with solar panels, water filters and a tablet computer). The winner will be announced this month. But one expert has been left out of the competition, even though her input would have saved much time and effort for those involved in conceiving the house: the person who is supposed to live in it.

We work in Dharavi, a neighborhood in Mumbai that has become a one-stop shop for anyone interested in “slums” (that catchall term for areas lived in by the urban poor). We recently showed around a group of Dartmouth students involved in the project who are hoping to get a better grasp of their market. They had imagined a ready-made constituency of slum-dwellers eager to buy a cheap house that would necessarily be better than the shacks they’d built themselves. But the students found that the reality here is far more complex than their business plan suggested.

To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments.

Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.

None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.

In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

Worst of all, companies involved in producing the house may end up supporting the clearance and demolition of well-established neighborhoods to make room for it. The resulting resettlement colonies, which are multiplying at the edges of cities like Delhi and Bangalore, may at first glance look like ideal markets for the new houses, but the dislocation destroys businesses and communities.

The $300 house could potentially be a success story, if it was understood as a straightforward business proposal instead of a social solution. Places like refugee camps, where many people need shelter for short periods, could use such cheap, well-built units. A market for them could perhaps be created in rural-urban fringes that are less built up.

The $300 house responds to our misconceptions more than to real needs. Of course problems do exist in urban India. Many people live without toilets or running water. Hot and unhealthy asbestos-cement sheets cover millions of roofs. Makeshift homes often flood during monsoons. But replacing individual, incrementally built houses with a ready-made solution would do more harm than good.

A better approach would be to help residents build better, safer homes for themselves. The New Delhi-based Micro Homes Solutions, for example, provides architectural and engineering assistance to homeowners in low-income neighborhoods.

The $300 house will fail as a social initiative because the dynamic needs, interests and aspirations of the millions of people who live in places like Dharavi have been overlooked. This kind of mistake is all too common in the trendy field of social entrepreneurship. While businessmen and professors applaud the $300 house, the urban poor are silent, busy building a future for themselves.