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Informal urbanism

An exhibition on Mumbai and Delhi paints the city as an organism in constant flux

Following the programme on large-scale master planning schemes at the British School at Rome, our current cycle of lectures and exhibitions, Urban Landscapes – Indian Case Studies, focuses instead on some of the consequences of ‘top-down’ and formal masterplanning to consider alternative forms of Urbanism as well as ways of compensating or adjusting to some of the problems that result from the imposition of over-determined spatial visions

We are looking at what is commonly referred to as ‘informal Urbanism’ and take Delhi and Mumbai as case studies. Informal Urbanism relies on the ability of communities to appropriate, recycle, inhabit, work in and celebrate within and without planned urban structures. It is seen as an alternative form of producing urban space and views the city as an organism in constant flux, determined by improvised self-organisation, rather than as the product of an imposed, static vision. Although it has been associated with extreme poverty, particularly when seen in the context of the rapidly expanding cities of Asia, it is an approach to Urbanism that is also increasingly common in more affluent societies and in the West.

We have invited an international, multidisciplinary team of architects, urbanists, writers, art historians, anthropologists and photographers to lecture and exhibit their work in order to investigate new lines of enquiry about these themes, both at an academic and at a professional level.

In Transitions, the Indian art historian Deepak Ananth selected three Indian photographers to consider the changing face of Delhi over the past 60 years. Images of Delhi’s desolate new towns depict an all-too-common global urban reality. Isolated pockets of private space are glimpsed in Dhruv Malhotra’s Sleepers and Bharat Sikka’s Space In-Between.

In-Between Architecture, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010, was the title of Studio Mumbai’s much acclaimed installation in which the practice explored the architectural spaces formed between the boundaries of existing buildings. In Praxis, Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai describes how the merging of the formal and the informal city has influenced the design of his buildings. He displays photographic studies and graphite drawings that refer to Studio Mumbai’s unique working method conceived by a collective of skilled craftsmen and architects who design and build the work together.

William Dalrymple has offered a writer’s vision of Delhi in Delhi, the City of Djinns, while in November the anthropologist Franco La Cecla lectures on Bollywood and popular culture in Indian Kiss. In December, diplomat and writer Antonio Armellini provides an analysis of Indian society in the 21st century. Rahul Mehrotra, architect and urbanist and the inspiration and support behind the programme, presents new research on The Kinetic City and concludes the series. Mumbai provides a case study to promote a discussion of the future of urban planning in general at a time when, to quote Mehrotra, the ‘Static’ and the ‘Kinetic City’ interact increasingly in spatial, political and economic terms. 

  • Marina Engel is curator of the architecture programme at the British School at Rome


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