The classic poem For a Want of a Nail, which concludes with how a kingdom was lost, is a reminder of what is currently wrong in our approach to farming, farmers and our cities. So when a school in a Delhi slum, along the Yamuna, wins an international award, it offers hope that things could look up with inclusive imaginations for our cities. ‘Modskool’, by Social Design Collaborative, which recently won the Beazley Award for Architecture 2020, did just that. It hit the nail on the head by asking a simple question: what if a building could be dismantled and not demolished?
It all began in 2015 when a social worker with Housing and Lands Right Network, Abdul Shakeel, approached architects Swati Janu and Nidhi Sohane. A 25-year-old school that doubled up as a cowshed had been razed by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), along with homes and crops of the residents of Chilla Khadar slum. A Delhi High Court order called for rebuilding the school. But with evictions as a constant, could there be any hope of a permanent solution? That’s when Janu and Sohane, with the farming community, imagined a school built using steel frames that could be bolted together and dismantled as well. Using bamboo, reused wood and dried grass, with a group of volunteers and staff, the school was hand-built within three weeks.
However, by 2018, the school had to be dismantled because of land ownership issues. It was relocated south of the Yamuna and a year later it was rebuilt to accommodate its 200 students. This time, the team used the local technique of charpai weaving, which was ubiquitous in the area. “Not only was this approach the most affordable and employed local skills, but it also helped create a sense of ownership and pride within the community when they saw their building materials and processes adopted in creating a sustainable school for their children,” says Janu.
This is the second year that India has won the Design Museum-led Beazley Design Awards. Last year Mumbai-based architect Sameep Padora and his team won the architecture award for their project, Maya Somaiya Library in Kopargaon, Maharashtra. Previous winners include Sir David Adjaye and Heatherwick Studios. In the jury comment, Edwin Heathcote, Architecture and Design Critic at The Financial Times said the Modskool project is “an elegant piece of design addressing a real critical situation and providing genuine social good”.
But for Janu, this is just the beginning. Currently, she’s approaching the DDA to present alternative imaginations to the riverfront. “In 2008, DDA had drawn up plans for the Yamuna riverfront which included biodiversity parks and jogging tracks, and sure we do need that but will it be at the cost of sustainable food production? Many cities across the world are adopting urban farming, especially in the global south, in Latin America and Asia too. In a country like ours, the urban and the rural are intertwined. We need to find ways to ensure our cities can integrate both these aspects. While they may still allow urban farming, there is no room for the farmer in our pursuit of the world-class city,” says Janu.
She goes back to post-Independence accounts of how farmer cooperatives could develop tracts of land along the Yamuna on short leases, given by the Delhi Improvement Trust, today’s DDA. Over time, as ambition and approach changed, evictions followed and with that removal of farming communities along the riverfront. “This project is about education and questions on participation and right to the city. The school was only incidental,” says Janu.
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