Architecture’s ‘Public’

Hussain Indorewala | 17th March 2022

Destruction of Mumbai’s intertidal ecology for construction of the Coastal Road Project

Mumbai is witnessing a design renaissance. Public spirited architects are intervening through advocacy, exhibitions and competitions to address the city’s various ‘problems’: open spaces, affordable housing, homeless shelters, urban streets, infrastructure, sanitation. While many of these interventions are initiated by individual firms, some have even taken collaborative forms. For a profession that has traditionally celebrated individual ingenuity, the spontaneous eruption of ‘collectives’ to tackle the city’s apparently appalling ‘design deficit’ is gratifying. What explains this rise of public consciousness among private practitioners? How do we make sense of this new mode of practice? Is this a sign that the architecture community is taking on the neoliberal assault on the urban public realm? Or is this a symptom of (some) professionals adapting, rather belatedly, to neoliberal times?

In one aspect, these multifarious ‘public’ engagements of architects are similar. All of them have an unwavering faith and laser-like focus on the importance of ‘design.’ For instance, in February, more than 70 architects signed a letter “lauding” the authorities for the scale of Mumbai’s reclaimed Coastal Road project while advancing their “professional [design] opinion” that the road alignment be shifted to the landward side of the reclamation instead of the seaward side as currently proposed. The letter began as follows:

“We would like to congratulate [the government] on the ambitious Coastal Road Project. It is rare to see public projects being delivered in expedited timelines despite multiple challenges at the present site.”

The project in its current form was proposed in 2011 by a committee consisting of three well-known city architects. Since 2014 there has been much critical commentary around it, as a major planning disaster in the making. Critics have highlighted that a 13,000 crore 8 lane freeway for cars is counterproductive, destructive and discriminatory. To call this a “public project” is an assault on common sense (since it is meant almost exclusively for private automobiles). Moreover, the so-called “multiple challenges” faced by the authorities included numerous agitations by the city’s fisher-folk and other communities, and 6 Public Interest Litigations.  While all this unfolded over many years, almost all the architect-signatories of the letter silently watched as more than 100 hectares of land was manufactured in the city’s inter-tidal and shallow water zone. Now, as the reclamation nears completion, they come together to ask: “What do ‘we’ – as architects – have to say about this?”

While this may look like a humble appeal to competence, it is in fact what Edward Said highlighted as the trap of ‘professionalism’ of those who speak on public affairs:

“By professionalism I mean thinking of your work as an intellectual as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five with one eye on the clock, and the other cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior – not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and ‘objective’”[i]

Edward Said argued that there are pressures that challenge every intellectual’s ingenuity and will. The first is specialization – being limited to a narrow field of knowledge by sacrificing other aspects of social life to a set of authorities and dominant interests. The second he called the cult of the certified expert – certified by the appropriate authorities, speaking the right language, holding down the right territory. The third he termed their inevitable drift towards power and authority – accommodating the prerogatives of power and towards being directly employed by it. The recent eagerness of professionals to be recognized and even hired by the state as experts in their particular domain betrays this attitude of professionalism.

To counter these pressures, Said explained, requires a different set of values and prerogatives, that prioritizes not professional advancement, but social change. This he termed an attitude of amateurism, as someone

“whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than produce them), to be someone who cannot be easily co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”[ii]


On 10th March, three laborers from Cheetah Camp who were hired to manually service the septic tank of a public toilet in Kandivali died due to toxic gas poisoning. For decades, human rights activists have highlighted that simply constructing toilets without infrastructure planning and mechanization will promote manual scavenging, and deepen the institutional discrimination against the Dalit community.   A few days following this incident, an architecture firm that seeks to “revolutionise the common man’s experience of using public toilets” through better design, was featured in the press. The firm argued that:

“Public toilets are important landmarks of an emerging landscape in any modern city. They speak volumes of who we are as a society. Providing this basic but essential public convenience with dignity and comfort is the key to raising health, hygiene and safety standards in any city. [our project] is a new paradigm for good-quality public toilets for urban India.”

A few years ago, the firm had organized a design exhibition on new toilet typologies in Mumbai. In one of the panel discussions, an invited panelist – a tech entrepreneur – hoped that design and technology entrepreneurialism in the sanitation sector will not only serve millions, but will also help dissolve caste discrimination. The comment was meant as a compliment to the architect-entrepreneurs of the exhibition, who reinforced – through the making, packaging and selling of images – their role as space and taste makers; and offered instant and incredible ‘design’ solutions to an intractable social problem.

The main concern of the exhibitors was the architectural merit of sanitation infrastructure in our cities, that are plagued by a lack of ‘imagination’, i.e. of formal and programmatic innovation. But, to characterize exhibitions such as these as being driven by commercial interests of architects would be simplistic. Such events represent transactions not of economic, but cultural and social capital. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that social practices consist of various transactions, and economic transactions are but one form.[iii] He explains cultural capital as the acquired ‘cultivated’ behaviors, cultural goods and institutionalized recognition (degrees, qualifications) that are acquired through socialization, education, hereditary transmission and ‘self-improvement.’ The much vaunted ‘expertise’ or ‘talent’ of professionals themselves are the product of an investment of time and cultural capital.

