The recent documentary "Reading Architecture" (2017) explores the contemporary history of design in India across five practices in Mumbai. Sameep Padora, one of five featured architects, is the founder of Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a), a Mumbai (India) based architecture studio. In 2016, he initiated sPare, a research arm of the studio. sPare’s maiden project, a documentation and analysis of historic housing types within Mumbai eventually resulted in a traveling exhibition entitled In the Name of Housing. In the following conversation, Padora discusses his projects against the dual context of urban renewal and historic preservation.
Prajna Desai: Let’s start with the publication In the Name of Housing: A Study of 11 Projects in Mumbai (2016). What was the impulse behind this typological study of affordable housing? And why include pan-historical examples within a single study? Did these projects not evolve from different economic factors when they were first built?
Sameep Padora: The study began when a developer approached us to do a housing project under the aegis of the national “Housing for All” policy, which in its efforts to fulfill the supposed shortfall of affordable housing in India, looks at four eligible housing types while also giving hugely attractive income tax waivers to their developers. While looking for studies and research specifically within the Indian context on the design and architecture of affordable housing, we found incredible documentation of the extant sociocultural fabric of the inhabitants but very little analysis of the tectonics that facilitated these narratives, or vice versa. We really were looking for the tie-in between form and its inhabitation. The focus on type also came from the impetus of the “Housing for All” policy prescribing the larger top-down parameters of financing and subsidy, as well as the minimum unit size, which the national policy specifies as 322 square feet, without acknowledging the qualitative aspects of housing—essentially, its livability and sociocultural aspects. Another key factor usually overlooked is temporal programming for spaces used in different ways throughout the course of a day; in other words, the same space may be residential at night, commercial during the day, and social in the evening. We have, in the past, seen the disastrous manifestation of a top-down blinkered approach in the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) projects built in Mumbai.1 Our research on the history of housing in Mumbai since the late-nineteenth century attempts to build a case for sensitive design intervention based on studies of how people inhabit small spaces and the immediate environment, and that facilitates this manner of compressed living.
From our study, it became clear that while varied socioeconomic adjacencies do exist, there are structural commonalities between these different projects that could be instructive for the design and planning of affordable housing going forward.
PD: Where does one go from a typology?
SP: The only housing type that is currently built is the default BHK (Bedroom Hall Kitchen) apartment, which completely ignores the fact that spaces in low-income housing often have multiple uses. The state’s past failures to build livable and appropriate environments are well documented, including in the latest study of rampant tuberculosis in some of the projects undertaken by the SRA—a state body empowered to facilitate development of notified slums in Mumbai by private developers.2 Through this study of “type,” we argue for a reverse approach, beginning with prescribing the built form, whereby housing type and its immediate ecology inform building and development codes, and together the two inform state policy on appropriate models for affordable housing.
PD: There is a stance within contemporary architectural discourse about the social responsibility of architects that seems to find a natural partnership in housing projects. Which side of the fence does your work inhabit?