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Revisit: Aranya low-cost housing, Indore, Balkrishna Doshi

Doshi’s ideas on housing the poor culminated in 80 model homes in Aranya where residents felt empowered by the opportunity to improvise

In the Gujarati tradition, Indian newlyweds head to the groom’s parents’ house after the marriage ceremony, where a thali plate containing a little water mixed with kumkum (a brilliant red pigment) awaits the bride outside the front door. After dipping her hands in, she presses her vermilion palms onto the walls of the family home: it is from this point on that ‘she belongs to the house, and the house belongs to her’, concludes Balkrishna Doshi.

The question of ownership is fundamental to the Indian architect, who believes ‘building homes is about creating a sense of belonging, about participatory involvement and about the expression of aspirations, relationships and desires’. His ideas on housing evolved gradually before culminating at Aranya, 6km outside what used to be the centre of Indore and is now an indivisible part of its urban jumble. Commissioned in 1983 by the Indore Development Authority in response to an acute shortage of housing, and co-funded by the World Bank and India’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), the project’s low-cost housing was designed for the city’s Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) as well as slum and street dwellers, providing a framework and access to serviced land, rather than a finished house. Over time, in line with the needs, resources and desires of occupants, homes begin to grow, creating a staggered fl ow of spaces from private rooms to outdoor staircases to shared courtyards to streets to open spaces to roads.

‘Ties between social activities and physical structures translate into specific elements: shared landings, tiny balconies, open terraces and the plinth with its added steps and ledges’

Following the brick vaults and private courtyards of the low-cost staff housing and guest house for the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (1957), Doshi’s commissions for subsidised industrial housing schemes rapidly grew in scale. In the post-independence and pre-liberalisation years, housing was part of the process of nation-building, and although no nationwide policies were administered by the central government, numerous institutions were given a chance, entrusted with the task of building expertise and delivering housing: the State Housing Boards were established in the 1960s, tailgated by HUDCO in 1970. Waves of refugees flocked to the cities following the country’s Partition, new state capitals were imagined, and entire population groups were relocated to contribute to development projects – labouring plantations, extracting coal, building factories.

Img6839

Img6839

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Each plot is provided with a plinth, a toilet at the back and an electrical connection: architecture as system and process rather than finished structure

Asked to design complete townships for new industries on the outskirts of cities, Doshi resisted the unwise proliferation of repetitive and isolated multi-storey blocks on large swathes of land. For Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals outside Baroda (1969), he introduced a water tower as focal point and the convergence of diagonal roads in a central green space, with the township’s houses extending to terraces and into shaded alleyways. For Electronics Corporation of India in Hyderabad (1972), he proposed to install training centres and production facilities along a central pedestrian spine connected to the main road. Back in Ahmedabad for the Life Insurance Corporation of India (1973), more attention was given to the mixing of income groups and the evolution of the homes over time: akin to a permanently unfolded drawbridge, a straight flight of stairs rises at the centre of each cluster of dwellings, arranged like miniature ziggurats with the ground floor’s larger units providing terraces for the smaller, recessed units above, which in turn provide terraces for the two smallest apartments at the top. Doshi’s conspicuous idea of placing the ‘poor fellow on top of the rich fellow’ surprised many, but he proved the sceptics wrong – like Aranya, this project is about empowering residents, creating interdependences and changing perceptions.

‘Even if it is made of bricks, housing cannot be thought of as permanent’, argues Doshi, ‘and the most important thing is to think about the project over time. Housing is not inert. It is a living entity.’ His townships and housing proposals are an obvious departure from the absolutism of Corbusian planning ideas: the Mediterranean megaron is replaced by a sprawling high-density but low-rise work in constant progress.

Dest2280

Dest2280

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

The neighbourhood plan includes varying widths and bends, with the open slot around the service core combining twice as many toilets per manhole, cutting down pipe length

Growing up among extended family in an ever-expanding house in the city of Pune, with ‘relatives who come to visit but stay longer than intended’, Doshi asserts he has a different conception of time. ‘I have witnessed anticipation and experienced change’, he observes. ‘I am not in a hurry’, (possibly the most enlivening comment anyone could make aged 92). Referring to his own house, designed shortly after he came back from working with Le Corbusier at Rue de Sèvres, he explains how a home should evolve with its residents, with space lending itself multiple uses: Kamala House is described as ‘a traditional house with a layer here, a layer there, a layer inside, a layer outside’. Over the nearly six decades of family life it has celebrated, it naturally became the venue for the marriages of his three daughters and two of his granddaughters.

