Khotachiwadi Strikes Back

January 29th, 2016 by urbzman

Khotachiwadi Imaginaries Exhibition
A street exhibition followed a workshop we just organized in Khotachiwadi.

We have been busy in one of our favourite neighbourhoods! Khotachiwadi embodies many of the contradictions of Mumbai. It is beautiful and decaying at once. It is full of life, but also slowly disappearing. Its residents don’t know how to cope with the many challenges that the city throws at them: from inadequate infrastructure to aggressive speculative takeover. urbz just produced a pre-proposal for a more pro-active engagement by the residents and the city at large in the transformation and preservation of Khotachiwadi.

Khotachiwadi Report print version!

This proposal can be downloaded here: (a print version is also available here).

The proposal was presented to the residents on the last day of a design workshop that we organized between January 7th to 10th, 2016 in Khotachiwadi with ARA, a group of Berlin based architects.

The workshop was open to participants interested in Khotachiwadi and what it represents for Mumbai. The workshop’s premise was that heritage conservation is important, especially in a place like Khotachiwadi that reflects the city’s history. However, in Khotachiwadi, preservation goes together with transformation. What needs to be preserved more than anything is the residents’ sense of engagement with their neighbourhood.

Koffee Khotachiwadi drawing from the workshop's report
Extract from the workshop’s report. The drawing shows a proposition for enhancing an open space in Khotachiwadi.

The workshop report can be downloaded here: (click here for the print version).

In the workshop, every participant focused on a specific location or element of Khotachiwadi. They analysed the elements graphically, interacting with people who used them, and then re-imagined how it could evolve over time. Participants generated ideas for how to creatively use, transform, and activate Khotachiwadi. The final output was a mix of very diverse representations of the neighbourhood and its possible futures, which were framed and exhibited in the street, providing an opportunity for further interactions with residents, visitors and people passing by.

This Khotachiwadi emblem was produced by one of the workshop participants. The wall on which it hangs is now a busy selfie spot.

The Khotachiwadi Imaginaries workshop was followed by a two week-long exhibition in the neighbourhood. On the first day, a map of Khotachiwadi was painted on the wall at the entrance, which was itself transformed into an exhibition space. Next to the map, a large emblem in copper, designed by one of the participants, was nailed onto the wall. It reads “Khotachiwadi” in Marathi.

Walls were whitewashed in various parts of the neighbourhoods, alleys were cleaned, stationary motorbikes were adorned with masks, an open space was transformed into a pop-up tea salon with new benches and flowers, an old abandoned car was turned into a flowerpot, architectural drawings were framed and put onto compound walls, and games were organised for the kids.

On the last day of the workshop the output was shown at various locations in Khotachiwadi.

Some participants spray painted pictures of cats onto alley-walls with local children. One group built a sturdy, wooden step-board to help children cross over from one chawl into another. We were informed by the residents themselves that some of them interacted with each other for the first time in spite of having lived next to each other for years. Kids particularly enjoyed getting together to paint and play games.

Children, youth, adults and elderly residents from Khotachiwadi, as well as passers-by from the main road, all came in to look at the designs and ideas, and interacted with the workshop participants. The exhibition was held at three main points in the neighbourhood: the entrance near Girgaum Church, the back wall of Girgaum Lodge, and the gate outside Ideal Wafers. All three of these are existing points of high interaction and activity, and the exhibition made it all the more exciting. Over two weeks after the exhibition day, the frames are still hanging on the streets of Khotachiwadi, not because the organisers forgot to remove them, but because we were asked to leave the exhibition up a little longer!

Staircase linking two chawls
A staircase linking up two chawls through back-alleys, which was built during the workshop.

Download urbz’ Khotachiwadi proposal here: (and here for the printable version).

Download the Khotachiwadi Imaginarines workshop report here: (and here for the printable version).

See photos of the workshop’s exhibition here:

See high-resolution images of the workshop’s output here:

And click here if you want to see loooots of photos of Khotachiwadi:


The Future of Architecture?

January 3rd, 2016 by urbzman

Seen from Mumbai, an urban agglomeration of about 20 million people, which generates 20% of the Indian GDP, architecture seems like a nice idea, which along with countless other social ambitions, has found no resonance in the contemporary world.

