Servant architecture and the subjectivity of need

If you lost your home, where would you go to the bathroom?

This question was posed by my first architecture studio instructor in college, before I knew what architecture really was.  Her point was simple: to get us to think about the intimacy of our relationship with the built environment and the interlaced physiological and sociological dependencies we have on architecture.  She wanted us to think about architecture as an assembly of basic provisions before we started thinking about it as a formal outcome.  It worked.  I was captivated by the depth of this question and the sociological implications embedded in it.  And it wasn’t long after that I realized I wanted to be an architect.

Eight years later (though I’m still trying to figure out what architecture is) I’m still captivated.    Whether in the civic realm or private space, the first principles of architecture belong to an order of human need that lays the basis for a need well beyond the basic need for shelter.  So is this the challenge of defining architecture?  Is it a matter of defining human need?

India has a way of making need both painfully straightforward and incredibly nonsensical.  But as the largest democracy in the world, with a decidedly capitalist inclination and young population, it’s no wonder. I mean does Ambani's really need 27-story, 48,780 sq ft house?  Or does a family need a TV when it can’t afford electricity?  Does that couple need really two cars and a personal driver?  Does a multi-generational family of 8 need more than 275 sq feet of living space?  Do I actually need hot water to take a shower?  How can architecture cater to these extreme subjectivities of “need” and still serve the lowest common denominator in society?

Though the linear sequence of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might be too simplistic for an accurate representation of just how complex this question is an attempt at organizing breadth of human need as a response to humans' innate curiosity and aspirational motivation.  It is no wonder that basic physiological need makes up the largest mass at the bottom.  Architecture starts here.  The sooner we get over ourselves and recognize that architecture is a servant to society’s basic needs first, the sooner we’ll free it up to create opportunity for higher human aspirations to thrive.

This brings us back to subject of my instructor’s question: the toilet.  Indeed, Mumbai has a shortage of them… about sixty-four thousand’s worth.[1]  That number doesn’t even account for the fact that over 72 percent of slum dwellers (or about 64,800 people living in Mumbai) rely on public toilets with an average ratio of persons per toilet hovering around 81:1 (in extreme cases 273:1 persons per toilet!)[2].  These numbers are staggering considering Mumbai is contributes to over 25 percent of industrial output and 70 percent of capital transactions to India's economy, accounts for 14 percent of India's income tax collections and 37 per cent of the corporate tax collections, and has a per capita income that is almost three times that of the rest of the country[3]. In a city with some of the most inflated real estate prices in the world and continuing fever of private developers to build taller, more luxurious residential towers despite the fact that over 35 percent of those towers already built are vacant[4] the misalignment of aspirations and physiological need is unacceptable.  

Little did I know just then just how pertinent my instructor’s question would be to me now.  For as much as this misalignment is a victim of unabashed capitalism and the failure of public policy to protect the basic needs of the city’s inhabitants, it is a failure of architects to capitalize on the vast laboratory of research opportunity that exists here – particularly in the informal dwelling settlements. 

New development in Mumbai is continuing to build architecture of a past paradigm, lacking sensitivity to the unique relationship individuals have with their living environments.  And nowhere is this relationship so intimate and revealing than in the dwelling.  Looking into someone’s home is like looking into someone’s refrigerator: you get a glimpse beyond what the person likes to think he or she eats and just see what they eat.  If this analogy works, I’ve been spending the last two months peering into a lot of people’s refrigerators.  

Mumbai is full of open refrigerators: on the street, in my front yard, in the median of a six-lane boulevard, under an overpass.  Some homes are compartmentalized by use, and opened onto the street while others are crammed between other tightly fitting homes, accessed only by a narrow passageway too narrow for two people to pass comfortably while others are stacked 6 or 7 stories high, standardized and inverted as their exterior façades are coopted as closet space or drying racks.  The threshold between public space and personal dwelling is almost entirely dissolved, revealing interesting hybridizations of space.  A kindergarten class is conducted on mats among walkers and joggers on the promenade every morning, an organized knitting classes has regular meeting hours on a moving train, a man is brushing his teeth in the same space where the next man is washing his rickshaw which, incidentally, is the same place a man is selling bananas not far from where a small child is relieving himself in the street (apologies for being graphic).

These kinds of hybridizations of space are not departures from the code of proper urban dwelling; they are simply the result of what happens when basic physiological needs are not being met by the built environment.  The more industrious, self-made responses to this that I witness, the more I come to understand the role of architecture not as a fixed response to need but as medium for increased opportunity.  Human beings are adapting and evolving much faster than the built environment.  We can learn something from them.  But first we need to provide them with a toilet.


[2] Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) survey, 2011


[4] Indian Institute of Human Settlements Report