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Img6841

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Eighty model homes were completed in 1989 to initiate the development

It is through both his design commissions and his foundation’s work that Doshi understood the crucial importance of durable infrastructural systems, from roads to storm drainage to sewerage. Established in 1976 (20 years after his own practice and 14 after CEPT), the Vastushilpa Foundation has dedicated decades of research to the study and documentation of human settlements in India, with a focus on the emergence and growth of informal housing in urban centres. ‘There is much to learn from architecture before it became an expert’s art’, wrote Bernard Rudofsky. Instead of focusing on materials and techniques, Doshi preferred to analyse social structures and the unfolding of everyday habits into spaces. Through the observation and study of traditional ways of living, vernacular traditions and residential structures built by anonymous architects, he tried to look beyond aesthetic considerations.

Ps.29 29.7 x 21

Ps.29 29.7 x 21

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

With the services at the back of the plots, the houses gradually grow, both horizontally and vertically

By the time Doshi worked on the Aranya masterplan, governmental investment in housing was in decline, and alternatives were being sought to house the poor – but publicly built, highly subsidised standard housing units were, and remain, inadequate solutions to relocate slum dwellers. Aimed at EWS residents, the smallest plots of Aranya are just 35m2, with a simple plinth, a service core (a latrine and water tap or bath) and the option of a built room (the kitchen), but they are connected to water and electricity. The gentle topography of the 85 hectares dictated the orientation of infrastructure on site (designed with engineer Himanshu Parikh), servicing the 6,500 plots delineated on the masterplan. Intimacy is preserved in niches and private corners, but the abundance of life is allowed to spill out onto these intricately planned hierarchical spaces, overflowing the larger, communal open spaces planted with bottlebrushes, casuarina and eucalyptus trees.

Aranyaalt

Aranyaalt

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Visiting Aranya in the early ’90s (rwhen this picture was taken) made engineer Himanshu Parikh ‘question the conventional perception of “poverty” and realise that the so-called “poor” have huge potential resources’

At Aranya, only a small sample of 80 model homes were built in 1989, loadbearing brick on a concrete plinth with walls plastered and painted, to initiate the development. Railings, parapets and cornices were added; doors and windows could be fabricated on site. The architect drew only a set of ingredients to be appropriated, giving residents the language and the space to ‘upgrade their life’. Growth is planned but informal, confined by the masterplan’s hierarchy of built form and open spaces, and held together by a lattice of infrastructural lines. ‘While the purchase of a house does not automatically make it yours, the moment you give them ownership you give them the foundations of their home.’ Simultaneously and almost inevitably, once the residents move in, the project no longer belongs to the architect. ‘Physically, financially, intellectually: it is theirs’, asserts Doshi. Plots were initially on a first-come first-served basis, but as the word spread, applicants had to enter a lottery system.

Ps.36 29.7 x 42 tc

Ps.36 29.7 x 42 tc

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

The building and strengthening of ties between social activities and physical structures translates into specific architectural elements: the underlying plinth onto which are added steps and ledges, shared landings, tiny balconies and open terraces. Here the idea is that every space gets used, staircases are not just for going up and down, and decisions are not frozen in aspic. Just as deep, shaded porches of walled cities or medieval towns not only help to insulate the interior but also provide an extension of the home into the public sphere, Aranya relies on the construction of pauses and the creation of elongated thresholds extending a family home far beyond its physical walls – in fact, there is no single wall demarcating the entrance. Public life is allowed to seep into, extend and permeate living spaces.

P.124 119 x 84

P.124 119 x 84

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Demonstration houses were slowly decorated and altered by residents

When in London in 1954, Doshi met Berthold Lubetkin (whom he claims is ‘as good if not better than Le Corbusier’) and was impressed by the Highpoint apartments: ‘He went far beyond the brief, beyond measurable considerations, and ventured into areas that are not required, responding to living requirements rather than architectural requirements, and connecting you to something beyond – to notions of history, mythology, character’. The caryatids made a strong impression on the Indian architect and, 65 years later, he claims the ideas and souvenirs of that visit ‘have never gone away’. He still cites it as his first reference and source of inspiration in terms of housing. Rather than ‘treating a project like an assignment’, Doshi thinks the attitude of an architect should be about ‘giving life a chance’. ‘Designing homes requires thinking about spare time.’ His buildings are not conceived in isolation, but in groups leading to a ‘total environment’ merging structures, spaces and culture in a unifi ed whole. ‘We have reduced architecture to its minimum, to a purist and clean definition’, he laments, reiterating that it should be a holistic discipline – Vastushilpa is a Sanskrit term meaning the ‘art of the built environment’, and the Indian architect speaks of ‘human habitat’ rather than ‘architecture’.

