The Sao Paulo Urban Revolution

March 20, 2012

One City, Many Forms

For a city as high on modern architecture as Sao Paulo, its newly found generosity of spirit towards its contrasting favela-studded landscape is a precious thing. The administration seems to be more accepting of the city’s diverse urban texture than ever before. It is now loosening policies to allow existing favelas to upgrade themselves and become well-integrated parts of the city. 

Sao Paulo has experimented with years of diverse approaches to ‘tackle’ these neighbourhoods. These have included encouraging migrants to go ‘back home’ or relocating them in social housing projects.

Today, of its officially estimated three million favela residents, the administration focuses on relocating only those who live in high risk zones. Local actors continue building and improving their houses, while the prefecture retrofits water systems and other civic infrastructure. 

Such a shift may be strategic, shrewd or contingent on electoral cycles. However, in a world with little patience for alternative forms of urban settlement – where everyone is in a hurry to redevelop according to the global standards of the day – such a reprieve is itself revolutionary. Especially when it is combined with the strengthening of local governance and emergent economic practices such as local currencies.

These moves signal a new found faith in the capability of the favelas to reinvent themselves into confident middle-class neighbourhoods. From once signifying a ‘slum’ the word seems to represent a new and assertive urban order that today dominates the globe, showing its civic potential in cities like Sao Paulo and Mumbai. One which – if allowed to – can absorb new infrastructure in a flexible manner, help open up rigid planning rules, energize architectural imagination, encourage healthy economic practices and eventually transform the neighboourhoods into prosperous areas with a high quality of life and a strong sense of identity.

The biggest hurdle Sao Paulo’s nascent ‘urban revolution’ could eventually face may be from an unexpected quarter. We may well discover that mainstream urban practitioners, builders and theorists provide the strongest resistance! After all, what can one make out of the unexpected landscapes? The emergent, messy aesthetic takes some time to enter into our realm of the normative. However, instead of opening up design and architectural theory, and adapting to the change, planners and architects may realize that their traditional moneymaking models of development are threatened by local construction practices. Their response could be about pure, competitive survival. They may insist on broadening the notion of ‘risky’ neighbourhoods to eventually become so wide that the favelas may eventually transform into morose, straight-jacketed social housing projects anyway!

However, this does not have to be so. Favelas have the means and need to engage many kinds of urban practitioners. Working together with local builders and residents on a multitude of smaller projects is likely to be more fulfilling to young architects than helping developers maximize their returns on large real estate projects. And it may well be more remunerative as well in the long run. Architects are most exposed to the booms and burst of a real estate industry, which is more than ever riding on roller coasting financial markets. On the face of it, the construction market in the favela, with its relative autonomy from the debt economy, its thrust for improvement and its openness to new ideas seems like an increasingly sensible field of practice for a new generation of urban practitioners.

Construction professionals living and working in favelas earn much more than one would assume. They are willing to share their resources with practitioners and suppliers able to add value to their work. The fact that most of them value quality over low cost is not as counter-intuitive as it seems, given their extreme reliance on good reputation and recommendation from previous clients. The close-knitted social fabric of the favela acts as an efficient insurance against malpractice. Bad masons quickly run out of business. Personal relationships and trust, lower transaction costs in the construction industry are alive in the favelas.

Because trust is won over the years, the best way for an architect coming from outside to start working in the favelas is to offer her services to local builders who already have a good client base. For this to happen, architects have to accept a reversal of their traditional hierarchical status, which places them above contractors. Instead of being a maestro in charge of the project and commanding a team of executioners, the architect has to learn how to be a contributor working alongside the masons and the client.  The reward may well be worth it. And the day the real estate bubble bursts in BRICS markets, this paradigm shift may well become a necessity for most practitioners. 

Whether we want it or not, the urban order of tomorrow will consists of many contrasting landscapes. Uniform high-rise cities are dangerous and unrealistic fantasies. Instead of trying to stretch and tear our imaginations to force urban landscapes to fit into such visions is it not better to use that same ability to visualize new kinds of cities?

It would be truly revolutionary to see technologically advanced, high-quality, Tokyo-style low-rise high-density urbanscapes merge with Sao Paolo’s modernist skyline. Why can’t it be as natural to walk into colorful streets throbbing with music, small retail shops and stores as it would be to drive through broad avenues and shopping malls? Instead of seeing this encounter as necessarily antagonistic or schizophrenic, it would work better to see it as the sign of the times. Ours may not become a planet of slums after all, as much as a repository of the most diverse habitats possible!

