The unchecked urban development that’s sweeping through cities is destroying traditional social networks and architecture, from Mumbai chawls to Delhi’s villages
An unrestrained urbanisation is transmuting our cities. Horizons are punctuated with scaffoldings and a new grammar of glass and steel is taking shape, as old buildings and neighbourhoods are replaced with small pieces of Singapore. Enclaves of unique architectural styles are slowly being gentrified and brought into a homogenous mainstream. While edifices classified as heritage structures are preserved in a frozen place in history, living landscapes are being ruptured carelessly. The built form is not only an object of historical and cultural interest, but an essential ingredient to the intangible social fabric of the city.”Transformations that are happening are pushing out the traditional inhabitants and new people are moving in who do not have the same social patterns, ” says Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect based in Mumbai.
Though India has a variety of architectural idioms and techniques, cookie-cutter replications are gaining popularity. “Traditional architecture came around with strong response to social, cultural and climatic consideration, ” says Dilawari. “This is what is being eroded very fast. The interaction of designers with users is being replaced by the builder and quality of space is being replaced with arithmetic of space. ”
With the removal of architecture from its context, there is a slow extinction of features such as open spaces, balconies, high ceilings, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares, exposed brickwork and indigenous material such as kota stone. “The kind of architectural design that is done today is a mechanical replication that is not sensitive to its location and surroundings,” says architect Ashish Ganju. “This is largely because the means of production have become so highly standardized and the repository of building materials is so narrow – the capacity of human beings to create meaningful cultural objects that impact people is being lost.”
These are not individual transformations, but rather a decipherable pattern which is percolating through the country. Examples of this can be seen in the distinct vernacular idioms of Kochi, Ahmadabad and Allahabad, the chawls of Mumbai, the timber houses of Himachal and erstwhile urban villages such as Khotachiwadi, Ranwar, Matharpakdi, Khirkee and Hauz Khaz in Delhi. The sophistication and diversity of India’s rich urban heritage is being replaced with a facile cosmopolitanism. “We first shape our building and then our buildings shape us” is what Winston Churchill had said and is very apt summation,” says Dilawari. “What we miss is good urban design today which can be the heritage of tomorrow.”
Festival preparations at Phanaswadi chawl- Photograph Rupali Gupte
The chawls of Mumbai, those neglected counterparts of its swanky high rises, offer a unique window into the culture, society and history of an island metropolis in the midst of molding itself in the image of a ‘world class city’. In the late 19th century, the textile industry prompted a vast influx of immigrants from the hinterland. Constructed by mill owners and private builders to house the growing community of migrants who gave the city its cosmopolitan flavor, the over-crowded chawl became the quintessential icon of the working-class dwelling. Chawls have been alternately disparaged and romanticized, on one end viewed as jam packed and unsanitary on the other as multicultural enclaves that nurture community life.
A chawl – roughly translated from Marathi as room fronted by a corridor – is a linear or C-shaped building of one or two room housing units that share a common balcony. Originally derived from the typology of army barracks, chawls are typically two or three-storied with a common toilet and washing area on the ground floor. A usual kholi consists of one room, which functions as a living and sleeping area and usually comes with a small mori for a faucet. Often there is a kitchen that serves as a bedroom for another couple. The scarcity of working-class housing meant that very frequently however multiple households were shared a single kholi.
The chawl’s shared spaces gave rise to a strong sense of community. “These mundane typologies were transformed by their inhabitants into active political, social and cultural spaces, ” says Neera Adarkar, architect and urban researcher, who edited the anthology ‘The Chawls of Mumbai’. “The BDD chawls in Worli, Lower Parel and Sewri have an open sense of community and nurtured a variety of cultures. This interface between the public and the private is almost lost from buildings today. ” The hotbed of political activism during Independence, chawls cut across class, community and religion. The courtyards came alive during public festivals like Moharram, Ganesh Chaturthi and Gokulashtami, and served as a forum for the art forms such as bhajans, powadas and tamashas. “Living in a chawl is like having a large joint family, ” says artist Atul Dodiya, who was born and brought up in a chawl.
