The Static and the Kinetic

Cities in South Asia are characterised by physical and visual contradictions that coalesce in a landscape of incredible pluralism. Historically, particularly during the period of British colonisation, the distinct worlds active within these cities – which could be economic, social or cultural – occupied different spaces and operated under different rules. The aim of their separation was to maximise control and minimise conflict between these, often opposing, worlds.1

However, today these worlds share the same space, but they understand and use it differently.2 Massive waves of distressed rural migration during the latter half of the 1900s triggered their convergence into a singular, but multifaceted entity. Combined with the inadequate supply of urban land and the lack of the creation of new urban centres, this resulted in extremely high densities in existing cities. With the emergence of a post-industrial, service-based economy, the intertwining of these worlds within the same space is now even greater.3

In this post-industrial scenario, cities in India have become critical sites for negotiations between elite and subaltern cultures. The new relationships between social classes in a post-industrial economy are quite different from those that existed in state-controlled economies.4 The fragmentation of the economy in service and production sectors has spatially resulted in a new, bazaar-like urbanism, which has woven its presence throughout the entire urban landscape.5 This is an urbanism created by those outside the elite domains of the formal modernity of the state. It is a ‘pirate’ modernity that has to slip under the laws of the city simply in order to survive, without any conscious attempt at constructing a counterculture.6 With the retreat of the state in the course of the 1980s and 1990s (in different measures across South Asia), the space of the ‘everyday’ is where economic and cultural struggles are articulated. These common spaces have been largely excluded from the cultural discourses on globalisation, which focus on elite domains of production in the city.7

Today, Indian cities are comprised of two components occupying the same physical space. The first is the Static City. Built of more permanent material such as concrete, steel and brick, it forms a two-dimensional entity on conventional city maps and is monumental in its presence. The second is the Kinetic City. Incomprehensible as a two-dimensional entity, this is a city in motion – a three-dimensional construct of incremental development. The Kinetic City is temporary in nature and often built with recycled material: plastic sheets, scrap metal, canvas and waste wood. It constantly modifies and reinvents itself. The Kinetic City’s building blocks are not pieces of architecture, but spaces that hold associative values and that support their residents’ lives and livelihoods. Patterns of occupation determine its form and perception. It is an indigenous urbanism that has its particular ‘local’ logic. It is not necessarily the city of the poor, as most images might suggest; rather it is a temporal articulation and occupation of space, which not only creates a richer sensibility of spatial occupation, but also suggests how spatial limits are expanded to include formally unimagined uses in dense urban conditions.8

The Kinetic City presents a compelling vision that potentially allows us to better understand the blurred lines of contemporary urbanism and the changing roles of people and spaces in urban society. The increasing concentrations of global flows – of money and goods – have exacerbated the inequalities and spatial divisions of social classes. In this context, an architecture or urbanism of equality in an increasingly unequal economic world requires looking deeper to find a wide range of places to mark and commemorate the cultures of those excluded from the spaces of wealth and economic boom. These don’t necessarily lie in the formal production of architecture, but often challenge it. Here the idea of a city is an elastic urban condition, not a grand vision, but a ‘grand adjustment’.

The Kinetic City can be seen as the symbolic image of the emerging urban South Asian condition. The processions, weddings, festivals, hawkers, street vendors and slum dwellers or Katchi Abadis, all create an ever-transforming streetscape – a city in constant motion where the very physical fabric is characterised by continuous change. The Static City, on the other hand, dependent on architecture for its representation, is no longer the single image by which the city is read. Thus architecture is not the ‘spectacle’ of the city, nor does it even comprise the single dominant image. In contrast, festivals such as Diwali, Dussera, Navrathri, Muhharam, Durga Puja, Ganesh Chathurthi and many more, have emerged as the spectacles of the Kinetic City. Their presence in the everyday landscape is pervasive and dominates the popular visual culture of Indian cities. Festivals create a forum through which the fantasies of the subalterns are articulated and even organised into political action.