Homegrown Homes

March 14, 2012

Construction site in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi. Photos Prianka Chharia.

Every home tells a story – its making and its use, the way its dwellers have shaped it over time, the moments they lived inside, what it used to be, what it may become.

When inhabitants describe their homes, it is their own story they are telling. As if they are enmeshed in the spaces they inhabit. Over time, users fill their homes with memories and fantasies, which become invisible furniture harder to move than the heaviest of shelves.

A rented flat in the Raphaels’ house, where the URBZ office is located. Photo by Miriam Bonino.

In that sense, a house is more than a physical structure –it is an assemblage of people, affects, materials and activities. The ‘form’ that this assemblage assumes is dependent on the availability of material, physical constraints, social aspirations, rules and regulations, economic opportunities, aesthetic sensibilities and so on. The way these elements relate to each other produces the drama of neighbourhoods and the stuff of cities.

At the convergence of many elements, the house is a dynamic and possibly unstable construction; a mashup of disparate impulses and imperatives that pull it together, and sometimes apart.

In some of the neighbourhoods where we work, houses are so responsive to the life and activities that inhabit them that they seem to keep morphing before our eyes. They fluently take on new functions, get extended and consolidated. Sometimes they are destroyed and rebuilt on the same footprint in only a few weeks.

Take for instance, the house from where we write these lines. It was originally built in the early eighties by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation along with dozens of others. Each building began as a simple arrangement of corrugated metal sheets. They acted as transitory shelters for displaced slum dwellers. The first residents soon left, replaced by fresh migrants.

The Raphaels in front of their home in Dharavi’s New Transit Camp. Photo by Brooks Reynolds.

The Raphaels arrived 25 years ago from the southern state of Kerala. They used the house to run different types of businesses. In turn it became a tobacco stand, general store, gift shop, ice cream bar, Chinese takeaway and a mobile phone shop. About fifteen years since their arrival, the structure transformed into a brick and cement house with a little toilet attached. Three years on, it sprouted two more floors. The space now includes three businesses, four families, a few seasonal workers, an embroidery workshop and our office – a little rectangular room with whitewashed walls and windows that stares into a low-rise roof-leaden landscape of corrugated cement sheets, blue plastic sheets and tiles.

The surrounding brick and cement forest is made of tens of thousands of such stories. Together they form the untold urban history of Mumbai, a saga of neighbourhoods ‘in-formation’, building, working, selling, making, shopping, resting, sleeping all over the city.

Above: Roof of Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup, Mumbai Northern suburb. Below: A street of Utkarsh Nagar where Konkan lifestyle was reproduced. What may look like a slum from above is a village inside.

While the official mind still frames them as slums, in reality, most of these neighbourhoods aren’t slummy at all and none is ‘informal’ in any sense of the term. Many of them have historically developed from villages, nearly 200 of which are officially recognized by the city today. These villages are part of an earlier moment, when fishing and paddy cultivation were part of the landscape of Mumbai’s northern regions.

Since they pre-dated colonial notions of urban planning and functional zoning, these habitats easily absorbed newcomers and activities. Plots of land were converted into settlements like it continues to happen in many rapidly expanding cities around the world. The blurry edges of the metropolis seamlessly merged from rural to urban, making these categories irrelevant and inadequate.

Tokyo, where strict definitions of villages and cities were not imposed onto land use, is another city that managed to retain its ability of combining high-density dwellings with agricultural plots in metropolitan areas. The same tendency to accept diverse uses has produced its remarkable urban fabric, shaped by low-rise, high-density neighbourhoods in which local businesses rub shoulders with small homes.

In Mumbai likewise, the malleability of the village seems to have survived in many of the city’s neighbourhoods. They stand outside the ideological spaces of urban planning and design. Yet, they cannot be termed informal. They are socially very organized and deeply enmeshed in the city’s economy in spite of being under tremendous political and legal scrutiny. Local culture and religion play an important role in shaping them. Sacred sites often determine their spatial organization, a pattern recurrent in habitats ranging from Indian villages to Japanese neighbourhoods. The stability conferred by such strong cultural anchors allows habitats to be constantly reinvented, without losing their local imprint.

