Utopian Futures vs. the Fictional Present

July 3, 2016

This is the summary of a talk given at Oris – House of architecture, Zagreb, Croatia on June 16th 2016, which was part of the the Future Architecture Platform. Illustrations by Ismini Christakopoulou, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava.

The modern notion of the future is based on a Biblical timeline, which has raised messianic expectations ever since Daniel’s prophesies. Such an understanding of the future even spills over into worlds where a more cyclical notion of time dominates – for example in the Asian context – and generates constant excitement of impending change. It prevails also in secular milieus, which believe that our future should be in our own hands rather than in those of the divine.

The quest for a better future is something that seems to infuse modern life, from political revolution to consumerist aspirations, from technological fantasies to ecological utopias (and dystopias). The strong faith in the possibility of a future that is radically different from the present has fueled architectural ambitions throughout the twentieth century. And it still prevails in some of the most dominant architectural practices today. ‘Parametricism’ being its latest and most hopeless expression.

Such moves are locked in linear time, where the past becomes a source of nostalgia or a vast archaeological site to be preserved in museums, while rendering the future into an amusement park of technological wonders, which promises to leave the misery of the world outside. Such grand architectural gestures always seem to provide the future in a self-contained form, managing to exclude misery out altogether in that ideal world.

The present becomes an awkward point of transitioning from an imagined past into a desirable future. It also has the irritating habit of tripping big plans and visions, by asking mundane and profane questions. It is in the present that ugly, mistaken or confused architecture sits cheek by jowl with political problems that challenge architectural ambitions.

Narratives of injustice and poverty may clearly go beyond the scope of architecture as a discipline. However, that doesn’t prevent the well-meaning architect to make a valiant attempt at becoming a saviour. He gathers as much of political energy as he can and gifts his architectural solution to the world, which can either emerge in the form of a master plan (for instance to rehabilitate millions of slum dwellers) or as a small but perfectly controlled architectural object (such as the $300 house project -R.I.P.). That these projects actually have no relationship to the context they are supposed to transform doesn’t bother him the least.

To the young heroic architect aiming at making a difference, looking at the present is not as straightforward as it seems. Especially when the dominant gaze is already coloured so heavily by a linear notion of time. The present is infinitely complex and dynamic, fusing the familiar with the unknown with disconcerting fluency.

Thankfully, linear time is not the only way to relate to the world. If anything at all – it only seems to distract us from a creative, imaginative and direct engagement with the present.

The present contains its own ‘becoming’. It inevitably moves in different directions, pushed and pulled by all of us. But we, who produce the present, are also firmly embedded in it. The present absorbs the future – not through the projected fantasies of a few visionaries but through the chipping and shaping away of the present by those who live in it – the unruly multitude of inhabitants.

The full range of architectural concerns, where the language of space, time and depth shape worlds and animate built-forms are all pervasive processes. These are important and exciting holistic moments. It is a real pity to split them up along a linear representation of time.

What would a practice of architecture and urban design that is not projecting ‘the future’ look like? One which is rooted in the present, rather than in a nostalgic notion of the past, or a wonder of the future, even though it may be inspired from and powered by those fantasies?

The notion of ‘recognition’ provides an important clue. Forms would not simply be projected out of nowhere, but are based on the recognition of processes at work in the production of places (economic, cultural, political). ‘Form follows recognition’ is the tagline of our current exhibition at the House of Architecture in Graz. In our introduction to the exhibition we explain that:

The process of recognition involves a reorientation of our gaze, and the way we interpret and deal with the world around us. It is about framing the reality in a way that allows us, and everyone else, to become legitimate actors. It is about the acceptance of our world as an unfinished and imperfect, collective work in process. And taking part in that process.

According to Amitav Ghosh, “Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge… The knowledge that results from recognition … is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.” (The Great Derangement, 2016, pp: 5-7). The act of recognition thus involves the establishment of a relationship between the subject and the object – which may be almost fusional. It is not a passive observation but an active engagement with the present and the potential that it embodies. Pre-cognitive forms of intuition and creativity thus have a central role to play in the act of recognition.

In another exhibition, currently showing at the Maxxi in Rome, we show wood, steel and acrylic models of ‘dream tool-houses’ designed by artisans in Dharavi, Mumbai, with the help of the urbz team. A tool-house is a typology that is very typical of unplanned settlements such as Dharavi, but which is also pervasive throughout Asia – from India to China and Japan. It merges residential functions with productive functions, thus optimising the use of space in dense neighbourhoods.

The tool-house models we produced with local actors in Dharavi are fictional and idealised representations of the reality they live in. They represent a potential that is at once hopeful and pragmatic, which draws on local skills and responds to local needs better than any utopian urban design for the future of Dharavi ever could.

Architectural Practice for the Living Present

February 10, 2014

Aditya Vipparti of URBZ showing different options to Sunni Chishtiya mosque committee members in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi (Mumbai). (More photos here).

