Acutting-edge design store in Mumbai has an unusual address: #33 Mahalaxmi Arch, below Mahalaxmi flyover. Everyday Project, a 2,000 sq. ft design store and studio, is tucked away from street-level view, accessible only through a tiny lane leading off the entrance to one of the city’s busiest train stations.
Step inside the store and you’re likely to feel you’re in New York’s Greenwich Village or London’s East End. With gleaming white walls, and a curated collection of desirable objects from around the world, the store is a showcase of creative talent, both global and home-grown. Its post-industrial aesthetic of exposed concrete ceilings and aluminium ducts adds to its slickly crafted look.
The store’s owner, Ajay Shah, an industrial designer and design entrepreneur, says he deliberately wanted to preserve the space’s existing industrial architecture. “This is a hundred-year-old manufacturing district. This space was earlier owned by a cycle spoke manufacturing company, now the area is gradually changing,” he says, pointing out that the store’s neighbours include a well-known drummer, a magazine distribution agency and dance studios, all of whom occupy similar spaces.
A couple of kilometres away, the smell of freshly-baked pizza emerges from one of the many units in Lower Parel’s A to Z Industrial Estate. Union Café, a new Italian food caterer, located on the third floor of the estate, is gearing up to dispatch a range of pizzas, pastas and other dishes to homes and offices in the neighbourhood. “Parel is growing by leaps and bounds, and needs food. Italian food is quick to make and deliver,” Nikhil Bajaj, a partner at Union Café, says. The decision to begin the venture was easier to make because his family already owned the 850 sq. ft space in the estate.
Everyday Project and Union Café in Mumbai’s post-industrial districts are textbook examples of highly productive, micro-enterprises linked to the global service economy. Although small in terms of physical footprint or headcount, their clients, customers, suppliers are far more extensive. Firms such as these are integral elements of India’s evolving service economy; they fulfil growing consumer demand for high-end retail, hospitality and real estate services, delivered to international standards.
Next door to the Union Café is Serie Architects, an award-winning international architectural practice, with offices in London and Beijing.
Its 850 sq. ft space belies the impressive scope of its work. A team of 13 design professionals huddles over plans for museums, homes and government offices, in cities across the world, including Singapore, Beijing, Bratislava and Mumbai.
Kapil Gupta, co-founder of the practice, notes that “A to Z was set up as a big printing centre, and part of it still is, rolling out everything from playing cards to magazines. As the large printing presses moved out of Lower Parel, A to Z is slowly gentrifying with some creative and service sector entrepreneurs moving in.”
Global economy, small enterprises
The decision to locate their enterprises in Mumbai’s former industrial areas illustrates the changing nature of the economy.
It also highlights one of the many missing links between India’s economic growth and its physical, spatial urban development.
Creative or service-led businesses are attracted by urban industrial estates for a combination of reasons, including low rents, the availability of smaller units, their central location, close to public transport, and their historic architecture.
Latika Khosla, a design entrepreneur, runs Freedom Tree, a colour and trend consultancy and store from a loft studio in a former spinning shed in Lower Parel’s Mathuradas Mill Compound. “I get priceless natural light here. We work with colour, and the quality of light is very important. I also wanted an office with heart, and older structures have graceful, unusual proportions. Only people like us can inhabit and re-use these spaces, not the bigger businesses.”
For Gupta, being surrounded by an active print and paper ecosystem comes in handy, since “we need to print a lot, as architects”, he says. The firm also “puts up its interns in the one-room tenements in nearby chawls, where there is a thriving rental market”.
The trend of industrial gentrification is not restricted to Mumbai’s former textile mill districts. Kiran Agarwal, partner and co-founder of upcoming fashion label Myoho, operates from a 550 sq. ft unit in the Antop Hill Warehousing Co-operative Society. The cluster of warehouses in Wadala was built a decade ago, she says, to provide storage for industrial goods. Several entrepreneurs like her now use its spaces as studios or production workshops, since “rents are cheaper than other areas, it’s close to my home, and it is well-maintained”, she says.
There are shortcomings, however. “Because it was meant to be a warehouse, it’s not an ideal workspace, I would want more natural light and ventilation. I would also want to be surrounded by creative people, rather than being in an industrial area,” she says.
Connecting physical spaces and service economy
As Agarwal’s comments suggest, the physical infrastructure of an industrial neighbourhood cannot fully support new kinds of economic activity. This misalignment, between a shifting economy and mutating urban spaces, is obvious to anyone caught in Lower Parel’s many traffic snarls. Cars and pedestrians struggle to weave between a patchwork of high-rise residential blocks and commercial complexes; the result of unplanned and piecemeal development.