What then is our cultural reading for the Kinetic City, which now forms a greater part of our urban reality? If the production or preservation of architecture or urban form has to be informed by our reading of cultural significance in this dynamic context, it will necessarily have to include the notion of ‘constructing significance’ both in the architectural as well as conservation debates.9 In fact, an understanding that ‘cultural significance’ evolves, will truly clarify the role of the architect as an advocate of change (versus a preservationist who opposes change) – one who can engage with both the Kinetic and Static City on equal terms. Under such conditions, a draining of the symbolic import of the architectural landscape leads to a deepening of ties between architecture and contemporary realities and experiences. This understanding allows architecture and urban typologies to be transformed through intervention and placed in the service of contemporary life, realities, and emerging aspirations. Here, the Static City embraces the Kinetic City and is informed and remade by its logic.

The phenomenon of bazaars in the Victorian arcades in the old Fort Area, Mumbai’s Historic District, is emblematic of this potential negotiation between the Static and Kinetic City. The original use of the arcades was two-fold. First, they provided spatial mediation between building and street. Second, the arcades were a perfect response to Bombay’s climate. They served as a zone protecting pedestrians from both the harsh sun and lashing rains. Today, with the informal bazaar occupying the arcade, its original intent is challenged. This emergent relationship of the arcade and bazaar not only forces a confrontation of uses and interest groups, but also demands new preservation approaches. For the average Mumbai resident, the hawker provides a wide range of goods at prices considerably lower than those found in local shops. Thus, the bazaars in the arcades characterise the Fort Area area’s thriving businesses. For the elite and for conservationists, the Victorian core represents the old city centre, complete with monumental icons. In fact, as the city sprawls, dissipating the clarity of its form, these images, places, and icons acquire even greater meaning for preservationists as critical symbols of the city’s historic image. Consequently, hawking is deemed illegal by city authorities that are constantly attempting to relocate the bazaars.

The challenge in Mumbai is to cope with the city’s transformation, not by inducing or polarising its dualism, but by attempting to reconcile these opposite conditions as being simultaneously valid. The existence of two worlds in the same space implies that we must accommodate and overlap varying uses, perceptions, and physical forms. The arcades in the Fort Area possess a rare capacity for reinterpretation. As an architectural solution, they display an incredible resilience; they can accommodate new uses while keeping the illusion of their architecture intact.

One design solution might be to re-adapt the functioning of the arcades. They could be restructured to allow for easy pedestrian movement and accommodate hawkers at the same time. They could contain the amorphous bazaar encased in the illusion of the disciplined Victorian arcade. With this sort of approach, the key components of the city would have a greater ability to survive, because they could be more adaptable to changing economic and social conditions. There are no total solutions in an urban landscape characterised by both permanence and rapid transformation. At best, the city could constantly evolve and invent solutions for the present through safeguarding the crucial components of our historically important ‘urban hardware’. Could ‘Bazaars in Victorian Arcades’ become an authentic symbol of an emergent reality of temporary adjustment? Clearly the Static and Kinetic Cities go beyond their obvious differences to establish a much richer relationship, both spatially and metaphorically, than their physical manifestations would suggest. Here affinity and rejection are simultaneously played out – in a state of equilibrium maintained by a seemingly irresolvable tension.

The informal economy of the city vividly illustrates the collapsed and intertwined existence of the Static and Kinetic Cities. The dabbawalas (literally translated as ‘tiffin men’) are an example of this relationship between the formal and informal, the static and kinetic. The tiffin delivery service, which relies on the train system for transportation, costs approx Rs.200 (US$4) per month. A dabbawala picks up a lunch tiffin from a house anywhere in the city. Then he delivers the tiffin to one’s place of work by lunchtime and returns it to the house later in the day. The dabbawalas deliver hundreds of thousands of lunch boxes every day. The efficiency of Mumbai’s train system, the spine of the linear city, enables this complex informal system to work. The dabbawalas have innovatively set up a network that facilitates an informal system to take advantage of a formal infrastructure. The network involves the dabba, or tiffin, being exchanged up to four or five times between its pickup and return to the house in the evening. The average box travels about 30 km (18 miles) each way. It is estimated that around 200,000 boxes are delivered around the city per day, involving approximately 4,500 dabbawalas. In economic terms, the annual turnover amounts to roughly 50 million Rupees or about a US$1 million.10