The creative upgrading and reconstruction of houses has sometimes been compared to the transmission of myths. Myths are retellings colored by new personalities and with added features making them perpetually relevant to changing contexts. This plasticity of form and its impermanence is what allows for creative architectural practices as well as powerful myths to live on.

If houses resemble myths, one of the most potent storytellers of contemporary urban India is the contractor. A dynamic figure, he is the embodiment of the rags to riches tale that permeates his world. He has lived and worked on small construction sites – his technical training ground – often from a very young age.

Construction worker on a roof in Dharavi. Photo by Francesco Galli.

Working where he grew up, he knows every street and corner, the travails of every inhabitant and the flexibility and restrictions of each rule and regulation that entrap him. He works closely with upwardly mobile households telling them of the latest techniques and how these can be factored into their small but determined savings. His business model relies on good reputation and strong local networks. He is friends and enemies with local municipal officers with whom the emerging landscape has to constantly play games of legality with.

The contractor represents a rich possibility of transformation, using existing vocabularies of construction. To start a dialogue with him with regard to technology, design and aesthetics is a sure way to enrich the language of the city’s architecture.

Mumbai’s built forms are distinctive. Its colonial structures originated as weird mashups of European and Mughal fantasies, its villages were enmeshed in urban growth and its neighbourhoods were physical reproductions of small towns, with quaint vernacular flourishes.

All through the process, the figure of the contractor played a vital role. In non-government, community lead construction projects, it was the contractor who dominated. The difference between then and now is that earlier the question of design involved in building processes was infused by cultural confidence.

It is difficult to recreate that spontaneity in today’s unplanned neighbourhoods when they are trapped in an official rhetoric of ‘slums’ or are only seen as wasted real estate. Yet, it is well worth stimulating creativity there. It is only when a new story is told, which understands the particular language, respects its main players and engages with its political economy, that neighbourhoods ‘in-formation’ can grow into their full potential.

A street in Utkarsh Nagar, Bhandup.

Sharing our own fantasies with contractors is one way we build trust and open up collaborations. Strange stories are exchanged, sometimes bordering on sci-fi; of the great megalopolises of Tokyo and Mumbai, mysteriously merging into one another, tales of cyborgic structures, where the house becomes a technological extension of the artisanal tools of trade. We also get mutually stimulated by exotic notions of design and aesthetics and feel the potential for new mashups to emerge with complete disregard of any purist architectural style.

The more such stories are shared, the quicker will perspectives change and more effective the transformation of such neighbourhoods. The coming together of worlds that have been for too long separated by their own economic and social Berlin Wall is long overdue. Vulnerable First World economies and Third World resiliency are increasingly discovering each other, offering new opportunities for urban practitioners on both sides.

As urbanologists, we get inspired by the places we live and work in and find ways of engaging with them. Our practice involves entering into the life of the neighborhood, becoming one of the characters, getting involved in the ongoing drama, moulding and being moulded by the unfolding events, mixing, merging and mashing up the different strands that emerge with every moment.

Editorial Published in DOMUS 955 (Italian Edition), Feb 2012

Urbane Villages, Wild City

March 13, 2012

1. Gaothans of Mumbai

Location of East-Indian villages in Mumbai: source:

There are 189 East Indian Villages in Mumbai with a total population of 1 million people. In a sense as many if not more people in Mumbai live in villages than in the state of Goa. In a strange twist of narratives, there are some official documents which presents Goa as a highly urbanized state, with as many people living in urbanized areas (large modern villages and towns) as there who live in its official 350 villages. We evoke both these stories simultaneously because they have the potential of supporting each other. In Mumbai, the East Indian Villages, like their Goan counterparts are very well organized at the community level and are battling with local politicians, builders and the vast urban jungle that has grown around them in what they perceive as a wild and uncontrolled way. However as anybody can see, Mumbai seems to be a hopeless case. And many would say that in Goa too it is a difficult battle.

2. Villages and diversity of habitats

The village story of Mumbai is the tip of a long standing argument we make about incremental growth of cities that takes along with it a great diversity of habitats that the city has produced including villages, chawls and low-cost affordable housing structures often called slums. Our engagement with these habitats, ranging from the heritage story of Khotachiwadi to the Koliwadas of Dharavi have made apparent the deep connections between the form of villages and the so-called informal settlements for which the former acts as a template. Mumbai never was a city of slums and skyscrapers but one in which a great variety of built forms accommodated people working at different layers of the its powerful economy. Old villages provided land for affordable housing on a large scale and their templates were reproduced in the thousands of habitats that emerged all over the city.