Perhaps it is not so much that architecture doesn’t have a future, but the notion of the future itself that has become anachronistic. According to Bruno Latour, we lost the future somewhere in the twentieth century. We are only left with an “avenir”.

L’avenir is what comes to us, as opposed as to the future, which we were foolishly projecting –and which is now speaking back to us. What seemed to be externalities that could be ignored or dealt with later are now overwhelming us, and we must now cope with the messy world we have somehow generated.

The notion that we could expand our present and project ourselves towards a future of our own making, has given way to something else –which is not inexorably tragic. Anyhow, anticipating what is coming next requires no less creativity and foresight than drawing the future on a blank page.

Along with architecture, the idea of the city, as an engine for growth, as an equalizer, as the locus of modernity, seems irremediably bankrupt. Overstretched infrastructures and corrupt institutions are weighing on us all. The city is not designed by anyone, but rather abandoned to the tyrannical rule of a brand of ultra-liberalism never seen before.

60% of Mumbai residents are said to be living in slums. That means that they are in effect left to cope on their own, with quasi-inexistent support from the state, and quasi-ubiquitous oppression from institutional agents. At the other end of the spectrum, high-rises are mushrooming like there is no tomorrow, following only the socially and economically irrational logic of real estate speculation, and defying the capacity of people to actually buy the housing stock being produced. Half a million flats are left vacant in Mumbai, which is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Even this world of new tall buildings, which emulates and exceeds the most exuberant days of the twentieth century in New York, Chicago or Hong Kong, seems to function better without architects at all. Speculative development doesn’t demand design skill as much as accounting and legal expertise. Given the lack of importance given to architecture and design at the high-end of the construction spectrum, one would expect that architects would be rushing where they are most needed: in slums, where people struggle with such fundamental needs as ventilation, light and space optimization. But in fact, no architects operate in slums. They are not equipped for it. When architects come to a slum it is usually to plan what will come post eviction. With good reason, local residents see them with much suspicion.

The way we once conceived architecture, the tools we used, its very language – seem totally ill-fitted to address the issues that most people are confronted with in this day and age.

Academic institutions in charge of producing architects seem to exist a space-time warp where the future could still be conceived as a total project – architectural, social, political. Architectural education is adrift and the same is true of architectural museums and the galleries. These white boxes only seem to be there to reassure us that there are still stories worth being told; architectural fairy tales which we would love to believe. They show good work for a good world, simple and clearly delimited.

Nothing illustrates the disconnect between contemporary architectural practice and the context of Mumbai’s slums better than the use of the ‘plan’ – a device indispensable to the transformation of architectural projects into architectural objects. In a context of infinite complexity where responsiveness is everything, the plan serves almost no purpose. This is precisely because it is based on the naïve and dangerous belief that you can erase a little bit of the present world and replace it with another piece, which will fit right in. But it won’t fit because the architect comes from a different homeworld.

An architect walking in a Mumbai slum is like a ‘Prawn’ in District 9. A lost alien, whose power is reduced to zero because nothing in this world fits what he purposed to do. If architecture is to survive at all in a world with no future and only an avenir, it must be completely reinvented. We must accept that no matter how grand and wonderful, architectural practice as we’ve learned it ultimately belongs to art history and into big white box museums.

Parametric urban design will not save us – whatever some generation-x prophets may be preaching. Supersizing the architectural objects, and adding infinite internal complexity thanks to supercomputing capacities, will not be enough to respond to a challenge that really comes from outside the practice and outside the project. Gated communities, university campuses, Special Economic Zones, and smart cities are neurotic responses to the prevailing feeling among architects and planners that they are losing control.

As architects and urbanists who belong to a generation bred in twentieth century institutions and whatever is left of them in the early twenty-first century, we must make a conscious effort to radically transform our practice. We have no choice but to be even more imaginative in the way we use whatever resources we are left with and whatever technology we can scavenge.

The best way to deal with what’s coming is to accept that that we can’t build our way into the future, and that we must engage with the world as it is – messed up, toxic and unpredictable. We should drop all claims to superiority and learn to work with the context as a living material. Context shapes us and we shape it back. We must invent an imperfect practice for an imperfect world. Let’s not reinvent yesterday’s beautiful but unexciting utopias.

