The newly-built complex for fishermen shows what is wrong with the State government’s approach to social housing

The newly-built housing complex, fronting the Marina Beach behind the lighthouse, is a shame.

Five housing blocks meant to rehabilitate fishermen in Nochikuppam are like matchboxes on stilts. They are a perfect example of how not to design and what is wrong with the government’s approach to social housing.

The building’s corridors are dingy, long and narrow. Tiny tenements are endlessly lined on either side of them in a row. Individual dwelling are like shoe boxes, with only one window in them.

The spaces below the ramps are so clumsy that they are bound to turn into large-sized dustbins. The only way to reach the terrace is by acrobatically squeezing through a two-foot by two- foot opening that can be approached using a metal ladder. A large courtyard in the middle of the compound stands isolated from the beach outside, where children energetically run around and play cricket. The entire design ignores the fact that the everyday lives of the fishermen who are going to inhabit these new buildings, would organically extend to the sea in front of them.

In defence, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), which built this complex, may argue that this is not a luxury apartment but a low-cost unit built for free. They have targets to achieve and the cost is constraining. Do they mean that good design is only for the rich and the poor have to make do with pigeon holes?

Cost and good design are not directly proportional. The public purpose of architecture and social responsibilities of design can be realised in housing for the poor without incurring any additional expense. The TNSCB should revisit what architect Laurie Baker wrote, when he decades ago about the government’s insensitive approach. He criticised the concrete boxes built without any respect given to life and land. His demonstration in Chengalchoola, Thiruvananthapuram shows that numbers can be achieved without having to lose design quality.

If the TNSCB wants to look even further, there are plenty of instructive examples in cities across the ocean. In Iquique in Chile, designers did not force a finished product on its future inhabitants nor did they mechanically reproduce solutions. The design was anchored in local conditions and powered through consultations. Space was intensely used without compromising on design standards. Consultants who partnered with government invested in researching and innovating housing solutions.

There is another lesson to learn from the city design center, University of Illinois, which compiled best practices in affordable housing. Lowering construction cost is not the only way to make dwelling units cheaper. Houses can be made more economically efficient by “assuring lower lifetime operating and maintenance costs” and to achieve this, good design is imperative.

The problem with TNSCB is that it approaches housing as a number or a target to accomplish. The attention is only on the dwelling unit and the bureaucracy of building it. By creatively using land, open areas and terraces, limitations imposed by the size and costs can be overcome. Instead of a large meaningless open space, smaller courtyards, front yards, interesting lanes that connect the blocks could be created and flexibly used. Buildings can have better aesthetic quality without builders having to spend more. An enriching living environment can be created with some effort and sensitivity.

TNSCB would do well to read what Kathleen Dorgan and Deane Evans, authors of the essay Mainstreaming Good Design in Affordable Housing had to say: “high quality design is one of the most promising – and one of the most underutilized – strategies available for both improving the asset value and facilitating community acceptance of affordable housing.”

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