The Illustrated Street

May 2, 2011

The practice of photojournalism and image making has changed everywhere. Whether it is on websites of mainstream newspapers or on amateur blogs all around the world, images are increasingly taken by sources close to the scene of action. It is about being right here, right now, and having a sharp enough reflex to snap the image at the right time.

The story is more complicated than simply the amateur journalist taking over the job of the professional. What is happening is that the amateur becomes an expert when she talks about what’s near her, what she is familiar with.  This abundance of information from an infinite number of sources doesn’t mean the end of professional journalism at all. Instead it implies a reinvention of the journalist as a selector/editor of the texts and images that she receives. The journalist still has to be at the right time and the right place but this doesn’t necessarily mean the time and place where the action is unfolding. The place to be is at the receiving and transmitting end of deep networks of actors and readers.

Journalism was already global before the advent of decentralized media. It had become an industry that successfully mobilized people in different parts of the world, and through communication technology such as the telegram, the phone or the fax, connected them to control rooms where the information was being processed and then broadcast. The field of journalism was already broad. What new technologies have brought is a new depth. This depth is not an analytical depth (which may well have been reduced by the speed of diffusion of information), but a depth in the story, since the object of the story can also become a storyteller. We can get the insider story. The end-receiver of information is increasingly intimate with the reality reported in the news. The reader can now interact with the actors from the stories she is reading and even become part of the story, by asking a specific question or offer unique insights.

It follows that there is no simple opposition between the so-called “democratization” of the media and the role of the specialist. The amateur is a specialist of her own reality. We recently started a workshop series on the theme of ‘water’ at the Dharavi Shelter. The kids have quickly become familiar with the use of the digital camera. For this project, we are asking them to look at water in their neighbourhood. They shoot pictures and describe what they have photographed in their own words. Then they document the way water is being used at home, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward. This material is then shared with water system specialists who ask questions back to the kids. We are only facilitating this communication. In a way we are acting as journalists, getting information from here and transmitting it there, and then the other way around. Our role is not simply that of a mediator however – we are also actors. And a lot of this involves connecting people to each other. The art of connecting is just as creative as any other, be it writing or photography. This connection, going both ways, empowers the children  significantly.  They will be able to speak with authority about something near them and will get to know it better than anyone else.

It seems to us that good photojournalists have always looked at photojournalism as much more than a profession. It is a form of engagement with the context, with the subject. The most moving and insightful work in that field, has always been one which constructs its own story and doesn’t try to elude the presence and subjectivity of the photographer. Carrying a camera automatically changes the response of the people around you. Playing with that effect is what makes great photography. What we love the most about previous the photos taken by the kids at the Shelter is that they could never have been taken by anyone else. People on the photos would simply have responded differently if they had been snapped by unknown adults. Maybe some would have smiled or felt intimidated in front of a photographer. In front of their friends or family people are more spontaneous and natural. Some of the best shots taken by the kids are the ones that let us sense the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person being photographed.

The images that emerge have a distinctive aesthetic and politics. They emerge from the knowledge embedded in familiarity, the taken for granted, the mundane but eventually emerge to have a sacredness of their own. What facilitates this process is the collective energy that is unleashed by the use of digital technology. The plasticity of which is an individual nightmare for the professional photographer surrounded by amateur images and image-makers, but which becomes a powerful tool when it allows for users to come together and enter into an exercise that becomes a shared and collective practice. The process of making images together, of exploring familiar contexts as a collective, of sharing with an immediacy that this technology facilitates like none other, makes the entire exercise in photojournalism enter into a different realm – one that needs to be appreciated for its aesthetics as well.

Historian, philosopher, writer, Umberto Eco points out how new knowledge technologies that use the digital image are connected to a world at least as old as European medievalism in which the word and the image have always been integral to the political imagination. He looks at contemporary society and all its technological paraphernalia as one more episode in this epic story. He insists that digital technology is potentially liberating and – more importantly – irreversible. We need to find the right handles so that our relationship with knowledge continues to be genuinely challenging and satisfying.

