Re-envisaging the city as a fluid symbiosis of the formal and informal could spark a more synergetic urbanism
Occurring every three years in four different locations, Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious gathering and the biggest ephemeral city on the planet. Every 12 years it takes place in the city of Allahabad, uniting people from all over the globe who come to bathe in the holy waters of the Sangam (where the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna converge with a third mythical river, the Saraswati). For 54 days, the floodplains are transformed into a fully functional religious city, replicating all the operations of a more permanent one. Roads, pontoon bridges, social infrastructure and tents of many different sizes are constructed on the ground, creating a myriad patchwork carpet of cotton, plastic, plywood and other assorted textures, organised by a smart infrastructural grid of roads, electricity, and waste management. Approximately seven million people occupy the city for the duration of its existence, and an additional 10 to 20 million visit for cycles of 24 hours on the main bathing dates.
‘The physical structure of cities around the globe is evolving, morphing, mutating and becoming more fluid and more open to change than the technology and social institutions that beget them’
The grid and the allocation of land is determined by negotiations between institutions and dwellers, based on previous iterations, leaving the internal organisation of the camps for each community to determine. Material components are small and light enough to be easily transported and distributed to every corner of the settlement in a rapid and efficient manner, facilitating construction and reconstruction as well as disassembly and reabsorption. Every 12 years, a similar city re-emerges, expressing in its formal configuration structures of power, hierarchical organisation and relational connection between old and new dwellers. While it leaves minimal traces on expiration, this massive and incredible operation generates both urban form and value by resembling previous versions of itself.
Studying ‘ephemeral landscapes’ presents us with conditions that are not just made for people, but instances in which urban guidelines are appropriated as open templates to be developed, transformed and materialised by users. Today, urban environments face ever-increasing flows of human movement, more frequent natural disasters and iterative economic crises that modify streams of capital and their allocation as physical components of cities. Consequently, urban settings are required to be more flexible in order to be better able to respond to, organise and resist both internal and external pressures. The physical structure of cities around the globe is evolving, morphing, mutating and becoming more fluid and more open to change than the technology and social institutions that beget them.
By definition, a city should be incomplete, errant, antagonistic, and non-linear. As Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams asked in The Temporary City, given overwhelming evidence that cities are a complex overlay of buildings and activities that are, in one way or another, temporary, why have urbanists been so focused on permanence? To become more sustainable, cities need to resemble and facilitate active fluxes in motion rather than be limited by static material configurations. The future of cities depends less on the rearrangement of buildings and infrastructure, and more on the ability for us to openly imagine more malleable technological, material, social and economic landscapes. How do we situate the ephemeral as a design and planning tool? Can impermanence be advantageous in the imagination of cities and places of habitation?
Anticipated to be the largest urban conglomerates in the 21st century, Indian cities are characterised by physical and visual contradictions that coalesce in a landscape of incredible pluralism. Principles of dissolution such as those of Kumbh Mela also appear at many other religious events in which artefacts are created to temporarily transform an existing urban environment. Festivals such as Diwali, Dussehra, Navratri, Muhharam, Durga Puja, and Ganesh Chaturthi have emerged as the spectacles of the city, and their presence in the everyday landscape pervades and dominates the popular visual culture of Indian cities – as a result, architecture is not the spectacle of the city, nor does it even comprise the single dominant image of the city. Festivals create a forum through which the fantasies of the subalterns are articulated and organised into political action.
‘How do we situate the ephemeral as a design and planning tool? Can impermanence be advantageous in the imagination of cities and places of habitation?’
The city of Kolkata transforms during the Durga Puja, when largely dispersed population groups gather around specific areas within the city to celebrate the goddess Durga over six days and nights. Alleys and streets are transformed by the presence of pandals – temporary structures built to venerate the goddess. Private spaces become public, turning the urban fabric into a more permeable structure that facilitates unexpected congregations and creates new places of worship, prayer and celebration. Meaningful neighbourhood interactions and a sense of community emerge, reassembling the usually dispersed population of the sprawling city into diverse groups of intense social interaction structured by locality. The identity of Kolkata transforms, blurring the division and hierarchies among people throughout a richly textured landscape of convergent, small-scale and profound religious rites.
The festival requires months of preparation, with both the public and the private sector as well as the general public investing time and effort in the elaborate simulation of monuments and landscapes, from architectural replicas of temples to village complexes surrounded by artificial simulations of natural landscapes. Myriad painstakingly crafted figures of gods and goddesses are produced in homes, workshops and ateliers around the city. The celebration culminates in the immersion of these idols into the river, sea or tanks, effectively dissolving their materiality. Here, the practice of demolition and disassembly is more than a mere material reversal of the constructive operation. As an anticipated state of mind from the outset, material loss is not accompanied by fear or grief. Rather, it is a joyful and communal practice in the spirit of detachment. Hence, the spiritual value of the festivities, and thus the value to be preserved, lies as much in the product of material assembly as it does in its demolition. Bodies, buildings and urban landscapes all modify their appearance and acquire new meanings. Urban space is reactivated, portraying the city as a malleable urban condition – not a grand vision, but a ‘grand adjustment’.
