October 21, 2009

James Ferreira’s House in Khotachiwadi: Preserving through change.

The word ‘mashup’ has become a frequently used web based concept – referring to a web page or application that combines data or functional uses from two or more sources to create a new service. Interestingly the word was used earlier in the world of music to refer to a song created by blending two or more compositions.

When you mashup or remix, you make a creative move that borders on being a bit subversive from the point of view of the purists – who believe that maintaining boundaries is important. Yet – in functional terms, mashing up becomes important to respond to new needs, when old modes are not satisfying enough or tend to lose their erstwhile use. But often they help consolidate older identities and traditions too.

For a country like ours, where regional diversity is so strong and profound, the biggest Mashup idea is that of India itself. An idea that has still not quite managed to come to terms with its huge contrary collection of identities.

In that hazy world of nationalism, one of the most powerful symbols was that of Mumbai itself. A city in which identities mixed and merged much more than anywhere else. Where the reality of India was more of a lived reality than in any other place. A city where the best metaphor to describe itself was that of the bhelpuri – a mashup of ingredients from the most unexpected sources which became the signature of the city’s mongrelized identity. And yet Mumbai continued to also demonstrate very clear and confident lines of tradition as well. The popularity of the bhelpuri did not mean that you could not get the most authentic forms of regional cuisine too.

Delve into the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, from Bhuleshwar to Kalbadevi, from Mohammadali Road to Colaba and you will find the best examples of very distinctive architecture, cuisine, languages and lifestyles even now. The reason why they managed to hold their own, even as the city kept growing and transforming, is because the diverse communities jostled next to each other, mixed, mashed and exchanged as much as they maintained their boundaries. Communities bought with them a little bit of Surat, Ratnagiri, Goa and several other memories and lifestyles and the neighbourhood allowed them to bloom in newer ways thereby keeping them alive. In the realms of popular film music, literary traditions, architectural practice and drama, city historians point out that this vast neighbourhood was crucial to the making of Mumbai’s modern and cosmopolitan sensibility.

From Wilson College near Chowpatty to JJ College of Architecture near Crawford market, through the thrilling variety of Girgaum with its cherry on the cake – Khotachiwadi – lies an urban conglomeration that is special to all of us – no matter where we live. We have all been touched by the magic of its history – whether it is the way we saw movies, ate out at Irani cafes, prayed at shrines of different religious traditions, and just sat next to each other in buses and trains.

This same collection of localities is being celebrated this coming week, between October 29th to November 1st 2009. Artists, film-makers, architects, urban planners and other creative types will come together from all over the world to learn from the past and present of these spaces – spaces that gave Mumbai its special cosmopolitan twist – and bring their own histories to mash it up a bit more! The URBZ MASHUP, with support from JJ College of Architecture and Wilson College, is bound to be a thrilling experience only because it plans to enter the most vital space of urban life – the imagination – and help us understand newer and more creative ways to visualize the city.

Article published in Mumbai Mirror, Wed 21, 2009

Magical Urbanism

August 26, 2009


That reality often exceeds imagination is well known. What is less often discussed is how imagination can transform reality. The urban realm offers infinite possibilities, at least in the mind. But what happens when multiple minds connect and start focusing on an idea from various perspectives, with the firm intention of actualizing it? What if that idea is stretched across the world, powered by information technology and substantiated by localized action? This is how wars, religious congregations, political campaigns, real-estate projects, festivals, movie shoots, parties and all types of creative-destructive events get realized.

A dark illustration of this capacity to actualize wild ideas is the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008. A small group of well-trained and hyper-determined youth navigated across the Arabian Sea and came ashore to Colaba, in South Mumbai. Equipped with state of the art killing machines, they put the whole city to a standstill for more than 3 days. They killed Mumbai’s top cops, hijacked police cars, twice and rampaged the city’s best hotels. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them. And the whole world was their audience.

