‘Slums can be turned into affordable, well-designed houses for migrants’

Can you fit a comfortable human existence into a space of a square metre or less? Polish architect Jakub Szczesny can. The designer of the Keret House, the world’s narrowest house in Warsaw between two buildings (92cm at its narrowest point), was in Mumbai for the India Design Forum last week.

“The space itself was obviously the most limiting element, but also an exciting thing: how to fit a minimum existence unit with a reasonable level of comfort into something that narrow?” he said, in an email interview.

As a master of the miniature, Szczesny is well-placed to appreciate the peculiarities of a city facing a real estate crunch, which he said he had explored a little. As microcosms of urban living, the chawls are not very different from the Keret House principle – small spaces with basic requirements.

“Yes, I’ve seen a couple and I think that it’s a good tradition and could be well interpreted in new designs,” said Szczesny. He added, “The slums could be turned into well-designed, mix-standard developments still enabling low-income migrants to live here without being pushed outside as victims of mindless gentrification.”

As land becomes increasingly precious, shrinkage of urban spaces is inevitable. “Dealing with smaller surfaces requires better understanding of [the] future user's psychology and a greater possibility of customising the space through inexpensive tricks. The question is how to make it livable and according to which standard. I wouldn’t like to see suddenly tons of private developments packing poor people in too small cages!” Szczesny said.

He thinks the Keret House idea is replicable. “The strategy of giving new life to forgotten places is very much replicable and it's part of a tendency very much present in ex-communist block countries when it comes to revitalisation of derelict urban tissue,” he said.

“...In all cases there's a couple of rules to remember, but the best one is that only a good study of local context done from different angles, from cultural, social and economical to start with lead to a success of these investments.”


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