Till the Eighties when Hindi cinema was still interested in the lives of ordinary people, a rented apartment, or the lack of it, led to plot complications with romantic quarrels and compromises. If a couple did manage a flat, they would give you at least one happy song on the balcony. In the Nineties, builder-driven housing became a Mumbai reality. Those with money began to climb up concrete and steel towers for security, sea-views, 24/7 power-backup and water supply. Those who couldn't, burst a vessel each time another modest building fell in the shadow of a highrise. They also witnessed a city convulsing under the dismantling of its mills and factories, a huge population of workers left behind without work; the mafia's trial runs, and the rise of the architect's profession that, strangely enough, remained neutral to those upheavals to continue to build first-world buildings next to third-world ones.Or 'ground plus seven', as they now call the vertical slums, on Mumbai streets.
A group of architects, educationists and town planners -- pass-outs or former faculty of traditional architecture schools such as the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, or Academy of Architecture and the JJ School of Architecture in Mumbai -- did not make peace with this. The linkages between people, politics, culture and structures had to be an important part of pedagogy, they felt. Six months ago they started SEA (School of Environment and Architecture) in Borivli, offering a bachelor's course, in a joint venture with the Suvidya Prasarak Sangh (SPS) -- a 40-year-old trust run by a Seventies' cooperative of middle-class Maharashtrians -- open to the idea of an education that would link it to current debates of urban living.
The architecture of Mumbai is a mix of Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco, Indo-Saracenic and contemporary architectural styles.
There are 21 different house types used in Mumbai. These include fishing village houses, colonial government buildings, wadis (set of buildings with shops in the front and houses behind and on higher floors), chawls, private apartments of the 70s and 80s; public sector employee housing, slums, dilapidated building redevelopments.
Population of Mumbai (metropolitan area): 20.5 million; 62% of its population live in slums. Despite its growth over the past 20 years, Mumbai has recorded its slowest population growth in nearly a century.
Data: World Population Review, SEA
SEA seems to draw much of its pragmatic spirit from this tie-up and its neighbourhood. Groceries, stationery and hardware shops, clockmakers, small-time house brokers, carpenters are its neighbours in this northwest Mumbai suburb. The school towers over no one; the locality looks into its compound; the gate is near invisible. SM Pendse, a retired government employee and an SPS trustee, said they gave the space of their four-storey school to house SEA as land was a key social issue for Mumbai, and "their values matched ours".Aditya Panchal, a student with the experience of community living in a chawl, recalls that in class, when he said he wanted to make the world's tallest building, "I was asked by my teachers to consider why I didn't want to make the world's happiest building." During his field trip to Murbad, a tribal village closeby, he realised why it was more than just a good line. "In a tribal village, the community owns the land. But property means having one clear owner. We didn't think of community needs before that. In this school, we don't just study how to make a brick wall; we work with bricks to understand their weight, saw wood to make doors. During the entrance exam, they judged us by how we well we knew a street." The school is no 'alternative,' say its teachers. Rather, it is an experiment to see if they can bring the city into the school, and whether an academic curriculum can provoke new thinking about the city.