Students of the city: architect Sameep Padora on his ongoing exhibition, (de)Coding Mumbai

In the process of highlighting the history of development plans in Maximum City through 18 case studies, the architect says he has learnt a lot from Mumbai’s residents

June 21, 2022 04:21 pm | Updated 04:21 pm IST

A snapshot from (de)Coding Mumbai

A snapshot from (de)Coding Mumbai

Six years ago, Mumbai-based architect Sameep Padora was approached by a developer to design an affordable housing project, for which his firm conducted several field studies. He says that through this project, he found several beautiful examples of housing types responsive to the need for light and ventilation.

“This study was published as a book called In the Name of Housing. The next question we asked ourselves was why some of these elements that created sensitive living environments from a physical or social health point of view were no longer possible,” says Padora. Seeking answers for this is what led to (de)Coding Mumbai, an ongoing research exhibition in Mumbai by his firm’s research initiative, sPare, that analyses the last 100 years of regulations for housing in the city that have shaped its housing and urban form.

Since housing constitutes the majority of the city’s built form, the building codes and development plans that regulate housing consequently prescribe its built form, explains Padora. Addressing what he aims to achieve with this exhibition, the architect hopes a study like this will be able to offer key insights in the history of development plans and regulations in the city, their impacts and point to some of the key concerns for the consideration of a Development Control Regulations (DCR) for the future.

“The megacity of Mumbai is at the verge of another paradigmatic shift in the ways its urban form will be produced and that will have serious implications on livability and the working of the city. One of the key actors in this shift, we believe, will be the DCR and Development Plan.”

The revamped IFBE space

The revamped IFBE space

Inside the ice factory

Case studies aside, (de)Coding Mumbai’s venue — the revamped IFBE — is also reflective of Padora’s research. The new site that recently opened in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate previously housed an ice factory in one of the city’s oldest dockyards. “The IFBE space compliments our research as it tries to bring forward the current challenges that the city is negotiating — especially questions of how to deal with the aging built stock of the city. IFBE demonstrates that demolition and reconstruction need not be the only format of development, we need to consider alternative, more sustainable models of development through repair and adaptive reuse,” says Padora, adding that Kamal Malik and Arjun Malik, the architects and owners of Ice Factory Ballard Estate, along with Sarita Vijayan, offered to host the research as the first exhibition to be hosted at IFBE.

Sameep Padora on top 3 building laws… 
…that he wants scrapped
Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) regulations that enable reducing distance between buildings
Podium regulations need to be re-thought and reimagined in the way they engage with the street and the city
Shared building elements (usually considered under fungible FSI) also need to be reimagined to make housing projects more generous and liveable
…wants in force
Privately owned public spaces  
Frame-based building regulations 
Regulations that take into consideration the living and cultural dimensions of neighbourhoods 

Given how Mumbai’s building and development regulations have evolved over the years, was documenting it through 18 case studies — that involved public participation — a challenge? Padora explains that while this took over two years, they took the pandemic years to reflect and refine the studies. “The residents were forthcoming and engaging. We learnt a lot from their experience, especially in today’s redevelopment driven scenario in the city. We tried to be students of the city,” says Padora.

Tracking the timeline

In the exhibition, two points in the timeline of Mumbai have been benchmarked: firstly, when post the plague of 1896, new sets of laws were written to enable better light and ventilation for the residents of the city, and secondly, the Doctors For You report from 2018, attributing the ill health of the residents of three colonies due to the poor planning of the buildings they lived in. The city, he says, came full circle. “The pandemic has only brought to light a condition that has existed for a while. Any regulations to do with the distance between buildings, light, ventilation, etc are critical to the quality of life that we experience. With the impending threat of climate change and flooding, resilience planning is also critical,” explains the architect.

Sameep Padora

Sameep Padora

The study is structured around three distinct planning phases in Mumbai post-1896. Phase 1 (between 1896 and 1933) is conceptualised as the moment of Urban Explosion, or a moment when rapid measures to expand the city northwards were undertaken. Phase 2 (between 1964 to 1991) is conceptualised as the moment of Urban Sprawl, when the ambitions of expanding the city further into the Salsette region, or the planning of New Mumbai. Phase 3 (between 1991 to 2020) is conceptualised as the Urban Implosion. This is the moment when the development regulations turned into regulations for redevelopment of existing buildings and neighbourhoods of various kinds.

Planning better

So, does India’s urban planning need an overhaul? Padora says there is a broad range of approaches that planners in India take that are designed to make more grounded, participatory, and softer measures. “There is often a disjunct where urban planning principles are at loggerheads with granular conditions at neighbourhood scales. Housing solutions need to be directed at looking at the entire framework as an ecosystem, ranging from the design of the house to the location of affordable housing projects , their adjacency to transportation networks etc. To achieve the universal home, we need to differentiate the notion of housing from the speculation of real estate.”

A snapshot from (de)Coding Mumbai

A snapshot from (de)Coding Mumbai

Alongside the exhibition tour, there are a host of lectures, panel discussions and workshops for visitors. Ask Padora for his top picks and they include panel discussion, Mumbaikars (on June 22) that brings together residents and inhabitants of projects that are documented in the book; Housing Futures (June 25) that aims to discuss future considerations for housing in Mumbai with six experts from a diverse set of fields.

(de)Coding Mumbai is on until June 25 at IFBE, Ballard Estate, Mumbai

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