Viva urbz Colombia!!!

April 6th, 2016 by urbzman

Comuna 1, Medellin, Colombia

Bogota is distinguished by its geography. It is a city surrounded by mountains on the eastern side, framing and bordering its periphery. As in many other Colombian cities, this periphery has been the scene of constant arrival of rural residents and displaced people in search of opportunity and a new life in the capital city.

In this process, the periphery has lived for the past decades an accelerated and sporadic growth which is different from that of the rest of the city. Two parallel processes have been generated:  the planned or formal city, and the auto-build or sporadic city. This has generated a territory divided socially, between north and south, between periphery and centrality, between rich and poor. The city currently has ten million inhabitants, and it is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of the city has been self-built through various social dynamics and collective processes of formation by their inhabitants in the periphery.

Eastern Mountains, Bogota

Many of these neighborhoods are consolidated progressively and organically, and they are in constant transformation and evolution. The structure of space, and the architecture of the houses, is a response to daily activities, and a reflection of the needs of its inhabitants and their cultural practices.

Each inhabitant reaching the outskirts of Bogota from different regions of the country, brings new ideas in shaping the territory, enriching it with new knowledge and a varied cultural value. It is easy to find in these homegrown neighborhoods a lot of artistic groups and community organisations created by the people, seeking to improve their conditions and strengthen community ties. However, in the Colombian context in particular, cities have been marked by armed conflict and the invisible boundaries of social conflict.

These emerging forms of organisation on the periphery of Colombian cities have led us to explore these neighbourhoods and to inquire into these collective processes commonly called “informal”: decision-making processes are not centralised here, and all inhabitants of these spaces participate in the construction of their neighborhood.

Workshop Participative Design Project Escape, Altos del Pino, Cazuca – urbz Colombia, Piloto University, Escape

In our passage through India and Brazil, we discovered that similar experiences were carried out by urbz, which motivates us to create urbz Colombia, with the aim of consolidating a network of experiences that seek to understand, value, recognise and generate knowledge in homegrown neighbourhoods. Although India, Brazil and Colombia are contexts geographically, socially and culturally different – where the production of space is a response to different dynamics – the fundamental idea, which urbz also advocates, remains as a connecting thread: We believe that residents are experts in their neighbourhoods. Their everyday experience of the places where they live and work constitute essential knowledge for planning and urban development.

Thus, with the creation of urbz Colombia, we understand and recognise the contribution of these communities to Colombian cities. Our goal is to understand how these conformation processes in the homegrown neighbourhoods could be valid tools in the collective construction of cities, taking as a starting point the understanding of social dynamics in production of space in these neighbourhoods.

Communa 1, Medellin

We imagine urbz Colombia as an open and experimental platform to generate and share information from homegrown neighbourhoods of Bogota and Medellin, also with India, Brazil and Switzerland, appreciating and understanding the point of view of the people, their daily experiences, their needs and their experience in the knowledge of the territory.

Taking off from an important and established urbz idea, urbz Colombia recognises that the inhabitants remain the protagonists in the production of their spaces. Through workshops and various activities urbz invites professionals, artists and anyone interested to participate in various projects created in neighbourhoods for mutual learning. urbz Colombia articulates and integrates the experience and knowledge of local inhabitants for future intervention or research projects, and make partnerships with universities, governmental entities, and different groups and organisations who want to intervene in these sectors.

From urbz Colombia we want to share and expand the ideas of millions of users and show the potential of ordinary people to collectively build sustainable cities in this region.

This is our first post written by the urbz team in Colombia.

Handstorming (and more) in Dharavi

April 1st, 2016 by urbzman

Students from NYU, Abu Dhabi campus, implementing a design they made for a roofing system that they studied for a week in Dharavi

New York University’s branch in Abu Dhabi has a class of engineering students who have shown interest in urbz’s work in Dharavi for the past two years. These students, from a program called Engineering for Social Impact, spent an eventful week in Dharavi at the new urbz office. The first workshop that urbz did with NYU Abu Dhabi was with last year’s batch of students, who came to Dharavi to work with local craftspeople and residents to build elements relevant to the local context. urbz calls this process Handstorming.

The second edition of the Handstorm workshop with NYU-AD saw the students approach Dharavi with a very different eye. During the first meeting which took place at Abu Dhabi the previous week, the students had divided themselves into four teams based on subjects of interest; water, roofing and ventilation, space optimisation and community dynamics.