Professional practices change and adapt to the times. Some take longer to respond to new challenges while others are adept at being dynamic. A few, like architectural practice and urban planning, tend to evolve in a more ambivalent way. They are preserved and legitimized by the transmission of technical knowledge, but also aspire to be creative and visionary in bolder ways than, say, law. It is not uncommon to find well-known architectural names or urban leaders prominent in public debates on urban spaces. Their pronouncements about the world tend to be taken seriously. Their visions have the potential to shape choices people make.

Yet, the economic and institutional logic that frames such practices, weigh down the inherent creativity that exists within. Architects often complain about the world being limited by narrow choices. Their projects can be constrained by political cycles or economic downturns. Sometimes it is the local circumstances that seem hostile or too messy. Or it is their client’s taste that is the cause, affected as it is, by popular culture or an apparently irrational faith in old-fashioned ways of building.

Architectural studios, offices and publications are often full of futuristic and visionary images about the way the world and its constituent buildings should look like. These speculative designs seem to be floating in space, free from the constraints of the lived world. That these designs tend to rehearse clichéd notions of the future that have all been seen already in B-grade science fiction is not what we are most concerned about. What is more preoccupying is that even talented architects, who have the ability of imbuing meaning and possibly even beauty to their work, often get frustrated when it comes to inserting their vision into a piece of urban reality. Their exigencies then become about reproducing the impossible condition of the blank Autocad document into the lived world: No financial limitation, clean square plots, obedient and invisible workers, and ideally no client – or a rich client that keeps quiet.

Unfortunately, these conditions are not available, especially in the world of the proverbial “99%”. The environment of choice for many architects who want a faithful rendition of their visions thus include galleries, biennials and classrooms, which keep the messiness of everyday life at bay. The same architects land up in teaching positions, inculcating generations of students with a certain scorn for the world that they are supposed to contribute building.

The mismatch between the world out there and the way architects are trained has produced the most bizarre amount of speculative drawings that have no connection whatsoever with anything alive. For the most part, architectural education assumes that the tabula rasa is an available condition. But when can we ever start anything from scratch? Every place has a pre-existing ecology and history, as well as on-going social dynamics. These conditions define any built space, whether we want it or not. Tabula rasa is the primmest of all architectural utopias.

The desire to reproduce the condition of the white page, where supposedly the creative input of the architect is unconstrained, has lead to the cult of starchitects, who seem to be the only ones in this world who have enough aura to impose their grand design visions. On a closer look however, even a Koolhaas or a Gerry are constrained by power structures above them. Their agency is always tempered, in ways that would hurt the vision of idealists. This is why most starchitects cannot afford to be purists in action. They are well aware of the trade off between getting grand commissions and being free to express their individual agency. What comes out as frustration for the greater number of architects, becomes cynicism for those at the top of the professional hierarchy.

Yet, there are a variety of entry points available to anyone willing to engage with the exigencies of the living world. We want to examine what could the architect in particular do to respond to these challenges.

Model for the Ahle Sunat mosque in Baiganwadi, designed in collaboration with Torino architects Studio Marc. The model maker, Sanjay Sonawane is an artist and sculptor in Shivaji Nagar, here with Shardul Patil of URBZ. (More photos here).

It has become very common to see students of architecture take their learning from the university into the world – only to find that it doesn’t quite match. Living contexts are dynamic and multi-dimensional in ways that routinized learning just does not prepare them for, while their own individual personalities and choices create other uncertainties.

It can be argued that the full potential and genuine possibilities are not presented to them so the paths laid out to them appear limited. For example, in a highly competitive professional world, aspiring architects often find that work is scarce. And yet – the amount of construction going on around the world is enormous.

The thing is, a lot of it is taking place outside the radar of known professional choices. Millions of people build their own homes with the help of local construction workers without the help of architects, simply because the conventions of construction, their occupancy status, the political location of these settlements is not one that most architects are willing to negotiate.

It is also true that students of architecture and other urban practitioners can be found in favelas of Latin America, and settlements of Africa and Asia in fairly significant numbers. But rather than only channelizing their surplus energy of goodwill – like barefoot architects – what would go a longer way is a little re-arrangement of professional practices.

Work environments in this day and age are located in the interstices of many new configurations and fault lines. The virtual, spatial and temporal collapse of experience has become part of everyday reality.

A small contractor working in a homegrown settlement in Mumbai has access to the Internet, some robust local finance and the needed political support to start a project. An office in far away Torino can connect with him to produce a conversation that in the near future can become a wholesale professional arrangement. A pedreiro from Sao Paulo may want to make a visit to India and compare construction techniques. Researchers working on new material technologies in Boston can experiment with live applications where it matters most. A practicing architect from anywhere can mediate all such conversations.

Contractor Ataide Caetite in Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo, where he is building his own home with the help of the local URBZ team. (More photos here).