However existing chawls are often left to decay until they need to be redeveloped, making way for cinder block apartments. Though many have argued that chawls have become obsolete, they continue to serve a valuable purpose in the cramped housing circumstances of Mumbai. “Even if the mill worker is an obsolete icon of the 20th century, the chawls in Dadar, Mahim, Matunga, Parla, Borivali and Girgaon are occupied by middleclass families with white collar jobs, ” says Adarkar. “It is not enough to simply dismiss or idealise them. ”
TIMBER HOUSES, HIMACHAL PRADESH
Dolma Long Institute & Nunnery - Photo credit Ashish Ganju
Set against the in rugged background of soaring mountains, the architecture in the himachal region blends right in, thriving in the rather harsh climatic conditions. “What is disappearing is our substantial architectural heritage,” says architect Ashish Ganju who has worked extensively to revive indigenous building idioms. “It is the loss of an entire vernacular tradition which responded to the region, geography, and climate. The culture emerged out of its link to the natural forces and the elements.”
As the hills are prone to earthquakes, the traditional structures in places like Mandi and Rewalsar were ingeniously made earthquake resistant by combining timber frames and masonry (brick or stone). The walls were plastered with mud to provide insulation, while the roofs were covered in local slate that fit the landscape, were easy to maintain and ensured dry interiors. “The traditional building techniques are being replaced by cement-intensive construction, with thin walls covered with cement plaster, and reinforced concrete flat roofs (which leak), ” says Ganju. “This is largely a result of the aggressive marketing of building products like cement and other industrially produced materials like steel. ” Traditional building skill sets are being neglected and hence slowly vanishing. On the other hand, the new materials are not used optimally because they require a know-how which is not yet easily available. In places like the Dolma Ling Nunnery in Dharamsala, Ganju is attempting to apply Buddhist principles to develop an grammar which mediates between climate and place.
“The quality of the built environment is degrading significantly, in terms of loss of convenience, comfort, and maintainability, while becoming much more expensive overall,” says Ganju. “This decline, over time, begins to adversely affect the overall life style of the people.”
Khotachiwadi - Photocredit Urbz
Nestled in the midst of Mumbai’s grizzly, bustling, chaotic urbanity is a small piece of the sleepy village life that inspires grandmothers’ tales. Khotachiwadi, a small enclave of Portuguese architecture founded in the late 18th century by East Indian settlers, seems to deny Bombay’s frenzied bustle. This is engendered by a mixture of the built typology – low rise, high density with narrow streets and few cars – and the friendly laidback nature of its original inhabitants.
Designated a heritage precinct in 1995, Khotachiwadi’s architecture has a diversity of typologies such as individual bungalows, chawls and apartment buildings. While the bungalows display Portuguese influences, there are also flourishes of vernacular styles and modernist Art Deco. Most of the houses are made of wood, fronted by a spacious verandah or porch, a courtyard at the back, fascia boards, balustrades, and external staircases. Incrementally developed, the neighborhood belies its own transformation from a plantation by the sea, to an East Indian settlement.
“The beauty of places like Khotachiwadi and Khirki Village in Delhi is that they know how to be urbane, ” says Matias Echanove of the Urbz, an urban research collective. “They have deep roots;they are connected to the larger context, yet also appear to be slightly detached;not fully buying into the development craze they see around them, as if they had seen it all before. They are self-contained and preserve a very strong sense of identity, without being exclusive or gated. ” The neighbourhood’s distinct identity, then, is derived from its unique social fabric as much as from its beautiful edifices. “People are walking in the street. Neighbours are talking to each other, sometimes shouting at each other,” says Echanove. “But when something goes wrong they know how to come together. My friend Jimmy leaves his door open all day; people come in and out all the time. He has sparrow nests in his 150 years old bungalow.”
Originally 65 houses, the redevelopment of the neighbourhood has left only 28 bungalows standing. Along with architectural beauty, the new construction lacks the sturdy quality of these elegant low rise bungalows with thick walls and high ceilings, which have sometimes weathered two centuries. “The point is not at all that places like Khotachiwadi should be turned into Archaeological Survey of India sites and barricaded, with a ticket booth at the entrance, ” says Echanove. “It is of course, exactly the contrary. In order to exist and survive, neighbourhoods must continue their journey through time and keep on evolving continuously. It is the dynamic interaction between people and the space they inhabit that must be preserved at all cost. ”
KHIRKI VILLAGE, DELHI
Khirkee extension - Photocredit Urbz
In the shadow of Khirki Masjid in southern Delhi, is a sprawling village where small shops and cottage industries are interspersed with residential houses and artist studios. Though the masjid, built in 1375, is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India Act, the living heritage of Khirki and the adjoining extension is quickly disintegrating.
