‘Dharavi is a great opportunity to reimagine what affordable housing in the city can be’
In June this year, Padora was appointed as dean of Faculty of Architecture at CEPT Ahmedabad, whose founder-director was Padma Vibhushan and Pritzker Prize-winning architect BV Doshi. “The idea that practice need not be divorced from academia is what I’m really interested in
MUMBAI SP+a, Sameep Padora’s architectural studio in Bandra, is like a bungalow office plus design library. Hardcovers spill out of every crevice, mirroring the space crunch in the city. Tellingly, there are no artworks on the walls, except for a few framed city maps and floor plans, and a 6x4ft photograph of the courtyard at Bhatia Chawl, Dahisar. In the picture, neighbours lean against the U-shaped balcony railing, as drying bedsheets, saris, nighties and tea towels border the print. What isn’t shown, but immediately brings to mind, is the image of the life lived and the space used, with residents lining up for carrom tournaments, Govinda pyramids and Ganpati pandals.
For Padora, who is usually occupied with villas and triplexes, Bhatia Chawl has been a constant preoccupation; a subject on which he has co-authored books and given TEDx talks. “That courtyard is like a giant living room,” he says. “During our research, we met an arthritic lady there, who lived on the fourth floor. She also had an apartment in Andheri, equipped with an elevator. But, she said, ‘I prefer living here because if there’s anything I need, I can just call out and the whole chawl comes up to help me.’ So, that sense of community is there. Of course, it isn’t an idealised condition. But, these projects have also changed a lot. In BDD Chawl, people have built kitchens, toilets, an extra room, which is a cantilever from the façade, in their units. So, the chawl has hybridised into a new typology.”
Place and process
In June this year, Padora was appointed as dean of Faculty of Architecture at CEPT Ahmedabad, whose founder-director was Padma Vibhushan and Pritzker Prize-winning architect BV Doshi. “The idea that practice need not be divorced from academia is what I’m really interested in,” he says. “CEPT is one of the best equipped architecture design schools in the country. So, for me, it’s extremely important we create a curriculum that matches that infrastructure.”
Ironically, when Padora was a design student in the late 1990s, he couldn’t secure admission at CEPT. “It is one of the big regrets of my life that I couldn’t study directly under Doshi,” he says. “I’d often go to him with my work, and I was fortunate that he always spoke very fondly about it. It was impossible to be around him, and not be influenced by him.” Padora did get into Harvard University in 2005, and in the 20-odd years since, has designed projects across the length of the country, which have won awards across the breadth of the world.
These include the Temple of Steps in Andhra Pradesh, House of Multiple Courts in Goa, Jetavan Spiritual Center and Maya Somaiya Library in Maharashtra, Aatam Hostel in Rajasthan, and Lattice House in Jammu. In Mumbai, hip eateries such as Indigo Deli in Palladium, The Clearing House in Ballard Estate, and Khar Social bear his imprint. The running theme in his projects is an emphasis on the local idiom. The derelict vibe of Khar Social, for instance, pays homage to a construction site, with exposed rebars, RCC, and corrugated sheets, because Mumbai is always upgrading. “While it is a bar for people to hang out,” says Padora, “in some sense, it also captures the DNA of Mumbai. That our city is a process, not an end product.”
Padora has spent considerable time, energy, and resources in understanding Mumbai’s unique urban planning issues. As one of the co-founders of the Bandra Collective, a group of six architects who work on public spaces with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), he says, “Our cities have changed from being about the creation of a public realm to becoming about privatising whatever realm is available. Our master plan is basically a top-down allocation of what zoning goes where. However, the city experience is in between the two. The study of that area, where you experience pavements and bus stops, doesn’t exist. We are creating archipelagos of living in gated communities, and archipelagos of work, like BKC. You get into your car and go from one island to another, to escape the city in between. If you see the way developers pitch projects as well, you have Miami in Mahim or Upper Cuffe Parade in Wadala. It’s a disconnection from the city that’s being plugged constantly.”
Addressing the gap between policy planning and ground realities is his research think-tank, sPare, which untangles building codes for public spaces and why they ignore both physical and social wellbeing. “SRA buildings are vertical warehouses for people,” he says. “Some of the buildings are built only 10 feet apart and go up to 20 storeys. There’s no way you can live in one without contracting some form of respiratory disease.” And, gated complexes? “They are even worse. In fact, the slum rehabilitation projects have better light and ventilation than some of the gated complexes.”
Which brings us to the future of Dharavi, whose proposed redevelopment could become a case study on either the carriage or miscarriage of social justice. “What exists in Dharavi is a vitality that has come about with a century of occupation,” he says. “By all means, if 70% of the population votes for redevelopment, then it is common will. But even within that, we have to be sympathetic to their way of living. We need to recognise and design in a way that the existing networks of association between clusters are maintained. Dharavi is a great opportunity to reimagine what affordable housing in the city can be. But yes, if we use the existing by-laws, we will not be able to make that happen.”