March 1, 2011
A new exhibition touts the ingenious resourcefulness of Indian design. But is jugaad good urbanism?
Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities
Through May 21
Center for Architecture
New York City
The jugaad is a curious vehicle that plies India’s bumpy suburban and rural roads. It is cobbled together out of spare parts—a tractor’s chassis, the engine of a truck, wheels from a minivan. Up to 12 passengers ride it at a time, hanging on for life as the ramshackle jalopy swerves to avoid the occasional cow in the road. Named for a Hindi word that roughly translates as “make do,” the jugaad often runs on adulterated diesel. Its drivers have no permits and pay no taxes. But it is an indigenously developed solution for areas where public transport is either unreliable or nonexistent.
This ad-hoc automobile is one of 22 designs in Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities, on view at the Center for Architecture, in New York City, until May 21. Some of these projects, like a smokeless stove developed by Philips Design’s Indian studio in Pune, are award-winning concepts by big design outfits. Others, like a spinning wheel that generates electricity, are the work of local entrepreneurs. But all of them are inspired by jugaad, the attitude that lent its name to the vehicle—an attitude that says, When only the bare minimum of resources is available, there is always a way to make things work, even if just for the time being.
“These are innovative fixes,” says Kanu Agrawal, the exhibition’s curator and a licensed architect with the Indian Council of Architecture. “There is a great deal of imagination, they are practical, they are affordable, and they have a participatory nature—something that involves the community.” Such fixes have historically shaped India’s cityscapes. At the turn of the 20th-century, Mumbai textile-mill workers moved into multifamily housing units called chawls. Rapidly constructed out of teak, the tenements functioned for decades as affordable housing for lower-middle-class families. The jugaad attitude also permeates one of India’s most celebrated recent design stories, the ultra-affordable Tata Nano car. Its creators began the design process by welding two motorcycles together. The final car has several parts that are simply glued together with high-performance adhesives.
But not all jugaad stories have happy endings. M. P. Ranjan, an eminent Indian design thinker and a member of the Governing Council of the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, says that the idea that ad-hoc fixes are good enough might actually be to blame for the country’s notoriously creaky infrastructure. “It is an attitude that permeates all our offerings,” he says, “from government services to low-cost infrastructure, products, and service solutions that are not sustainable for inclusive development, all lacking in refinement and costly in the long run.”
One of the projects in the exhibition, Mumbai’s skywalks, ran into precisely this problem. The city planned 50 overhead walkways to help pedestrians escape the choked streets, but the designs had to be changed several times as the contractors dug into uncharted electric lines and sewers—probably the work of some earlier official who had resorted to quick fixes instead of following a plan. In this case, jugaad was merely counterproductive, but it can also cause real harm. The jugaad vehicle, for instance, may be inventive, but it is also dangerous and highly polluting.
Agrawal is quick to admit that jugaad rarely produces perfect answers. Yet his exhibition suggests that a small-scale, object-based approach can sometimes yield great results without unnecessarily meddling with systems that people have created for themselves. One of two projects commissioned for Jugaad Urbanism is a proposal by Vir.Mueller Architects for Shahpur Jat, a village in Delhi that lacks the most basic infrastructure. The project team refrained from grand gestures and instead designed a community toilet that runs on dry-composting and rain-harvesting systems, thus depending as little as possible on help from the powers that be. Now the proposal might have the blessing of the local government. “It is these small things that we keep coming back to,” Agrawal says. “They will probably have a longer shelf life, and a better impact on the urban environment.”