Raj Rewal – CIDCO Lowcost Housing, Navi Mumbai

Posted: September 25, 2011 in Contemporary Architecture
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This building project by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) by Maharashtra state represents a complex, specifically Indian problem: creating accommodation for people on subsistence incomes. Fundamentally, these are homes that can never be owned by their occupants, because in most cases the people who live there will never succeed in breaking through the income barriers. People usually get stuck within a social stratum that is clearly defined and demarcated without any hope or chance of improvement because of inadequate schooling and professional training. Other factors, too, play a part in the Hindu social system, especially the caste system, a millennia-old structure into which one is born. Over the centuries, a system that ordered and stabilised society into professional classes degenerated into an unworthy class system that despises human beings. Despite the Indian government’s best efforts to break away from it, sometimes using force, and to guarantee better chances of success for those involved, this scourge still remains firmly anchored in people’s consciousness.

Raj Rewal’s practice was commissioned to plan 1000 accommodation units for residents on the edge of a large planning area in New Mumbai, a new area that was being developed at the time east of Mumbai old town. As is the case with all urban development projects, despite a very low budget it was important not just to provide the bare essentials in terms of space, but above all to develop a home environment that was simple but of high quality. The difficult balancing act between finance and ambience could succeed only if inexpensive but lastingly effective building materials were used, and if the planning process was not too costly and led a simple implementation procedure. The Rewal practice designed the project as a high density structure. On the one hand it was because the area available was strictly limited, but also in order to achieve quality for the outdoor space that was effective in urban terms, yet reminiscent of a naturally developed village. These accommodations cells, or “molecules” (Rewal), now consist of one to three room units 18, 25, 40 and 70 m2 large. They have essential sanitary facilities and water tanks on the roof for a constant water supply, which is still by no means to be taken for granted in essentially rural India.

One important problem had to be solved: what reasonably priced and durable materials could make a lasting effect within a very tight financial framework. The final choice was a combination of concrete cavity blocks, exposed plasterwork, hand-made terracotta tiles and locally available rough granite stones for the base. This combination can endure the hard monsoon climate and will develop an acceptable patina. Electricity was also guaranteed for the entire complex, not just in the dwellings themselves, but in the public areas as well. Roads were moved to the periphery to allow for safe but reasonably priced footpath connections within the development. There is access on all sides from the outside, and it is easy for people to filter through the building groups. With the concept of a very dense residential quarter, Rewal accomodated the enormously high level of social interaction in everyday Indian life. People do not just live in their own homes, but are in intensive contact with neighbours, friends and fellow occupants almost throughout the day and night.

Thus opening the homes up to the outdoor space is an important design consideration. Increased urban density is now not usually born of necessity, but an important concept for life in general. When developing urban space the quality of indoor and outdoor space have to go hand in hand, as life takes place to a large extent in the street. So when planning the chain of “molecules”, great emphasis was laid on the connections implied by communally used spaces. In India, a “village” consists of an accumulation of squares, courtyards, loggias, terraces and balconies where people communicate and make the exchanges that are so essential to life. Rewal considers these factors on a large scale and builds these zones into his architecture. He develops a type of building kit system with cubic basic elements. These admit a wide range of highly flexible variation as a design principle and can thus be used almost universally: courtyards turn individual blocks into chains, modules are set very close together, blocks with courtyards are grouped as quarters. This shows a theme being kept consistently and implemented with great virtuosity. Efficiency is not the only key factor, it is important to create a living environment on the basis of a wealth of space. A structure emerges that is completely homogeneous not just as a physical entity, but also in terms of its materials, a design that is all of a piece, and yet at the same time a highly sophisticated residential unit with complex spatial diversity. The fact that the buildings all have different numbers of storeys contributes to this, being staggered from one to four levels, and so does the slope on the site. A sloping site dynamises and extends the space and the physical quality of the buildings and enhances the image of a living organism that seems as though it could be extended at any time. The totality of the planning is expressed in homogeneity, emphasising the holistic design. There is no attempt to duplicate the individual dwellings artificially, no false sense of growth, which gives the architectural approach its complete credibility. Rewal is very consistently demonstrating a concept that has nothing nostalgic about it in terms of overall appearance: reduction was essential, and from this necessity is born an abstract and thus unambiguously modern form, entirely committed to its time.

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