Preserving Urban Transformation

November 5th, 2015 by urbzman

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. 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.

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.

#NaturalCity #ReclaimGrowth #urbz_khotachiwadi

A house we built BIGGER

October 26th, 2015 by urbzman


In our earlier post about the “homegrown” nature of Shivajinagar, Mumbai, we talked about local urbanisation processes in neighbourhoods which have little attention from authorities and no official framework through which to do neighbourhood-level planning. These neighbourhoods nonetheless have seen resourcefulness and rapid growth in population and housing.

URBZ is actively engaged with some of the design and construction happening in Shivajinagar. In 2014, we designed our first house in the neighbourhood, with the help of the local contractor, Pankaj Gupta, based on economical uses of materials and space. It was jointly owned between the contractor and URBZ, and now temporarily houses a family while the contractor builds their permanent house.

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This film documents the first stage of the house’s professional and efficient construction a year ago, to its permitted height of 14 feet

A new client, Anil Gupta, has just bought this house. He wanted a G+1 house for his joint family, which includes him, his brother, their families and their father. Anil is a vegetable vendor on a main street of Shivajinagar. He currently lives several streets away, near Deonar dumping ground, which is the largest dumping ground in India – a location which is both unsafe and inconvenient. Anil has to carry his vegetables to the main street every day.

Anil and his brother pooled their savings together and also took a loan to purchase the house, which costs 19 lakhs, and they are paying for it in installments. The move to the new house is a big step for his family and they are all looking forward to raising their children in it.

He and his family will move into the house once the current residents are able to move into their permanent house. The contractor arranges these families in a circulatory manner, making optimum use of residential space in the neighbourhood.

In tandem with the flexible nature of Shivajinagar, the last few weeks have been spent vertically expanding the house, a year after the ground floor was built, following an authorised revision of the legal height limit. This second storey was designed without blueprints or sketches or outside architects, but directly by Pankaj himself as he instructed the builders, using a more or less standard layout that he knows is popular and practical in Shivajinagar.

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The second film shows the vertical expansion of the homegrown house one year later, and introduces Anil Gupta and his family.

Planning houses in homegrown neighbourhoods is impossible without the help of people like Pankaj. Though he is known by the people of Shivajinagar as a contractor, this job inherently involves also being an administrator, businessman, researcher, designer, architect. His work includes design both because of his political clout as a contractor as well as his technical knowledge and experience.

The work on affordable housing that URBZ does with other experienced professionals in Shivajinagar, requires everything from handling documentation to having an instinctive understanding of the local economy, culture and trends. Pankaj is not simply a businessman whose trade happens to be in materials and real estate – technical knowledge is a part of his work. As someone who lived in Shivajinagar himself, and spends most of his days there now, constantly interacting with people there, Pankaj’s “research” is inseparable from his daily life, part of what makes this user-generated growth.

This house is an example of the incremental growth happening all the time in Shivajinagar, where structures change to adapt to new habits. During the construction of the top storey of the house, the ceiling of the ground floor had to be demolished and then rebuilt three feet higher to make it more spacious. The day it was to be done, Anil and Pankaj decided that a better idea would be to leave the current ceiling as it was and build the floor of the top story above it, creating a three foot gap between the two storeys to make a mini-floor that Anil will use to store his vegetables.

This choice of keeping the unintended space in between two floors is typical of the adaptability of urban incremental growth. “It saved us a lot of time,” Pankaj said. It will also presumably save Anil space inside the house, where he would otherwise have had to keep the vegetables. The films make evident the potential, skills and resources inherent in such places, which need very little, except for appropriate state support, to transform their living standards.

Harvard landscape architect Pierre Belanger said in the documentary Mumbai: Maximum City Under Pressure that, “A city of 18 million people is composed of 18 million architects.” In cities like Mumbai, which has an inextricable migratory relationship with many other regions of India, it is not possible for all housing to be entirely centrally planned or under full supervision from authorities. “Slums” are important in high-density cities because they provide an entry point into the city for migrants of all income groups, and for this reason, they are an integral part of Mumbai, whose population growth rate touches half a million per year.