Anthropologist Appadurai points out that the contemporary practitioner is part of a shifting, moving and fluid landscape. New technologies help us express these further and connect to the ‘scapes’ that make up our social imagination in more ways than one. This ‘social imagination’ continues to be rooted in a complex, ever-changing context, one that is inevitably local, because locality is always being produced. However, at the same time, it is acutely aware that national boundaries, like many others are being challenged by new constantly mutating technologies. For him, the globalized world is not the same as Marshall Mcluhan’s mediated global village. It is rather about the migration and movements of people from one part of the globe to another. It is about becoming aware that our lives and worlds are deeply interconnected. Most importantly, it is about the way in which media and new technologies help us come to terms with these connections, shifts and movements.

One story that encapsulates the entire experience of the photography workshops that we do at the Shelter, where images keep being produced and then tell their own stories, where the location is supreme, where time is tamed by sheer presence and immediacy, is told by Ray Bradbury in ‘The Illustrated Man’, first published in 1951. This is a collection of narratives about a dystopic future in which the media literally comes alive. The stories are embodied on a man and are alive with moving images, tattooed by some enchanted artist from a local fair. The man himself could be from any point from the past or future. The stories his body ‘reveals’ ultimately end with one that starts to reflect the life of the person presently ‘watching’ them. They are futuristic stories about a world where a giant screen absorbs human beings into its digital folds, and about human impulses emerging through the ruins of a nuclear devastated world and the intricacies of faith.

But what is striking is that that it places the storyteller at its centre, weaving images and worlds about the past, present and the future. It is ultimately about the triumph of her imagination that cuts through the varied contexts in which one finds her telling her story – always part of a collective universe of story tellers – performing around a fire, thundering in an auditorium, whispering through cyber-space, crackling through television or hitting back at the player in a video game. When the kids at the Dharavi Shelter take pictures of their own streets and homes, they also tattoo them with their imaginations, report it, narrate it and emboss it with their own lives.  The story that emerges has a life of its own.

The photos have been by children living near MG Road, New Transit Camp, Dharavi, during a workshop conducted at the Dharavi Shelter by photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang from Denmark and Himanshu S. Jan 23, 2011. The workshop participants are: Simon, Anand, Vishal, Neha, Reshma, Karishma, Muskan, Umesh, Gautam, Punam, Amar.

More photos here.

Click here to read an article on photojournalism by Neha Thirani that inspired this post (pdf document).

Prawn Nagar – Dharavi, Mumbai

December 30, 2009


Softer landing for District 9’s Prawns in Dharavi

If the aliens hadn’t found their way to District 9 in Johannesburg but turned a few latitudes east, across the Indian ocean, over a tiny sliver of land jutting out obscenely and defiantly off the v-shaped south-Asian sub-continent, their fate in cinematic history would have been something else.

Imagine the spaceship hanging over the hot and humid city of Mumbai, specifically over its most mythified neighbourhood – Dharavi.

Its enterprising residents would have absorbed the presence of the craft and its seafood resembling occupants with relative ease. The metallic tentacles of Dharavi’s legendary recycling industry, would have eventually penetrated the most sophisticated barriers and shields to slowly and steadily dismantle the alien structure for absorption into a million-dollar industry that does not allow even the most ordinary piece of scrap to go unsold. How could tons of exotic metal be left to hang in mid-air? Notwithstanding any degree of technological superiority…Bits and pieces of the metal would have found their way into spare body-parts of second-hand cars, ships, toys and assorted machinery. The unusable celestial leftovers may be left to hang in space with no one caring much for aesthetics. Instead somebody would start a little sight-seeing tour by making an improvised crane-bridge to take curious onlookers and tourists for a closer look.

And what of the aliens themselves?

They would have managed to build a tiny little habitat between the crevices of the impossibly dense habitat. Maybe on the toxic watery edge of the mangroves. Not having access to tinned cat-food in Dharavi, could well have found the fish in the sewage water a worthy substitute, considering that a few older residents still fish there even now. And they would have found something worthwhile to do for sure. Their presence would have inevitably fired several wild allegations.


Prawns are said to be hiding in the Mahim Creek near Dharavi

Economically they could make leather goods in Dharavi even more globally competitive with a dash of their own technology. Of course, this could mean a legal crackdown – since scientific tests about the safety quotient of alien substance aren’t possible. But Dharavi’s grey zone economy would take care of that and eventually the aliens would become integral to the neighbourhood’s oldest and most prosperous economic activity, getting swallowed into its several residential, community based enclaves, taking the disputed figure of eighty –eight nagars to eighty nine.

