Adriana’s post reminds me of a project that we built as architecture undergrads in Mumbai. As a part of a short workshop conducted at KRVIA, we decided to build a play space for children in a slum next to our school. It was decided that the play space should consist of – a small slide, a jungle gym, and some seating all carefully built out of bamboo. The joints were tied with ropes so that it wouldn’t hurt the children who played. Ergonomics were worked out and the project was placed in a tight open space within the slum. After the unit was built it was transported in parts and assembled on site.
As we assembled the bamboo structure a horde of onlookers and curious children gathered around. Once assembled we triumphantly threw the structure open for use. However, minutes after the structure was left open for use, children and teenagers tore apart the structure and carried away the bamboo!!!
We were thick-skinned architecture students capable of swallowing a very high degree of insult, but to see the whole structure come down minutes after installation brought tears to a team member’s eyes!!!
In retrospect however, it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to that structure. The structure was definitely flimsy for the number of children that had gathered on the site but it was also unimaginative and the form simply mimicked play structures in bigger city parks. Second it was made out of bamboo a material that is most commonly used to prop up slum housing. The third problem was our inability to see that it was blocking a large amount of the multipurpose space in the slum and would be eventually torn down anyway. The structure represented our lack of spatial understanding. We were simply imposing a banality picked up from bourgeoisie parks without thinking about the relationship of the open space to the slum!
However, the problem of forcing the singular aesthetic imaginations onto the slum is not just a fallacy of naïve architecture students alone. In her essay on Transnational Trespassing Ananya Roy discusses the architect’s tendency to aestheticize poverty. She says that architects tend to establish a relationship of the aesthetic and the aestheticized between the viewer and the viewed rather than a political relationship. While this is an attempt to return “dignity” it undermines the hardships that the poor survive aspire and struggle under. She cites Geeta Deven Verma’s report on the Indore Slum networking project, where slum up gradation which was primarily seen as the provision infrastructure and landscaping in the area failed to take into account the socio economic structure of the slums. Unlike what was envisioned, the project failed to make people invest on their houses and maintain physical improvements like soft landscaping as they did not have enough money or adequate water supply. She also quotes Renu Desai’s paper which critiques how Charles Correa’s Belapur housing scheme photographs romanticized the village well, but it made her wonder if “the scheme will not have the basic tap water supply”.
If our team had spent some time in the slum, designing, mapping spatial relationships and then building the project on site, it would have looked very different from the one that was plonked onto it and had to be torn down. Maybe we would take the decision to not build anything at all.