The Critical Classroom – “Constructing Classes and Imagining Buildings: Urban Renewal and Transactions between Concepts and Materialities in Mumbai”

Pablo Holwitt, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University

A low-rise mass housing unit, or chawl, in Girgaum, Mumbai (author’s photo)

My open access article, “Constructing Classes and Imagining Buildings”, would be suitable for graduate and undergraduate classes on a range of topics, such as Anthropology and Architecture, Urban Studies and Actor-Network-Theory, New Materiality Studies, South Asian Urbanisms, and New Directions in Urban Geography. It should prompt students to rethink the ontological separation of the social and the material that usually circumscribes the way in which we think about cities, cohabitation, and the built environment. In particular, the text develops a notion of class differences as being rooted in the material setup of the city and of building design as being informed by imaginaries of class and community.

The take-away message should be that as much as buildings continually get shaped by the people who design, construct, inhabit, use, and make sense of them, their materiality shapes relations between inhabitants and social identities in the city. It is argued that urban lifeworlds are constituted in the dynamic interaction of various acting entities that transcend the dichotomy of the material and the social. The text should therefore urge students to look beyond established analytical frameworks in urban studies, question dominant ontological assumptions, and consider the agency of both the human and the non-human entities that shape cities in significant ways.

Suggested resources

  • Ingold T (2013) On building a house. In id. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, and Architecture (pp47-59). Abingdon: Routledge

Tim Ingold’s work on human-environment interactions is highly influential in contemporary anthropology. In this chapter of his book Making, he criticizes the modern distinction between architects, builders, and residents and the practices of designing, constructing, and dwelling that are commonly ascribed to these different groups of people. By tracing the historical evolution of the architectural profession through Graeco-Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages, he convincingly argues that the idea of the architect as a master planner who is somewhat elevated above the more practical aspects of erecting a building is a quite recent invention, and that buildings were and are instead shaped by practical knowledge and persistent practices of improvisation and maintenance. Although I do not directly refer to his work in my text, Ingold’s arguments link very well to the overall conceptual thrust of my article.

  • Jacobs J M (2006) A geography of big things. Cultural Geographies 13(1):1-27

This is one of the key texts that advances the application of the conceptual apparatus of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) to the geography of buildings and architecture. In this text, Jane M. Jacobs introduces the influential concept of the “building event” that has been taken up by many other scholars and demonstrates the innovative potential that ANT-inspired approaches can contribute to Geography. Jacobs supports her arguments with empirical material from Singapore and the UK. I draw upon this line of thought extensively in my article.

  • Schatzki T (2010) Materiality and social life. Nature and Culture 5(2):123-149

This article by Theodore Schatzki develops an elaborate theory of conceiving the relationship between the material and the social that closely resembles the conceptual approach that I apply to the case of urban renewal in Mumbai in my article. Schatzki does so by outlining a practice-material history of the Kentucky Bluegrass region in the USA where he himself resides. The text manages to illustrate complex theoretical arguments with reference to diverse examples from the author’s own extensive field research.

  • Kobi M (2019) Contours of an urban architectural anthropology: Built environment, climate control, and socio-material practices in winter in Chongqing (south-west China). Social Anthropology 27(4):689-704

In this comparatively short text, Madlen Kobi applies Schatzki’s theory of socio-materiality to the case of urban housing in China. Focusing on residents’ strategies to heat their apartments in the cold winter months, Kobi’s text nicely showcases how to apply insights from Anthropology and Geography to develop a processual understanding of buildings and everyday practices of dwelling.

  • Shivkumar R (2019) Lovely Villa – Architecture as Autobiography. Delhi: PSBT India (last accessed 27 April 2021)

This partly autobiographical film, directed by architect, urban designer, and filmmaker Rohan Shivkumar, about the history of a residential colony in Mumbai presents many insights into the relationship between built environments and class identities in urban India from the era of post-Independence to today. It provides a vivid account of how particular ideals get literally “built into” the material setup of a building and how the meanings, uses, and materialities of buildings change over time.