Incremental growth is a primary resistance to this idea of central housing planning, and evidence that central planning is not a practical way to approach housing in Mumbai. Changing needs bring about changing growth patterns. By not centering their area around public and private space (bedrooms and living rooms) and turning the whole house into a semi-public, mixed use space, houses in Shivajinagar deal with ideas of “overpopulation” and “high density” in creative ways, while adapting to the various functions that their residents require these rooms for. When we asked Anil’s children where they would study in their new house, they danced around it and said, “Anywhere!”

As we described in our earlier article about local housing, it is important, politically, economically and socially, for these “homegrown” initiatives to not be ignored by planners but rather used and optimised. Residents of neighbourhoods like Shivajiagar, and the processes they use to build their houses, are not formalised largely because the area is demarcated as a “slum”. This invites biases of a political more than legal nature.

There are, therefore, cultural and political relationships to be addressed in order to also optimise housing in Mumbai, and make it the product both of government and local power, effort, and knowledge. But for now, it is valuable to see the growth of Shivajinagar as a one-house-at-a-time process – and to know that Anil’s wife and sister-in-law are happy and eager to start using their new kitchen, and their children are excited to have a new place to study hard.

These two videos are currently shown at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Konkan diaries; traditions that move

October 19th, 2015 by urbzman

Takle- holi carnival
Huge festivals like this one, celebrating Holi, held in Somgiri village, are populated with thousands of Mumbai residents every year.

Evolving mobility and migratory practices enable people to carry ideas constantly. In this way, they reimagine old binaries like tradition vs. modernity – the same way they redefine notions of linearity in urbanisation. The urbaneness that is created by mobility therefore is not located in fixed places but in the act of traveling itself. This can also be seen in the way many of the respondents in our study have fluid notions of culture and ritual, in a manner that transgresses geographical limitations. There is a shared mindspace across places that compels them to move during these times.

The Takle family is from Somgiri village, Ratnagiri District, living mainly in Mumbai. They showed us images of a huge function held annually in their village, around the carnivalesque festival of Holi. Though technically a Hindu festival marking the end of winter, Holi is celebrated by people of all communities . In this function, Ankit and Akshay Takle, who go to college in Mumbai, said that over 1000 people come from Mumbai and other places for an 8-day celebration. The festival in this case is more like an eight-day carnival than a religious function. Going to the village for festival time is a common practice.

It may always be the case that there are some needs that the village will fulfill better than the city, no matter when a family migrated. Another example of this is the Takles’ relationship with farming. After Mr. Takle got married, he left the profession, but he says that it would be possible to take it up again if they wanted or needed to. “It’s not that since we have come to Mumbai we can’t do farming. We can still do it the way we did earlier.”

At the same time, changes in the direction of “modernisation” are visible, selectively, when we look at some of the houses in Ratnagiri. “It’s not that such old houses remain the same forever,” Mr. Takle said, “For instance, the houses with tiled roofing are being replaced by an RCC structure.”

In 1997, Ashok Jadhav, an elderly man from Ukshi, in Ratnagiri district, decided to make the huge investment of building for his family the first concrete house in the village. While Mr. Jadhav was born and raised in Mumbai, he was as committed to Ukshi and his travel there as he is to his work in Mumbai. He worked both at the mills and with the transport service. Almost twenty years later, Mr. Takle, a much younger man, has decided to hire a local contractor to build his family’s house in Somgiri, even though he himself works as a contractor in Mumbai, because he specifically wanted the new house to use local material and style. While the house itself is a “modern” one, built with separate rooms for the three brothers (older houses had much more common space), the family has selectively decided what aspects of this modernity are desirable.