Entrepreneurship in the Kinetic City is an autonomous and oral process that demonstrates the ability to fold the formal and informal into a symbiotic relationship. The dabbawalas, like several other informal services that range from banking, money transfer, courier, and electronic goods bazaars, leverage community relationships and networks and deftly use the Static City and its infrastructure beyond its intended margins. These networks create a synergy that depends on mutual integration without the obsession of formalised structures. The Kinetic City is where the intersection of need (often reduced to survival) and unexploited potentials of existing infrastructure give rise to new innovative services. The trains in Mumbai are emblematic of a kinetic space, supporting and blurring the formal and the informal, slicing through these worlds while momentarily collapsing them into a singular entity. Here the self-consciousness about modernity and the regulations imposed by the Static City are suspended and redundant. The Kinetic City carries local wisdom into the contemporary world without fear of the modern, while the Static City aspires to erase the local and re-codify it in a written ‘macro-moral’ order.11

The urbanism of Mumbai represents a fascinating intersection where the Kinetic City – a landscape of dystopia, and yet a symbol of optimism – challenges the Static City – encoded in architecture – to reposition and remake the city as a whole.12 The Kinetic City forces the Static City to re-engage itself in present conditions by dissolving its utopian project to fabricate multiple dialogues with its context. Could this become the basis for a rational discussion about coexistence? Or is Mumbai’s emergent urbanism inherently paradoxical, and are the coexistence of the Static and Kinetic Cities and their particular states of utopia and dystopia inevitable? Can the spatial configuration for how this simultaneity occurs actually be formally imagined? The Kinetic City obviously cannot be seen as a design tool, but rather as a demand that conceptions of urbanism create and facilitate environments that are versatile and flexible, robust and ambiguous enough to allow this kinetic quality of the city to flourish. Perhaps the Kinetic City might be the tactical approach to take when dealing with the urbanism of the temporary, of high densities and intensities? In spite of these many potential disjunctures, what this reading of the city does celebrate is the dynamic and pluralist processes that make the urban Indian landscape. Within this urbanism, the Static and Kinetic cities necessarily coexist and blur into an integral entity, even if momentarily, to create the margins for adjustment that their simultaneous existences demand.

This article is based on an essay entitled ’Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities’ published in A. Huyssen, ed., Urban Imaginaries, Durham, NC, 2007.

1. See A. King, Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment, London, 1976.
2. This unprecedented shift in demography has not only transformed the social make-up of Indian cities, but has perpetuated an incomprehensible landscape charged with intense dualities, which are cultural, social and economic. This new demography consist mainly of rural migrants, who form the urban poor and bring with them new skills, social values and cultural attitudes that not only determine their ability to survive in an urban environment, but are in the process also altering the very structure of the city. The presence of the urban poor makes another crucial divide explicit – between those that have access to the formal city and the infrastructure that goes with it, and those that don’t and therefore lack the basic amenities.
3. See also P. Shetty, Stories of Entrepreneurship, New Delhi, 2005.
4. See P. Chaterjee, ‘Are Indians becoming bourgeois at last?’, in Body. City. Siting contemporary culture in India, Berlin, 2003.
5. The idea that distinct manufacturing zones and spatial segregation have now shifted to services and manufacturing occurring in fragmented areas in the city networked through the efficient transportation system the city offers.
6. See R. Sundaram, ‘Recycling Modernity: Pirate electronic cultures in Inida’, in Sarai Reader: The Cities of Everyday Life, New Delhi, 2001.
7. Chaterjee, op. cit.
8. Weddings are an example of how the rich too are engaged in the making of the Kinetic City. The lack of formal spaces for weddings as the cultural outlet for ostentation have resulted in public open space being colonized temporarily as spaces for the spectacle of elaborate weddings. Often very complex wedding sets are constructed and removed within twelve hours. Again the margins of the urban system are momentarily expanded.
9. For examples of works / projects that have attempted to translate these ideas, see R. Mehrotra, ‘Planning for Conservation – Looking at Bombay’s Historic Fort Area, Future Anterior’, Journal of Historic Preservation, History, theory and Criticism, Vol.1, No. 2, 2004.
11. See V. Venkatraman and S. Mirto, ‘Network/Design’, in Domus, No. 887, 2005.
12. See R. Khosla, The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future – Dilemmas of Contemporary Architecture, New Dehli, 2002.

Rahul Mehrotra is Professor of Urban Design and Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design.