Of course – for this to become a reality, an emergence of a new kind of politics is also important. The role that architects can play even in this regard is very significant. Politics is imbued with idealism and idealism needs visions which architects of today are specially trained to provide. The only reason they have not stepped into that space with more confidence is because they are constrained by professional considerations and economic concerns. Even while millions of residents around the world keep doing what the known professional world also does – finance and build homes.

The tools for reaching out to this world are already there. Why not shape and sculpt an architectural practice specifically for the living world and living subjects?

Maybe the only reason not many are jumping onto this bandwagon is because of a paucity of visualizing the future for such a world. For some reason, the present in architectural practice is intertwined with visions of the future and there seems to be no appealing horizon for the world that these millions are aspiring for. That’s why the voices and exuberant energy seem to be easily and abruptly dissipated on Youtube videos after every surge of protest.

And yet – if you google images of an architecture of the future – and examine what you get, you will discover a mirror set of images from the results of a similar search for medieval architecture. Either way, you get images as disconnected from the living present as you can possibly imagine.

Maybe this is where architectural practice as we know it today is trapped in. A timeless zone, firewalled from the living present, which is a reality for hundreds of million people around the world. To escape such a predicament, all one has to do is what most of us so easily do in this day and age. Get connected.

Yet, connecting to the lived world is not as easy as it sounds, especially for those in the architectural professions that have taken comfort in their labs and studios. Connection means the establishing of a relationship that has the potential of destabilizing certitude and comfort zones. This is because, the feedback one gets from the field, from people, is less polite than a Facebook poke and more real than a symposium. The kind of connected practice we think about is based on the realization that knowledge flows in more than one way; that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence to be gathered in worlds that were once only thought of as too distant, hopeless or backward.

For the architectural practitioner, this necessarily implies another relationship to his own creative agency. It is not about imposing one order onto another, or bringing more rationality into an existing local practice of construction. The authority of the architect as an expert in design, material and structure can only be played out when it is connected with the knowledge of other actors who are rooted in their imminent reality. What happens otherwise is mutual dismissal. The context and the actors reject architectural design as being incompatible with their reality. The architect rejects the context as one that doesn’t have the channels in place that allow him to express his professional expertise. This is a loss both ways.

Why should architectural practitioners have to reproduce the same inflexibility and directive approach as some of their own patrons, only to find themselves being frustrated by the fact that unlike those powerful players, they don’t have the means of imposing their vision onto a defiant world?

So what would “live architecture” be like? What does it mean to practice an architecture that doesn’t require a contextual vacuum to express itself? One that acknowledges the depth of any departure point, and the nonlinearity of the process?

This would not be a utopian architecture. It would rather be something between pragmatism, boldness, optimism and playfulness, emerging from whatever exists while drawing inspiration from it. Even if it aims at totally subverting all that’s there, the living present still provides its starting and ending points.

URBZ teamsters Giacomo Ardesio, Shardul Patil, and Bharat Gangurde on the site of a Shiva Temple in Shivaji Nagar (Govandi) with shuttering contractors. (More photos here).

Connected to the context would mean more than using the physical reality as a backdrop for clever designs. The context, however fucked up, (or fuckable as some repeatedly like to say) is ultimately the most creative and challenging of social, economic and psychological canvases. Avoiding a messy collaboration with what is in there is a cop-out and can only produce more outdated and anachronistic architecture that hides behind easy labels.

The biggest threat for an established architect, when engaging with such a live architectural process is that one can never be sure of the outcome. If the outcome is a built object, then one has to accept that the way it ends up looking may not quite be what the architect initially had in mind. Some of his ideas may be reinterpreted along the way to become something else altogether. This means that the agency of the architect should no longer be limited to producing a design that must be executed precisely. And the agency of others can play with that of the architect. All this must not be suffered through. Rather, they must be acknowledged as objective and subjective forces that one must use to compose with. The respect and non-hierarchical relationship that such a process promotes are ethical, aesthetic and pragmatic at once. They are based on the recognition that mere imposition of a design is neither desirable nor possible.

Is all this possible or desirable? Only experiments will tell. The biggest challenge in this process seems to be to connect worlds that have taken comfort in ignoring each other for so long. It may be a bumpy ride, but one full of the kind of thrill that even Autocad can’t provide!

The Aesthetic of Habitats

June 18, 2013

In her contemplation on subjectivity and aesthetics in the public realm of architecture and living spaces, Pauline von Bonsdorff, author of The Human Habitat: Aesthetic and Axiological Perspectives asks some thought-provoking questions: ‘What is the relation between everyday – tacit, uninformed, confident – environmental experience and the significance of the built environment? What are buildings and how do they become what they are, on the street?’ (p. 10) ? Is there stability in the roles of the elements of the built environment and in their capacity to be valued?’ (p. 13).