It would have been difficult for any curious journalist to actually discover Prawn-nagar as the boundaries between enclaves are not easy to discern. The only way she would know she’s arrived would be on seeing a bunch of young prawns playing cricket with local Dharavi boys. They would point her out to a set of structures around a small clearing where a few adults would be having a heated argument with neighbours over the right to build a shrine in memory of their lost home – in the form of a replica of their ship.
The shrine would be the only way to connect to their past. No chance of returning home now – given the remains of their emaciated, skeletal, once proud extra-terrestrial space vessel. The other reason nobody would want to return is because the cost of homes in Dharavi would have increased four-fold by now.

Typically, the temptation of making more money eternally overrides any possibility of return.

The journalist would most likely be reporting the possibility of a riot because a prawn-girl and a local – earthling boy had fallen in love and were nearly lynched by both communities, only to be contained by an elderly local activist trying to broker peace.

The prawns would soon be part of political demonstrations trying to save Dharavi and a politician would eventually have got them voting rights. Against the will of a local right-wing party which tried hard to fight their presence tooth and nail – equating the aliens with worse – those from the states of UP and Bihar.

Sooner or later though, a clever prawn leader would have won over the local right wing forces by declaring Marathi as their earth-tongue. He would then have proceeded to pledge support to their drive against the real aliens – the hapless migrants of U.P. and Bihar.

That would pretty much have been the story.

Look out for regular updates from Prawn-nagar, Dharavi, Mumbai on airoots…

Audacious Learning: The Dharavi School of Urbanology

August 17, 2009

Institutions have been much misunderstood entities. In strict anthropological terms they refer to any stabilizing of ideas, beliefs, practices, traditions, lifestyles, knowledge practices and skills that one generation wishes to pass on to the next.  By this definition, families, guilds, community associations, art schools that are based on the practices of a teacher – all qualify to be institutions. Musical traditions in South Asia codify themselves around gurus and become institutions of sorts. In Japan, martial arts, tea ceremonies and other arts and cultural practices center around the sensei and institutionalize themselves over generations. Much of knowledge, insights and learning have been generated through such inherited and evolved practices.

It’s only in the nineteenth century, with the emergence of the modern bureaucracy that a distinction came to be made between the primary and secondary nature of all organizations, with the former being part of the realm of domesticated, ethnicized or personal spaces and the latter being shaped by impersonal, universal principles that were sharpened by the development of bureaucracies. What such a distinction meant for knowledge and cultural practices was quite special. It privileged the development of modern day institutions only if they walked down the path of bureaucratic organization and relegated traditional knowledge practices to an informal realm – contained and preserved by traditional customs and private resources. As a result, the state, and subsequently large resource rich establishments, shaped the emergence of modern day educational, cultural and arts institutions, and made them more bureaucratic and impersonal. This was also the process through which the idea of tradition as a hyper-conscious space became more prominent pushing forth for a whole lot of speculation about the invention of traditions. This went hand in hand with the invention of other firmed up dialectical categories, including personal-impersonal, ethnic-modern, primary and secondary organizations, informal and formal practices, pure intellectual pursuits versus engaged and politicized practices, scientific versus religious truths so on and so forth – dialectical categories that plagued intellectual worlds for centuries but started to harden around this time.

Of course, in the real world, the informal and formal, the traditional and the modern played themselves out in complex ways. Thus modern day educational institutions could have large bureaucracies embedded in them along with age-old feudal practices and authoritarian teacher-patriarchs. Research practices could move between subjective and objective truths, between science and faith in various permutations and combination.

Eventually, these inner contradictions were contained by the idea of modern day institutions as respectable entities due to their validation as formal, organized and bureaucratic centers of learning and research. The more respectable they were the more they had to distance themselves from the other side of the wall; the informal, the personal, the engaged, religious, traditional…

What it did to the idea of institutions was particularly problematic. Any well organized bureaucracy, no matter what its ideology, beliefs, practices and track-record as a research center, could be passed off as an institution. Today, business enterprises running knowledge-for-cash programs are considered respectable institutions all over the world – going by the synonym of universities.

And small research centers, which connect knowledge to practices and are conscious of the power equations they are embedded in (they have no protection in the form of bureaucratic shields) have to prove themselves several times over before they can be understood as institutions.