As practitioners, we must be pragmatic, daring and optimistic. We must learn to deal with forms of emergence that are outside the scope of architectural practice and actually draw inspiration from them. This necessarily implies another relationship to one’s own creative agency. It is not about imposing one order onto another, or bringing more rationality into an existing local practice of construction, but about connecting one’s own expertise with the knowledge of other actors who are rooted in their imminent reality.

This text is a long version of urbz’s entry for an initiative by the Future Architecture Platform.

Khotachiwadi Workshop: January 7-10, 2016

December 20th, 2015 by urbzman

The dominant contemporary narrative around urban transformation seems to be divided along a clear binary. On the one hand, there is real estate development and speculation which treats land as like any other asset to invest in; on the other hand there is conservation, which wants to protect land and architecture from destruction and development. urbz has an old and ongoing association with Khotachiwadi, which has been at the center of the tug of war between these two extremes for many years.

Part of our work involves asking the questions – what does it mean for a space to be conserved? How is a space “protected”?

Consistent with our approach in other neighbourhoods also, urbz has tried to focus on local economic activity and potential in Khotachiwadi, and how these can offer an alternate kind of resistance to destruction of the century-old Portugese-style bungalows. Conservation efforts towards the architecture of Khotachiwadi have long been the focus of parties outside Khotachiwadi; it is imperative that any visions towards a more “conserved” space need to be contributed to by the actual residents and users of the space.

Khotachiwadi is unique not only for its heritage bungalows, but for its entire fabric; the diversity of its typology is linked to the diversity of its demographic. In South Bombay, which is fast gentrifying and calcifying, such spaces are especially precious. Socially, culturally, and economically successful cities necessarily support this heterogenity that Khotachiwadi is a natural home to. It is this diversity that should be the true focus of “conservation” – not exclusively the architecture.

Architecture is innately human; once we realise that the purpose of “conserving” or preventing the death of spaces should essentially be about the need to prevent the death or evacuation of certain structures, activities, or communities – we can rethink the meaning of conservation. Perhaps spaces are “conserved” when they are dynamic, open to spontaneity and change.

It is with this thought that we are holding a workshop in Khotachiwadi, open to the public, to collaboratively envision a transformed Khotachiwadi and the ways in which the neighbourhood can resist complete destruction and redevelopment. The event will be held from January 7-10 2016, in association with the Khotachiwadi Welfare Heritage Trust. The main guests for the event will be four architects and designers who are here for the launch of their recent book on Ahmedabad’s urbanscape (see excerpt here).

The ongoing output of our work in Khotachiwadi has been compiled into a report that will also incorporate the output of the workshop.

Do visit the event’s facebook page if you are interested in participating. Please note that registrations are limited. We hope to see you there!

Live Architecture for Homegrown Neighbourhoods

December 8th, 2015 by urbzman

Irshad bhai works as an accountant at a Foundation in South Mumbai. He requested design support from urbz. This was for his new home in Dr. Ambedkar Nagar, a dense, incremental settlement in Kanjurmarg, in the northeastern suburbs of Mumbai. He lives with his parents, wife, sister, brother, and two-year-old daughter. The family wanted a new house to accommodate their growing needs that could be built with their savings. They have been living in a ground floor house in Dr. Ambedkar Nagar, and have just moved into the new G+1 house we helped them build.

In such dense ‘homegrown’, relatively affordable neighborhoods, it is very difficult to simply execute a pre-fabricated and specific design/plan. The process of execution has to be necessarily fast and quick.  It becomes affordable only because labour and industrial materials are easily available locally. But the complexity of the context means that one needs to constantly adapt the design to changing circumstances. In such a scenario the best approach is to evolve the design on the spot as the construction unfolds. This is what we call ‘unmediated design’ or ‘live architecture’.

A major concern while designing the house was to provide enough light and ventilation in a very crowded setup.  This involves thinking about the optimal size for each part of the house, and an efficient placement of openings on external walls. Due to space constraints, it is also particularly important to think through the spatial organisation of the various functions of the house. Initially the family was trying to arrange a living space, a kitchen, two small baths, and two extra rooms to let out for rent, over two storeys. That is a rather heavy program to put in place on a 143 sq.ft plot.