The televised images of the attacks evoked a kind of senseless urban violence that had only been prefigured in Hollywood movies and video games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or emulated in US suburban school killings. The fact is that fantasies of radical transgression, including bombing and killing have always been part of a certain subversive imagination, which is particularly appealing to the youth. Especially those who have been brainwashed into negating their violent impulses, desires, drives, aspirations and ego-trips. Attraction to extreme violence, in fictional or actual form is often a response to an unbearable level of frustration caused by the repression of perfectly healthy impulses – impulses to do with expression of anger, creativity and active control of their lives.

It is unfair to expect any self-denial of these impulses from the youth. And it is even worse to lock them up in a world running on autopilot, where any sense of agency is deemed dangerous or impulsive. To them, such a world seems headed straight to a crash. So many youth across the world feel trapped in rigid urban and social structures; stuck in a reality that they are not allowed to reinvent. As a result they often respond passionately to fictionalized versions of reality, which are full of possibilities, including the most extreme and destructive ones. Most often these fictions remain in the realm of the imagination, but sometimes, when intent and determination are high enough, they do translate into reality.

All that is needed for this leap from fiction to reality to happen is an audacious idea, collective determination, a space for intervention and some special effects. That’s what we call the magic formula. It can be used in all kinds of ways. Not all of them as dramatic, psychopathic and morbid as the 26/11 attacks. In fact, it is so important to open avenues for creative-destructive expression and action in cities today. Otherwise youthful energy turns into frustration, alienation and violent expression of despair. We can use the magic formula to create a new reality, even when the odds are against us. The more we are able to do so, the less self-destructive we will be.

The space of youthful imagination is highly potent. It is like a fertile jungle continuously producing a million new audacious ideas. It is violent and exciting, destructive and creative, all at the same time. It is a space where one can get lost, discover, experiment and grow. A sacred grove of sorts, that one can come back to at any point in time to reconnect to a vital creative energy that helps accomplish wonders.

The workshops we organize draw on the radical aspirations of the youth to a different future. They open up a  time and space for individual and collective expression through bold interventions in the urban realm. They break up existing social, cultural and political hierarchies and modes of subordination, at least for a moment. The workshops are intensive 3 to 5 days long events which bring together people from completely different linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds. They exchange local and global knowledge in search of uniquely suited solutions for specific sets of issues. The result comes in the form of a multimedia explosion (interviews, videos, stories, music, drawings, architectural renderings, photoshopping, images, etc) that sends shockwaves throughout the system. Successful workshops lead to the creation or consolidation of local initiatives, which we continuously support by deploying Web-based networking and communication tools. These can help maintain the momentum of the workshop by keeping human connections alive and by giving global visibility to local projects.

Our next workshop will happen in Mumbai in the last week of November. In May, we are planning a workshop in Geneva in the neighborhood of Les Paquis, where residents are struggling with a new brand of street violence (yes, Switzerland has it too!). In June, we may be doing a workshop in the Bay Area in California with our friends from the Center for the Living City. After this we are hoping to do something in Amsterdam, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires. Lots of explosive creative potential out there!

If you have a feeling that tells you to act now, to project yourself onto the world around, express your dreams, defeat your fears and realize your aspirations, please join any of our workshops. Better still, call us to your neighborhood… invoke the Urban Typhoon. Unleash the global imagination in your hillside favela, your suburban township, your artist hamlet, your satellite town, your generic city, your urbanizing village… They are all fascinating and full of potential. All they need is a little magical urbanism.

URBZ MASHUP Tokyo & Istanbul

June 10, 2009


The URBZ MASHUP workshop invites artists, designers, architects, urbanists and creative people who share an interest in cities and urban life to explore a city, debate, ideate, create fictions, photo-collages, music and videos.

The first URBZ MASHUP will take place in Tokyo, hosted by Temple University Japan, in the first week of July 2009. The second one will be held at Istanbul Technical University in the first week of August, followed by Mumbai in November. Other workshops are planned in Rio, New York and Amsterdam in 2010. Each workshop will remix and mashup the material produced in other cities.