Her attempts at answering these questions provide powerful conceptual tools to understand contemporary urban realities – and of course, much more than that.

In the reflections that follow, we use, interpret, and maybe even distort some of her insights (due to our own limitations) to come closer to answering our questions as urban practitioners working in Mumbai city.

Individual architectural subjects have been a perennial feature of practice and criticism. In the medieval past, the biggest and most glorious practices of architecture were shaped by an economy of sacred power and imperial strength. These influenced themes, sizes and costs of each structure. The aesthetic could spill over cultural boundaries and reflect all kinds of fantasies, providing for a pastiche that only in retrospect became respectable with dignified and definite narratives. Thus Islamic influences on Christian styles and vice versa, themselves amalgamations of a myriad local influences got naturalized gradually, with a play of remembering and forgetting. However, strong pronouncements of what is beautiful and truly glorious were integral to the process of construction, even though the particular constituents of aesthetics were debatable.

Today, in mainstream practice, it seems as if technological advancements in the fields of spacecraft technology have become new frames of reference, based on contemporary notions of the sacred – with faith in modern technology and its accompanying aesthetics. Futuristic universal structures punctuate cities all around the world, and create comfortingly familiar environments, becoming naturalized as smoothly as before. Glass and steel structures in Bangalore sooner or later become part of the local scape like colonial structures once did. There is a reaction to this as well – with grunge, organic aesthetics inspired by environmental discourses doing their own thing. Artistic and creative counter or sub cultures play their role in shaping such forms and expressions.

However, it is doubtful  if either of these templates go deep enough in satisfactorily addressing the full range of expressions of built environments and the needs of users, dwellers, inhabitants.

According to historian and novelist scholar Umberto Eco, our contemporary responses never really transcend medieval impulses. Whether in terms of the glories of grand structures or the sacralizing of nature. It is not transcended in popular culture, nor (in more insidious ways) in high culture, where aesthetics, with all its post-modern twists, continues to have its say. It continues to pass judgment about what is good and bad about buildings, cities, neighbourhoods and all kinds of cultural artefacts. Here past and present, medieval and modern get mixed and re-mixed to create their own anxieties about what is appropriate and beautiful and what is not.

There are other things that remain the same as well. In the medieval past, it was rare that the habitats and dwellings, bazaars and streets surrounding sacred structures got the same investments in terms of attention, expense or investment. In our appreciation of historical architectural grandeur, we sanitize memory all the time. It is only in realist works of fiction and detailed historiographies that we become aware of the everyday contexts as they existed in the past. It is difficult to remember those realities since they have now been sterilized for tourism or to appeal to contemporary tastes. In the past, peasant quarters outside feudal estates, bazaar streets or artisan quarters at the fringes of religious and royal grounds, were not perceived differently from primitive habitats that existed at the edge of or in forests. They were rarely bought into any frame of aesthetic appreciation.

Similarly, in contemporary urban worlds, habitats and dwellings within cities often become invisible or obscure in the public imagination. In visual culture they get subsumed within gated colonies, and high security buildings on one hand or shanties and dark, dangerous alleyways on the other. The aesthetics of the habitat itself, where people live and work have become about interiors or  – at the most – about inner protected worlds within open cities – like gentrified streets, heritage enclaves, tourist friendly villages and art neighbourhoods.

When the economy and polity cannot accommodate people who are unable to afford any of these spaces – their habitats and dwellings are only seen in the most extreme of anti-aesthetic terms. In which words such as slums, shanties, run-down neighbourhoods become both, the embodiment of all that is not beautiful and something more absolute – those which can never become beautiful. Unless they completely undergo a metamorphoses.  Any attempts at seeing an aesthetic within those spaces becomes immediately immoral – as if one is validating the context as a whole – including its apparent brutality.

More than anything else – it is this burden that our work carries when we engage with small parts of the 6 million people strong so-called slum-world of Mumbai. We see in the consistent efforts of the inhabitants living in them, a desire to improve their dwellings, their neighbourhoods, using their own benchmarks of beauty and desire. Which often overlaps with what the practice of building and construction in the rest of the city also wants. We see smooth tiles, steel and glass and much else that is all too familiar, even futuristic.

Along with this, there is a deeper structure that pulls the habitat into coherence. You can still see the genus of older dwellings underlying those spaces. The spirit of the place is evoked from the act of people coming together and building their own environments, using local networks, and all kinds of affordable technologies, relying on community and family networks and using living sacred sites to organize the neighbourhoods. Shadows of the pasts, or from elsewhere, persist. They reproduce structures from villages far away, even accommodating primordial markers of habitats like wells and orchards, within a contemporary urban fabric of immense density.

However, to say this aloud makes us vulnerable to the worst of modern political slurs. We get accused of being romantics and supporters of poverty. Accusations come even when we demonstrate the resilient and robust economy that underlies the making of these spaces. Arguments like ours may have been made several times before. They represent a small part of a vast archive of similar commentaries made by a host of observers and practitioners. Yet they are all dismissed or ignored.

