Sabir, 38, wakes up to the azan. In his morning prayers, he wishes to find something of value while scouting the dumpsite near his home. Delhi disposes two tonnes of its waste at Bhalswa each day, and hundreds rummage it for their daily sustenance. Today, Sabir has not been as lucky. Heaving a sack full of plastic bottles, he makes his way down the 60-meter high mountain of guilt. Later this week, Sabir's family will segregate these collected recyclables, and sell them for a meager profit. 

Families like Sabir's are at the informal end of Delhi's waste management system. Although carrying out essential work, they are subject to deplorable habitats. Undignified housing, along with severe health and safety hazards make up for the worst living conditions in Delhi. However, for those who create the waste that goes here daily, the place may as well not exist. The Bhalswa dumpsite earmarked every road trip we took, as we drove past it to our interests that lay ahead. "Are we here yet?" I would giggle when looking at the gigantic brown mountain on a family trip to the hills. Later, rolling up my windows to its rotten stench, my excitement would turn into discomfort.

The dumpsite is spread across five hectares, and 2300 families live in three sub-clusters around it - Kalander Colony, Basant Dada Patil Nagar, and Bihari Samaj Vishwanath Puri. These clusters find themselves fortified in all directions by the dumpsite, the public infrastructure and by formal settlements developed by the planning authorities. This fortification has also led to further marginalisation of the spaces, reinforcing their 'difference' from norms of planning and development.

Picture : At the foot of the Bhalswa dumpsite is Kalander Colony, a settlement of homes bearing the worst urban conditions that the city has created for itself.

Every time we halted at Chandigarh on our trips, we would admire the bare grey concrete cutting through the blue sky. "This was all Le Corbusier's doing." my mother would tell me each time. The idea of a single person laying bare an entire city and designing it felt very much like the Lego I would play with. Later in my rebellious teenage years, I grew to idolize Ayn Rand's, Howard Roark. The tale of the one individualist architect working on his own right tempted me. Soon, excited to wage my own war against the world, I joined architecture school.


In the summer of 2017, while scrolling through social media, I came across a rather unusual post. "We're building an anti-demolition school for 250 students at Yamuna Khadar, Delhi. Come Support!" The authorities bulldozed Van Phool School  - a permanent, hence illegal, building. Fearing their children's education, people at Yamuna Khadar set up a school under the sun. And seeking a resilient solution rather than just an ad hoc one, Adbul Shakeel, a community activist, approached two young architects. Swati Janu and Nidhi Sohane's design brief resulted from several consultations with the community. Modskool was born out of necessity, and envisioned for dignity. 

Modskool's construction began with a few volunteers assembling its bolted steel frame structure. Considering comfort requirements and durability, they had installed a weatherproof corrugated sheet. The genius in the ease of assembly was a future consideration of dismantling. The idea of a community built school took me by surprise and I decided to volunteer in the program. It took me a bit to understand, but we were soon weaving bamboo screens that were to form the building's skin. Through techniques that anyone could carry out, the construction engaged the community. 

Very often, the team would gather around to discuss a way forward. The means to Modskool was both collaborative and flexible. Modskool's designers were no all-knowing maestros but facilitators to a cause. In the community-driven process, some even took ownership of the project. A few volunteers emerged as facilitators distributing responsibilities in the construction process. Involving over 50 people, it took only three weeks to realize the project. In only a short time after its conception, Modskool began educating the youngsters of this community, and has been at it for years. 

Social architecture

But it was also more than that. Modskool led to the formation of Social Design Collaborative, SDC. The community-driven design, art, and research practice aims to provide design for all. It was through Modskool that I learned of architecture as a social art. In formal learning programs, we only worked on hypothetical situations ignoring worldly concerns. Fearing the limited state of practice beyond, architecture school encouraged us to conceptualize. "Dream all you can, for all you'll do upon graduating, are toilet drawings." our superiors would preach. 

Picture: SDC designed Modskool, a classroom that can be easily dismantled for communities at risk of displacement and eviction.

Were we all destined to the same exploitative, unimaginative journey? The answer came through Alok Shetty, a young architect, who works to dispel the myth. To him, concepts on paper are ideas for the future. 