The workshop lasts for 5 days. It is followed by a seminar and an exhibition. Each workshop comprises a mix of international and local participants. The participants form small teams of 3 to 5 people and explore the city for two and a half days. Each group chooses a street or neighborhood and documents it using various media including drawing, photo, audio, video and text.

On the third day, all participants get back to the workshop space and remix the material they have gathered in a free and creative way. On the fifth day, the material produced is uploaded in an online gallery on A selected number of pieces will be printed and exhibited at the workshop space itself. URBZ provides a virtual environment to exhibit what has been  produced.

The URBZ MASHUP workshop is a non-profit event aimed at stimulating imagination, facilitating creative explorations and generating cultural exchanges between cities and people.

For more info:


Barcelona Urban Species Project

February 15, 2009

This a proposal for a digital project and installation at the eme3 Mercado Exhibition taking place in Center for Contemporary Culture of Barcelone (CCCB) on March 19-21, 2009.

URBZ is a collective of data hunter-gatherers active in urban jungles throughout the world. URBZ provides tools and methodologies for participatory urban development across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

URBZ believes that the deepest knowledge about cities exists amongst its inhabitants and communities. Those engaged with urban life in any way, either through direct civic engagement, or simply as residents, produce and use this knowledge spontaneously all the time. For urban planners and other practitioners, working with this knowledge through direct engagement with people is the best possible way to enhance the quality and impact of their work.

URBZ is developing a multimedia wiki interface allowing anyone to access, upload and geo-tag multimedia spatial data. URBZ online tools comprise of a mashup of readily available Web applications. It is open source and can be adapted to the needs of any individual or group. The data uploaded is localized on satellite images and maps, and is accessible by anyone browsing that location. It thus helps build and strengthen location and city-based social and professional networks and allows individuals or groups to share their own location-based data with others.

The first URBZ project is, an open source multimedia wiki website about Mumbai’s largest informal settlement, which is home to hundreds of thousands. allows residents, researchers, activists journalists and the general public to share information on Dharavi. URBZ is working on various other projects in Mumbai and in Tokyo including a wiki for a group of 400 young researchers active in various neighbourhoods of Mumbai and operating outside of any academic setting. Another project of URBZ involves producing a participatory interface for Shimokitazawa, a central Tokyo neighbourhood know for its subculture scene and street markets.

At eme3, the URBZ team will invite eme3 visitors to explore the streets of Barcelona and catalogue its various urban species. URBZ will gather data from the streets of Barcelona (photos, movie, interviews), publish it instantaneously on its site, and receive live feedback from users at eme3 and on the worldwide web.

The Itinerants of Mumbai

February 6, 2009

David and Charmayne de Souza’s book is a tale about Mumbai and the numerous roads that connect it to the rest of the world. Through the turns and twists of life, the city once seen as a refuge from nomadism, an heir of sedentary agrarian life, becomes the most vibrant stage for itinerants from everywhere. A stage vividly alive with other worldly songs, dances, colors and stories, which invites us to dream of hitting the road, leave all things behind, rely on providence, put on a colorful dress, paint one’s face, tattoo this bodily vehicle of ours, and dance our way through. Like madmen who have finally recovered themselves not by sitting back in an illusory normality but by engaging fully with their fantasies, using imagination, myth and tradition as weapons for survival.

With the rigor of a scientist, David catalogues the itinerant species of Mumbai. He abstracts them from their context and captures them in their most heightened spirits. His photo gallery of characters is reminiscent of our old biology labs, where obsessive professors kept exotic creatures in formalin. Charmayne sets the subjects of David’s photos back into movement through poetic inspiration. Her writing reminds us of the mythical dimension of itinerant life, which is present in every civilization. Sedentary societies have indeed always had an ambivalent relationship to the people of the wind, as Japanese villagers call them. Itinerants have been perceived in turns as indispensable trading partners, threatening agents of change and as objects of desire. David and Charmayne’s images and words bring to life some of the multiple avatars of that nomadic spirit that all of us carry deep inside and which refuses to leave.

