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59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?



Regularizing colonies triggers densification, but may not mean better amenities or quality of life- Aug 30, 2012

When day before yesterday’s newspapers screamed out the regularization of 917 unauthorized colonies in Delhi, I was not surprised. With the assembly elections coming up early in 2013, barely months away, such a populistic measure was entirely expected from Sheila Dixit in the waning days of her long, long stint as the captain of affairs in the country’s capital.

For those of us who have worked on projects related to low-income housing in Delhi, the 2013 assembly elections have been a much-awaited milestone. People in the know have assured us that all pending decisions on projects will get pushed through (regardless of merit perhaps!) as the elections near.

For those wondering, regularizations confers legal status on settlements that came up illegally on land zoned for some other use on the Master Plan. Typically, agricultural land on the fringes of the city is plotted and developed into low-income housing by land owners and other entrepreneurs. Immigrants come in and build homes here in the absence of legal, affordable housing in the city. They survive on scrounged resources, barely any basic amenities initially, till eventually even these come, haltingly, illegally to these settlements. Meanwhile, the legally approved city grows in around them. Inevitably, granting theseĀ  settlements legal status is the only sensible option.

Granting legal status also means governments are obliged to now provide the basic amenities, which is a tall order. Sure enough, the following day, the newspapers carried pieces criticizing the inability of the government to provide electricity, water and sewage connections for the colonies it has regularized.

However, a legal status is a clean chit for densification and redevelopment in these colonies. Even before the amenities come in, homes will be bought and sold, new floors added and home prices will shoot through the roof! Such is the demand for real estate in Delhi!

This endless cycle of illegal to legal has been going on in this city for decades. Isn’t it high time Delhi took a realistic look at its future development, needs and planned for the inevitable growth in a better manner? We must remember that neither land, nor other vital resources like water are infinitely available. A better plan to grow is a must, or else the resources will run out and there will be blood on the streets.

Warning consumers, driving away listeners on FM radio- Apr 28, 2012

FM radio station 92.7 has been making long public announcements informing listeners about cases they have filed against media and advertising companies that have not paid them huge sums of money after using airtime on behalf of their customers. In one case, the agency’s customers are a long list of real estate developers. Yes those same guys who hogged all radio advertising at their peak in the pre 2008 era and from time to time since!
The announcements go out in legal sounding Hindi in a somber tone. They hog several minutes of airtime and even patient listeners like me are left wondering how long they are to wait for their best set of favourite Hindi film oldies, for that is the staple this station plays. For most people I know, the announcements simply means they switch to the next station! So while I empathise about the many millions lost and I hope the wrongdoers are taught a lesson, I don’t quite see how this sort of thing makes business sense if it drives away listeners!

Government processes need major revamps: A morning at the property registry office

People, chaos, each group comprises of sellers, buyers, broker, tout, bank lawyer. Some fifty people squeezed in a room with four counters, shiny chairs and a lot of stress. In the midst of all this, a child wailed for chips. A mendicant boy shined shoes, a beggar girl went round the room. All inside the air conditioned (in name) space waiting for the people on duty to oblige them and register the property they were here to buy or sell.
Though the system was computerised and there were modern devices like digicams and thumbprint scanners, corruption was rampant. When will these things change? A chaotic three hours were spent watching the chaos unfold at Gurgaon’s mini secretariat today. And there were moments of hysterical giggling when we were exhausted out of our wits.
Sigh! I can only say I am glad it’s over!



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