In contrast, social capital refers to a resource that accrues to individuals by being acquainted with, recognized by or connected with certain prestigious groups or individuals – which can, when needed, be mobilized or accessed for advancement or gain. Like cultural capital, social capital requires time, investment and skill, and is dependent on the ability to produce and reproduce lasting and useful relationships. There are two key insights in Bourdieu worth noting: (1) that unlike economic capital that can be gained, lost, accessed or en-cashed instantaneously, and therefore have a short temporal frame, social capital is established gradually, and cultural capital even more so, and exchanges within these ‘fields’ are ambiguous, and not conducive to simple equivalent exchanges; (2) that while economic capital is at the root of cultural and social capital, they cannot be reduced to it, nor can they be considered free from it.

The aesthetic evangelicalism of architecture firms often reminds one of Pierre Bourdieu’s insight, that judgments of taste after all reflect and reinforce one’s social position. The attitudes, mannerisms, tastes and habits that people acquire are usually on account of their position in the social structure. In the work of cultural practitioners – and designers typically position themselves as cultural practitioners – what may seem hetrogeneous, ‘spontaneous’ and creative activity often reproduce many deeply tacit norms and values. In elaborating the micro-structures of ideology in social life, Bourdeieu speaks about the symbolic violence in the general field of art and culture, where those who lack the ‘correct’ taste are excluded and relegated to shame and silence. 

So, take sanitation. It is not difficult to recognize that the struggles for infrastructure and services in our cities are fought predominantly over questions of access and availability, often over questions of quality and social control, but rarely over questions of beauty and typology. Architects assume that their own rightful place (‘expertise’) lies in the latter domain, where they can play the role of a aesthetic vanguard, demonstrating what a tasteful and enriching environment should look like – and all the problems of the former domains will somehow magically disappear.

It often takes years – decades even – for communities to gain access to a mundane and utilitarian basic service facilities that are so abhorred by cultural practitioners. Occasionally, these are self-built, but  officially communities are deprived of access to these services – since Municipal authorities do not want settlers to gain de facto tenure security. When built by the state, these ‘mundane’ facilities are sometimes an election promise, sometimes a reluctantly implemented welfare scheme, sometimes the fulfillment of minimal norms of bureaucratic planning practices. They may be ugly and unimaginative, but they are often not quite functional, and never quite enough. The city for most of its inhabitants is the struggle for livelihood, security and dignity – not quite the struggle with bad architecture. To the users of basic infrastructure, the services of a professional architect, notwithstanding the architects’ claim to relevance, is usually peripheral, often unaffordable, and quite beside the point.



Who then do these ‘interventions’ of our ‘public’ minded architects and designers speak to? Or to be more precise, who are their various ‘publics’?

Most often, these interventions are aimed at policy makers, planners and city managers. There is a good bit of chatter in architecture circles of ‘educating’ politicians and bureaucrats about good design. ‘We will teach them how good streets, public spaces, toilets and homes ought to be built.’ Occasionally, their ‘public’ is other designers and cultural practitioners. To them, public policy problems can now be presented as architecturally significant. Architects can finally talk about these problems as their problem as well – but only after they have agreed to tackle it in their way. Or perhaps the ‘public’ is the people who will use the infrastructure and spaces crafted by the expertise of the ‘real’ professionals – the very people too preoccupied with ‘mundane’ issues to have demanded better design – and therefore are guilty of not aspiring enough, not dreaming enough, not demanding enough.

With designers – as professionals – leading the cause of the public realm, the site of struggle over housing, over infrastructure and sanitation moves from the slum, the Ward office, and the union hall, to the sanitized and sweat free environment of the design studio, the exhibition space, the conference room and the public auditorium. It is here, in the environment of Instagram feeds, mouse clicks, power-point slides and wirecut models that designers find their ecological niche.

In recent decades, our attitude towards city making has shifted – we have moved away from the world of plans, policies and procedures, into a world of ‘best practices,’ ‘tool-kits,’ ‘catalytic projects.’ We have forgotten that the answers to most of our urban problems are quite unspectacular and mundane – public investment, careful management, accountability and regulation. Instead, we aspire to promulgate spectacular responses in the form of signature projects. We think it dull to ask for cones on the the road for dedicated bus lanes, trivial to propose wider staircases to foot over bridges, mundane to make layouts for pipes and taps in self-built settlements. Instead we seek our share of the pie in the city’s “world class” transformation, that can be recognized, named, invested in, sponsored, exhibited, endorsed, profited from and published. We want to design waterfronts for tourists, streets without hawkers, experimental homes for slum dwellers, promenades for yuppies, and elegant toilets without sewer lines.

So does design have a role in making cities better? Of course. But this will have to be based on a different way of thinking about design and its legitimate practitioners. It will be public design that is an outcome of popular concerns, not professional ones. It will involve engagement with the slow, unglamorous and frustrating world of social and spatial processes, policies and plans. It will have to be architecture and design with different concerns, of different methods, and with different kinds of collaborations.

[Hussain Indorewala teaches humanities and research methods at the KRVIA. The views of the author are personal]


[i]      Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, Vintage Books, 1994. p.74.

[ii]    Said, Representations, p.11

[iii]   Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Richardson, J., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, (1986), Westport, CT: Greenwood]