3. Slums, villages and urbanization

The overwhelming presence of these habitats, often referred to as ‘slums’ is connected to a confusion about urban forms and can be seen from the example when British authorities in the late 19th century referred to Khotachiwadi as a slum and today, this village is enshrined as a heritage hamlet. This example reveals the deep wedge in Mumbai’s history between its two distinct phases. One is the south-oriented story that starts with the development of the docks by the British in the seventeenth century. The other is an older, northern-bound story that starts with the Portuguese conquest and domination of the regions around Vasai village in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the influence of the British East India company company increased through the development of the docks, many groups migrated from the Gujarat and Maharashtra regions all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Working class communities found themselves being absorbed by the villages that existed, in what was then perceived to be, the peripheral regions of the north. These lands were mostly owned mostly by Catholic landlords. All through the early twentieth century, poorer migrant groups would pay rents to landlords to set up hamlets that became their homes. Interestingly, richer rural communities, mostly upper caste Catholics, who happened to be educated and got skilled jobs in the docks also reproduced similar hamlets – referred to as wadis.

4. Mumbai in Goa

These expressed themselves in newer villages like Khotachiwadi – a hamlet of cottages in Girgaum or a similar one in Matharpakadi at Mazagaon. Today these habitats are living and dying simultaneously. Khotachiwadi is a cluster of about twenty-eight small cottages and bungalows built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the heart of the city. Today it is referred to as an urban heritage precinct mainly because of its distinct architectural flourishes linked to an Indo-Portuguese past. Right from the start, the homes represented a diverse set of architectural influences – Portuguese villas, Maharastrian coastal cottages, Goan homes and regular cottages and bungalows found in the region. In its hey-day – the early twentieth century – the village boasted of about eighty-eight such individually owned or leased homes. Today, it is surrounded by urban forms that literally look down upon the hamlet and see it no better than one more ‘slum’ in the neighbourhood.

The Khotachiwadi story is essentially a starting point for us to examine a whole range of locally built neighbourhoods all over Mumbai. An overwhelming 60 % of the population of the city lives in these spaces and has continued to mutate from the village like form, which was often from where they grew. These neighbourhoods keep the city’s economy going, subsidise costs of living for most of its workers, and once invested with civic amenities are perfectly desirable places. They have enhanced the value of urban land through intensive use and need to be protected from the predatory speculative impulse which has transformed the city at large into a real-estate roulette game. They combine, in true village fashion, spaces of working and living, and have made the tool-house a very contemporary, post-industrial component of urban living. By focusing on this form as a valid one, working closely with contractors who build them, by attempting to invest in the technology of building such spaces, we hope to develop an alternative discourse of urban living, especially for the so-called ‘sluym-dwellers’.

To do this we look towards Goa because this is one place in the world which has produced a unique template for habitats thanks mostly to its ability of validating the village as a modern form. It is because the village in Goa continues to be dynamic that the villages of Mumbai don’t appear to be anachronistic. By bringing together the stories of villages in Mumbai and Goa we feel that it is possible to focus once again on the ability of modern habitats to escape from a limited notion of what urban living has to be. We evoke Anthony Leeds understanding of the urban system, with villages and towns networked with each other to best epitomise Goa’s unique land use patterns – under threat of course. Goa’s urban system, as long as it continues to validate its villages, can be a viable alternative urban form to the large metropolitan thrust that otherwise we are moving towards and which only produce self-made problems around housing as we in Mumbai today.

All this brings us back to the not-so-accidental fact of the Portuguese connections between Mumbai and Goa. The observation that different colonial moments worked differently at different points and today can become resourceful tools  for the future is a thematic that returns to haunt us again and again. What was it about the Portuguese past that allowed village forms to live, become sick, die and regenerate themselves over different points of history? Is it a coincidence that the villages of Mumbai provide a strong counterpoint to the narratives of slums and are connected to its Portuguese past? Is it a coincidence that the favelas of Sao Paolo are also reinventing themselves today and demanding a more nuanced reading of their urban form? Or that the villages of Goa are fighting tooth and nail for their future in a more intense way than many other parts of the country? Can we learn something from the incremental growth of cities the way we understand them and also extrapolate on the use of history and the past in the same way? Not by blanket totalizing narratives of oppression and overthrow but of a more resourceful utilizing of those experiences in a way that builds from wherever someone left something behind?