‘The Kinetic City attempts to describe a surrogate city without using the binary of the formal and informal, which does not accurately describe their intertwined conditions – physical, economic and cultural’
Indian cities are made up of two constituent elements that occupy the same physical space. The first is the formal or Static City. Built of more permanent material such as concrete, steel and brick, it is comprehended as a two-dimensional entity on conventional city maps and is monumental in its physicality. The second is the informal or Kinetic City. Incomprehensible as a two-dimensional entity, it is perceived as a city in motion – a three-dimensional construct of incremental development. Inherently temporary in nature, the Kinetic City is often built with recycled material: plastic sheets, scrap metal, canvas and waste wood. It constantly modifies and reinvents itself. The Kinetic City is not perceived as architecture, but in terms of spaces, which hold associative values and supportive lives. Patterns of occupation determine its form and perception. It is an indigenous urbanism that has its particular ‘local’ logic. It is not necessarily the city of the poor, as most images might suggest; rather it is a temporal articulation and occupation of space that not only creates a richer sensibility of spatial occupation, but also suggests how spatial limits are expanded to include formally unimagined uses in dense urban conditions.
The existence of two worlds in the same space implies that we must accommodate and overlap varying uses, perceptions and physical forms. There are no total solutions in an urban landscape simultaneously charged with the duality between permanence and rapid transformation. Opposing conditions need to be reconciled as being simultaneously valid. The Kinetic City attempts to describe a surrogate city without using the binary of the formal and informal, which does not accurately describe their intertwined conditions – physical, economic and cultural. As a conceptual formulation, the Kinetic City advocates a deepening of the understanding that the city and its architecture are not synonymous and cannot contain a single meaning. Indeed, within the Kinetic City, meanings are actually not stable; spaces are consumed, reinterpreted and recycled.
Ganesh copy 2
The Static and Kinetic cities clearly go beyond their obvious differences to establish a much richer relationship, both spatially and metaphorically, than their physical manifestations would suggest. Affinity and rejection are simultaneously played out in a state of equilibrium maintained by a seemingly irresolvable tension. The dabbawalas (literally translated as ‘tiffin men’) are an example of this relationship between the formal and informal, the static and kinetic. The tiffin delivery service, which relies on the train system for transport, costs approximately 300 rupees (4 euros) per month. A dabbawala picks up a lunch tiffin from a house anywhere in the city. Through a complex network, he then delivers the tiffin to your place of work by lunchtime and returns it to the house later in the day. The dabbawalas deliver hundreds of thousands of lunch boxes each day, relying on Mumbai’s train system – the spine of the linear city – to enable such a complex informal system to work. In this way, the dabbawalas have set up a network that facilitates an informal system to take advantage of a formal infrastructure.
In common with other informal services ranging from banking, money transfer, courier, and electronic bazaars, the dabbawalas employ community relationships and networks to deftly leverage the Static City and its infrastructure beyond its intended margins. These networks create a synergy that depends on mutual integration without the obsession of formalised structures.
‘Architecture and urban design must acknowledge the need to re-examine permanent solutions as the only way to formulate urban imaginaries and, instead, envisage new protocols that are constantly reformulated, readapted and re-projected’
The Kinetic City is where the intersection of need (often reduced to survival) and unexploited potentials of existing infrastructure initiate new innovative services. The trains in Mumbai are emblematic of a kinetic space supporting and blurring the formal and the informal, slicing through these worlds while momentarily collapsing them into a singular entity. Here, the self-consciousness about modernity and the regulations imposed by the Static City are suspended and redundant. The Kinetic City carries local wisdom into the contemporary world without fear of the modern, while the Static City periodically remakes the Kinetic City in its own image.
Binary distinctions such as permanent versus temporary, or simple versus complex, are reductive when thinking about urbanism, as they mostly emanate from aesthetic considerations. Festivals, circuses and farmers’ markets are all examples of moments when different parts of society are suddenly made aware of their own existence within the urban system. The challenge is to learn, from these extreme conditions, how to manage and negotiate different layers of the urban while simultaneously accommodating emergent needs and often largely neglected parts of urban society. The urban does not necessarily adhere to its traditional quest for permanence. Instead, it can be understood as a living pulse, assembling and disassembling itself in a reversible manner according to needs and opportunities, market demands and supply of resources, restrictions and aspirations of inhabitants.
Architecture and urban design must acknowledge the need to re-examine permanent solutions as the only way to formulate urban imaginaries and, instead, envisage new protocols that are constantly reformulated, readapted and re-projected in an iterative search for a temporary equilibrium that reacts to a permanent state of crises.
This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.