Sem 03 / Architectural Syntax

Petit Infrastructures

Anuj Daga
with Anshu Choudhri, Milind Mahale and Teja Gavankar

While megacities like Mumbai continue to undergo large scale infrastructural transformations that bring about a new scale and order to the experience of urban space, the slowly transforming neighbourhoods still offer their residents soft ways of claiming and making their own spaces. Mostly put together through incremental logics, layered negotiations (between the interests of city, neighbours and self), these environments are put together through unassuming materials and resources, often in small ways. Here, conventional ideas of putting together forms (as learnt in the academy) get challenged and reinvented. These small accumulations enable a range of activities within a neighbourhood to sustain its social life. We may think of them as “petit infrastructures” that constitute the everyday eventfulness of a place. Such small infrastructures go through their own challenges and constraints, yet allow us to read multifarious possibilities that people charge their everyday spaces with. For example, shop fronts get extended into weather-refuge spaces during summer or rains, roadside temples accommodate the social life of the aged, bus stops extend as shelters for the homeless during night time, boundary walls become transient shops, and so on. Although minor, such interventions create opportunities for varied programmes to come together, and establish unique dialogues between their respective forms. These dialogues hold conditions for new ways of imagining form, in other words, they hint at, and demand for a new language of inhabitation. How can architecture push the potential of these petit yet poignant infrastructures with increased dignity, safety and playfulness? What syntax of space and form can we invent to value urban neighborhoods that accommodate these everyday microcosms against the spate of massive erasures?
For the present studio, we chose the street passing by Eksar, the neighborhood where the School of Environment is also located. Historically, Eksar has been an urban village - a gaothan in the northern  suburb of Borivali-Mumbai, which is now under the looming spate of redevelopment. The principal spine of Eskar road ramifies into the numerous inner lanes that hold the fabric of the settlement whereas its edges hold numerous enterprises and community activities that produce a vibrant interface with the transforming urban landscape. Shop plinths, tree shades, infrequent pavements combine with interfaces of houses, temples, ponds to become spaces that slow down and contain life. These nooks and corners created by the organic nature of the settlement’s intersection with the otherwise vehicularised road offer opportunities to observe several spatial practices that demonstrate how different elements of built form get occupied or have the possibility of being made inhabitable towards sustaining the vibrancy of this neighbourhood.
Through the observations collected by the individual students during the field work, it became evident to us that there are several aspects in addition to this neighbourhood being a gaothan that afford the bustle of the place, or in other words, the multiplicity of activities along the road edges. We noticed that there is a higher concentration of activity around the spaces that are low and small in scale, whereas they reduce in areas which have been redeveloped into buildings. Although this can be credited to the privatisation through the boundary wall of the new buildings, these also come to be inhabited by different kinds of street vendors directly or indirectly. These observations meant that a softer, low-key scale of transition between the street and its adjoining plots creates greater opportunity for life to happen, lending increased vibrancy to the neighbourhood. Therefore, how can architectural interventions be introduced such that they can preserve the scale of interface between the street and the built environment. Could the introduction of petit infrastructure control placelaceness inevitably induced by large scale development?
The street produces an urbanity that has a clear spatial presence, but how could its architectural imprint be imagined? Architectural interventions, in bringing order and organisation, often end up clarifying several activities on the street. For example, the introduction of the pavement in privileging the passerby pedestrian often becomes an act of erasing the presence of multiple other actors like hawkers, enterprises, homeless, self built infrastructure and spaces that people may have carved to meet, rest, wait or while away time. One may argue then, that pavements often become modernist strategies of clarifying a sustained and prolonged street life for the momentary passerby. This is not to say that the city does not need pavements, rather, it is to bring attention to the experience of urbanity of walking, where the function of the walk is not the only factor to be addressed, rather the wholesome stimuli of smell, vision, tactility and aural environment that one encounters in passing by a place. In this line of thought, how can design preserve the organic nature of the street while allowing for organized movement minimizing conflict? In addition, how does one imagine street infrastructure as communal ground?

