State of Housing, an exhibition by the acclaimed curatorial team of Rahul Mehrotra, Kaiwan Mehta and Ranjit Hoskote, is a sequel to state of architecture from 2016. Like the previous exhibition what is is remarkable, among other things, is that it is for the first time an exhibition discusses the question of housing and its architecture at the national scale. For that reason alone it becomes an important marker where a certain form of stock taking of the state of housing is undertaken for a massive and diverse nation as India.
I am choosing not to discuss the design of the exhibition, the film by the curatorial team, the series of films obtained from the Films Division of India. However, just to mention briefly, the film made by the curatorial team is one of the most crucial and engaging part of the exhibition. It clearly discusses the state of the marginalized and displaced communities through their own voices and through the voices of the intellectuals and professionals operating in those realms. What I would like to focus is on some of the implicit ideas in the exhibition and offer my reading of the same, albeit very very briefly.
1. Time, space and affordability
At its essence, the exhibition is about time and space -of course, everything in this world can be looked at as a matter of time and space. However, especially, because it is an exhibition on housing the question of time and space are of utmost importance here.
The state wants to provide housing for all by 2022, the precast technology can offer speedy delivery at scale, the slum dweller can only afford to build the house over a period of four to five years, a slum dweller finds a sliver of time to slowly build a house during holidays and non-inspection days, a middle class employee spends most of his adulthood repaying the housing loan, a student spends an average of two-three years in the city staying on rent or a farmer who -not unlike the slum dweller- builds a house with the means around, sometimes once in several year to every year. Whatever side of the line you see it from time seems to be the essence of housing.
One way of seeing this exhibition is to see it as a set of three timelines -perhaps, timeline within a timeline within a timeline -and a film that brings out some of the most pressing issues of housing and urbanization of our times in India. It is not simply an exhibition of or about housing but inevitably an exhibition on the state of urbanization as well – unfortunately, not explicitly.
The first timeline is that of the national events that have shaped the imagination and preoccupation of the state and the simultaneous experiments in modernizing the idea of housing.
The timeline, like the timeline of State of Architecture, is divided in a four part periodization of the history of post-independence India: From the refugee issues during the partition and the simultaneous vision of Nehru for industrializing and modernizing the nation, the infamous Emergency of 1975 imposed by Indira Gandhi, the liberalization of the economy in 1991 played out by Manmohan Singh and the ninth prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, to the current project of reviving the faith in the pseudo high-tech governance and state under the banner of Narendra Modi. What it is in a way trying to convey is that 2014-2017 is not very far from 1947 and 1970’s and 1990’s but the scales of operations have changed tremendously. Does the state/ government still cling on to the old models looking at housing crisis in India? Or do they take new and more open approaches? The timeline offers clear answers to these questions by portraying evolving methods of census, changing outlook towards the marginalized and displaced communities, increasing access to basic infrastructure and so on.
Specifically speaking of the timeline on the wall one of the question that emerges here is, are there no other formats of organizing a timeline that focuses on the state of housing? Perhaps one that puts more emphasis on housing policies and acts? The emerging concerns of the state in its Five Year Plans? To paraphrase the next part of the exhibition can’t the timeline be about the “chronotopes” -the emerging ideas around housing over the last 70 odd years?
Space is addressed at multiple scale in the exhibition; at the scale of the unit -minimum size of 30sqm, at the scale of the building, at the scale of cluster of buildings/ neighborhood/ townships and other forms of settlements, at the regional scale or to be specific the space of the urban rural continuum and so on.
However, curiously, affordability or even the question of affordance is not directly addressed. One of the sections in the film is on affordability. But that means that someone visiting the exhibition must and at all cost see the film. However, how does one understand affordability with regards to housing, of course also because of the fever of affordable since 2015, it is rather one of the basic misconceptions that the exhibition misses to tackle outrightly.
The questions of space and affordability of space for living are deeply related to the issue of means and hence also of time.
In the second part of the exhibition, Chronotopes, there are eighty case studies of housing projects organized, as the name suggests, chronologically with respect to each other. Each project is further located within a nuanced timeline of policies and events -nationally, locally and individually to each case. The chronotopes are not merely typological studies but instead they are in investigation in the emerging –chronos- ideas –topos- in the architecture of housing in India. Not only do they show us the state of architecture of mass housing in India but they also tell us that many of the architectural projects are merely incidental to other set of events and contexts. Chronotopes, by focusing on the architecture of housing, in some sense become an inverted sleeve of the main timeline.
2. Beyond Public and Private
It also tells a story of the emergence various forms organizations and agencies -from government to non-government and everything in between- that are actively and simultaneously engaged in the production of housing. With every shift in the form of economy and modes of production new forms of governance and self organization of people seem to be emerging. And, if one were to look at the current state of housing then the binary of the neo-liberal market and state seems no longer valid. While one cannot deny the dominant presence of the market and somewhat frivolous status of the state there are many forms of organizations that are simultaneously present and each of these forms of organizations and collectivites seem to be having their specific locations. Implicit once again in chronotopes is the relationship between the forms of organizations and their corealting architecture of housing. For instance the difference between the architecture of a large developer housing project with all the new-age amenities, small scale developer with just bare shell and minimum finishes, co-operative housing societies, repair and retrofitting of an old housing complex and slum upgradation through self organization of people. In all the above mentioned cases everything from the idea of the housing unit to the form of organization of these units drastically varies and so do the forms of organizations, collectives and not so collectives.
3. A new Vernacular and forms of resistance – or while we speak of housing.
Another curious idea that is implicit in the chronotopes is that the aspiration and desire coded in the B-H-K form of living is not just a wave that seem to have taken over the imagination of housing but, it has already become the new vernacular of our times.
Of course we need to pour new imaginations to break the stronghold of these dogmas -be it through offering context specific spatial responses, new ideas for a certain group of people or sometimes even continuation of certain established practices where they seem fit. Of course the question remains, who should be the one taking these calls?
What we see is that the question of housing is neither purely located in the realm of the means and needs nor in the realm of desires and aspirations. It is perhaps located somewhere in the time that is necessary for the mediation of the aspiration and means. It is almost impossible for architecture alone to mediate this charged space, however, it can certainly work with this framework to develop an appropriate spatiality for such mediations.
Of course, the exhibition on the state of housing is important and crucial to our times and this exhibition does successfully bring out a plethora of information, ideas and discourses to the foreground. However, if only all those ideas implicit in the exhibition were made a clear and more explicit, let’s say with a set of theses, if not ‘a thesis’, then I believe the exhibition would have been able to not only put forward the state of housing -and urbanization to some extent- more explicitly but also would have aided in challenging the preconceived notions or dogmas of the viewer. It is not to say that the exhibition as it is does not challenge or offer any space for discourse. However, this short writing only intends to propel the discourses around some of the ideas that are already present in the exhibition.
(published in Domus India, April 2018)