The Dharavi School of Urbanology – see www.urbz.net for the latest update – is an institution in a more resilient sense of the term – when institutionalization meant a settling down of the ideas of practitioners who would like to learn more from the emerging generation.

It is located literally in the residual space of the grand journey of concepts that shaped the history of ideas and modern day institutional practices – the informal, hyperurban, dense space of a city – right at the other end of the spectrum.

What better place for a school of cities to be located in?

Its tiny. In the tradition of small centers of learning that could be found in narrow streets of old Edo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Benares centered around the beliefs and practices of people firmly committed to their dynamic beliefs.

It is a modern day myth that these were traditional spaces which preserved old forms of knowing. On the contrary, they preserved only by changing, evolving and adapting, unburdened by the categories of respectability and validation that modern day institutions are obsessed by.  They were centered on their practices and produced insights through them – with the same effectiveness as those hot on the pursuit of pure knowledge.

The Dharavi School of Urbanology challenges notions of institutions as it goes on to establish itself with literally nothing.

Do come and nourish it with your passion, experience and playfulness.

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 dharavi.org, an open source multimedia wiki website about Mumbai’s largest informal settlement, which is home to hundreds of thousands. dharavi.org 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 barcelonea.urbz.net site, and receive live feedback from users at eme3 and on the worldwide web.

Dharavi Tales

February 13, 2009

In our list of fiction relevant to Dharavi’s universally appealing history, we cherish Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’ (Ravi Dayal, 2004). It is a thrilling account of power and space that unfolds in the dense mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in Bengal. It drags into its intense narrative flow, all of the Indian state’s contrary feelings towards its own people, its neighbors and its continued fidelity to arcane categories, especially those which describe nature and forests and those who live directly off it.

The novel opens itself to allegorical interpretations to historical moments in completely different parts of the sub-continent.

We draw from it a powerful lesson for Dharavi. (And not just because of the obvious mangrove connection; Dharavi too grew in the marshy lands of the mangroves that surrounded the city even more richly in the past).

There is a moment when a schoolmaster revolutionary first encounters the community of recent settlers in the mangrove forests and is completely disarmed by their ability to re-organize their lives.

‘What had I expected? A mere jumble, perhaps, untidy heaps of people, piled high upon each other? …But what I saw was quite different from the picture in my mind’s eye. Paths had been laid…little plots of land had been enclosed with fences; fishing nets had been hung up to dry. There were men and women sitting outside their huts, repairing their nets and stringing their crab lines with bits of bait and bone.
Such industry! Such diligence! Yet it was only a few weeks since they had come’.

(Page 171)

The protagonist goes on to document his thrill at seeing ‘the birth of something new’ – the creation of a world not by a single visionary but one that was dreamt up by ‘the very people who were trying to make it real’, not ‘by those with learning and power but by those without’ (ibid).

At the simplest level – this response echoes the typical responses of many who encounter habitats like Dharavi for the first time. Take a look at the numerous reports and accounts of journalists and travelers. Surprise and shock at the organized level of activities is in sharp contrast to the perspectives of authorities and uninformed public opinion that usually reaches their ears first.

The organized prejudice manifests itself in kinds of violence too, as depicted in the novel. Maybe not a massacre – but something close – a complete destruction of the intricacies of economics and resources that are enmeshed in the neighbourhood – as intricately as the mangroves connect to the lives of the settlers in the Sunderbans. Besides, the category ‘refugee’ morphs into similar condensed prejudices such as ‘illegal’, ‘criminals’, ‘encroachers’ or simply ‘slum dwellers’.

But there is more.

The full impact of the nuances of the story became more evident to us when we came across Ghosh’s essay ‘Wild Fictions: Narratives of Nature and the Politics of Forests’. (Outlook Essays, January 2009). It is a powerful critique of the idea of nature and the environment as a-priori in our understanding of human history.

He points out how the presence of the ‘environmental unconscious’ within the lives of those who are perceived to be living directly off the environment – has to constantly contend with the articulated notion of ‘Nature’ as if it lies above human life.