It is for this reason that we found Bonsdorff’s work giving us some new openings. Maybe it is important for us to go back with more fierceness into understanding what exactly is the aesthetic of a habitat. Why has it been subsumed within a larger discourse of architectural practice? Or a sub-set of planning in which it is rarely expressed with the same sophistication as architectural or planning practices are? Is it possible to understand it with more useful tools than what Avatar – style eco-fantasies provide us? Which after all are part of the same neo-medieval worlds that Eco suggests we are trapped in? As absolute as the world of spacecraft technologies and equally ineffective.

Mumbai’s thousands of so-called slums, are composed of habitats that include a wide variety of forms linked to distinct histories. Traditional villages, artisanal colonies, working class tenements, temporary structures, modern dwellings, – all of them are subsumed within a generic category that has little basis in reality. To tell the stories and distinct histories of each of these neighbourhoods is a very important exercise. And an effective way of doing that is by understanding their form, their specific story.

The gaze from the outside and the inner experience of living in those spaces must converge at some point. Such a convergence will make it possible to appreciate what these neighbourhoods really mean to the story of urbanism as we experience it today. And the question of aesthetics as it applies to habitats and dwellings is crucial to this story.

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.

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!

Kolhapur Photo Diary

December 28, 2009

Kolhapur is a small town in the south-west region of the state of Maharashtra, not more than four hours drive from Goa. It is part of a district with the same name, on the prosperous sugar-cane growing belt which makes the rural areas relatively more prosperous than the town itself. Kolhapur is known for several artisanal goods such as leather slippers, pots (there is a local Kumbharwada, potters colony right in its inner city area) and once even had a bustling movie industry (around the early and mid-twentieth century), besides being a well known patron for classical music. It fascinates us not as a town alone, but as an urban system that includes a well-off country side and some distinctive architecture thanks to its princely lineage, ruled as it was by a king until the Indian independence. But most significantly of all, a group of enthusiasts who love their little part of the world. We found an architect who conducts studios with international students along with doing his practice, a high level of civic pride with the presence of several action groups including ‘Kolhapur Calling’ and several young people trained in Kolhapur’s well known educational center – Shivaji University – and its college of architecture D.Y. Patil.

Local Architectural Flourishes

Local Architectural Flourishes

The ubiquitous black stone frequently used in coastal Maharashtra

The ubiquitous black stone frequently used in coastal Maharashtra


Lost Lady

Lost Lady

On the fringes, but in the urban system? Dhangar Nomadic Shephards

On the fringes, but in the urban system? Dhangar Nomadic Shepards

Brick Kilns - made right outside the city

Brick Kilns - made right outside the city

Digital Bungalows: Thats what the poster says!

Digital Bungalows: Thats what the poster says!

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

The Conflict Inside

February 22, 2009

Text published on a special issue of the Indian Architect & Builder on ‘conflict’, February 2009.

An issue dedicated to conflict and architecture is a perfect opportunity to think about the conflicts inherent to the profession, for they are symptomatic of a deeper social stress and have a profound impact on our cities. Architecture seems to be in constant conflict mode. Against the elements, against clients, against developers, against planners, against previous conventions, techniques and theories. Even against itself. That’s why architects make good mercenaries, working in the service of rich clients, and also being intense critical theorists. However, they rarely become fighters in their own names. Or even in the names of other causes.

Architects have generally ignored the political dimension of their work, even though this has been the main topic of much urban theory throughout the later part of the Twentieth Century. They have instead preferred to pose as designers concerned first and foremost with form and aesthetic. However, we know since Freud that whatever is repressed and interiorized will come out in some other way. This is why we would like to take a hard look at conflict within, and suggest a way to deal with it.

It is our contention that the conflicts within the profession should be addressed by the architects in their daily practice. The photos accompanying this essay illustrate how a new generation of architects is coming to terms with these issues, by engaging directly in the urban realm and using their skills to improve the living conditions of the people who are most deeply affected by social injustice. It is only recently that architects have started looking at the environmental, economic, and political impact and potential of architecture.

Architects usually think of themselves as mighty creators, producing context rather than responding to it. However, as Arjun Appadurai reminds us, there is no architectural construction without destruction. Architects typically have to destroy whatever is on the ground before their own venture can start. It is virtually impossible to build without uprooting trees and disturbing the local ecosystem. And that’s just for a house. Imagine the destruction involved in the production of a neighbourhood or a city.

The ritual of destruction and construction is actualized in different ways in different cultures and civilizations. Sacrifices, prayers, games, collective performances are all brought into play when transformations are in progress. The rituals that modern creators perform are similar in spirit. Architects, governments and urban planners make searing critiques of earlier designs, templates and forms, thus rendering entire schools of thoughts and practices redundant. They declare whole neighbourhoods as dysfunctional and arcane in acts of symbolic destruction before setting up their own plans and designs into motion – which eventually will face a similar fate.