This is probably why, turning these pages, even those of us who chose or inherited comfort and security cannot help but sigh at the thought of these untied lives, which seem to be fed by faith and magic more than anything else. Of course nomadic life, as intense and meaningful as it can be, is usually driven by necessity more than choice. But for an instant, it is liberating to believe that most of the people in this book would never trade itinerancy for routine and standardization.

Itinerants have by definition traveled through all kinds of roads and crossed all kinds of bridges. Poverty, subjugation, creativity, freedom and spirituality have proved to be the most difficult and slippery terrains, where one easily slides from one state to the other. And yet, evolving on these edges, itinerants have unsettled feudal political regimes more than any democratic system ever could. All through history, they produced heterodox spiritual kingdoms and challenged caste and tribal identities.

In Mumbai, itinerants are at home. This is after all, a city in which the street is king. It is here that the rules of urbanism seem to bend backwards, where the streets stop being just thoroughfares, where the evolutionary linearity of hamlet, village and town become fuzzy and where the home and the road become, quite literally, one and the same.

The itinerants of Mumbai are of many different kinds. Several of them may well have discovered the thrills and perils of the road only on arriving here. A large number could have moved from the world of subjugation to that of freedom on reaching here.  A fair amount would never consider their lives enviable and would be actually quite willing to trade it for middle-class comforts any day. Most may want to escape the streets altogether. But none would deny the fact that, if there is one place that is paradoxically reminiscent of the freedom that forests provided in the past to all those who wanted to escape, it is this city.

Every morning in Mumbai’s urban jungle, the multitude wakes up before the sun and chases the night away. Bats, rats and cockroaches go hide underground and the magnificent buzz starts. Those who have slept on the streets wake up to the blaring horns of taxis and buses. They find little niches in between buildings and by-lanes to use as washrooms. They open up boxes on pavements and transform them into stalls, enshrine trees with fresh flowers and incense, serve chai to the early crowd. Very soon they are dwarfed by the millions of commuters who march in rhythm to the city’s arcane industrial work ethic. While salaried men and women commute from home to office, from office to the supermarket and back, itinerants go nowhere. In the street only the sedentary kind must move, if possible in an AC car. The nomads are at home, right then and there, and everywhere.

The urbanite is often quite uncomfortable with this city’s most idiosyncratic citizens. That is because they seem to be so at ease in his landscape. Before he sees it coming someone knocks on the car window demanding a few rupees in exchange for a prayer, a flower or a book. Somehow it always feels wrong to refuse the trade, as if it the hawkers were actually asking for nothing but their due. The sedentary car user comes to terms with the nature of reversals, brings the window down and makes a deal. It is encounters like this one, multiplied a million times, that saves this city day after day. For all its shortcomings and in spite of a recent rise in nationalist politics, Mumbai has proved to be an urban oasis for many migrants and travelers ever since the first fishermen settled on its shores. It is the capacity of Mumbaikars to accept a high level of promiscuity with strangers that has made it so safe despite the vertiginous divides existing between castes and classes.

Itinerants become human connectors in an increasingly divided yet interdependent world. As much as the pathways and signals mediate roads and neighbourhoods, itinerants constantly connect the city’s many different dimensions to one another. They are the x-factor that allows this exuberant unpredictable city to function day after day. It is these ever-present encounters that make us realize how full of mad contrasts the city is. Where one brushes shoulders with ipod listening teenagers one moment and the very next, faces a tribal ritual masochist doing a thousand year old dance. Further down the lane, one come across the last of a dying breed of water carriers using ancient goatskin pouches walking past piles of used mineral water bottles.  One can hear a knife sharpener’s wheel screaming, next to a well-stocked shopping mall selling everything under the sun,

David and Charmayne’s ode to Mumbai’s itinerants makes the reader aware of these contrasts through their own distinct approaches. The portraits isolate them in the stark environment of the studio while the poems re-connect them to their contexts like light, near invisible strings.

