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Glass Half Full | Swati Janu, Social Design Collaborative

Swati Janu is a writer and community-based architect in Delhi. She founded Social Design Collaborative in 2017 to provide access to design for all. It collaborates with community based organisations, social workers, activists, academics, lawyers and government organisations, whilst understanding the needs of all the stakeholders involved. The work focuses on housing rights and urban informality in Indian cities.

We interviewed Swati Janu, to know the inside story of her journey and her projects and understand how her contribution makes the glass half full.

Tell us about your journey.

For me, it has always been about figuring out my position and role in the larger ecosystem, in our society. After a few years of practicing as a young architect, I started questioning my role in the larger society. I am lucky to have had good mentors because of whom the seeds were sown. During my under-graduation, I was a part of a seminar by Romi Khosla where he introduced us to the concept of informality. It left an everlasting impression on me and questioned my role as an architect. The more I thought about this, the more I grew dissatisfied with working in mainstream architecture over the years.

Designing within the site boundaries, without understanding the on-ground reality and larger forces in action, made me question the purpose of what I was doing and its larger impact.

For example, while working on a project, an architect typically looks at the context, at climatology, the built fabric around and the geography. But most of us fail to understand the context in terms of the socio-economic realities.

I started thinking about the relationships we have with the people living around the site where we were building or who used to live there. And honestly, we don’t have time or resources to think about it because it is a tall task. This makes our designs detached in a way from those people even if we are responding to the ‘site’. This felt like a quarter-life crisis where I started questioning myself professionally. I realised it was not important to be in a consumerist relationship between a client and a designer while working as an architect. The majority of the country’s population does not have access to the services of a designer as they cannot afford to pay for those. When you look at it that way, you realise architecture is an extremely elitist profession. If you get into the numbers, you will realise that it is only 1-2% of the country’s population that we are currently serving as designers. It might seem to a young architect that there are not enough projects. But in reality, there are enough projects, you only need to look at them differently than what you’ve been trained to do.

ModSkool © Social Design Collaborative

Commercially it may not be viable in the immediate run, but it was important for me that my professional services could be useful to a larger group and more relevant than they otherwise seemed. I started working with mHS CityLab, a social enterprise. They were looking at people living in informal settlements, who self-built their housing due to the lack of affordable housing, and I really appreciated their work. With time, I also started looking at the rural context and understanding the links between the architecture of informal settlements and vernacular architecture. Most architects have grown up in cities and studied architecture from the point of view of cities.

We were working on understanding how we can help people build their own houses and how to facilitate the process of self-construction.

What we typically call slums are a type of informal settlement, which don’t fall within the purview of formal planning. This self-built housing is a by-product of the government’s failure to provide affordable options even after decades of planning measures targeted at housing. People have built the housing themselves because they did not have a choice. When people have opportunities for a livelihood but no affordable housing options, they will create their housing. That’s what you and I would do too. We wanted to help people build safer houses with better quality of spaces and living. The concept of good design doesn’t need to be for high-end projects only. In low-income settlements, we have good design, by the people themselves and by designers too, if we are willing to learn. These experiences and realisations helped me shape my ideology.

Which project would you like to talk about?

Our projects now feel like a series of relationships. A project is not a stand-alone entity. ModSkool is one such project from which multiple links emerged. First let me tell you a bit about the larger picture. ModSkool is the design of a modular school, a result of the need for a temporary school on the floodplains of the Yamuna for the farmers’ kids. The farmers here live with a very low carbon footprint and use locally available materials for construction. They had a school which had been running since 1993. The Delhi Development Authority has been regularly demolishing their houses as the farmers do not own the land. The land tenure is contested, with several people still staking a claim to it. In one such demolition drive conducted by the government, the school was demolished. At that point, a few social workers and human rights lawyers filed a PIL in the High Court, and they managed to get permission to rebuild the school.

Pivoted windows made with charpai ki bunai, ModSkool © Social Design Collaborative

But since it is a contested land and it is on the floodplains, the premise was to have a temporary building. The idea was to be able to dismantle it and rebuild it if the need arose. This kind of a brief really reveals the unequal society we live in. We started working on the design and it was a long and slow process. When we started to build, several volunteers came on board to help us build the school with local materials.

The bigger urban question that we need to ask is why are farmers being removed from the heart of the city?

The land is public land and the government has plans for the flood plains. The Yamuna Riverfront Development by DDA incorporates a series of biodiversity parks, recreation zones, public parks etc. planned along the river. This makes one wonder about the idea of a future city that we are trying to build. Today, urban farming has emerged as a new trend with several European, Asian and American cities growing food on terraces or in vertical farms. In Delhi, more than 50% of the floodplains were farmlands just twenty years ago and we are bent on removing the ones that remain.

