Non-Architects Build Small

October 4, 2010

The exhibition at V&A Museum,  ‘Architects Build Small’ and Studio Mumbai’s contribution to it caused a lot of interest in the subject of survival of poor on the streets of an affluent city. To look at this sad but brave attempt through a magnifying glass in a museum of a wealthy developed country and enjoy or indeed celebrate the artistic and spiritual aspects of these meagre attempts appeared a bit voyeuristic and left me slightly uneasy.

Last Year I was in Lahore for a family visit and saw something close to Studio Mumbai’s creation in real life. This humble structure standing on a ‘postage stamp’ size plot of land must have been housing 8-10 people. The structure was obeying all the basic rules of privacy (a crucial issue here), ventilation, thermal comfort and hygiene.

The honesty of this simple, economical construction to me looked stunningly attractive in its directness. I wonder to this day as to the layout and size of inhabited rooms here, but answer must be in Studio Mumbai’s  exhibit.

Following is taken from my Blog regarding this visit to Lahore

“I also saw the construction of humble dwellings for the people who were displaced from the  slums  where these huge roads are being built. They can only afford to  buy tiny plots of land and are forced to build 2-3 storey houses for large families or often for partial letting to make ends meet.

It was no surprise to know that without fail all of these structures were using a mixture of reinforced concrete walls/columns, floor slabs and stairs to save and gain precious inches of floor space and heights.”

The surprising thing is that no architect has been anywhere near this construction at any stage. In retrospect perhaps Studio Mumbai  was right and I must alter my stance accordingly.

Some other examples of  similar housing in the same area.

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Having studied the Studio’s output, there is no doubt in my mind that these gifted architects are finely tuned to distilling the best of India in everything they do. I am certain that they choose the clients and projects carefully and work closely with their own craftsmen, with sufficient resources at hand, ensure that the finished products are a true synthesis of the best the country can offer.

This admiration did not rescue me from feeling slightly uneasy when confronted with their wonderful, intellectually teasing offering in V&A’s Cast Courts in among the Renaissance masterpieces.

The V&A’s brief to produce buildings representing refuge, shelter, contemplation and worship has been met and easily satisfied. Their miniaturised, compact, top lit world evokes visual images which can bring works of Bawa, Zumthor and Ando and many others within a touching distance.

What I found difficult to reconcile with was a direct comparison (as shown on  the video describing the exhibit) between the realities of this compact shack for eight souls made with found materials offering scant shelter from rain, cold and heat and the visual delights it exudes through the display. In this instance insertion of an extra word ‘survival’ could have made the brief more challenging and pertinent.

The placing of this ‘exhibit’ among the illustrious neighbours has to make you smile. Well framed views of David’s anatomy from within, give boost to Michelangelo’s efforts which he would have never dreamed of. Meanwhile, the frozen expressions on marble faces staring at this unexpected landing  look astounded after half a millennium of passive disdain.

I would love to travel back to 1465 on a ‘time machine’ to Florence Cathedral yard to rescue the huge Carrara marble block awaiting Michelangelo’s final conversion to David . I would then transport it to one of the passageways of Mumbai slums of early 21st Century and ask a needy family of eight people to do whatever they would like to do with this piece of marble to turn it into their home. The final results of their efforts (including working chisel marks) would than be exhibited in the Cast Courts of V&A Museum in the summer of 2010.

I am looking forward to a brilliant future for  Studio Mumbai and sincerely hope that some time in future they may also turn some of their energy and attention to living conditions of tradesmen working with them and the temporary dwellers  occupying tiny spaces around their studio in Mumbai.

See video made for the exhibition here;

http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/architecture/smallspaces/videos/Studio-Mumbai-Architects/index.html

Studio Mumbai Web Site

http://www.studiomumbai.com/