Post written by: Laura Colloridi. DPU alumna 2009
At its fourth edition, the 361 Degrees Conference organised by ‘Indian Architect & Builder’ magazine explored the subject of Design & Informal Cities. Held in Mumbai, a mega-city with an estimated 55 per cent of its population living in informal housing, the conference aimed to “address the need for design interventions” in urban informal sectors. The first day has been dedicated to the discussion of politics of space, while the second and last day of the event focused on global practices and strategies.
Reading the 361 Degrees’ theme abstract one point called my attention. The first is that the summary starts stating that “[s]lums […] are undeniably a serious urban problem”. It is possible that this statement was made in good faith and the real meaning is that ‘slums are the object of urban concern’; however, it is also possible that the phrase naively declares the organizers’ perspective. This is a standpoint that does not recognise that informal settlements are the consequence and not the root of urban issues; consequently its adoption might mislead the research for the real causes of the problems.
After a series of presentations of the presenters and an out-of-context video about ultra-expensive high-tech building systems, Rahul Mehrotra, a practising architect working between Mumbai and Chicago, finally kicked the ball and illustrated his vision of the informal Mumbai. Mehrotra observed that nowadays Mumbai is not a city, but two; two worlds coexist within one name. The components of the biggest Indian city are not reduced to the binary of formal/informal, but they are identified with the concepts of ‘static’ (permanent, bi-dimensional and monumental) and ‘kinetic’ city (temporary, three-dimensional and incremental). The ‘kinetic’ city is defined as an “indigenous urbanism” with a “bazaar-like” form and a representation of the “local logic”. This city is not only the city of the poor and Mehrotra made use of examples such as the loan used for weddings and cricket matches around the clock to show how the elites also contribute to the “elastic urban condition”.
Regarding the housing sector, the architect highlighted the fact that approximately 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in informal accommodations within an estimated 10 per cent of the city’s area. Slum dwellers’ associations and movements have been pointed out as the dialogue tool that can be used to turn over the undemocratic processes created by global pressures and the world-class city aspirations. Mehrotra concluded advocating for a substitution of the notion of formality with the one of the kinetic city and he challenged the public to physically represent its fluid nature.
After Mehrotra’s introduction the conference moved toward the discussion of the political scenarios behind the construction field in Indian cities with the speeches of Liza Weinstein and Gautam Bhan. Weinstein analyzed the context that favoured the Mumbai mafias’ shift from the management of the black market to the real estate sector. According to the researcher the state “supportively neglected” both the local ‘goondas’ (thugs) and the development mafias since the first were assuming the government’s responsibilities of fulfilling the low-cost housing shortage, and the seconds have been in charge of materialising the elitist utopia of a global Mumbai. Within the depicted setting, Weinstein highlighted the need to overcome the manipulative branding of the legal/illegal dichotomy. Gautam Bhan, author of the critical book ‘Swept off the Map’, called for a deeper understanding of the terms into which the poor live and migrate to the city. He echoed Hardoy’s (et al, 2001) observation that “[t]here is something wrong with a legal and institutional system the deems illegal the ways by which most new housing is built, including virtually all the houses that is affordable by low-income households”. Bhan also recalled Baross’ (1987) PSBO-OBSP model to explain the development process in low-income countries and he believes that it is fundamental that this model is accepted by the state and local authorities in order to achieve a meaningful democracy.
The same topic of political threads within spatial arenas has been discussed at a deeper level by the writer and architect Eyal Weizman. The speaker looked at the differences between the formal/informal and legal/illegal binaries describing the “structured chaos” existing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian case represents the extreme scenario where politics and space are intertwined and where what Weizman called a “controlled disintegration” is happening. As a further example of illegality within the formality (or vice-versa depending on the perspective of the observer), Weizman portrayed what he calls the ‘political plastic’. This is the spatial environment where the “often deliberate, selective absence of the government intervention promotes unregulated process of spatial transformations and dispossession”.
On the second day the conference translated its visions into actions and physical forms by presenting the innovative social projects of Alfredo Brillembourg (Urban Think Tank), Alejandro Echeverri and Revathi Kamath. These projects perfectly represent the conference topic working in the informal cities by means of design solutions; however, this is not the only possible way and another original project that links the informal city directly with its governance issues was introduced. This is the case of the recently-born project Transparent Chennai initiated by Nithya Raman. This initiative aims to empower residents through facilitating information regarding the development of their city and improving the accountability of the government. The information is summarised and represented in the form of maps and it is easily accessible either online or via other means through grassroots organisations.
Despite all these challenging and stimulating insights delivered by the speakers the overall impression of the conference has been only of partial success. There are two main reasons behind my disappointment. First, a conference that is supposed to discuss social inequities should stimulate a deeper public debate. The chosen classic format of paper presentations with panel discussions forcibly inserted between sessions did not allow for any constructive dialogue. Second, the young architecture students that accounted for the majority of the audience seemed to be insensitive to the raised point of the critical role that authorities’ support plays within architectural and urban interventions. The audience appeared concerned merely with design options and with participating in the final lecture given by famous architect Richard Meier. As a confirmation of this (degree of) indifference a comment of the presenter remarked that, due to the topic, this year less than 250 people attended the event (against the 1000 of past sessions) and getting sponsored by corporations or institutions has been unusually difficult.
Luckily, at the end of the conference we were able to enjoy a dance performance that under a stage-size Indian flag made us all forget the million people that still live in informal cities.