Screenshot 2019 06 26 at 18.04.23

Screenshot 2019 06 26 at 18.04.23

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

The six sectors from the original masterplan are blurred, but the hierarchy of open spaces can still be felt, the narrower alleys bustling with communal life

Two short years after the completion of Aranya’s 80 model homes, India liberalised its economy, opening itself up to global markets and centralising its housing policies. As the National Housing and Habitat policy of 2005 states, the government’s initiatives from 1991 onwards focus on ‘the transition of Public Sector role as “facilitator”, increased role of the private sector, development of fiscal incentives and concessions, accelerated flow of housing finance and promotion of environment-friendly, cost-effective and pro-poor technology’. Public projects rapidly started to dry up, replaced instead by commissions from private clients seeking to imitate what was being done ‘elsewhere’, and discussions about housing were reduced to universal and quantifiable criteria to the detriment of design principles. ‘We don’t talk about families, we talk about rooms. Then we talk about affordability and cost. But we build housing without understanding the structures of society’, regrets Doshi.

For web aranya10 2

For web aranya10 2

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Doshi’s kit of elements is arguably more useful to him than to residents, but it is the creation of these narratives that helps us to grasp, articulate and communicate ideas. Today, the residents have appropriated and transformed them: the expression of life rather than aesthetics

The government’s current Housing for All scheme promises to fill the country’s ‘housing gap’ by 2022 – estimates indicate a housing shortage of 20 million homes in urban India and more than 40 million in the rural heartlands – predicated on the standard, one-size-fits-all 30m2 housing unit replicable to infinity across the expanse of fields or stackable into lifeless multi-storey blocks that can be left to perish outside city centres, disconnected from infrastructure grids. Images of these inhuman developments have been photographed the world over – repetition to the extreme morphs into graphic abstraction, making for distressingly photogenic compositions.

For web aranya10 1

For web aranya10 1

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Today no one knows what or where ‘Aranya’ is. Doshi speaks of ‘changes’ – to the staircases, the terraces, the colours. The reality is that almost all of the original 80 model houses have been demolished. Only a small number of the ‘red houses’, as the original homes are commonly referred to, still stand, with the neighbourhood having grown organically all around, eventually absorbed by the sprawling city of Indore. In the mid ’90s, the Aga Khan report recognised the exceptional qualities of the 80 model homes but added they were, already, ‘the remnants of an idea that has been eroded in the last five years’.

Interviewing inhabitants at the time, Romi Khosla met one of the five estate agents who set up shop in Aranya, offering plots for sale within the boundaries of the project; he reported that ‘only 15 to 20 per cent of the original plot owners still owned the plots allotted to them’, and confirmed the resale price of the narrow, 35m2 slum resettlement plot had increased tenfold compared with its original cost. Beneficiaries found themselves penalised if unable to pay instalments on time and, burdened with debt, were left with no other resort than to seek to sell their plot.

For web aranya10 3

For web aranya10 3

Source: Vastushilpa Foundation

Bestowing this ‘unusually sophisticated’ project the Aga Khan Award in its 1993-95 cycle, the judges thought it, ‘should be widely studied’ and highlighted that ‘in a world of intolerance and strife, it is a beacon of enlightened and socially responsible architecture’. The original, recognisable homes of Aranya carry a little nostalgia for a time when alternatives models were perhaps possible, and for the fleeting promise that architecture can make a difference in these circumstances. Here, there is the heartbreaking feeling that the architectural profession is deeply irrelevant, incapable of addressing human beings’ basic right to shelter, unable to even grasp the complexity of the challenge – where do you begin? The country’s rapid urbanisation, the commercialisation of land and the state’s inability to provide housing that meets criteria of both aff ordability and adequacy become an inescapable tragedy. It is more than a housing crisis, it is a crisis of space. And problems of slum resettlement are just too big to be solved by architectural design.

‘Here, there is the heartbreaking feeling that the architectural profession is deeply irrelevant, incapable of addressing human beings’ basic right to shelter’

With a third of the world population living in slums, the very definition of ‘social housing’ takes on another dimension in the so-called developing world. ‘No government today has the resources to “clean up the mess of slums” and build something else instead’, argues Parikh. When the cost of infrastructure amounts to 5 per cent of building a full house, site and services projects make sense. ‘I realised that there is nothing cheaper or faster than the development of water and sanitation infrastructure to alleviate poverty’, says Parikh, who worked on slum upgrading and ‘networking’ post-Aranya. While sites suitably connected to the city centre and to employment opportunities are either non-existent or out of reach, due to the surge of land values and issues of overcrowding, these strategies can naturally be applied to existing, inner-city slums. ‘Architects are on a pedestal’, insists Doshi. ‘They aren’t looking down, where there are a lot of clients.’

All photographs by Iwan Baan, unless otherwise stated

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today