Dipra Shetty

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, India

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai India is a site that is unique in function and purpose. Built during the British Raj in India in the late 19th Century to wash the uniforms of the British Army, Dhobi Ghat is a place where a small close knit community of around 7,500 washermen wash more than 750,000 clothes per day in around 900 niches made of cut rock

While the British had constructed this site as a functional instrument for their military forces, the dhobi ghat as a typology also functioned as a social device to implement and further a division of labour that enforced inequality of the caste system into the Indian urban fabric

In a time where in Indian history where the caste system was widely accepted and enforced - Dr. BR Ambedkar, a social reformer, carried out the Mahad Satyagraha - a nonviolent resistance move-ment where he marched with Dalit men and women to the local tank to take a drink of water - a practice meant only for upper caste hindus. While met with great retaliation - the point was made - the caste system had to be dismantled.

These Washermen or ''Dhobis'' in Hindi originally belonged to the caste of the same name. Today the community has diversified to include Dhobis from different castes and social strata. Today the Dhobis work independently servicing the wealthy of Mumbai, restaurants and hospitals - the washermen are still trapped by the nuances and legislative constraints leftover as remnants of the presence of casteism in governance. Whether it is the rent paid to the government for the use of the washing pod and the metered pay of an unreliable source of water - the framework built upon this seemingly accessible public common is the reason many Dhobis are unable to escape the cycle of poverty.

This is further exacerbated by pressures to remove their homes to make way for condos in the area. The SRA has been slowly demolishing homes and providing 1/3 of the community flats in the outskirts of the city.

The site revolts against history by transforming into a microcosm of the city of mumbai. The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is not only a washing place but has slowly transformed into a composite collage of washing, living, eating, sleeping, bathing etc. domestic and vocational activities flow-ing and seeping into spaces they may not seem familiar in - showers in the washing niches, cooking in the furnace and ironing area, cricket where hundreds of white shirts are hung to dry.

It is important that these communities and their livelihoods are protected. This requires ensuring that the community is not forced out of the city.

Mumbai has always been a site for change - the region saw the very event that began to completely dismantle the caste system- it cannot be a site that turns its back on a community that has quietly contributed to its complex workings throughout time

The site requires a - a reworking that allows for its complex distribution of programs without the injustice and social inequity.  The Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat should be the next example of water infrastructure and housingthat makes the common safe, accessible and available to all castes, thus uplifting them - a site for the next Satyagraha. By giving the community infrastructure that strengthens and most of all displays its clear contribution to the city we can ensure their protection

A stable water connection in Mumbai is a luxury. Usually five houses share one water connection and with smaller incremental homes like on my site, a one household water connection is shared by fve families. Mumbai's network of pipes is complex and veiled, with no open data map available. This causes several issues with pipes bursting upon any digging. These leaks through illegal siphoning and accidental damage are further exacberated by a composite of a upper level water network that is made up of chavivallahs - keyholders that roam the city manually opening valves to allow water into wards according to a set schedule.

According to this schedule, the residential site surrounding the dhobi ghat, receives their water from 8am to 10 am. This site is made up of intermediate spaces between the houses and the niches where a range of activities take place - both domestic and vocational. My goals for my design were to increase these areas of friction and tectonics to increase the kind of activity that thrives in the boundary as well as giving the community a secure access to the commons.  

My proposal is a water loop along with a eco machine system, modeled after John Todds water remediation theories that use the monsoon flooding to catch the water in under water tank and reusing it through water towers. Increasing the boundary intermediary spaces and fitting the houses with courtyards, with open kitchens, shops and bathrooms, as well as adding density are moves this project makes to preserve the communal nature of the site and space making for the every day of Indian domestic life.

© Archipelago Studio 2020 @ the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto.