It is no coincidence that a city held captive for three months of the year by an exorbitant dousing of sustained rainfall - both dependent on it for survival and crippled by it in the short term - is built around a unique idea of what shelter is. The rains come and go as they please leaving people, street dogs, flying things, and little critters drenched and squinting, yet apparently unbothered. An overhang of a building, someone else's carport, a tree, a tarp tied between two street posts... these become optional waiting stations while a heavy rain strikes, but most op not to use them. I can’t tell if this is out of decisive obstinance, stoic acceptance, or just a hard core rebel spirit that keeps individuals going about their activities while a literal shower from the sky is saturating them from head to toe, but I still reach for my umbrella only to realize that the effort is futile and I am already wet.
So throughout the monsoons, the city functions like that; just like Boston does in a hard winter. Traffic slows a little, people are a little more weathered, and everyone rejoices a little more passionately about an opening of blue sky. But like Boston winters, occasionally and incredibly abruptly, the rains will bring the city to its knees. 26 July 2005 is known as one of the most devastating monsoon days that lashed the city with the eighth heaviest ever recorded 24-hour rainfall of nearly 40 inches. It destroyed thousands of homes, flooded buildings and main arteries, and cost over 5,000 lives.
This year, the monsoons came late. An unseasonably dry period was welcomed by new arrivals like myself but met with great apprehension by anyone with a visceral understanding of its repercussions. Mumbaikars were hoping, praying, and fasting for rain. And the rain did come... and continues to come with incredible determination.
I too welcome it now along with everyone else as both a cooling relief from the pressure build up, and a powerful cleanse for the mind, body, and soul. The experience of watching the towering dark clouds approach you over the Indian Ocean and being tickled by the first drops of rain that send chills across your body in anticipation of the torrent that is about to unload. Then feeling the cloud break over you as it releases a downpour equal in magnitude to the sound of the water ricocheting off everything impenetrable in its path. The almost transcendent nature of this experience makes the idea of shelter or coverage seem vapid.
But this is not a treatise on the emotional magnitude or catalytic ramifications of the monsoon - or any force of nature in this city for that matter. It's an invitation to think about architecture and the built realm not as the separation of inside and outside - shelter or exposure - but as inclusive custodians of undifferentiated space.
In its literal interpretation, this idea of undifferentiated space, or architecture that is defined neither by an interior or exterior but the co-merging of the two, is a lot more applicable to a tropical climate such as Mumbai’s than the northeast climate of Boston of course. But in a figurative sense I can't resist the temptation to go outside my field (an intellectual faux pas that seems to be common practice in my field) and draw from cellular biology for a broader meaning of the term.
In cellular biology an undifferentiated cell is a primordial cell that has not assumed the morphologic and functional characteristics it will later acquire. In its primitive state, what it lacks the in specialization of more mature cells it makes up with potential. To carry this analogy back to the field of architecture for the sake of this argument, an undifferentiated space is a space without specialization and defined by its potential for multiple uses and ways of inhabitation. One could say that all cities are comprised of these kinds of spaces, not the least of which Mumbai, which is growing out of continually repurposed and reclaimed land.
But is advocating for a kind of blank slate architecture of undifferentiated space undoing the role of the architect as the author of a final form? Or is it undoing the ideas of 'final' and 'form' all together? Or is it simply placing the outcome of the form in the hands of others and accepting that use-adaptation and physical change are inevitable consequences of urban development? Perhaps it is a combination, where the role of the architect is really the facilitator of augmentation, working with a value system based on potential rather than final outcome.
Laugier's well-rehearsed image (above) of what was referred to by Vitruvius as "The Primitive Hut" is a good place to start to investigate these questions. It represents an attempt to uncover a natural origin of architecture that is exemplary of a common theme in the enlightenment era when the paradigm of ‘building’ was considered to be imbued with transcendental laws of beauty, and thus possess the potential for divine order. It represents a conception of architecture that is much more closely adaptable to nature than the one we have today. Though neither Laugier nor the enlightenment period necessarily pertain to the urban development here in Mumbai, the desire to strip away extraneous ornament and specification in search for the primordial origin of dwelling more harmoniously with the elements might be.
So I leave this week's entry as an introduction to a series of entries in the forthcoming weeks devoted to an architecture inside out. One that belongs to no category, type, or class. One that we don't really study in school or practice in the field. It's an architecture that arises out of the uses and immediate needs of people living at bottom of the food chain. It's architecture with a lower case 'a'.