Ghosh’s essay uses parables, history and razor sharp arguments to reveal how the ‘environment…is peopled, inhabited and continually enriched by history’. For us the argument made it abundantly clear that any understanding of habitats needs to factor in how intimately connected are the omniscient categories of ‘Nature’ and its counter-point ‘Urban Civilization’. Accepting the fact that both feed off each other makes it clear why the story of the settlers of the Sunderbans resonates so much with the lives of those living in a place like Dharavi – and several others like it.

‘The Hungry Tide’ can be seen as a larger commentary on administrative categories and such mythic constructions that make and break habitats. It shows how nationalism and its accompanying discourses of legitimacy and illegitimacy translates into questions of development that then play vicious games in the name of the environment and its unarticulated and equally constructed anti-thesis – urban spaces.

The preservation of the forests as an end in itself goes hand in hand with the demarcation of the city. And the rules of demarcation must be always respected – both ways. A city as the epitome of civilization must not show signs of wilderness at all – and if it does – then it must be civic-minded and always under-control.

And equally important: – wilderness must never show signs of industry. That’s why the emphasis in the protagonist’s response (such industry!) is so memorable.

The fascinating account that Suresh Sharma describes in ‘Tribal Identity and the Modern World’ (Sage, 1994) comes to mind. He points out how the Agaria tribes of the forests in Central India, were adept at smelting iron and had a rich legacy of crafts involving iron work. They responded with enthusiasm to the coming of the (rich-in-iron-symbolism) railways but were confronted with an administrative gaze that could not see them as anything more than savage forest-dwellers. Instead of harnessing their enthusiasm, their presence in the forests (where they used to shallow-mine iron in an ecologically sound way) was criminalized. And the forests themselves were either mined and destroyed or zoned out as a Nature Preserve.

The need to neatly demarcate pristine forests and civilizational spaces go hand in hand. The boundaries must never be breached.

This compulsion for categorization and zoning runs very deep. A village in a city is eventually considered to be anachronistic and must either be gentrified or lose its identity as a village. In Mumbai – almost all the biggest slums have a nucleus that once was a recognizable village. Including Dharavi. It is easy for a village – which should not exist in the city in the first place according to the laws of demarcation– to slowly be downgraded into a slum, especially when rural refugees start crowding the city and need to be housed.

In addition, a place like Dharavi, which is almost all about industry, is illegal for another reason. It violates another zoning taboo – where residences and work places must never over-lap. A taboo that makes no sense in Dharavi at all in which the main built-form is the tool-house itself – a multi-use space that defies categorization and zoning. And yet – the laws continue to be in place citing all kinds of disputable and excessive reasoning, at every level.

We read The Hungry Tide as a parable about habitats such as Dharavi, encased in a powerful vision about power and space in which ideas like the environment, nature, urbanism, development and economics are fiercely contested.

Of course it is about lots more – including being a treasure trove of knowledge about the environment, dolphins and the magical-ecology of the Sunderbans – besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read!

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.

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.

Dharavi University

October 1, 2008

Playful conversations during Urban Typhoon 2008 produced the idea of institutionalizing the pedagogic moments inherent in Dharavi. Before the banter could be dismissed as one more effort in idealizing the neighbourhood – already trapped in cliché’s of all kinds – we said why not? Everybody acknowledges that no other place in the world can, at the very least, teach us about condensing space, time and motion the way Dharavi does and at the most, teach us about the possibilities of extreme urbanism even as it is pushed to the verge of destroying itself thanks to myopic policies.

So – the establishment of Dharavi University is imminent – part museum, part tribute, part laboratory, part battlefield, part celebration; the virtual version is already functioning at www.dharavi.org. And since universities do need expression in real time and space the Koliwada Design Cell (KDC), one hub of this concept is set to start activities by end October this year as well. To become a place where everybody who lives and works in Dharavi can voice their viewpoints and create a living digital archive of opinions, images, ideals and values to shape the future of their lives and context. Where all those voices and personalities which speak with that particular edge, whose connections are deep and whose commitment to Dharavi’s history, present and future is total – become the main fountainheads of knowledge, instigators of debate and catalysts of more learning. Interviews and conversations with some of them will appear here very soon.

The KDC, just one among many such nodes imagined in Dharavi University, plans to layer the neighbourhood with an inexpensive and accessible information and communication technology infrastructure to come closer to its ideal of a user-generated city – one that is produced through the knowledge and life practices of its inhabitants.

We look for support, ideas and collaborations!