Shared space is created in multiple ways within the neighbourhood. The collective map produced by the studio approached three modalities in which this get produced:
Community Institutions: These include places of worship like temples or dargahs, community halls, lakes/talaaos, maidans and such other amenities - created by the communities themselves - that constituted a sense of the ‘commons’ for the neighbourhood. Although bounded recently, the character of these spaces remains fairly open to the public - meaning gates are open and these properties can largely be trespassed. The spaces respect boundaries of faith and caste, but do not hinder access to any other, including the public.
Municipal Offerings: State-provided infrastructure like vaachanalays (news paper reading kiosks), bus stops, toilets also become spaces where people linger, wait or hang out, for the frequency of their use if fairly low. Over the turn of the millennium as the world diverged into the digital space, many of these infrastructures are underutilized and remain in a state of disrepair. On the other hand, some of these have been assimilated into the informally expanding spaces within the neighbourhood itself.
Everyday Street Practices: Shops, food stalls, hawkers, auto stands, parking or donated seats for the elderly occupy parts of the streets or pavements creating facilities for a range of people to transact for a variety of purposes. Boundary walls of private enterprises have also been taken over by smaller enterprises in a symbiotic agreement. Thus divisions of the public and private are constantly blurred, creating a highly localised public realm.
The communal ground, as indicated above, is a melange of several overlaps. Each of these spaces demonstrate distinct furnitures and infrastructures through which people make them occupiable. Plinths, tree barks, steps, roofs and such other elements are made habitable through provisional furniture, structural extensions and such other techniques. How can these assemblies help us imagine traditionally held functions of architectural elements while making them parts of urban infrastructure? How do elements alter their aesthetic-political charge as they take on new meanings and modes of being? It is here that the programme and inquiry of formal syntax lay.
In order to trace a methodological history of formal syntax (beyond Hillier’s spatial syntax), the studio discussed five practices whose work engages closely with the question of syntax. These included:
  1. Peter Eisenman, who suggests dissociating the elements of architecture from their symbolic meaning in order to bring them together to create their own internal dialogue.

  2. Robert Venturi who, in his introduction of ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ talks about the plurality in the meaning of elements of architecture, favouring the ‘and/both’ rather than the ‘if/or’

  3. Bernard Tschumi - whose close conversation with the philosophical proposition of Derrida’s Grammatology asks for a new language of representation for addressing the empty space between the forms in architecture.

  4. John Hejduk, whose practice of close observation of life stories and their translation into physiognomic forms introduces a certain poetics in the reading and design of architectural forms.

  5. Aldo Rossi - who in his ‘Architecture of the City’ introduces the idea of ‘urban artifacts’ as elements whose existence has contributed to the morphological and cultural evolution of the city. He understands such elements as primary accruals through historical process that are capable of accelerating the process of urbanization in the city
Case studies were discussed in addition to the above wherein students were introduced to different ways of interpreting and intervening into the Eksar street at the scale of the small. In putting together contrasting elements and programmes, they discovered their own innovative ways of appreciating the city(-life). Their key challenges came in the manner of finding meaning in the seemingly mundane everyday, defamilariazation with the known, and zooming into the detail of activities that shape micro urban environments.
Some of the works produced over the studio include ‘Timepass Gateway’ that thickens the idea of a gate to create space for storage while descending down to become an intimate chai katta on one side and a hovering balcony to daydream on the other, ‘The Urban Living Room’ that creates space in walls for storage, sleeping, resting, sitting or eating, ‘The Staircase Plaza’ which expands upon the external staircase of an existing chawl of the gaothan into gradually cascading down midlandings that hold spaces for a cafe, ‘Pocket Market’ that pushes the boundary wall behind the pavement fish market to visually and experientially connect the lake behind while easing the movement of people on the street during market hours; and others, which can be studied in detail here