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Home is where the community is

A research on architectural forms in Mumbai questions the approach to affordable housing

(Clockwise from above) Bhatia Chawl; Charkop Courtyard; Bhatia Chawl Kitchen Kunal Bhatia
(Clockwise from above) Bhatia Chawl; Charkop Courtyard; Bhatia Chawl Kitchen Kunal Bhatia

Nearly a year ago, a developer approached Sameep Padora and Associates (sP+a) for an affordable housing project in Navi Mumbai. “We started looking for references to understand the nature of affordable housing models in Mumbai,” says architect Sameep Padora, who led a nearly 50-member team (from his studio and volunteers from architecture schools in the city) as they studied architectural forms across the city. Their research ranged from squatter settlements to SRA projects, some of which have evolved over 100 years. The six-month study compared 11 projects, with unit sizes from 10 to 40 sqm, looking at open spaces, social area, circulation, built areas and densities. The intensive project provided many unique solutions to live, play and work.

For homemaker Manjula Shah, it is a belief in community cohesion. The 57-year-old, a resident of Khetwadi’s RK chawl, lives in this predominantly Gujarati neighbourhood in Mumbai. The four-storey rectilinear block encloses an open courtyard in the centre, which allows residents to interact without leaving their homes. Shah’s front door is always open, even when she is alone after her husband leaves for work. “I am never lonely because my neighbours walk in and out. We exchange food and share our lives with each other,” she says.

Mumbai, known to be the city with the largest slums, faces the challenge of affordable housing. The state government recently announced the construction of nearly 1.1 million low-income affordable homes. However, since the ’80s, the state had taken a step back as it allowed private developers a freehand in redeveloping slums, which had no mandate on the physical environment. Many such projects came under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) programme. With little or no sensitivity to the social fabric, apartment blocks were built taking away the comfort of common spaces.

sP+A met Mayuri Merchant, of Bhatia Chawl in the bustling innards of Bhuleshwar, who suffers from arthritis but prefers walking up four floors. The central courtyard, like a metaphorical bridge, keeps her connected to her neighbours. “I only need to call out for help if I have a problem,” she says. “Many of them were born, and grew up in this building. While they wouldn’t mind more area added to their individual units, they are clear it cannot be at the expense of the common space,” says Padora, who has documented this research into a book called In The Name of Housing: A study of 11 projects in Mumbai. Published by the Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai, it is due for launch next month. An exhibition by the same name was part of the three-month-long State of Architecture programme.

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These projects testify to what American architecture critic Jane Jacobs calls “unslumming slums”. Such housing has been catalysts for diversity, nurturing lively streets, and preventing “taxidermy cities” or dead, stuffed cities.

From dining tables that collapse to become cabinets, window sills that cantilever to tilt water pots, to tripartite windows with ventilators, which afford air circulation and privacy, Mumbai’s slum dwellers have found smart ways to live. It turns the idea of Smart Cities on its head, changing the Internet of Things to mean more than just a circuit of signals. “In these housing projects, courtyards, corridors, and stairs have all been appropriated to extend the social fabric. For instance, the intimate height-to-width ratio in the courtyard in Bhatia chawl is designed to facilitate communication across its floors,” says Padora.

Charkop in Kandivali in north Mumbai only reinforced this idea. The team found that even after 30 years of its construction, even as it had become an applique of varying heights and character, the central courtyard remained untouched. “This idea challenges the assumptions of regulatory frameworks, which segregate common spaces from everyday living, for fear of encroachment,” says Padora.

It’s these native design interventions that show the way forward for better housing policies, that allow for “eyes on the street”, reducing crime rates in these areas, and making neighbourhoods richer and more vibrant.