Friday, January 13, 2012

Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and persuasive; this cultural activity of non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has become a silent majority.”   
Micel de Certteau in The Practice of everyday Life

Monday, January 2, 2012

House in the Changing Indian cities

B S Bhooshan
 (This is the expanded/revised version of an essay in the book :+91 Residences, InCITE , Bangalore)

This note tries to look at the viability of a plethora of ideas and designs put forward by many architects and planners in the last 30 years who very romantically looked at virtues of collective living as in villages and old settlements.. The most prominently, were those promoted as part of HUDCO’ s cluster housing, the Aranya project by BV Doshi or the Belapur housing by CM Correa and the new projects like Ambivalley, Lavazza and many other gated communities. The inclusive housing vs exclusive housing is a debate which never settles. There are many arguments for and against these, but most importantly to note from documentations is that all these ideas failed being anything beyond as successful only in miniscule parts or as interesting photographs. There may be many reasons. I have no intentions to go into that. But I think, a closer look at the idea of dwelling itself may give some clues.

A house(1) is more than a set of spaces and features put together. Its physicality is formed by a set of personal preferences and social values and given a physical form and setting. But, what does a house mean in India’s urban world today? What does it imply on its design? 

 The sense of place that a house offers is an extension of the meaning derived from the multilayered identity that a house along with its environment has. It is meaningful more to the inhabitants, than to a visitor. One identifies oneself with a house and then to its surrounding ‘place’.  

The structure of power relations influences the manifest forms of houses and their relation to a place most fundamentally, . Power derives from vanity and fear. Vanity is the desire to be different and evolves from the idea of one’s identity- individual or collective.  Fear of many kinds, real and imaginary, generates values for protection, or defense, which also promoted collective living, once. Protection also generates power.

Stratification and hierarchic position is not new to Indian society.  Most people always belonged to a group, often inheriting commonalities and sharing values, living collectively sharing resources that suited the life styles. Most of the collective living in the past, the agraharas, the tols or the pols or the row-housing streets were based on a social stratification on the lines of caste or a vocation or trade; a grouping dominated by‘segmentary differentiation’ ( term used by Luhmann cited in Schumacher, 2011). Modernizing urban  societies are transforming towards a ‘functional differentiation’( again to use a Luhmann term)(2)  breaking original social stratification and grouping to create new ones.

Collective identities based on new criteria like income or status group change the meaning of a dwelling or house. It becomes more of a value statement and life style statement and also is a desire statement to belong to a status group.  The individualisation of dwellings has altered the sharing of resources even in the traditional areas like agraharas. Common social spaces are crumpling and shedding original use and therefore,  meanings. The collective idea now remains more as a dream; not an achievable nor generally desired value, except in vanity- or- social status- raising-situations like gated communities or high value apartments. Here again, anonymity of urban life militates against a shared collective culture and that denote a different meaning to a dwelling, perhaps to a thing of convenience and economics.

The individual house with a separate compound announced a status, a position and declared a power relation with the rest of the society traditionally. A bungalow  for a long time was reserved for rich and feudal land lords or elite class who sought a different identity and a  different meaning deriving out of the affordable voluntary  exclusion , though partial, from the environment. Now that desire of individuality runs across all seeking new status.
In the larger cities, migration has been a major aspect in recent times. The proportion of youth with investment capabilities is also on the rise. Investors therefore look at abodes largely as temporary and go not seek much more. A minority who thinks to settle down may seek greater meaning. They constitute what can be  termed loosely as consumers of designer homes or ‘ seekers’. As per McKinsey Report this class with annual income above two lakhs rupees as is less than 2% of the urban population of India today (3). This denotes that a significant part of urban population is struggling with day to day living and attaches totally different meaning to a house. The trend making media moulds the values and influences this minuscule ‘seeker’ class.

However, all classes of people tend to emulate the life styles of ‘higher’ class  and consider that desirable.  This along with the desire to be different propels the need for individual plots, however small. The resultant ever decreasing size of plots leads to an inward looking self referential architecture with communications to the street or to the neighbor totally broken. Meaning of life around multifunctional streets and common social spaces collapses. Dwelling becomes a property and goal is individual identity and projection of self.   Is collective living an unachievable utopia then?

New collective identities may develop, perhaps, but not in the spatial sense of the past. The increase of space-less, rootless, ‘ homeless’  nomads of  global traveler class will assert more voices in metropolitan landscapes. Functional and other groups defined by new life styles, marked by high value gated communities for example, may physically segment societal spaces.

The provision of dwelling in large cities has become a simple technical economic exercise of how to fit it physically and economically into an urban milieu. Architecture then is a USP driven by notions of salability and economics compounded by reinvention of nostalgic spaces and features, free cross-country adaption of invented heritage features, mindless novelty seeking shape geometries and materials. Do they have the quality to stimulate any deep experience for the inhabitants? If not, the idea of community living is only a romanticized physicality or of temporary experience. This problem solving approach fails to address the question of human identity and ecologic meaning of dwelling in the evolutionary and volatile urban societal context. What happened to Belapur housing or many less known cluster housing ideas?

Can architecture, as a discipline, search for resolving the dichotomy of self and its relations  to the environment at large? When physical space no more defines social groups, we may have to invent a new architecture and a new idea of dwellings, housing and the city as an ecologic community. As our social system is neither stagnant nor functionally as differentiated as in the developed societies and still tradition coexists with the contemporary in an uneasy way, we need, perhaps, an architecture and urban design different from the past as well as the global. I am aware that it is a tall order, the first step is to realise the current follies and learning from them.

  1. The word house used here to mean the physical expression of a home: a dwelling or an abode, which could be an independent house, apartment or a street/row house. This essay is in the context Indian cities only. It tries to understand the meaning of transforming physicality of a house in the urban social context and its implication in its design.
  2. Luhmann cited by Patrik Schumacher (2011), The Autopoesis of Archtecture, John Wiley and sons, West Essex.
  3. McKinsey Global Institute, (2010) India’s Urban Awakening,