A neighborhood in the true sense of the word, Khirki has a dynamic cultural identity along with its historic value. Based in Khirki, the Khoj Studio has organized several participatory public art projects. Sculptor Aastha Chauhan, who heads their community arts initiative, has facilitated projects ranging from local shop makeovers to clay toy-making with neighborhood children. “Khirki came alive post 6 pm,” says Chauhan. “The lanes turned into lovely open air living rooms, exciting bustling places. If people wanted to watch the tv in the barbershop they would simply put a couch on the road.”
With developments such as the ‘Select City Mall’, specialty hospitals, luxury hotels, cineplexes and international schools in the vicinity, Khirki village is undergoing a period of flux which threatens to rob it off its unique identity. “The older houses are being demolished, and are replaced by multi-storied buildings of extremely poor quality,” says Chauhan. As Khirki is slowly engulfed in Delhi rapidly sprawling urbanization, the village is losing some of this community. “Khirki extension housed a lot of places for culture, theatre and art that are quickly vanishing because of the many complex issues that the area is faced by . The land rises have skyrocketed because of the mall and there are infrastructure problems because it is a contested area,” says Chauhan.
While the architecture of the area is transforming from single occupancy homes to multi-storeyed buildings that lack quality or infrastructure, the erstwhile rural immigrants who made up the original population of Khirki are being replaced by middle income residents who work in the new facilities in the area. “The smaller kholis of working class labour who were brought in to build the mall are being replaced by the new type of residents of the neighborhood – guards at the mall, call centre employees, hospital workers,” says Chauhan. “With the new developments the idea of shared open places is going. The average man cannot access places like Nandan park.”
Along with the changing demographic, is the loss of the small scale industries such as garment workshops. “At the end what is lost is not just one type of architecture in favour of another,” says Chauhan. “What is lost is a mindset, a lifestyle, a way of interacting and connecting with ones neighbors. Everybody is a stranger now in Khirki, fighting over parking space.”
RANWAR VILLAGE, MUMBAI
Ranwar village square- photocredit Vivek sheth and The Busride
If you happen to wander off Bandra’s maddening Hill Road, down a small street called Langrana Lane, you will be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled upon a Portuguese hamlet. Ranwar, a 400-year-old East Indian village on Veronica Street, is one of the original pakhadis (villages) of Bandra. Arranged in a zig zag pattern that seems haphazard at first, are charming, antiquated cottages.
Like most original pakhadis in Mumbai, Ranwar’s architecture combines vernacular expression with a heavy Portuguese influence. The houses are topped with red Mangalore tiles and feature Balcao style sit-outs, ornamental trellises, attics meant for storing grain and wooden columns and beams. “Most of these houses either fronted onto, or had a back facing a vestigial open space, which was traditionally used to hold small rosaries, make masalas, allow children to play outside etc, ” says Ayaz Basrahi, Mumbai based architect from the Busride Design Studio located in Ranwar. “All these work at a pedestrian scale, where there was a free interaction, an extremely close knit community because of all the social spaces that were allowed to exist. ”
Landlords in Ranwar, unwilling or unable to bear the sizeable maintenance costs, are selling them to builders who promptly erect high-rises in their place. Since Basrai moved in in 2006, six bungalows have been razed to the ground. The most debilitating casualty of the redevelopment of Ranwar is then its lively street culture. The outdoor porches are used to buy fish or enjoy a chat with neighbours while the square hosts events ranging from Rosaries and prayer meetings to football games. “The biggest loss to Ranwar is a complete displacement of culture,” says Basrahi. “The architectural language of Ranwar physically creates these conversations by forcing interactions in its fantastic meandering vestigial spaces. The scale of the village is critical, tall buildings here puncture big holes in the village map.
This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on July 30, 2011.