They wake up the sedated jaded urbanite who turns away from their incongruity but has registered their presence and at the end of the day is actually blessed to be connected to the world wide web of the mystic, astrologer, eunuch or beggar. They provide that touch of fantasy, that glimmer of otherness that saves him from that very urban brand of autism proliferated by global media and consumerist culture. This coalescing of different moments, eras, epochs, and state of minds is what makes the streets of Mumbai so special. David and Charmayne remind us that their exhilarating unpredictability is predicated as much on run-of-the-mill disorder, civic mismanagement and individual idiosyncrasies as it is on the genuine love of unpredictability of the city’s inhabitants.

Itinerants wind up embodying the roads they inhabit. Not just its smell and hues but also its edginess, roughness and straightforwardness. This can been seen most sharply when the context is erased. In a photographer’s studio, which invisiblizes the city, the subjects in sharp focus become just as disconcerting as an empty, silent city on a day of curfew. Paradoxically, this evacuation of context only makes us understand the affectionate relationship of the street and its myriad squatters even better. The street is to Mumbaikars what the sea is to fishermen.

The book builds on several such reversals. It successfully generates the impression that it is not the reader watching these personas but the other way around. The itinerants look back amused at our child-like fascination as we gaze at them. They come with their pride and smiles and snap at our faces, waking us up for an instant from our sedentary somnolence.

They unsettle us for many reasons.

They convince our resistant minds that that the man with a painted face, outrageous dress and clinking necklaces is in fact truer to himself than the suited man driving by on his way to office. Is there anything more discomfiting than a head on confrontation with the self-conscious celebration of nomadic life and its exquisite liberty? Is there anything more transformative than the realization that the beggar and the hooker are actually richer than their patrons? Is there anything more radical than accepting the fact that the greatest perceived victim is actually a fearless master of his life?

David & Charmayne de Souza’s book “Itinerants, the Nomads of Mumbai” is available in all good bookstores.  In case you cannot find it and would like to purchase it contact us and we will put you in touch with them.


December 7, 2008

Published in The Hindu on Sunday December 7, 2008

In the last week of November, all of us living in Mumbai went through a succession of mental states. Ranging from incredulity, rage, cynicism, disbelief, shock and nervousness, to fear, sadness, numbness, hate, and and the most disturbing of all, fascination. A morbid fascination for the ability of a handful of young guys to create mayhem in the city, shake Indian politics, and hypnotise the global media.

Surely these were no ordinary kids. They were well trained, fully equipped and possibly driven by faith. Thanks to GPS technology they could navigate an ancient sea route that connects two colonial cities partitioned by history. Thanks to their urbane appearance they could sit down at Leopold café and enter the city’s best hotels without raising any suspicion.

They checked in at the Taj next to the general manager and transformed their quarters into a five-star control room. After brutally killing scores of tourists they cool-headedly recharged their AK-47 and rampaged the city. They killed Mumbai’s top cops and hijacked police cars, twice. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them.

Before last week, a movie script based on this sequence of events would surely have been deemed far-fetched. The audacity of this attack is indeed incredible.

The accomplishment of extraordinarily audacious objectives has precedents throughout history. Not too long ago, the word audacity was being brandied in a completely different context and with a completely different meaning. In fact, at the other end of the spectrum altogether. A group of determined men and women succeeded in carrying their candidate all the way to the highest office, beating the most powerful political apparatuses in the US: The Hillary campaign and the Republicans. The Obama campaign provided magical inspiration to people all over the world and revived some hope for the world’s most powerful (and dangerous) democracy. Such a comparison is itself audacious, but there is a reason for making it.