On their arrival at Mumbai, each team set out with a mission. Every student visited many houses in Dharavi and interacted with its residents to understand a little bit of the background and context. While some teams had a clear vision of how they wanted to intervene in the houses they visited, others chose a more research-based approach to explore the different aspects of Dharavi with respect to their topic.

Trial of the roofing intervention before implementation on site

The team dealing with roofing and ventilation visited a few houses on the first day, decided that they wanted to intervene in one particular house in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, and identified the existing problems. Heat and insulation were the two problems that are were most apparent on entering the various houses. The team focussed on this and brainstormed to develop simple ideas that could make the house a more comfortable place to live in. They devised a new insulated roof made of locally available blue plastic sheet and 10mm thick layer of foam and aluminium foils and another plastic sheet to cover the foil. The entire set-up was secured with plastic ties. Not wanting to stop simply at devising the solution, the team went on to implement the alternative roof and approached the residents to ask for permission to install it. On their consent, the team succeeded in putting up the roof in a house in Dharavi. The urbz team monitored the changes in the interior quality over the next few days and were excited to inform the students that their project was a great success. The temperature inside the room was considerably lower and when the fan turned, it was almost like an air conditioner had been installed!

The space optimisation team visited many residences in Dharavi and interacted with its inhabitants to understand their needs. One thing they noticed was that clutter in these small houses occupied a great amount of the limited space in which they lived. The group decided to use their experience from visiting many houses to create common objects which would optimise space inside of these 10 sq.m homes. In order to solve the problem of various objects taking up valuable horizontal floor space, the team’s approach was to explore the possibilities of using the vertical air space as storage. Their simple innovation of using a rope with bags pinned to it as a storage unit is one that could be a starting point for space optimisation in Dharavi’s small homes.

Discussing allocation and usage of space within a house in Dharavi

The team dealing with water used a more research-based approach towards the subject. On their walks around Dharavi, they noticed three potential areas in which they could intervene. The first was the various natural wells that dotted Koliwada and its nearby surroundings but were mostly not in use. They discovered that some wells had even been restored by residents and were used for domestic purposes. The second case was the recycling and reuse of water in a dye shop located in Dharavi. The third was the potential of exploring rain water harvesting measures to provide for alternate sources of water in the neighbourhood. After intensive fieldwork and research, the team narrowed its focus on the wells of Dharavi. Wells are natural sources of water, they replenish the ground water table and bear with them years of history. A study on the wells of Dharavi could unearth historical information and also establish distinct relationships between the past and the present. The group identified 6 existing wells in and around Koliwada, collected water samples from each to have them analysed, and created an awareness board containing all the information they had amassed over the past week. Their vision is for this board to be set up at each well, informing the residents and visitors about the history and current state of the well, with the aim of bringing the spotlight on the well as a first step in rejuvenating them.

Moving away from the typical style of engineering projects, and from the initial idea of pure “handstorming”, the final group dealt with a tricky subject: Property rights, ownership and community dynamics. After studying housing situations and ownership patterns in various neighbourhoods in Dharavi, the team arrived at the conclusion that in order for government bodies like the Slum Rehabilitation Authority to create relevant housing solutions for the development of Dharavi, there needs to be a dialogue between the residents and official bodies. There is immense potential among residents to organise themselves and take charge of their own living conditions. The group looked at various ways in which people living in close quarters communicate with each other, and the final output intended to be inclusive, participatory and encourage the locals to speak up about their wants, needs and visions for their own neighbourhood. The students made two notice boards which they installed in two Dharavi localities. The boards were covered with a blackboard sheet on which the residents could chalk their thoughts about what they would like to see in their surroundings.

Bhau Korde, an urbz advisor, with the final intervention of the group which worked on community organisation and participation

The handstorm workshop was not all work and no play. The students were also exposed to Dharavi culture and attended the Holi Festival for which Koliwada is famous. Students, professors and the urbz team all let their hair down to celebrate Holi with the Kolis. The last day saw the team take a break from the intense workshop to enjoy throwing colours at one another until everyone was unrecognisable. The workshop ended with a bariolage of faces of different colours and origins, around the table at the urbz office, recounting their projects and unforgettable experiences in Dharavi.

The whole team during a break from their work to play Holi!

