Urban Flower: Transforming slum schools into cheerful places

  • Susan Jose, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 30, 2015 14:14 IST

Over-crowded classrooms, lack of proper infrastructure and virtually no open spaces make many schools in urban slums look far from inviting for kids. Addressing this very facet is Austrian architect Martina Maria Spies. As part of her NGO Anukruti's initiative, titled Urban Flower, the 38-year-old is determined to transform several such schools into bright and cheerful places.

"It is mainly about building joyful play spaces using left-over spaces in slum schools. It also includes transforming the surroundings of a school," says Spies, adding, "For example, at Modern English Medium School in Ghatkopar (E), we gave the existing stage (a raised platform, rather) a facelift. We got artistes to paint it, and make it look happy."

Daughter of a reputed builder and architect in Payerbach, Austria, Spies's relationship with India is a 15-year-old one. It all began when she visited India in 2000, while she was studying architecture. After college, Spies spent many years apprenticing under renowned architects in India and Japan. The turning point in her career came in 2007, when she started working with Costford (Trivandrum, Kerala) - "a non-profit-making voluntary organisation, striving for cost-effective environment-sensitive architecture…".


The renovated stage at Modern English Medium School, Ghatkopar (E).

"This is where I learnt about cost-effectiveness, rainwater harvesting and low-cost housing," says Spies. Two years later, she returned to Vienna, Austria. In 2011, Martina came back to India; this time, she landed in Mumbai. "I had curated an exhibition, titled Dharavi: Places And Identities back then. For that, I covered the lifestyles of papad makers, broom makers, potters, tailors, dhobis and leather workers in Dharavi. That's when I realised that urban slums might be cramped, but there is so much more that can be done with them," she says.

Soon after, Spies decided to pursue a PhD on Dharavi. Her dissertation was titled Dharavi - Ground Up: A Dwellers - Focused Design Tool for Upgrading Living Space in Dharavi, Mumbai. Around August-September 2013, Spies started putting her ideas to test. With a team of students from Rizvi College of Architecture, Bandra (W), she organised a workshop that facilitated the building of two life-sized cubes that were connected by a bridge at the YMCA in Khar (W). "Within the cubes, we installed different play spaces, swings and ropes to climb. This was built mainly for the street children in the area," she explains.

Post that, as part of another workshop with the students of School of Environment and Architecture, Borivali (W), a school ground in Malvani, Malad (W) was converted into a temporary play space. "Since we used only bamboo, it was not permanent, but the kids had fun for two months. The school walls are still coloured, and the space remains transformed," she says.


The tree house at SVN English Medium School in Kandivali (W).

Finally, almost a full year after her NGO was conceived, in February this year, the first prototype of the Urban Flower - a tree house cum play space - was built at a municipal school in Daud Baug, Andheri (W). The second one was built at SVN English Medium School in Kandivali (W), which is replete with swings.

Future plans
Hopeful that she will be able to continue to bring about change, she says, "I am looking forward to transforming another school and playground in Govandi. The community members have volunteered to clean up the gutters. Post the monsoon, we will begin work there. We are always happy to get support and donations."

She also cannot wait to give back to the place where it all started - Dharavi. She says, "We are trying hard to set up a playground in Dharavi. But it is difficult since the spaces are limited. But, we are continuing to scout nonetheless. We have our fingers crossed for the best outcome."

The feedback
"There have been many positive responses from parents regarding the artwork. Students are very happy, especially the pre-primary ones. A lot of their education takes place during playtime as they point to the paintings on the walls, and recognise colours."
- Tirupathi Jakkula, head master, Modern English Medium School, Ghatkopar (E)

"It was really beneficial for children. Since it was a testing installation, some swings have broken. But, I am going to get them repaired. Children still go and play because the venue is colourful and inviting."
- Nikhat Fatima Sayed, head mistress and building in-charge, Municipal School, Andheri (W)

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