If anything could be learnt from last week’s event, it is the lesson about the power of audacity. Audacity is precisely what Mumbai has been lacking, especially since the 1991 communal riots. Instead of defending its multicultural identity, forged by a history of trading and migration, it allowed goons turned politicians to rule and tear apart its unique brand of cosmopolitanism. Innocent scapegoats were killed and cowardly mobs were rewarded, setting in motion a cycle of violence that just took a new spin last week.

A response to last week’s events driven by fear and paranoia against our immediate or distant neighbours –which seems more than likely– will only feed into a further destructive spiral. If we don’t want to stand mute witnesses in the face of history, we will have to reclaim audacity for ourselves, and prove against all odds that yes-indeed all things are possible; including transforming our city’s mindset and reclaiming diversity and openness as Mumbai’s main strengths.

To do that we will have to rise above our prejudices against certain communities, neighbourhoods, slums, even ordinary people. These prejudices put us at threat more than anything else. Here is a concrete example: Of all the failures that paved the way for last week’s disaster, the biggest was that the police didn’t follow up on an alert given by members of Mumbai’s oldest communities, its fishermen. They were the first to report abnormal activity on their shore. Unfortunately they were not heard.

Read another airoots article on this topic published in the Mumbai Mirror, December 3, 2008

Magical Planning

October 5, 2008

Celebration of the Holy Festival, last day of the Urban Typhoon Workshop in Koliwada-Dharavi

Sorry Manuel Castells and David Harvey and all those great theorists who have taught us how capital and technology produce the city and constrain also its future development. Apologies to Paulo Freire too who’s tried his best to wake us up from our delirious “magical consciousness” to teach us that we are “subjects in and with an objective world”.

You really are great and we are trying, but we just cannot (and don’t really want to) get liberated from our imagination. We love the world of possibilities more than the world “as it is”. We know that “in theory” the two are not incompatible, but in practice, they don’t fare that well together. So while you go ahead to keep describing it, we’ll imagine it the best we can.

Language and imagination are the best tools we have. And now the mighty Web allows us to drop ideas right in the reader’s heads, enhanced with special graphics, sound and moving images. After having tried both, we are convinced that unrestrained imagination has much more transformative potential than analysis. Don’t get us wrong. We love theories, they are beautiful narratives.

But as Yehuday Safran said, the world is shaped “above all through language, and its sublime, monstruous imagination.”  We support all the truth seekers. Seeking truth is a beautiful project to undertake, so beautiful in fact that it really doesn’t matter if it ever gets realized. But sometimes another path is equally fruitful. What we like is trying out our imagination on reality to see what works. And imagination is at its best when it is naive, magical and wild.

Look at cities. They are first and foremost the products of collective imaginations. Dreams of grandeur and power produce avenues, churches and skyscrapers. Immigrants create heavens for themselves in far away lands, which they dreamt about on their way. When they cannot actually create heavens, they dream of going back with some money to recreate them there.

These heavens are simple really – homes that are the realization of life-long dreams. At the very least, people use imagination and decoration to make their shacks feel special. As Hiroshi Hara said, “There are as many worlds as there are rooms.”

It is also clearer today that communities are imaginary. More than ever before, we live in a deterritorialized world, where the outside and inside have supposedly lost their meaning. Resorting to the imagination is therefore a matter of survival. It is especially when localities get produced by an exterior context that inhabitants dont control, that they need to use their imagination to generate a context from within. A context that can be based on historical narratives, cultural affinities or fantasies – whatever one chooses.

It is worth fighting for an imagined space, especially if it is a stage for human relations and interactions. But it is not worth fighting for a space that restrains or limits imagination in any way. There is no point defending a place that cannot be transformed; unless it is a place worth preserving for the story it embodies, such as a ruin (especially if it is haunted with good spirits). Places must inspire or they must be rethought completely!

