Mumbai‘s unending search for affordable residences could find clues in a project in Navi Mumbai, which has drawn from the architecture of city chawls

Amidst the steel-and-glass clutter of Lower Parel, the four towers of the Ambedkar Nagar Slum Rehabilitation Authority housing project are still an imposing sight. Built in 2010 by a private developer to replace dilapidated tenements, their spartan geometry suggests a no-frills attempt to maximise space. Inside, though, small flats are separated by dark corridors. Affordable it may be, but it’s not exactly very liveable.

Affordable housing is now an official buzzword: during the recent Make in India week, state chief minister Devendra Fadnavis suggested a ‘built in Mumbai’ to create more affordable housing projects. Is there a way however, to make these projects more liveable? Has enough thought gone into their design?

An exhibition on affordable housing (on till March 21st at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture) organised by the architecture firm Sameep Padora and Associates seeks to look at the question of affordable housing in this light, to create discussion around design. On display is a documentation of the various housing typologies in Mumbai, and a study of the architecture of types of chawls across the city. Mumbai has a rich history of affordable housing, and the chawls, built originally as units for workers, are a testament to this. In the narrative around Mumbai’s chawls there is always a portrayal of the socio-cultural fabric and the feeling of community that they created; think of the 1983 movie Katha, directed by Sai Paranjpye, or Kiran Nagarkar’s cult 1995 novel Ravan & Eddie.

But the firm found that there was very little documentation of the kind of architecture that enabled that socio-cultural fabric to exist. “This study began after a developer approached us to build an affordable housing project on the outskirts of Navi Mumbai,” Sameep Padora explains. “Before we started building, we decided to study different models of earlier affordable housing projects in the city. What we found is that the much-eulogised social life was a product of a specific architectural framework as much as it was the other way around.” In the 14 projects they studied, Mr Padora and his team found several innovative design concepts that ensured shared community spaces existed even in projects meant to house a lot of people.

Some of the more interesting projects are higlighted in this story. Mr Padora plans to use some of these concepts for Udaan, his Navi Mumbai project, which he wants to make different from the likes of Ambedkar Nagar. The central focus: making sure that life for the people who will eventually live in this building will not be confined to the four walls of the interior. He also hopes that his findings from the study will find their way into policy discussion about the design of affordable housing.

According to architect Kamu Iyer, whose book Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, is one of the major works detailing the history of chawls in Mumbai, the discussion around affordable housing in Mumbai is complicated by a shortage of land but there are still ways to develop better designs. He says, “Mr Padora’s project is in Navi Mumbai, where land is still not so expensive, so innovation is possible. But for the rest of the city, it can be complicated. Still, the study is a step in the right direction and there should be new thinking about how to build affordable housing projects.”


Kalbadevi (north of Crawford Market)

HISTORY: The Swadeshi Market and Chawl are over a hundred years old. The markets were constructed first in the 1860s followed by the housing units, in three phases.

TODAY: Swadeshi Chawl is an example of a super block, and the entire unit is owned by one family. It is a mixed-use block, with the ground and mezzanine floors being used for commercial activity and the upper floors for residential purposes. What makes it unique is the way it has been structured. Compared to other such residential and commercial units that close off the city, Swadeshi Chawl lets the city run through it. A huge market runs through the entire block from one end to the other. The upper floors with residential units actually run perpendicular to the streets to maintain the geometry. Though built in the 1800s, this sophisticated design exemplifies how large block of city space can be used while letting the city run through it.


Jaganath Shankar Seth Road, Bhuleshwar

HISTORY: Built in 1930 by a private trust, Bhatia Chawl was intended as accommodation for a group of Kutchi merchants who had recently moved to the city for business. Over time, tenants bought the chawl from the trust and the original inhabitants moved away. The tenants then sold their units in the open market, resulting in the communal patchwork that the chawl is today, and the Bhatias live together with Marwaris, Gujaratis and Maharashtrians.

TODAY: The quintessential chawl within the Bombay context, Bhatia Chawl is represented in the iconic movie Katha, directed by Sai Paranjpye. Bhatia Chawl is defined by its central celebratory space, the courtyard. The space between one housing and the next is not much, and the opposite ends are actually close to each other. This starts generating a collective socio-culturtal space that movies like Katha sought to portray. Despite the constricted space, there is a seamless connection between interior and exterior. Apart from the housing and toilet units, an entire level in one block is dedicated to commercial units. The store windows front the road so that people on the pavement accessing them are shaded by the overhanging level above.


St Francis Xavier Lane, Kalbadevi

HISTORY: Built in 1866, Atmaram chawl was originally designed as affordable housing for Parsis, and its unique layout is a reflection of the needs of the community. When the Parsis moved out, they renamed it Christian Chawl to make the socio-cultural commonalities of its inhabitants clear. It is now called Atmaram Chawl and is inhabited by Christians and Hindus.

TODAY: An example of a chawl that was built specifically for a single community, the construction and design of Atmaram Chawl is radically different to other buildings of its ilk, the essential difference being the household is separated from services. The kitchen is located behind each housing unit and is separated from it by a common corridor. This corridor, well-lit and spacious, came to be utilised as a shared social space beyond the four interior walls. As the chawl changed in character, the kitchen units were rented out as separate units, giving families living there the flexibility to use the space as per their needs.



HISTORY: Spread across 90 hectare, the plot is part of a marshland that was drained, filled and prepared to accommodate the project. The chawl was built in 1982 under the Affordable Low Income Shelter five-year programme after the World Bank instituted the Bombay Urban Development Project in 1979 to address the critical problems of lack of land, infrastructure and shelter.

TODAY: Charkop follows the model of self-building, a community planning idea articulated by British architect John Turner. This concept took shape in Mumbai as Charkop, or Sites and Services, where the government gave people infrastructure and little plots of land on which they were to build houses and expand them as and when they could afford to. The Charkop plan is basically plots of land comprising a large courtyard, around which there are about 26 individual units. Because of incremental expansion, the units are of different sizes and designs and cannot be viewed as a composite. Despite this, 40 years after Charkop came up, the central courtyard retains its status as a shared social space, and refutes the urban planning belief that people will always seek to enclose and appropriate open spaces.


Belapur, Navi Mumbai

HISTORY: The project is under construction. The study of architecture in different chawls in Mumbai began after Sameep, Padora & Associates took up an affordable housing project on the outskirts of Navi Mumbai

TODAY: Taking tips from the architecture of different chawl blocks in the old city, Udaan attempts to incorporate some of the features in a modern affordable housing structure. The project is an attempt to generate social space, where the edges of individual apartments or the kitchen units meld into the exterior, creating individual balcony-like spaces. Corridors are also designed so that people are able to converse across them, along the lines of Bhatia Chawl. Instead of sticking to a single format, Udaan has four unit types — residential-cum-working, one-room flats, 1 BHKs and a one-bedroom layout which can be converted into two beds by creating a mezzanine floor, for which space has been provided in flats on the upper level. It is designed to be ventilated naturally and there is a shared green courtyard space on the middle floors where people can grow vegetables.