Religion is another aspect of culture that is relatively fluid. The Jadhav family, like many others from the region, are Buddhist, but most of them also celebrate Hindu festivals for fun – though they don’t bring idols or rituals into their houses. Sidhi Jadhav is a high school student in Mumbai whose native village is Hedvi, Ratnagiri district. Her nuclear family has a specific faith in certain Hindu gods, so they celebrate during some Hindu festivals. Sometimes they perform rituals in their house trying not to let their neighbours know so as to not offend them, and sometimes they leave town to celebrate it elsewhere, telling their neighbours and extended family that they are just going on a holiday. Sidhi’s mother believes strongly in the Hindu god Ganapati, because, as Sidhi says, she was able to bear a child only upon prayer to him, after many prayers to many other gods. She named that child, Sidhi, after the Ganapati temple near their home in Mumbai. Sidhi herself says that she prefers to follow the teachings of Christ which she has been familiarised with at her convent school, but she also keeps a fast during Ramzan when her Muslim friends are fasting. None of these things are contradictory.

The interesting thing about the respondents is that they share a consciousness that is far older than them. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when ideas were exchanged and changed because it is impossible to pinpoint when the family’s migration happened. It happens in phases and it happened before their time and is continuously happening. They asked us if we also felt the same way, the need and desire to live the way our parents did.

Deepak- first photo of roll
It is a custom – or maybe a habit – to click the little temple in their home to inaugurate a new
roll of film. Just to test the camera, or for good wishes, perhaps -

In some sense “tradition” here is the instinct of looking back at something that is not backward or regressive, but something that constantly informs the past and the present. When they answer the question, “Where are you from?” they give a different answer based on the context, but the answer is always important, as important as each of their individual identities.

Holi festival being celebrated in Somgiri village, Ratnagiri district, over eight days. People come
from Mumbai and all over the region for a week to celebrate.

Young, Urbane, and Mobile

September 15th, 2015 by urbzman


Local ‘red stone’ used in Ankit and Akshay’s new house.

The participants in our study on Mumbai’s relationship to the Konkan region are Sidhi Jadhav, Rutuja Jadhav, Prajwal Kamble, (from Naigaon) and Akshay and Ankit Takle (Bhandup), all of them in their teens. Their families come from different villages in the Konkan region, primarily the district of Ratnagiri.

They gave us interesting insights on mobility and urbanism with their continuous travel between Mumbai and their villages. Being second- or third-generation migrants, they have unique experiences of their own, as well as memories inherited from their families. Our workshop with them was a chance to meet collectively and discuss aspects of the study together.


Participants sharing photos they took of their villages.

While they have all grown up entirely in Mumbai, they make frequent trips to their villages in the Konkan region. They largely expressed a sort of nostalgia for idyllic rural life. Sidhi and her cousin Prajwal said that village houses should be made of mud, not brick, and that the village should not become “too modern”, or “like the city”, where the landscape is destroyed and the environment becomes crowded and polluted.

Akshay and Ankit’s father, Mr. Takle, is currently constructing a house in their village, Somgiri. Though a contractor himself, he is not an expert in laterite, the local stone of the village, and has hired a local contractor because he specifically wants his house made of traditional Konkan village house materials.

Akshay and Prajwal said that they would move to the village if they were able to get good jobs there. Regardless of – or perhaps because of – the constant movement, the village still informs their identity.

They also asserted that such alternatives to the city are important to the growth story of India. Against a backdrop of expanding transport systems and increased mobility, towns are becoming more relevant economic centers to villages, placing them in a highly networked sytem of typologies.

There is a man in Rutuja’s village who works as a teacher in Ratnagiri – though he has family in Mumbai. His daily commute is mainly between his village Ukshi, and the city of Ratnagiri. This lateral economic growth can become a very relevant pattern in the Konkan region.

At the same time, being Mumbai-bred, the participants also expressed expectations of the village that are characteristic of city-dwellers. They said an ideal village would be one with urban facilities – basically electricity, water supply, mobile reception, and medical facilities. Though the main reason families initially migrated to the cities was for employment, no one said they would prefer working in the village or that an ideal village would be one with plenty of employment opportunities: a village where you can live all year-round.