The Web is the greatest creation since the letters of the alphabet. In fact the Web is a product of the wild imagination of Tim Berner Lee who dreamed of hypertextuality to communicate the ideas of his time – just like Gutenberg shaped the printing press to communicate the ideas of his. The power of the Web is that it provides the most advanced space possible for the textual/visual expression of imaginaries. Moreover it connects ideas to each other on an infinite plane. What’s more, it acts as a mirror between the virtual world of imagination and the physical world. And it works both ways!

Much more than simple text alone, it allows others to contribute and evolve one’s own imaginary. Just like you could add a comment under that post or copy-paste it onto your blog. These simple moves enhance the potential for materialization of ideas into the physical world.

Here is a concrete example.

There was always a point in time during the organization of the Urban Typhoon workshop when the whole event was nothing more than a Web page. It was no more than wishful thinking by a small group of people. At that point we didn’t have any money to get the guests over, commitment from the local community was at best uncertain, and we had almost no registered participants.

Nonetheless this vision, expressed in the form of a decent Website, made people believe that it was real – and they registered. Contacts were done via email, but it was only on the day of the workshop that people actually materialized. Participants never doubted that the event was really happening, but we only knew that it was real when we saw them actually apparating, one by one – notwithstanding the fact that we were the ones to have invited them in the first place!

It was always harder to convince local people that the workshop was really going to happen. It was even harder to convince them to participate, even though that was the whole idea to start with. We had been invited but community members in the first place but most local people had no interest in participating until the the outsiders popped out of the World Wide Web with their eyes full of great expectations and a pre-emptive love for the neighborhood.

The outsiders had no problem imagining that a fantastic event was going to happen in a fantastic place. They connected the place to the event, while the locals could not connect the fantastic event to their everyday, banal place. At first they simply could not imagine and refused to believe, but that was only until they became overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and faith of the numerous believers.

The materialization of this event comforted us. We felt kicked and gleeful, in our back-of-the-classroom-dreaming pupil approach; our favourite kind!

Next thing in line is the Koliwada Design Cell, which will be the fantastic vehicle that will take us on a journey towards the realization of a participatory development project for Koliwada. All the walls on our way will disintegrate! Lets try out some magical planning.

Urbanology Workshops 2008

September 2, 2008


Dharavi Reloaded:
Workshop on the use of with the residents of Koliwada, Dharavi Mumbai.

Around ten participants familiarised themselves with the tools required for uploading multi media material onto the URBZ website that emerged through the Urban Typhoon held earlier that month. More such workshops will be held from October onwards in different pockets all over Dharavi, through the Koliwada Design Cell.


Writing Imagination
On philosophies and practices of writing with post graduate media students from the Center for Media Studies unit, Tata Insititute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The five day long workshop explored the relationship of knowledge, writing and context. It examined histories of knowledge practices and attempted to connect them to the way in which pedagogic practices are weighed down by interpretations and over interpretations that need reflection.


Narrating Fantasies
On story telling in different forms of media practices, with undergraduate students of St. Xavier’s College, Goa.

Participants examined the elements of narratives with concepts and tools that are not weighed down by a selfconscious literary imagination and which combine the image and the word as an organic part of expression.


Archiving Action
A workshop on Urban Knowledge Practices with the coordinators of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Project, PUKAR, Mumbai.

This attempted to evolve strategies for the coordinators of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Project to document their interventions with 400 young ‘barefoot researchers’ with whom they work all over Mumbai. This workshop is part of a series that will be held every month. The next one is scheduled for mid September.


From November onwards, a series of workshops will be held with the participants of the PUKAR Youth Fellowship project. These focus on the use of information and communication technology within the frame of urban research action practices of the project.