Eventually, the family decided to use the entire two storey space, which made things a little simpler from a design point of view as the house didn’t need two separate entries on the upper floor.. The lower level is now a common family space and has a toilet. The kitchen, which was initially supposed to be downstairs for the family, has now been moved upstairs. This happened because the family wanted to use the entire house, with a bigger common space downstairs. The upper floor has a bath and sleeping area.

One of the biggest challenges in the new construction was the resident of a bungalow whose compound wall is just next to the rear side of Irshad bhai’s new house. The woman living in the bungalow objected to the new house’s height being increased. She felt it would block the flow of wind into her house. She also argued it would be illegal, unaware that as per the new norm, houses in areas notified as slums can legally be up to 18 feet in height.

The family also faced a lot of resistance from their neighbours within the compound, who were concerned that the new construction would damage their houses. Subsequently, members had to repeatedly visit the ward office to get permission. Irshaad bhai’s mother said that they had to go through a lot of trouble and the authorities demolished their structure twice before it was allowed to be completed. Eventually their neighbours consented to an extension into the public pathway from the upper floor. As a result the entire area became more functional.

Settlements like Dr. Ambedkar Nagar in Kanjurmarg are different from and in some ways more interesting than Shivaji Nagar, where urbz built a house – which is what brought us Irshad bhai’s attention.  Shivaji Nagar is a planned resettlement colony, which means that plots are equal in size and organized in neat rows.  Dr. Ambedkar Nagar is ‘homegrown’ in every sense of the word. The streets follow an opportunistic pattern and houses push their wall onto pathways as much as possible.

Construction of the upper floor.

Construction was done in steel rather than RCC. This made it cheaper, less permanent, more incremental and flexible. In this particular locality, most constructions have shallow  foundations of around 1.5 feet, which ensure that costs remain low and the foundations of the neighbouring houses are not disturbed. All of this makes the constructions legal as well as adaptable to specific requirements. But it also means that constructions are not quite as permanent or disaster resistant as they should be.

According to Irshad bhai’s mother, when she first started living here in 1982, it was almost completely empty. With time, people started to settle here, the density increased and the feeling of insecurity which prevailed in the night disappeared. The water and infrastructure improved, and now, she says, it is a peaceful and very safe area. The history of the nagar plays a significant role in the way development happens here. Because of its spontaneous and human growth history, new constructions and designs are implemented through mutual consent and understanding with neighbours in the locality, more than with municipal authorities. When people want to extend part of their house or make a balcony, they discuss it and negotiate with the neighbours whose wall their balcony may reach. This kind of procedure which is undocumented and often involves conflict and resolution is an essential part of the growth process. It points to both, the positive and negative aspects of the dense social fabric of neighbourhoods such as Dr. Ambedkar Nagar and many others like it.

Irshad bhai’s family plans on using both floors of the new house as well as their old house to live in now. In Dr. Ambedkar Nagar, it is possible and necessary for joint families to spread themselves across houses. This use of “small and dispersed spaces further adds to the strong social fabric of the way the neighbourhood operates. Irshad bhai’s mother is glad that her family now has so much more space to grow.

Irshad’s new house. The neighbourhood is so dense that it is impossible to take a photo of the entire house. But you can view more photos of the construction and finished house here.

Irshad’s feedback after the construction of his house. (Click to enlarge).

Residents of Dr. Ambedkar Nagar face pressure every time inhabitants want to construct something new. This is because the entire settlement had once been proposed for “redevelopment” many years ago. Though there no actual signs of redevelopment happening anytime soon, the repair or reconstruction of homes is seen as legally suspect.

Given the resistance to the improvement of homes, from both institutional and local actors, every kachcha house transforming into a pukka house is a story worth telling – one which is extremely significant to the residents and their requirements, and also to the development of the city at large.

More images of the Kanjurmarg construction here:


Text and graphics by Jai Badgaonkar, Ketaki Tare, editing by Apoorva, Matias and Rahul

Preserving Urban Transformation

November 5th, 2015 by urbzman

Chawl in Khotachiwadi: Conservation efforts have to involve the communities of users who keep urban habitats alive.

A recent airoots post discussed the nature of cities – the inevitable presence and influence of humans on their environment. “Natural cities”, as we call them, are spaces where landscapes, habitats and the people in them are constantly changing with and adapting to each other.

