3. Architectural Thesis: Low-Rise, High Density Housing

Location: Kathputli Colony, Shadipur, New Delhi
Typology: Large-scale housing 

A proposal for high-density four-storey apartments with a grain that matches the surrounding context

Thesis Question: How do you design a quality of life in the high-pressure urban scenario of housing in the informal sector?

There’s a common narrative to most informal settlements that form in megacities like Delhi.

Employment opportunities drive migration to urban areas, with people often being from rural areas and small towns. Upon arriving in the city, migrants find that there is no provision of housing for them from the government.

With limited choices and lack of professional support, they start forming settlements in unfancied parts of the city. Over time, formal development takes place around the site, and this in effect seals the boundaries of the settlement. As the influx of migrants keeps continuing, and the internal population inside the settlement grows, these settlements become places of high density of occupation, as well of hubs of economic activity.

Land-use and figure-ground plans tell a story of high-density, locked boundaries,
and a lack of urban amenities inside Kathputli Colony.
However, due to the fact that it’s the owners themselves who are doing the development, the residential units take priority over common amenities, and this leads to problems of health and sanitation. This was one of the main drivers of my thesis, the desire to find a way to facilitate a quality of life in these settlements, while also being culturally appropriate for a populace that is used to a certain way of conducting their daily lives.

In the absence of an allocated public space, the streets end up becoming the public space.
source: spa hudco team

A defining characteristic of the spaces of existing informal settlements was multiple uses for the same space. Be it using the same room for living during the day, and dining during the night -- to the street acting as a hub for commerce in the morning, and a place for kids to play in the evening.

Vehicles tend to hinder the flux of activities on the street, and it’s important to restrict them to certain points of access, while leaving the rest of the street open to different kinds of activity. I designed the cluster of my proposal with this in mind.

The commons only feel accessible upto a certain height,
beyond which they become an abstract concept.
This was very important for the choice of low-rise (four storey) clusters.

In the process of making this proposal, it emerged to me that high-rise high-density proposals are an application of western standards of space to a context where they may not be suitable. I see the vision of ‘greens’ as a means of public space as wasteful. You only need a couple of large grounds to act as gathering spaces for community events -- the rest can take place on dynamic streets.

If the majority of social activity takes place within sight of the residents,
there’s a much better chance of community interaction and resident safety.

Restricting vehicular movement to the arterial roads (blue) allows for the streets to thrive.
Meanwhile, access to goods and fire tender is within reasonable reach in such a situation.

Unit Layouts
It’s rare to see typical ‘furniture’ inside the houses of people living in informal settlements. Instead of sofas, guets sits on cots, easily movable to facilitate a different use. Instead of solid beds, they sleep on rollable mattreses. Dinner is eaten with everybody sitting on the floor. Fixed furniture means fixed use, light movable furniture facilitates multiple use.

Two units types with a proposed manner of use.
The narrow units allow for open views from both sides, and the proposed furniture is lightweight and mobile.

Stills from a presentation I made to the Bhule Bisre Kalakaar Trust

Post-thesis realisations
I wanted to know what the residents thought of my thesis, and managed to gather enough interest to make a presentation to a few members of the Colony. I noticed that they were more interested in my understanding of the Delhi 2021 masterplan and its provisions rather than my design. There are a lot of NGOs navigating the space, and I felt that everybody had a different agenda.

I think that before design proposals, a baseline of information needs to be established. When engaging with various parties with different interests, it’s important to know what proposals are valid, and actually in your interest. If I had to do it all over again, that’s what I would do. My key learning was that affecting change in complex situations like this one needs an information solutions before it needs a design solution.