Tokyo to Mumbai and Back

August 26, 2008

Presentation for the Urban Age Conference Mumbai, November 2 2007 (speech)

Tokyo slum during the US occupation years from Ohio University State Archive

1. Our research focuses on the informal, unplanned areas in Tokyo and Mumbai. These have developed organically and gradually over time. This incremental development has contributed to the economic success of Japan. This story is about this incremental development – which is both simultaneously urban and economic. A story that unfolds in the shadow of the skyscrapers that have come to symbolize Japan’s economic miracle. A shadow that actually stretches over a 100 kilometers around Tokyo’s historical core and largely dominates its landscape just as the informal settlements largely dominate the urbanscape of Mumbai.

2. After the Second World War, Tokyo was totally destroyed. Millions returned to the city to find their homes razed to the ground. They had to begin rebuilding their lives from scratch. In this process local neighbourhoods became the stage of the rise of Japan’s middle-class. The roots of Japan’s economic development are the bazaar economy, the informal street-markets, the family retails, local service economies, local construction industry etc. These still are very much part of Tokyo’s urbanscape and its economy, and more importantly, are processes completely interconnected with Tokyo’s urban typology.

3. Low-rise, high density, mixed use, small-scale neighbourhoods constantly changed and evolved to become what is today uncontestably a modern, high-tech city – that continues to grow and evolve in newer ways. It’s history provides an alternative model of urban development – a default model.

4. We find striking similarities – in terms of the visual landscape – between Tokyo and Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest informal settlement). There are many sections within Dharavi, which are consolidated, neighbourhoods that have spontaneously evolved much like Tokyo. Below is a photoshop montage of Dharavi and Tokyo – which brings to life some of these similarities.

Collage: on the left Dharavi in Mumbai and on the right Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. More here.

5. Behind the typological similarity between unplanned areas of Tokyo and Dharavi lies a complex story of economic organization – involving the informal sector, mixed use of land and space, the presence of street-level shops, pedestrian path networks and the use of the house itself as a tool of production and commerce. In Dharavi, almost every house doubles up as a productive space. In Tokyo, the older and traditional pattern of urban organization too reflected a similar experience. The pre-industrial use of the house as a space of production (live/work) makes a huge come-back in the post-industrial context, responding to the needs of the “creative class”.

6. What allowed Tokyo to develop in this incremental way was the fact that this form, this urban typology was not seen to be illegitimate or economically dysfunctional – in fact quite to the contrary. What has been overlooked in the story of Japan’s economic success with its egalitarian income distribution is the essential role of incremental development in making this possible. Incremental urban development and economic development are completely interconnected. It is not because you move poor people into middle-class type mass housing that they become middle-class. Oftentimes they are unable to afford the maintenance cost of the buildings they get relocated to. In reality you break the process of urban and economic development. Redevelopment – as in the ‘Dharavi Redevelopment Plan’ – is not development.

7. In conclusion we would like to mention one point with particular relevance to Dharavi. It is about understanding the economic organization that ordinary people evolve for their livelihood and survival. The apparent mess of Dharavi is actually the complexity of Dharavi – this should not be overlooked. Dharavi is an economic powerhouse that has evolved an urban typology that ensures the survival of small studios, factories, residences, shops in a mosaic of urban forms. To ignore this enmeshing between its form and economic life and use the notion of urban planning in an ideological way that segregates uses and functions would violate the space and the lives of its citizens in a destructive manner. What is needed is a process in which planners and administrators incorporate the voices of the residents, encourage debate and discussion with the residents and help, understand and support the process from within. And this is what we will try to do next march in Koliwada, Dharavi in the context of a week-long workshop organized with PUKAR and the residents to which we would like to invite you all.

Koliwada, the fishermen community in Dharavi

The Urban Age airoots presentation is available here in PDF format along with videos of the presentation and discussion (disclaimer: the guy speaking after Rahul is NOT associated with airoots).

Old Towns New Towns

May 15, 2008

Comparing Koliwada, in Dharavi (Mumbai, India) to Italian cities. Slide from a presentation by Subhash Mukerjee’s team at the Urban Typhoon Workshop Koliwada (March 2008).

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