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Urbz: ’Dirt is fertile. Mess is more’

Weaving an urban fabric hughebdy urbz2018

Working with Mumbai’s density, productivity and energy, Urbz’s user-centric architecture has expanded outside India to Bogotá, São Paulo, Geneva and Seoul

With a population density more than 10 times that of the rest of Mumbai, the home-grown settlement of Dharavi is an informal economic powerhouse at the heart of India’s financial capital. ‘It is wrongly referred to as a slum’, argue Urbz co-founders Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, who opened their first office here in 2008 and deeply believe that housing provision and urban planning in India have a lot to gain from the understanding of local construction ecosystems. Nearly every dwelling in Dharavi is a makeshift ‘tool-house’ (a home-cum-workshop), effectively creating a neighbourhood with a low-rise and intricate urban structure, human scale and decentralised production, along with strong community life. These are qualities that architects, urban planners and developers have tried to recreate the world over – mostly from scratch, and mostly with only moderate success.

1.homegrown home

1.homegrown home

Ideal house designed by a builder who lives and works in Mumbai’s Dharavi district

Architects need to ‘learn how to work from the field, from what exists, rather than in abstraction from remote studios’, Echanove and Srivastava argue. ‘The world is a toxic place, but it’s all we’ve got. We can’t wish it away and wipe the slate clean.’ Because they see residents as experts of their own habitats, they prefer to work at the scale of the street, collaborating closely with end users, bringing non-architects into the process. Recently, they asked locals to design their ‘ideal small homes’ for Dharavi, and translated their ideas into physical models with the help of artisans who had expertise in carpentry, welding, pottery and glass cutting. In a megacity where more than 60 per cent of the population lives in ‘informal’, self-built settlements and where construction naturally happens without drawings, Urbz wanted to acknowledge and legitimise this way of working, paying tribute to the anonymous faces and invisible hands that are building the city daily. The models have been exhibited not only in Mumbai, but also in Rome and Amsterdam.

In such fast-paced environments, the design and build phases of a project inexorably merge into one. Design decisions are taken on site, opportunistically. As Urbz’s motto ‘Dirt is fertile. Mess is more’ shows, here architecture is not so much about planning and projecting, but reacting and adapting. Several projects are under way in the winding alleys of Dharavi, where ‘local builders build faster than they can plan’. The Koliwada Jamat comprises four ground-floor shop units, each with a small public overspill area animating the street, a large community hall on the upper floor and a bank at the back, while the 100-year-old dilapidated Jai Rem Sheth Chawl is being rebuilt to house eight rooms on the ground floor and an additional eight on the upper level. Featuring working-class tenements modelled on army barracks, the chawl structure evokes Mumbai’s colonial era, and Urbz is keen to preserve the neighbourhood’s historical aesthetic while improving its facilities – the new chawl will provide more communal space, but toilets will be individual, rather than shared. 

3. meragaon

3. meragaon

Installation at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai 2017. Visitors were asked to pin a thread connecting their native village to their neighbourhood in Mumbai, showing the dense network of connections between Indian cities and villages

Keen to encourage incremental change over the tabula rasa approach, they lament that spreadsheets have replaced plans and sections, producing generic redevelopment proposals and monotonous high-rises. In the Reclaim Growth proposal put together with sP+a for the future of Dharavi, they prioritise residents’ occupancy rights rather than property rights to discourage speculation. 

Srivastava studied social and urban anthropology, while Echanove’s background is in government, economics, planning and urban information systems. Architecture naturally becomes a way to materialise their ideas. Today, Urbz has expanded outside India, and set up ‘active cells’ in Bogotá, São Paulo, Geneva and Seoul. The mix of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ world translates into different kinds of activities, but their intentions and methodologies remain unchanged: be it product design or planning proposals, they combine research, participation and action to deliver user-centric architecture that blurs the boundaries between imagination and intervention.