Can we imagine a city where we have the envisioned parks, jogger’s parks, public parks, and also have farming incorporated within them? That will be not be just a sustainable but also an inclusive city.

ModSkool started in 2017. It was one way of understanding the city from a more ‘just’ lens, and from the point of view of livelihoods, human rights and housing rights. Now, it is more than just a school, it is also questioning why farmers are being removed and why we even need to build such temporary spaces. The farmers are in a state of constant insecurity and precarity. When you don’t have a formal land tenure, you can be evicted anytime. People are forced to exist in a state of transience, which is really a coping mechanism.

This school has been built twice. After a year of its construction, it had to be dismantled in a few hours over two days. The idea was to rebuild it in the same place. We never thought we might have to relocate it. There is a bridge coming up in that area across the Yamuna. It was very difficult to find another place in that neighbourhood to build a school for the children. After many months of trying, the founder of the school Van Phool, Mr. G.S. Labana decided to retire and the school was to shut down. At that point, another NGO, The Child Trust, stepped in as they had a piece of land further south of the river, in a village called Kulesra in Greater Noida. Farmers and migrants work there and an early education bridge-school for their children was very much required. The NGO decided to adopt the school, and it was transported and rebuilt there. The school has been running there for over a year now. The idea of the school being in an open environment and not just enclosed within four walls has worked well for the children.

We used bamboo in the first school, and charpai ki bunai in the second one, thereby using the local artisans’ skills. I think it has turned out very beautiful. Apart from normal education, the children here also learn how to grow their food, how to minimise wastage, etc. It is the same, yet it has evolved from its first location to the second one. The doors and windows are pivoted because it is an affordable strategy - you do not need a frame and it creates a very playful environment. The idea has been to be as sustainable as possible, as low cost as possible, and to create a quality open environment.

Pivoted doors made with charpai ki bunai, ModSkool © Social Design Collaborative

What aspects of your project make the glass half full?

As I was saying earlier, I was trying to figure out what is our position in the entire system, our role and our relevance as an architect. I have realised that it is very small. I have learned humility because I have been working with amazing people doing such commendable work.

We always like to work in collaboration. We have worked with human rights lawyers, sociologists, activists, and sometimes also academics. When you see the kind of difference these people are making on the ground, at the grassroots level working with communities, it is way bigger than what we are able to contribute as designers.

If there is an eviction, the lawyers are fighting it out in the court, on grounds of human justice and the right to shelter. It is amazing. That is the glass half full for me.

Despite inequality and injustice in society, there are so many crusaders, so many people working hard to make a difference because they believe it is the right thing to do, and not just a mere job. I am not saying that design has no role. All I am saying is design cannot do it alone. As designers, we cannot do a lot, but we can make a difference when we work together. Building this school with their own hands created a special place in the hearts of the community. There was a lot of pride and a sense of ownership associated with it.

It is not like a giver and a receiver relationship. It’s a co-created solution, where everyone works together.

Community participation in the construction of ModSkool © Social Design Collaborative

I have also understood the potential of beauty. I have realised that if something is well made, and looks beautiful, it brings a lot of joy and pride to people. And, I think design has that power. It can make the quality of our spaces better. It can create an experiential and appealing space. And I don’t mean beauty in a superficial way that focuses only on aesthetics. Something can be beautiful because of its truth and because of its flaws. If you use bamboo as it is, because of the qualities it possesses, it has textures that people can recognise, feel, and understand. And if something is well made, it is much appreciated. Look at a piece of a well-crafted product, anything that a craftsman makes with love. When one uses the product, that labour of love is passed on. Things mass-produced in an industry versus, something that is handmade, there is a big difference between the two. And, people know it. That idea of beauty is very powerful.

What message would you like to share for our readers?

I would like to urge students and young professionals to not wait for anyone to come up with a solution to a problem they have come across. Don’t wait for the government to solve the many problems our cities, towns and villages face today. The government is not a monolithic body, they are different agencies that are working at different paces. There are certainly a lot of gaps. But we could also take it on ourselves, to do things with the skill set we possess. Say, if you are a doctor, think of what you can do using that skill. If you are a lawyer, think of what you could do. Similarly, if you are a designer, see how that skill can be helpful to make your neighbourhood, community, city, or country a better place- just go ahead and do something about it.

If you see a problem, get some people together and see how you can come up with a solution. Don’t wait for a perfect solution, or get stuck with the feeling that you don’t know enough.

Sometimes, you learn a lot just by doing it. You may make mistakes, but it is okay. Just make sure you are not making mistakes at the expense of other people, and that no one is hurt in the process. Let me tell you it will get better as you keep working. And you would have learnt a lot in the process. You will create a template that others can replicate, or at least a template that you will be able to use yourself in diverse situations. Good luck!


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