Shetty was still a student when a competition invited him to design a hospital in his city. To educate himself, the 19-year-old began extensive research. To learn of its workings, he immersed himself in the city's hospitals. In identifying problems in current designs, he interviewed doctors and hospital staff. A key insight for Alok was Occam's Razor - the simplest solutions being most often the right solutions. The architect sought an architectural implication to the medical concept and founded Bhumiputra. The designed hospital was the first in the country to receive international accreditation. Bhumiputra has since grown to design cultural centers, corporate offices, and more. 

For every new project, Bhumiputra decided to sponsor the education of the underprivileged. The initiative brought the team closer to deplorable living conditions in urban slums. Eager to make people's lives better, the practice took on the challenge to design for change. The identified settlement was a community of construction workers living by the cybercity. It was ironic that labor skilled in construction was subject to living in shanties. Bhumi designed with the workers in materials they were comfortable working with. Steel scaffolding pipes and shuttering wood became the design language. The evolved prototype was assemblable in a couple of hours and cost less than $300. Years of testing evolved the prototype to meet its users' needs and challenges. The result of a passion-project was a potential solution to solve a wicked housing crisis.

Alok's example sheds light on how social architecture can thrive within existing systems. What is critical, as the noted essayist Jan Doroteo put it in his 2017 essay, is "for the architect to observe, listen, and ask." 

In the last year, beset by the pandemic, my architecture education has seen a pivotal point. When the pandemic distanced us from the world, it brought us closer to our homes. It has brought forth a new horizon to design exploration and thinking. I've spent my time walking around and observing my own neighborhood. While I was hoarding rations, Sabir stood in a mile-long queue at Bhalswa hoping to get cooked food. What could I have done to make a difference here? 

Chhav - architecture meets reality

Around the time I was asking myself this, I learned of a network of young leaders acting for change. Three organisations - the Center for Living City, the Urban Design Collective, and the National Association of Students of Architecture launched the Observation and Action Network, OAN. The Network envisioned a national competition seeking bold responses to local problems. A few of us decided that we would propose something for Bhalswa. Sensitized to the plight of Sabir and others, we took our pencils to zoom meetings. And a few weeks later, our proposal was among those selected. (Full disclosure: India Together editor Ashwin Mahesh was one of the five members of the selection panel).

What could we as young students do in making peoples' lives better? All with a mere $500 the OAN grants offered. We started out with our academic inheritance - tumultuous mapping. The resulting drawing said two things. First, the dumpsite was a hazard to the people. Second, there is a lack of open spaces in the colonies. 

We looked at the drawings, feeling a bit silly about them. A conversation with a local could have given us these pieces of information in five minutes. We decided to ditch the formal, and go forward with interacting with people, not drawings. In our bottom-up process, people began addressing their concerns. Children needed a place to play, the youth sought employment, and the adults had to walk a long way for a bus to work. Interestingly, space underneath infrastructural pipelines lay unutilized despite being accessible. This was the birth of Chhav - our project for dignified open spaces at Bhalswa. 

An architectural intervention would serve as an immediate forum for the people. Our elegant solution was to create a shaded space underneath the pipelines. Chhav would be a place in the shade -  for the community, built by them. Learning from Modskool, we knew small interventions could have a great impact. 

"It is your responsibility to put public money to best use," cautioned Alok Shetty, when discussing Chhav. Uncertain of our idea's implications, we tried out a pilot. Our first prototype for the community space was to not be cast in steel but experienced. On a hot, sunny afternoon, we held a community meeting under a tarpaulin stretched onsite. Rendered in yellow, the place transformed itself. 

Soon enough, people followed and we struck into a conversation. "What if we could have evening school here," suggested Raghav, 12. "We play cricket in the ground, and it gets hot," exclaimed Suraj, 15, "Could we use the space as cricket stands." he inquired. "There's more! If we clean it, we could also host functions here," commented Yogesh, 35. “We, women, are afraid to pass by the ground since it’s prone to antisocial activities. It would be much safer if there were people here.” lauded Rani, 34. The community's solutions became our design brief, and Chhav leaped forward.

