More Shacks on the Beach

Peter Bialobrzeski's book about shacks on the beach in Manila's Baseco.

Of course Mumbai’s Versova Beach is not the only place where one can find shacks. Peter Bialobrzeski for example made an excellent photo book on Baseco, a slum built on white sand in Manila in the Philippines. The 58 images were photographed in February 2008, just before the financial crisis hit. Before long the belief that slums would soon be something of the past was shelved again. Cristina Sevilla, Bialobrzeski’s guide, hit the nail on the head when she said “the photographs are full of dignity; they respect the people and their longing for a home.”

Bialobrzeski, Peter, Case Study Homes, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2009.

ISBN 978-3-7757-2469-2   

Shacks on the Beach

During monsoon Mr. Kiran from Pune is a farmer on Mumbai's Versova beach.
Unlike downtown slums, beach shacks are detached houses.

Beach shacks perhaps make the most eye-catching informal architecture. More than the slum dwellings made of brickwork, beach shacks are of truly temporary character. Materials come from the sea and the urban jungle and thus afford a unique architecture. Without exception the structures are light, but given the windy conditions on the beach they are very sturdy. Sand, available in abundance, is perfect for anchoring the shacks. Of course one can use pegs, but sandbags are at least as effective since they are heavy and easy to fill. Moreover, sandbags are a versatile material. When stacked they make a close wall as they can easily be made to fit. Note that cement is absent in this type of building.

Shack with veranda. The architecture is marked by light materials. Sand bags are heavy and afford a higher floor ( and thus dry feet).

Since they are transportable too, such light structures are ideal for a nomadic lifestyle. During monsoon farmers come to the beach to grow crops. On top of the saline water table the heavy rains create a layer of fresh water in the sand. Thus the monsoon affords seasonal farming. Sand however does not hold water very well and irrigation by hand is necessary. Fortunately digging a pit in the sand to reach the fresh water is easy.

On the beach, digging a pit to reach fresh water is easy.

Most of the shacks are built as detached houses, which is quite unusual for slums. The cramped space so typical of slum dwellings is the consequence of a lack of buildable land. To build detached and semi-detached houses on the beach is an unexpected luxury in this category. The secret behind it may be surprising. For obvious reasons monsoon does not coincide with the tourist season and thus makes the beach an empty place. Hence the possibility to farm land, to have houses with verandas and to have plenty of playground. 

The Perfect Playground. Informal settlement on the beach is marked by lots of open space.

Vertical Slum

Would it be possible to make a slum sky-scraper?
If you are interested in slums and informal settlement, it is likely you know about Torre David in Caracas. It is a known landmark of informal settlement appropriating a failed sky-scraper project. Torre David features in movies and even in an episode of Homeland[1]. Less known so far is a concrete carcass in Dharavi where squatters made their homes after the developer had to leave the project too early. For us it is a fascinating case where differences between the informal and formal sector come to light.  

In Koyla Khata building at the heart of Dharavi, squatters have appropriated the first and second floor, whereas all other floors are vacant since 2005.  Kuttiwadi, April 19, 2013.

It happens that housing projects fail while they are still under construction. An example is the 256 tenements Koyla Khata building in Kuttiwadi, Dharavi. We were told that the name Koyla comes from Cola, a reference to the softdrink factory that once stood here. The story goes that Koyla Khata was developed in 2005 for the relocation of slum dwellers who occupied land along railway tracks. The contractor failed to finish the project within the budget, went bankrupt and the building became subject of lawsuits. All that was built was a GF+7 concrete structure. Gradually, squatters appropriated the structure and added doors and window grills. Nowadays the first and second floors are inhabited. Higher floors are not, since the pressure in Dharavi's water system is too low to reach that high and carrying water all the way up is not an option. Since the abandoned upper floors are an ideal place for drug addicts, the residents of the lower floors have actually blocked the staircases that go further up. Ground floor is also not inhabited, as it is perceived as unsafe; it is the domain of glue sniffers and drug addicts. The people in the slum surrounding Koyla Khata would rather see the whole building disappear. They complain about the bad effect criminals have on their youth. Rumor has it people even move out of first and second floor nowadays.

Koyla Khata's ground floor is a hangout for glue sniffers and drug addicts. Kuttiwadi, July 25, 2014.
The vacant floors in Koyla Khata put forward several issues. Bearing in mind that Koyla Khata sits at the heart of Dharavi, surrounded by slums where the demand for housing is enormous; one would expect the building to be appropriated in no time, whereas it clearly is not. Of course, regular water piping does not reach high enough, but the use of DIY piping and an electric pump is common in all India. The vacancies on ground floor are just as enigmatic. Most settled Dharavians live on ground floor and rent out the upper floors of their dwellings. The idea that living on ground floor is unsafe is apparently not that relevant. This suggests that a layout with a central double loaded corridor that is for circulation only and with tenements that have their back towards public space is deeply contrary to what people prefer.

The 75% vacancy in a context of severe housing shortage suggests that living conditions in Koyla Khata building are worse than in regular ground bound slums. The structure, i.e. the design of the building, is apparently not even suitable for squatting. This case suggests a profound mismatch between high-rise and what people need. Demonstrably, people prefer to pay a considerable rent for a slum dwelling to squatting in a free of cost third floor half-finished tenement.
This also sheds light on the phenomenon of people leaving other high-rise redevelopment projects and returning to the slums. It supports the observation by SPARC that people leave market-supplied mass housing because of its inadequate design.

[1] The Tower of David, Homeland, season 3, episode 3 (episode 27 overall).