Spatiality of the future - Pandemic Spatialities

Course Mentors:  Ravindra Punde, Sabaa Giradkar, Abhijeet Ekbote, Vastavikta Bhagat

Historically the world has gone through a series of pandemics and epidemics ranging from the Spanish flu, cholera, plague, ebola, H1N1, etc. In the 1300s, contemporary understandings of black death drew from the ideas of sin and apocalypse, acts of gods, etc which can still be seen as echoed in the current Covid’19 pandemic as well through some sections of the society. Whereas the first instance of isolation and confinement may have emerged in the English village of Eyam during the plague of 1665 to prevent the spread of the disease to the countryside. Again a mirror of confinement zones, sealed buildings and zones observed presently. In the 1800s new health infrastructures like the sanatoria and segregated hospitals for people suffering with tuberculosis and leprosy emerged as different forms of health infrastructure. A documentary called ‘Cities of Sleep’ explores the spatiality of Delhi through the lens of access to good sleep. A line from the documentary opens up “Have you ever wondered why people sleep on (road) dividers during summer? When cars pass by, the gush of wind prevents mosquitoes from biting. So if you wish to save yourself from dengue-malaria in Delhi, sleep on dividers.” The case of Delhi is a small example of many such everyday practices that are a response to bodily afflictions that need not get addressed by formal health infrastructures. Here borrowing from all of these instances, one might say that through time; pathogens, the idea of health and well being have come to shape civilizations.

One can also conjecture that our understanding of transmissions of these diseases has generated our responses that have in turn come to shape spatiality, policy and our everyday practices that get governed by differences of locality, caste, class and gender and in some cases widen these differences. For example, the Bombay improvement trust was set up in response by the colonial government in 1898, 2 years after the plague which was seen as a fearsome disease that carried association with the black death. This time had led to enormous panic, and sanitary infrastructure was seen as limited. The trust believed in the ideas of rehousing the poor by pulling down insanitary housing and building sanitary housing. The homes and neighbourhoods came to be termed as slums in these cases. The entirety of this operation was triggered however by a crisis conflict and not all who were displaced were rehoused.
The idea of the trust also later spread and came to be deployed and spread in Kolkata and cities in North India where large scale processes of overhauling and development were formalised. This was also the time when the idea of modern cities came up- of free circulation, of commerce hubs, of defined public spaces, the dangers posed to the idea of health and hygiene by the poor, the aversion to slums was seen. Here differences of class emerged as the lower classes and their practices were seen as antithetical to the idea of modernity by the higher classes. Thus these measures of city making undertaken in the name of public health led to expansions as well as exclusions. While on one end Bombay Improvement trust started defining urban planning steps, on the other Patrick Geddes completely rejected it by proposing the idea of conservative surgery by meaningfully and minimally intervening to be more responsive to the Indian condition and cultural context.

Reflecting from these, in our current experience of the pandemic, there was a definitive collapse of time, space, geography and senses, where some felt it more viscerally than the others. The case of the current labour migrations, the city was seen as a place of economic security and the village as a space of social security. This and the uncertainty of the pandemic led to instances of flight to the later geography of the village where a cultural attachment to land existed. On the other hand, the pandemic was also seen as operationalizing the digital world and its tools while raising some very significant questions on human relationships. One has experienced over the last year new techno digital spatialities that have emerged which are reconfiguring the ideas of family, home, institutions, infrastructures, entrepreneurships,friendships, etc forming breakages and new possibilities of our engagement with them. Within these reconfigurations there is a definitive scalar engagement as well as a collapse of time and senses that one has experienced in these times of immense fragilities and new found agilities. While the digital provided a new boundless amorphous space of inhabiting and working, the lack of it also led to a new form of homelessness , bringing forth questions of access, privilege and equity.

The same amorphous, expanding and coagulating techno digital spatialities allowed for new nimble citizen driven nimble networks of care and friendship. It was also observed over the last year, largely with the onset of the pandemic and new safety protocols, that human mobility has been curtailed and sufficiently reduced. While the physical footprint of inhabiting and movement of most individuals was shrinking, the digital expanse was multiplying indefinitely accommodating and creating new logistical efficiencies. With work from home, collapse of institutions, reconfigurations of transactional spatialities, the radius of one's physical movement has been curtailed to the neighbourhood possibly freeing up space of human inhabitation which was largely limited within the confines of the home.

The central provocation for this studio is around ‘Health and Urban Form’ that explores the loss and emergence of new ecologies during the ongoing pandemic in the ‘C’ ward of Mumbai. Some of these ecologies we conjecture could be the new networks of entrepreneurship, of care and friendship, of black marketeering, of well being. This studio thus aims to develop an ability to speculate and predict scenarios of our collective urban future by focussing on the interface between spatial form and social processes and technological futures, and lead to more inclusive, equitable and democratic cities with a focus on health. Here we understand the neighbourhood through a set of urban systems, networks, communities and their lived experiences, a diverse range of builtform typologies and a space of multiple
claims. In this studio we also look at theoretical orientations from past methods of speculations and interventions in urban planning and design practices to devise possible methods that respond to our context. In the process of engaging with these formulations, the aim is to evoke discussions around the larger common good and the independent design professionals’ responsibility and shaping of practices through the processes of speculation.