“We go to the village for a change,” Rutuja informed us, “If we are in the village all the time, what change will we have?” In some ways, this is now the purpose of the village in their imagination.


The courtyard outside Rutuja’s house, Naigaon.

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A house in Ukshi, Rutuja’s grandfather’s village.

Their situations show an interesting changing relationship with the village. While they continue to have expectations like their parents and grandparents, many of them, as well as their friends, do not exclusively associate travelling to the village as a trip back to one’s hometown to see family. It is as much a holiday trip, taken solely for recreation. Some of their friends, who don’t have family villages of their own, regularly accompany them on their summer trips.

Our discussion seemed to indicate that there are many things that are expected out of all of the various homes that people have. To transfer all of these expectations to one fixed geographical space is unnecessary and unrelatable given their situation.

We also talked about the act of travelling itself, which is an experience, associated with large groups and special journey songs. Sidhi, who travels almost every year by bus with her extended family, said, “We enjoy [the journey] – we sing songs, sometimes we carry instruments…and often you meet people on the bus who took the same bus the year before.”

This group represents a significant section of the population in Mumbai which has invested in the village, not just financially but socially and emotionally.

Click here for more photos of the Konkan.

Click here for more photos of Bhandup, Mumbai.

Breaking new ground in Geneva

August 12th, 2015 by rahul

From the point of view of urban authorities, all cities are in crisis mode of some kind or the other. In some parts of the world, basic issues like water and sewage have not been worked out for large sections of the population. In other cities the quality of life is extremely attractive . So attractive in fact, that the coming of more people and the task of  accommodating them, creates its own note of urgency and alarm.

Our experience over the years has taught us not to be in crisis mode at the best of times. We have worked substantially in neighbourhoods officially considered to be vulnerable and unstable or in cities that are seen to be at perpetual war with their own people over resources.

Such narratives add their own dynamics to the problems at hand rather than deal with them in an effective way.

Our offices in Mumbai have been located – at different points of time – in Dharavi and Shivaji Nagar, both neighbourhoods officially called, and treated as, slums. From there we have understood the dynamics that make these places organized, well-functioning settlements with a logic that works for the local economies that constitute it.

How density operates in such contexts  has been an important concern for us – making us factor in cultural, economic and local civic elements before drawing conclusions.

Right from the start, we have maintained that non-slum habitats and Mumbai’s slums share a lot in common and all related nomenclature needs to be critically interrogated.

From the other side of the same argument we have audaciously compared streets of Dharavi with those in Tokyo – underlining the common elements of typology and form that help extract the essence of these places across such diverse habitats.

It is with this lack of prejudice that we recently entered into dialogue with a completely different set of parameters regarding urban planning.

In a context far away from our offices in Mumbai – we found ourselves dealing with densification of a different sort – in a neighbourhood in Geneva, in Switzerland.  Even in a city of plenty – land can be scarce for housing that needs to be accessible and affordable. The way ahead seems to be to densify existing residential neighbourhoods, which have only slowly developed in the past decades. But what shape would such densification take is a point of debate.

For urbz it is an exciting mandate and marks the setting up of our second office in Geneva. Lack of prejudice about what constitutes urban histories is what makes it possible for us to operate offices in both these divergent contexts and deal with the agendas placed in front of us in as effective a way as possible.

And what we remain loyal to in terms of methodology in both places – is complete faith in the ability of the users of space (residents and inhabitants working in tandem with urban practitioners and authorities) to be able to provide us with the best templates and concepts to work with.

For this reason – our office in Geneva makes its first move with a workshop.

Breaking Ground is going to be held in September (21-25) – in a month from now and addresses issues, processes and structures of densification in a specific neighbourhood in Geneva, Switzerland.

It invites, as all our workshops always do, students, practitioners, residents and authorities to be the prime agents of thinking through the theme.

With this we build on the seven years of work in Mumbai (and other cities) and start our operations in Europe.

We do hope many of you can be part of it !

Visit the workshop’s web page here:

and download the brief here: