polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Studio Mumbai’s In-Between Architecture

by Andrew Wade

This summer the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is hosting an exhibition - Architects Build Small Spaces, which showcases built works by architects at full scale within the museum space.  Especially provocative is Studio Mumbai's installation - In-between Architecture, which they describe here:
This project examines the unauthorised architecture of Mumbai.  Precisely modelled on dwellings crammed into a narrow urban corridor behind the Studio Mumbai offices, it presents an architectural 'cast' or a sliver of space that is home to a family of eight.
These unauthorised settlements constitute more than half the city's built landscape, yet they are ignored in the official surveys of the urban footprint.  Though seen as parasitic, they offer intelligent design solutions in a city where space is scarce and land values are escalating.  As well as shelter, they provide spaces for refuge, contemplation and worship.
The Studio Mumbai structure does not seek to replicate these dwellings in a literal manner.  Instead, it proposes to distil the poetic qualities of these agile living spaces, their order, calm and dignity.
The installation was designed and built outside the Studio Mumbai offices before being disassembled, shipped to London, and reassembled in the V&A Museum, where it will remain through the end of August.  The video below documents some of the initial construction in Mumbai.

Perhaps this is representative of a larger shift in architectural knowledge production.  First, it questions the correlation between legal planning authorisation and positive design solutions.  Even though the work models an unauthorised, tight space that houses a family of eight, it does so in a way that doesn't condemn this informal way of building but rather praises its positive qualities and ingenuity.  Whether this type of building is legal or not has no bearing on its capacity to meet the needs of its residents.  Is it possible to recalibrate planning authorities to promote resource-driven architecture?

Secondly, it reverses the traditional direction of architectural information, bringing Mumbai's informal housing to London not as an object of a remote and enticing culture but as a lesson on the efficient and elegant use of space.  The methods of design and building in Mumbai are being communicated and valued in the developed world.

Finally, it uses the architectural product as a means to critique the legal, official and planned way of building in Mumbai.  Why does the institutionalised process of planning omit over half of the city's built environment?  How can the informal and illegal be in the majority without being able to rewrite issues of land use, planning and design to address their needs and aspirations?

Credits: Images of "In-between Architecture" installation from Andrew Wade. Video of off-site construction from Vimeo.