The practice of trying to control the landscape, and direct its growth, leads to multiple problems. For example, the discourse of environmental conservation often frames the cityscape as something that needs to be preserved. This is a justified response to the destruction of land and resources that we see around us, thanks to the reckless working of a capitalist world economy. Unfortunately, whether the environment is simply considered as a natural resource to create consumer goods, or as a sacred space to be protected and untouched – it ignores the intrinsic human presence that constitutes it. It essentially constructs nature as something outside the realm of human life or vice versa, especially in the discourse on conservation.

In the same vein, Mumbai’s Mithi River, which empties into the Arabian Peninsula, is the focus of strong conservation efforts that range from reclaiming it to “beautifying” it. However, such a narrative does not recognise the intensely organic, public activity that is already constantly happening around the river. The men who throw rotting flowers into it every morning to pray. The children who swim in it, the people who have actually made their homes on the banks of the river. These presences, the real users of the river, are entirely excluded from the narrative that attempts to “save” the river, speaking on behalf of the environment, but not speaking to it at all.

Khotachiwadi Christmas Fair
Khotachiwadi Christmas Fair. Chawls, bungalows, and active community spaces, along with a myriad of cultural identities, all co-exist here.

The same simplistic narrative is present in the conversation efforts of urban heritage and architecture. By allowing only one kind of  development narrative to monopolize the dimension of change , such efforts become closed to a lot of necessary and natural human activity that takes place in urban habitats. The problem with such an idea of development is not that it necessarily destroys heritage, which, like the environment, we seem to be fetishizing. The problem with it is that it occurs without the active influence and direction of ground-level users of the spaces that are being conserved.

urbz’s work in Khotachiwadi, the urban hamlet in South Mumbai, aims to engage local residents of a neighbourhood that, like the Mithi River, is at the center of heated debates around conservation. Efforts to keep a neighbourhood frozen, in the name of protecting it from real estate developers, can be disastrous for the community. The fact is that the culture and nature of the people in the wadi is always changing and growing; many properties are becoming less practical for owners and tenants to keep or maintain. In the face of this, if one insists that the buildings and spaces themselves be preserved, without factoring in the concerns of those who live in them, the whole effort at conservation can easily lose relevance to its most important constituency, – the group of people with the most active interest in keeping Khotachiwadi alive, its residents.

Khotachiwadi Designer James Ferreira's house
Designer James Ferreira’s ancestral bungalow in Khotachiwadi has been converted into a workshop, a studio and a boutique. The dress pictured above is one of his creations. Just like the house, it merges legacy and variation in a masterly way.

Khotachiwadi has a rich culture and unique history that has made it home to people of various backgrounds. Real development in Khotachiwadi can take place when this myriad of local identities are recognised and harnessed. Conversation between residents, the government, and builders can lead to promising outcomes. When the local community can engage and create economic value in the space, it can become more financially viable to maintain structures that have cultural significance, with the support of investors, donors or the government.

A more active local economy would reassert the mixed-use nature of the neighbourhood and bring a new relevance to some of the bungalows that are underused, giving them new meaning. It is important to have a convergence of public and private spaces to maintain interesting and relevant urban setups. Builders then are able to create new structures that incorporate and speak to the present structures and context, rather than construct disproportionate buildings in isolation, that destroy the physical fabric of Khotachiwadi, as we see happening today.

The natural city embraces and manifests human agency as the central force for the organic growth of cities. This human agency, whether it is in the reclamation of the Mithi River or the conservation of heritage neighbourhoods like Khotachiwadi, or the creation of tiny homes in Shivaji Nagar, is deeply political and needs to be intimately connected to the defining features of these spaces – the humans themselves.

There needs to be a new way of looking at architecture and other aspects of our landscape. Rather than trying to protect the space because we are attached to a past that it represents, a new narrative would enable its relevance and encourage new forms of value to emerge from what currently exists. Keeping Khotachiwadi or Banganga Tank alive is thus a very spontaneous and natural impulse, which must be followed and infused with new ideas and strategies – and not stagnate in the struggle for conservation. What society really owes to both, the past and to nature, is an effort to bridge conversations, and develop a more sensitive and creative way to engage with them.

For more photos of Khotachiwadi click visit our flickr page:

#NaturalCity #ReclaimGrowth #urbz_khotachiwadi