At heart, most architects know that 99% of buildings are built without architects. Just as most cities are not master planned. Yet, this cannot be acknowledged after a point, lest it mean hacking at the very branch they sit on. As a result architects split themselves up. Their roles as commentator and critic become distinct from that of a practitioner. It is virtually impossible to have a dialogue between the two stances. For example, you have a Rem Koolhas who theoretically advocates an anti-architectural stance and then goes on to produce artifacts in the same breath. What bridges these two positions is a shrug and a sigh – usually of resignation. A resignation embodying both self-awareness and cynicism.

Construction of a school and cultural centre a favela in Rio. See below for more explanations.

Architects find themselves in the eye of this cyclical industry of building and re-building and soon discover that their talents are frequently abused and perverted. The more architects become aware of the history of the discipline and the forces that shape it, the greater is their disenchantment. They become highly conscious of the contradictions the profession embodies. They are aware that, as an artist or a socially concerned individual, they have one set of impulses, and as a professional another.

The conflict between the world of ideas and the world of money, and its collusion in the form of luxury homes and corporate architecture is every bit as dramatic as the suffering endured by a bipolar patient, passing from a state of ecstatic joy to one of utter depression. In the same way, architects can experience the sublime joy of pouring forth the human thrust for eternal recognition. And minutes later be confronted with the dire realization that not only will their contributions not be fully acknowledged, even by the people whom they were intended to serve, but also that their visions will be revised and adapted to the will of the all mighty client. Instead of being gods themselves, they are merely pawns in the service of a higher being: the client.

Responses to this sorry state of affairs have been as imaginative as one could expect. One is a special version of the Stockholm syndrome that causes architects to fall in love with their client. At this point, they can become “bottom-up” advocates submitting themselves to the will of the noble savage for whom they have all types of contradictory feelings. Sometimes they decide to indulge in the love of money, cynically selling their creativity to whomever pays more.

Another kind of response transforms them into Peter Pans. They refuse to grow out of the mighty age of architectural adolescence, when all dreams were lived with full intensity and faith. This sometimes produces geniuses such as constructivist Iakov Chernikhov, who entered the pantheon of famous architects after building only one structure, but sketching hundreds of fantasies into architectural glory; and Hermann Finsterlin who privileged inspiration over rationalism and refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would hurt his creativity. But usually it produces teachers of architecture, who take their revenge by making their pupils dream harder and higher than they ever could, thereby producing the next generation of frustrated architects.

Architects are nearly never able to resolve their internal conflicts between artistic creation, building actualization, economic success and social recognition. Even those architects that become superstars have often been so used to selling their soul on Main Street that they have become intellectually frigid and unable to experience the simplest joys of creation. The practice of architecture evokes the greatest agony amongst its most creative and rebellious souls. They are acutely aware of the inconsistencies they embody, at once full of importance as producers of the physical world and profoundly aware of their own futility.

Sometimes these internal conflicts produce a friction that stimulates creativity even as it destroys the creator in his core. Sleepless nights, heavy consumption of coffee and cigarettes, hours in front of the computer screen, loneliness and seclusion from the family, and miserable paychecks are the common lot of architects around the world.

Architects are usually unwilling to face the true object of their quest. They are therefore unable to realize how this quest could be fulfilled. Lets face it, architects are narcissistic egomaniacs dreaming of reshaping the world in their own individual and idealized self-image. Architecture as we know it today may be a language but it is hardly a spiritual path. Ego has been driving architecture for as far as we can remember. And that’s true of almost all acts of creation.

This drive is fundamentally human and its fulfillment possible, if only one approaches it with a healthy dose of pragmatism and a bit of perversion. It can be done by hitting at the aesthetic and economic arrangements on which the profession is based -from below. For example, let’s not immediately aim at designing the highest skyscrapers or masterplanning an entire city. Instead channelize these impulses into the total production of a structure that means the world to someone who would normally not have the means to afford an architect. See this not as do-good charity, but as the way to a balanced resolution. A sacred union of the enemies within the architect’s psyche will certainly happen once you swim against the tide and project the self not merely on a CAD design, but more radically engage in the physical production of an architectural object. If the whole mind and body focus on the enormously challenging task of realizing a project with limited means, you will shock the system and transform it. All you must do is fully project your ingenuity, skills, and know-how into every minute of the construction process. Even the most conventional colleagues will have to applaud this move. The architect will then really feel like god, since, as the saying goes: “God is in the details.”

In this respect, Indian architects have a head start. They are surrounded by informally developing settlements filled with people with some resources and a great need for some architectural legitimacy and support. They can help them fulfill their own dreams of a well-built house or neighbourhood, short circuit the system and find a place in the hall of fame. Unfortunately, they are ignoring this opportunity. Instead, their colleagues from around the world are coming in large numbers – in search of the real raw material of architecture – people in need of shelter, with the basic skills of making their own.