Breaking Ground workshop – report

March 2nd, 2016 by urbzman

urbz Geneva hosted an intense 5 day-long workshop, from 21st to 25th of September 2015 in the city, on the gradual densification of residential areas.

Geneva is currently experiencing its fastest population growth since the 1960s. The Canton, which had 400,000 residents at the beginning of the millennium, is projected to have a population of 550,000 in 2030. Being one of Switzerland’s smallest cantons, and characterized by a landlocked territory, it doesn’t have much land left for development.

The last frontier for Geneva’s urban growth is its low-density residential areas, known as ‘zone villa’. This represents 50% of the Canton’s buildable space but hosts only 13% of its population. The government has announced a target of 30,000 new housing units in the ‘zone villa’, 8,000 of which must be built by 2030. The government has recently restricted the construction of low-density units in the next five years in specific ‘reserved zones’ in order to preserve their development potential. This is the time the government and residents of these zones have in front of them to agree on a plan for the area.

Along with other participants from Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and guests from Paris, Vienna, London, New York, Miami and Mumbai, the workshop brought together over a hundred participants who explored the question: How can more living space be generated in this tiny and already dense canton?

This collective effort with participants from different disciplines such as architecture, interior design, planning, geography, sociology, anthropology and political sciences opened up rich debates on how density in these areas can be accentuated and what kind of habitats could emerge out of this process. It was not only about imagining how neighborhoods could offer more living spaces without alienating the existing population, but also how their livability could be enhanced for all users, and how residents can become actors of their gradual transformation.

To contextualize these visions, the workshop took an in-depth look at Mail-Sud, a ‘reserved zone’ that comprises 70 hectares with 500 self-standing houses built throughout the twentieth century, and plots typically measuring around 1500 square meters. It is located right next to the airport, close to many prestigious international institutions, with a mixed population in terms of origins and social background. Its population of about 1800 residents lives mainly in the capacity of residents in what looks more like a suburban area, with virtually no street-level commercial activity.

But Mail-Sud is also a quiet island in a sea of change, which the workshop participants had to take into consideration in their contributions. The airport is fast expanding, in response to booming traffic; new housing blocks are emerging everywhere they can be fitted to absorb Geneva’s rapidly growing population; and transportation infrastructure is being re-engineered to get more people out of their cars and into public systems.

All the participants of “Breaking Ground” worked in one of 10 teams, on different sectors of Mail-Sud, and produced scenarios and strategies for its development. The workshop program entailed a variety of activities, which made it possible to develop different working dynamics. Thematic discussions, public debates, field visit, group work, and festive evenings have marked the 5 days rich in exchange of ideas. Throughout the week, the teams were guided and stimulated by professional guests and experts in multiples fields, who debated with the teams and commented on their projects.

The ideas that emerged during the workshop were practical and grounded in the reality of the neighborhood. By respecting the existing urban fabric the participants highlighted Mail-Sud’s potential and different means to activate it. One of the most interesting aspects of the team’s proposals is the great convergence one could draw between the 10 projects that, put together, seem to have a complementary approach to the gradual densification process.

The output was processed in a 300 page report (in French) presenting the workshop, its challenges, and the 10 projects with their produced materials. On the other hand, a synthesis (in English) is also out to present a mashup of the entirety of the team’s production.

These outputs are now ready to be seen by residents who are directly interested in the ideas, professionals currently working on similar issues, and decision-makers who have to balance the common good with individual aspirations.

What is needed now is to consolidate the entirety of the proposed visions, go deeper into the analysis of the strategies by evaluating their density potential in regard to the State’s expectations, and confront them in the local context and the needs and aspirations of the residents.

Knowing that Geneva has a long history of local resistance against urban development, it is quite typical for plans to be delayed for years while conflicts are settled in court or at the political level. Scenarios for local development, in areas that are already inhabited, must thus necessarily be based on residents’ knowledge and initiatives.

This is why the collaborative nature of this workshop invited the public to share ideas and debate with the participants, helping at understanding how the gap between planners and residents could be bridged, and represented an alternative to the way urban plans, designs and strategies are usually produced.

Click here to view the full report (in French). And here for the printable version.

Click here to download the synthesis (in English).

First 3 photos by Google. All other photos by Eric Bouvet.

Khotachiwadi Strikes Back

January 29th, 2016 by urbzman

Khotachiwadi Imaginaries Exhibition
A street exhibition followed a workshop we just organized in Khotachiwadi.