“Although commercial and residential real estate has grown exponentially in Lower Parel, the supporting infrastructure has not increased. Road widths are the same, so there’s mayhem and congestion,” says Gupta, adding that “because the street-level experience is so negative, developers create islands, with high boundary walls, to escape and keep the city out. So our urbanization becomes anti-pedestrian, even though streets are essential to our daily life.”
“We need to acknowledge the way the city works and build ‘spatially porous’ structures which can absorb the needs of the city,” says Rohan Shivkumar, deputy director of the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, one of the city’s most reputed design schools.
He cites the example of the film industry in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala suburb. “As the film industry went digital, large film studios were replaced by networks of smaller entities. The low-rise, chawl-like buildings of Lokhandwala were flexible enough to adapt themselves to the changing demands of the film industry. These spaces could become a dance studio, a house for an actor or a director’s office. The entire area had became like a sponge, able to absorb the needs of the city.”
Market forces and real estate pressures have now led to the demolition of these structures, and their replacement with “new buildings, with the classic three floors of parking and building on top”, he says, adding that “it was definitely possible to imagine another typology that was economically feasible, and sponge-like, which would re-house and re-integrate what was there, so that the network that existed wasn’t broken.”
Global realty of urban renewal
Industrial gentrification is a worldwide phenomenon; it is not restricted to Mumbai or India. Cities as diverse as New York and Shanghai have successfully re-generated industrial areas in the heart of their cities, and converted them into well-planned creative and cultural hubs, which support micro-enterprises and boost the local economy.
Take the example of Cathy Huang, the founder and president of China Bridge International, a research-based innovation consultancy based in Shanghai. Huang’s team of 30 professionals works out of a former medical factory, transformed by the Chinese government into a creative park. “There are hundreds of these creative parks in Shanghai, converted from factories, jointly developed by the government and private developers. China wants to develop design and creative businesses and establish ‘created in China’ as a brand,” she says over Skype.
These “creative parks” attract companies in a range of sectors, including fashion and multimedia, and of varying sizes, ranging from a handful of employees to several hundred, Huang says. The supply-led approach to urban regeneration has its downsides, though.
“The government gave us an empty shell in a creative park, we spent a lot of money on a cool office and then the government tore down the building. We learnt our lesson and spent less on our current office,” she says.
Urban industrial areas can also be successfully renewed as public spaces, devoted to art or recreation. Beijing’s “798 Art Zone” is a well-known example of breathing life into disused factories through deft urban design interventions.
A cluster of military factories, built in the 1950s by the Chinese and Soviet governments, is now a vibrant, contemporary arts district. Over the last decade, prominent Chinese and international artists have established studios and galleries in 798 Art Zone.
“The local municipality has found that it is a better use for that land, rather than building another high-rise district, because it fulfils a vacuum in the city for this kind of contemporary art. There are huge, abandoned sheds, with installations, filled with visitors. It opens the pores of the city,” says KT Ravindran, former president of the Institute of Urban Designers-India, who visited Beijing a few months ago.
New York’s High Line Park is another much-acclaimed example of urban regeneration for public benefit.
A disused, elevated railroad track was converted into a mile-long park and greenway, running along the lower west side of Manhattan, open to the public.
The project was conceived by local residents, who engaged civic authorities to prevent the site’s demolition and resurrect it as a park.
The project took over 10 years to fructify and is now a city landmark, for both local residents and visitors.
In India, restrictions on land-use often prohibit effective urban planning interventions, as typified by the conundrum facing Bhushan Gagrani, chief executive officer of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC). As city boundaries have expanded, many MIDC parks located close to urban cities are no longer suitable for industrial activity, and would be better off if converted to other forms of land use, he says.
“Not less than 20% of MIDC land is locked up, not being used the way it could be. These are typically all areas close to or in the midst of cities,” says Gagrani, adding that “but we have neither the policy, the power nor the flexibility to change the use to, say, commercial or residential. My mandate is industrial development, all my development control rules, and my land acquisition itself, are for industrial development”.
Xerxes Desai, one of the co-founders of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a Bangalore-based educational institute focused on urban affairs, offers a succinct summary. “Cities are not just about physical infrastructure. They are about people and their interactions with the infrastructure, about land and land use. A city is a living organism,” he says.