However, this wasn’t without setbacks, with the administration dumping legacy soil onto our chosen intervention site, to a part of the dumpsite collapsing earlier this year over an edge of the settlement. “This was an ordinary morning for all of us, yet, today I wouldn’t sleep well, fearing the mountain would collapse again.” says Rohit, an affected resident. Changes in administrative and community priorities and aspirations had to reflect in our solutions thinking process. Adapting and working ahead, we have developed an ecosystem of work with the people of Bhalswa. I won't elaborate on this too much here - instead, I invite you to check out this link to our work.

The slide of the dumpsite earlier this year worsened an already tough situation.
Residents scrambled to clear what they could while the city responded slower.

The unlearning

Our initiative at Bhalswa has been our unlearning as upcoming architects. It has taught us to believe in reality over theory. In evaluating our ideas with the community - the end-users and owners of the product. Consulting with the people, we have seen steady growth in community attendance. Starting with four people to forty people today. On the downside, with no one always committed to the project, work has often lost momentum. The community has to work a living, and we have our own academic deadlines. This has brought us to question our own model for practice. We can only choose to volunteer our services since we are in the academic terrarium. What comes after? 

In today's paradigm, good design goes associated with an equal charge. This presents a dichotomy. Architects aspire to make a difference. Yet, we are inaccessible to the communities that most need us.  And if we worked for these groups pro bono, where would the needed money flow from to make our interventions and enterprise sustainable? There is only so much difference a grassroots initiative can bring about. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, affecting 130 will not amount to considerable change. Can architecture aspire to service communities at large? 

Architects can best serve communities when they develop a sound praxis. One that is all; social, sustainable, and scalable. Furthering our practice involves asking the right questions. Answering these involves an investigation of the same precedents that shaped them - Social Design Collaborative, and Bhumiputra. 

Working with others - the answer

Social Design Collaborative and Bhumiputra provide some of the answers, which help others practice collaboration. As a decentralized approach, the method eliminates a top-down, principal-oriented practice. It allows for like-minded individuals and organizations to come together and work towards shared goals. SDC believes that collaboration is a key way in their objective of Design for All. In only a few years of working, they have created a need-based approach for the community. Their most recent contribution is a manual on 'Street Vending in times of Covid 19.' The interactive document discusses the virus and the reasons for its spread. It also provides suggestions on how informal vending can adapt to precautionary measures. 

Developing their housing project, Bhumiputra started tying up with local organizations that had shared goals. Collaborating alongside Mahesh - a health and education foundation - they set up a local school and health clinic. Then with SELCO, they facilitated solar lights and resources with a pay-per-day model. This is also closely linked to the model for sustainability - ecosystems thinking approach. 

Today, their social practice is a part of Parinaam foundation's Chote Kadam - small steps. The project manifests through Ujjivan Small Finance Bank's Corporate Social Responsibility. In the last three years, it has affected over 1.2 million lives through 164 projects. The venture has spent nearly Rs.8 crores on social welfare, with a range of projects from housing, sanitation, education, and infrastructure. 

SDC's answer to the challenge of creating a sustainable practice in tactical interventions working with communities is an ecosystem that is open to all. The knowledge that the collaborative generates is not proprietary and specialized. Instead, it is open-source. Anyone seeking to develop solutions akin to SDC can find their designs and work ahead. An example is Modclass, where Modskool's design adapted to extra space requirements during the pandemic. The community interventions for social welfare that result from this are not the mass implication of factory-made ideas. At the core of their work lies community-driven approaches towards a designed solution. 

It seems simple - even simplistic - to say that the means to a social architecture is to work together. But it is also true, and perhaps it's only our distance from it that makes us think of it any other way. For architecture to be social, it is imperative to work with communities. For the practice to be sustainable and scalable, it is important to work with others. There is surely more nuance, but there is also this core. At Chhav, this core made everything else possible. Beyond 'how' we did many things, I am thankful that we understood 'why' as well. The dumpsite, with all its stigma, is our contribution to the city.