Designing from Something (When Tabula Rasa is Not an Option)

Designing from Something (When Tabula Rasa is Not an Option)

The tool-house as starting point for designers to learn from local skills, practices and aspirations.

Mumbai’s homegrown neighbourhoods are a subject of great attention from various disciplines. Architecture is no exception. Some important grey areas and little explored issues compel us to investigate this city where land values ​​are among the highest in the world. Where the dominant model of development is – in areas classified as slums more than anywhere else – still one of big speculative interventions involving a tabula rasa approach, in which new constructions often force residents to move.

However, in the field of construction and real estate, there is another significant force which is harder to recognize and study; homegrown neighbourhoods, which, contrary to common perception, enjoy the vitality of thousands of little building sites. A closer inspection, like the one initiated by urbz/Urbanology, allows us to observe relevant transformation pressures that originate from the heart of these neighbourhoods. These pressures are embodied in the figure of the local contractor; with their small and continuous work of reuse or transformation, these contractors update the shape and functions of the city and determine their incremental growth with a total absence of designers.

We believe that in such contexts architecture can make a significant contribution, but only if it is able to rethink its way of operating in the field. Commissioned by contractors, We aim to promote the usefulness of design and the optimizations that it allows. In addition, it aims to stimulate the micro-forces of an in nuce dynamic market to counteract those of the speculative real estate, which are hugely powerful in Mumbai and Asia at the moment. A significant proportion of the construction works undertaken by local contractors are “tool-houses”. The tool-houses are small buildings where home and work coexist. Plurality of uses and functional integration are essential responses to the challenges posed by the high density of the settlements.

Tool-houses are comparable to the shop-houses of Singapore and the home-factories of Tokyo, which exist in different versions throughout Southeast Asia. They contribute more than other buildings to determine the identity of the neighbourhoods, because they face the street and enrich public life. Tool-houses are particularly susceptible to transformation – and to the intervention of contractors – because they frequently change their layout, according to the evolution of the economic activities they host. Initially, home and work can be promiscuous on one floor, then arranged more independently on two separate levels, in which – as business grows – workers come to reside within.

As it was observed during a workshop organized in January 2013 by the urbz/Institute of Urbanology, there are frequent cases where the storefront, because of growing density, is takeover by other activities (a square-metre barber-shop against a grocery store, a small Hindu temple against a manufacturing laboratory). We have observed how families tend to develop an attachment to these structures, in spite of them being so precarious and ever-changing. It is also frequently observed that the tool-house transforms more radically and experiences an upgrade to become the exclusive home of an owner, who may have become better off and developed other businesses elsewhere, but wishes to live in the spot he had started his business and where his family is rooted.

Given the complexity of this scenario, new forms of research and involvement are necessary, hand in hand with the sharing in of skills in homegrown neighbourhoods. At this stage of our collaboration with small contractors and suppliers of materials, we attempt to co-create and co-design locally with a global imagination. As designers we believe in the need to learn from local skills, practices and aspirations. In this light the tool-house is a useful starting point; it is the product of an efficient and lively environment, where a viable use of resources is crucial. Besides, contemporary architecture is late in imagining new ways of designing in a world of scarcer resources. In this scenario, the tool-house is definitely an unexpectedly interesting example for global architecture to look at.

Subhash Mukerjee and Michele Bonino are the founders of Torino based Studio Marc, and faculty members at the Politecnico di Torino. The are partnering with urbz on several projects.