Young architects are coming from far away to work in Indian cities because they want to learn by doing. Unplanned settlements, where many residents still remember how to build a shelter for themselves, provide the most amazing learning environment. At the same time, these deprived contexts give adventurous architects a chance to actually put their learning to good use and build. The practical knowledge of materials and methods of construction should make a comeback in architectural education, if only because they can help the contemporary architect to cure his conflicted mind.

Resolve the conflict inside the architects’ minds and we will have moved centuries ahead, into a culture of sustainability.

Photos of a 2006 project by 24 year old architect Filipe Balestra (photo) with the NGO Instituto Dois Irmãos (i2i) in Rocinha, Rio. With 200,000 to 300,000 residents and a total footprint of 0.8 sqKm, Rocinha is the largest favela of Brazil. With the help of local residents, i2i converted an old rotting house into a school and community centre. The whole project cost $30,000 out of which $16,000 went to buying the plot. It took about a year to be completed. This structure now serves nearly 70 children during the day and adults during the night. The structure hosts a large number of activities including a community centre, recycling of materials art school, Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish classes, literacy, maths, capoeira, storytelling, cinema, Internet room and other temporary activities. Filipe now lives and work in Pune, India where he works with SPARC on incrementally developable structures. For more info on i2i, visit their website: www.2bros.org.

Media Media on the Wall

February 5, 2009

The Jevon Hall on Dharavi Main road usually resounds with Bollywood music playing during marriages and festivals. But last week Bollywood arrived on Dharavi’s door steps. Music composer Bappi Lahiri, the disco king of the eighties walked up the flight of stairs to sing with a bunch of children from Ganesh Vidya Mandir and Ambedkar schools located in Dharavi.

Bappi Lahiri aka Bappi Da came for a press conference about the new album he is producing with children of Dharavi and DJ Paul Devro of the label Mad Decent (Philadelphia). We had invited Paul Devro, a veteran of the Urban Typhoon Workshop, for a week to map the music and sounds of Dharavi. When Paul expressed his unconditional love for the music of Bappi Da, we immediately tried to connect them. It worked and they got along so well that they decided to produce an album together with children from Dharavi, which Bappi Da  called “Slum Stars” as a response to the title of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Bollywood star producer Bappi Lahiri with DJ Paul Devro and young Dharavi singers at a press conference in Dharavi.

Bappi Da recorded some songs with the children in his studio. The media had come that day to check out what his public relations officer had sent out to them. Many admitted they had stepped into Dharavi for the very first time. While Bappi Da, Paul Devro and the children got good attention – there were a host of community leaders and residents who had also come for the event but were given the royal ignore. Except for a couple of press reporters  – who did interview a few – for the most part Dharavi remained in the media’s shadow this evening.

Fortunately, a local hip hop crew, the South Dandy Squad who Paul Devro had recorded and who had helped us find a space for the party in Dharavi managed to get some attention from the media.

South Dandy Squad performing a capella for a local TV network.

Yet – the media bias was clear. Just a couple of weeks earlier we, along with architect Wahid Seraj and students of Srishti School, Bangalore, helped organize an architectural studio. This was to help the faculty and graduate students of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University and the JJ School of Architecture do a project in Dharavi. The studio responded to the need of three Municipal Chawls in Dharavi to evolve plans for their self development.

Omkar Municipal Housing Society (proposed) in Kokiwada, Dharavi.

The issues were complex, but the students and the community did a terrific job in responding to the nuances. They provided alternative scenarios, using different rules and regulations. They connected with the community, who in turn gave them all the cooperation that was needed. It is rare that architects, planners and community members get a chance to collaborate like this. However, when an event was organized to present the work to the community and the public at large, we invited the media. Unfortunately, since there was no celebrity, no big speeches and consequently, very little reportage. The sole journalist who came did not publish the report as promised. It was published later – truncated within another story.

One of the persons who was disappointed, but not surprised was Mr. Ramesh Mishra, a lawyer born and brought up in one of the several Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) chawls in Dharavi, Koliwada. It was he who had invited us to help evolve plans for his chawls that subsequently lead to the studio. He was working on a case in the Human Right Commisson. It involved the right to self-development for the residents of his and a neighbouring chawl.

Ramesh Mishra (right) with members of the Urban Typhoon team, including architects Geeta Mehta and Kamu Iyer in the back.

The built-form of the ‘chawl’ evolved in colonial Bombay as a working class tenement modified on army barracks with one room per family, a common toilet and usually a long common corridor. They can be single or multi-storied structures and reportedly a good part of Dharavi comprises of chawls. Their existence testifies to some official involvement in their construction. In fact most of the tenants in the chawls in Dharavi built by the BMC (The Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation) pay controlled rent to the administration.