We have been busy in one of our favourite neighbourhoods! Khotachiwadi embodies many of the contradictions of Mumbai. It is beautiful and decaying at once. It is full of life, but also slowly disappearing. Its residents don’t know how to cope with the many challenges that the city throws at them: from inadequate infrastructure to aggressive speculative takeover. urbz just produced a pre-proposal for a more pro-active engagement by the residents and the city at large in the transformation and preservation of Khotachiwadi.

Khotachiwadi Report print version!

This proposal can be downloaded here: (a print version is also available here).

The proposal was presented to the residents on the last day of a design workshop that we organized between January 7th to 10th, 2016 in Khotachiwadi with ARA, a group of Berlin based architects.

The workshop was open to participants interested in Khotachiwadi and what it represents for Mumbai. The workshop’s premise was that heritage conservation is important, especially in a place like Khotachiwadi that reflects the city’s history. However, in Khotachiwadi, preservation goes together with transformation. What needs to be preserved more than anything is the residents’ sense of engagement with their neighbourhood.

Koffee Khotachiwadi drawing from the workshop's report
Extract from the workshop’s report. The drawing shows a proposition for enhancing an open space in Khotachiwadi.

The workshop report can be downloaded here: (click here for the print version).

In the workshop, every participant focused on a specific location or element of Khotachiwadi. They analysed the elements graphically, interacting with people who used them, and then re-imagined how it could evolve over time. Participants generated ideas for how to creatively use, transform, and activate Khotachiwadi. The final output was a mix of very diverse representations of the neighbourhood and its possible futures, which were framed and exhibited in the street, providing an opportunity for further interactions with residents, visitors and people passing by.

This Khotachiwadi emblem was produced by one of the workshop participants. The wall on which it hangs is now a busy selfie spot.

The Khotachiwadi Imaginaries workshop was followed by a two week-long exhibition in the neighbourhood. On the first day, a map of Khotachiwadi was painted on the wall at the entrance, which was itself transformed into an exhibition space. Next to the map, a large emblem in copper, designed by one of the participants, was nailed onto the wall. It reads “Khotachiwadi” in Marathi.

Walls were whitewashed in various parts of the neighbourhoods, alleys were cleaned, stationary motorbikes were adorned with masks, an open space was transformed into a pop-up tea salon with new benches and flowers, an old abandoned car was turned into a flowerpot, architectural drawings were framed and put onto compound walls, and games were organised for the kids.

On the last day of the workshop the output was shown at various locations in Khotachiwadi.

Some participants spray painted pictures of cats onto alley-walls with local children. One group built a sturdy, wooden step-board to help children cross over from one chawl into another. We were informed by the residents themselves that some of them interacted with each other for the first time in spite of having lived next to each other for years. Kids particularly enjoyed getting together to paint and play games.

Children, youth, adults and elderly residents from Khotachiwadi, as well as passers-by from the main road, all came in to look at the designs and ideas, and interacted with the workshop participants. The exhibition was held at three main points in the neighbourhood: the entrance near Girgaum Church, the back wall of Girgaum Lodge, and the gate outside Ideal Wafers. All three of these are existing points of high interaction and activity, and the exhibition made it all the more exciting. Over two weeks after the exhibition day, the frames are still hanging on the streets of Khotachiwadi, not because the organisers forgot to remove them, but because we were asked to leave the exhibition up a little longer!

Staircase linking two chawls
A staircase linking up two chawls through back-alleys, which was built during the workshop.

Download urbz’ Khotachiwadi proposal here: (and here for the printable version).

Download the Khotachiwadi Imaginarines workshop report here: (and here for the printable version).

See photos of the workshop’s exhibition here:

See high-resolution images of the workshop’s output here:

And click here if you want to see loooots of photos of Khotachiwadi:


The Future of Architecture?

January 3rd, 2016 by urbzman

Seen from Mumbai, an urban agglomeration of about 20 million people, which generates 20% of the Indian GDP, architecture seems like a nice idea, which along with countless other social ambitions, has found no resonance in the contemporary world.

Perhaps it is not so much that architecture doesn’t have a future, but the notion of the future itself that has become anachronistic. According to Bruno Latour, we lost the future somewhere in the twentieth century. We are only left with an “avenir”.

L’avenir is what comes to us, as opposed to the future, which we were foolishly projecting –and which is now speaking back to us. What seemed to be externalities that could be ignored or dealt with later are now overwhelming us, and we must now cope with the messy world we have somehow generated.