Municipal Chawl in Dharavi

The case by Ramesh Mishra demands that chawls such as his be exempt from the Dharavi redevelopment Plan which would reduce the size of individual homes considerably. His insistence that the BMC chawls be recognized as a distinct historical component of the neighbourhood is important at several levels. It questions the deliberate homogenization of the neighbourhood as one slum. It aligns with similar resistances by residents of Koliwada (in fact Mr. Mishra is on fairly strong ground when he says that his chawl actually comes within the purview of the Gaothan law – a special protection for urban villages).

All these concerns went into the studio but almost nothing was reported. Many residents of Dharavi have been cynical about the way the media reports or does not report stories about their neighbourhood, this is why we created www.dharavi.org which lets anyone publish their research, ideas and opinion in any language.

This is our tip to the mass media: If you want a good story speak to Mr Mishra, the South Dandy Crew and the thousand other people who have unique stories and knowledge about Dharavi. If that happens it will be a paradigm shift in the way the media understands cities and neighborhoods.

JJ School of the Arts and Columbia University students presenting their work to chawls residents. Bellow is one out of three Powerpoint presentations shown by the students to the residents. This was done after only a week of work on site. The students are now working on a more professional plan that Municipal Chawls hope to present to the authorities in June.

View more presentations from the Columbia-JJ studio in Dharavi .

In addition to the airoots team, Melissa Nahory and Sytse de Maat contributed photos to this post.

Siteless Architecture

November 16, 2008

François Blanciak’s recently published book ‘Siteless’ (MIT Press 2008) features 1001 architectural designs unconstrained by scale or context. Each of his hand drawn sketches represents a possible design for a building anywhere –or maybe nowhere– in the world. Each drawing is complemented with a title, which is just as imaginative and humorous.

This book belongs to a long tradition of experimentation in architecture, which privileged inspiration over rationalism. Its subtitle ‘1001 Building Forms’ is an homage to Iakov Chernikhov’s 101 architectural fantasies. Among François Blanciak’s other inspirations, he cites John Hejduk, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, and Hermann Finsterlin. Finsterlin notoriously refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would reduce his creativity. This rebellious attitude towards institutions and conventions is certainly present in Blanciak’s work.

Blanciak’s book seems to originate from a profound contempt for the kind of architecture he experienced, even as he worked in some of the most prestigious offices in the world, including Frank Gehry, OMA, and Peter Eisenman. It also comes as a reaction to the moral imperative for architects of fitting new buildings into an existing fabric. What if buildings could land in the city as if they came from another planet?

Architects, already frustrated by the expectations of their clients (when they are lucky enough to have any), are also told that their designs must respect the context in which they will stand. Blanciak unapologetically rejects this constraint and abstracts design from space, which allows him to design fantastic forms with an almost aerial kind of freedom. Some of the architectural designs presented in ‘Siteless’ seem to defy gravity itself.

This makes for a good sci-fi architecture, one could say, but if any of these building forms were actualized in the urban realm, they would look alien and threatening. One could also argue that, however much one believes in respecting the local context, sometimes it just needs to be woken up from its dullness. On the other hand, a context is often full of its own eccentricities, like in many Tokyo suburbs, and may only need an extra push to come into its own more confidently.

At the same time, when it comes to picking up from his 1001 forms and insert into a Tokyo landscape, Blanciak chooses one which fits rather well in the context. This reminds us that over and above sitelessness, Blanciak’s book is really making a statement about the need for  imagination in architecture. In conversation with the author, he explains how the landscape of Tokyo with its seemingly random juxtaposition of forms and functions provides for the most inspiring visual experience. This street-level experience is one that no architectural masterpiece can match.

Blanciak produces a manic stream of designs, each of which are as different and similar as snow flakes. This mass –or rather massive– creation of difference serves to make a strong point about our general inability to activate individual creativity in the urban landscape. Of course in the big bag of diversity not every form is beautiful, just as most of Blanciak’s designs taken individually would not necessarily translate into great architecture. Nonetheless, more trial and error in the urban realm would not hurt, especially if it implies a broader participation in urban development by young architects and non-professionals.

This book should not be understood as a catalog of possible architectural forms but rather as a device to trigger one’s architectural fantasies and imagination. ‘Siteless’ would make a great cookbook for self-help builders. It is indeed in contexts like Tokyo, Bombay or Rio, where large chucks of the city have been developed by local actors, one small structure at the time, that one encounters the most innovative architectural contributions, and it is precisely in these less regulated urban contexts that experimental forms could be actualized.

In a paradoxical way, contexts, when defining themselves, are so interdependent on other contexts, that they often auto-dissolve their boundaries altogether. No wonder, each individual design in ‘Siteless’, with its gravity-defying lightness, seems to generate its own imaginary context altogether.

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