The notion that we could expand our present and project ourselves towards a future of our own making, has given way to something else –which is not inexorably tragic. Anyhow, anticipating what is coming next requires no less creativity and foresight than drawing the future on a blank page.

Along with architecture, the idea of the city, as an engine for growth, as an equalizer, as the locus of modernity, seems irremediably bankrupt. Overstretched infrastructures and corrupt institutions are weighing on us all. The city is not designed by anyone, but rather abandoned to the tyrannical rule of a brand of ultra-liberalism never seen before.

60% of Mumbai residents are said to be living in slums. That means that they are in effect left to cope on their own, with quasi-inexistent support from the state, and quasi-ubiquitous oppression from institutional agents. At the other end of the spectrum, high-rises are mushrooming like there is no tomorrow, following only the socially and economically irrational logic of real estate speculation, and defying the capacity of people to actually buy the housing stock being produced. Half a million flats are left vacant in Mumbai, which is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Even this world of new tall buildings, which emulates and exceeds the most exuberant days of the twentieth century in New York, Chicago or Hong Kong, seems to function better without architects at all. Speculative development doesn’t demand design skill as much as accounting and legal expertise. Given the lack of importance given to architecture and design at the high-end of the construction spectrum, one would expect that architects would be rushing where they are most needed: in slums, where people struggle with such fundamental needs as ventilation, light and space optimization. But in fact, no architects operate in slums. They are not equipped for it. When architects come to a slum it is usually to plan what will come post eviction. With good reason, local residents see them with much suspicion.

The way we once conceived architecture, the tools we used, its very language – seem totally ill-fitted to address the issues that most people are confronted with in this day and age.

Academic institutions in charge of producing architects seem to exist a space-time warp where the future could still be conceived as a total project – architectural, social, political. Architectural education is adrift and the same is true of architectural museums and the galleries. These white boxes only seem to be there to reassure us that there are still stories worth being told; architectural fairy tales which we would love to believe. They show good work for a good world, simple and clearly delimited.

Nothing illustrates the disconnect between contemporary architectural practice and the context of Mumbai’s slums better than the use of the ‘plan’ – a device indispensable to the transformation of architectural projects into architectural objects. In a context of infinite complexity where responsiveness is everything, the plan serves almost no purpose. This is precisely because it is based on the naïve and dangerous belief that you can erase a little bit of the present world and replace it with another piece, which will fit right in. But it won’t fit because the architect comes from a different homeworld.

An architect walking in a Mumbai slum is like a ‘Prawn’ in District 9. A lost alien, whose power is reduced to zero because nothing in this world fits what he purposed to do. If architecture is to survive at all in a world with no future and only an avenir, it must be completely reinvented. We must accept that no matter how grand and wonderful, architectural practice as we’ve learned it ultimately belongs to art history and into big white box museums.

Parametric urban design will not save us – whatever some generation-x prophets may be preaching. Supersizing the architectural objects, and adding infinite internal complexity thanks to supercomputing capacities, will not be enough to respond to a challenge that really comes from outside the practice and outside the project. Gated communities, university campuses, Special Economic Zones, and smart cities are neurotic responses to the prevailing feeling among architects and planners that they are losing control.

As architects and urbanists who belong to a generation bred in twentieth century institutions and whatever is left of them in the early twenty-first century, we must make a conscious effort to radically transform our practice. We have no choice but to be even more imaginative in the way we use whatever resources we are left with and whatever technology we can scavenge.

The best way to deal with what’s coming is to accept that that we can’t build our way into the future, and that we must engage with the world as it is – messed up, toxic and unpredictable. We should drop all claims to superiority and learn to work with the context as a living material. Context shapes us and we shape it back. We must invent an imperfect practice for an imperfect world. Let’s not reinvent yesterday’s beautiful but unexciting utopias.

As practitioners, we must be pragmatic, daring and optimistic. We must learn to deal with forms of emergence that are outside the scope of architectural practice and actually draw inspiration from them. This necessarily implies another relationship to one’s own creative agency. It is not about imposing one order onto another, or bringing more rationality into an existing local practice of construction, but about connecting one’s own expertise with the knowledge of other actors who are rooted in their imminent reality.

This text is a long version of urbz’s entry for an initiative by the Future Architecture Platform.