Learning from the Chawl Culture

What is India?

If you look without a western template, then you will notice that we live the way different species live and grow in a forest. There is a different set of order which looks chaotic but still has a pattern and can grow without any problem for hundreds of years unattended, unlike, a trimmed landscaped area which can disappear in a few days if left without any maintenance.

While reading a paper by Amol Rane and Saurabh Barde, about Chawls in Mumbai, I realised we are desperately missing something in many of our housing projects and that is the “Chawl culture” and I really don’t think there is a western word to it. The closest they might go is by naming it “Chaos”. This nation brings together people from different walks of life, make them live together and the result is a happy, peaceful and caring sense of neighbourhood. People irrespective of their likes and dislikes live like one big family. Be it cricket or any religious festival or demise of someone or marriage of someone, people are together in thick and thin. You feel you are secured and safe and someone is always there for you at every turn. Metaphorically, “togetherness in this chaos” is the soul of any Chawl. All we need to do is subtly give direction to this Chaos without disturbing the pattern in which it is growing.

Image courtesy: urbzoo via Flickr

Due to external influences, presently, we are neatly organised and everything is disciplined around us. Now we find a similar set of trees planted in groups, following a line, a pattern, a particular distance between each other. The space between them restricts interaction with other trees and they live in their own world “alone”. Yes, it looks beautiful from outside but, the soul is missing. Like melody is the soul to any music, similarly, we need to understand how we can get people to create a melody called “togetherness” in our housing projects. But we need to understand that times have changed and now we don’t like people over interfering in our lives, so we need to create a threshold, which should not be crossed to infringe into someone’s privacy.

I have seen people compare a housing project with Chawl and reject it straight away. This is due to changing times and now people need their own space and avoid interference from other residents. We as architects and developers need to find a solution to get people together without crossing this very threshold.

Listed below are some minor design interventions that can help us bring back that missing sense of neighbourhood in our residential projects.

Internal walkways

Walkways are the main source of encouragement for any interaction between residents; all we need to do is make sure they are pleasant enough for walking and people don’t want to get off the walkways due to the overhead Sun or due to traffic movement and noise pollution on the adjacent road.

Walkways should be wide enough to make people walk together in groups and should have seating at regular intervals, just in case people are tired of walking and want to sit and relax. Planters with nice flowering and shading trees between the road and the pathway are always a good idea to make it feel secure and make the walk pleasurable. You need shade, security and suitable furniture to make it comfortable for anybody. With cycle culture back into the business, we can also restrict vehicles beyond a certain point in a township and make pathways all along till the residence. This is a good solution considering safety for kids and elderly people.


Parking spaces are mostly neglected spaces, and not much thought is given to the quality of this space. They are mostly dingy spaces and people wish to just move out of this place post parking their vehicles.

We can make parking better by allowing cutout natural light inside along with artificial lights. Basements should have demarcated walking lanes and consolidated spaces for drivers to sit, have lunch and relax if required. Getting a tree inside the parking through a cutout is also not a bad idea as it can give life to a somewhat dead space.


Most of the interaction I have observed in any neighbourhood is in the elevator. Those few seconds of interaction is what we have in the entire day. In the present scenario, this is the only place we interact and the reason is simple. It’s a forced interaction because we are standing in a confined space and there is no reason to break eye contact. So all we need to do is give an aesthetically pleasing, big enough, nicely lit elevator and rest will be taken care of.

Core / Cluster

In India, this place usually acts as a spillover space in case you have a lot of guests at home and the rooms and balconies are overflowing. Lobbies have adequate potential to encourage interaction between neighbours provided it has sufficient space, natural light, ventilation and a good view if possible. Unfortunately, it is a highly compromised space and given the last preference in terms of the hierarchy of spaces.  If well lit, Just provide a granite bench as sit-out and put a Tulsivrindavan at the centre. Tulsi is a sacred plant and everybody feels it is their duty to water it every day. And when there is a place, which is considered sacred, it automatically inherits the potential to attract people.

One of the things I wanted to try is giving plinth to every apartment with a couple of steps to climb up or down, the way it is done in group housing. This might allow residents to sit and chitchat in their lobbies. Also, it may not be a bad idea to open a window in the passage, the way you see it in Chawls. Rangoli is a major and interesting activity, which happens in almost every house for the most part of the year. If designed properly, a cluster can encourage micro level activities like making Rangoli, papad and pickle, picnic for kids, group worship in Ganpati festival, reading newspapers, watching matches, playing chess/cards, having a cup of tea together etc. This place is like a common passage in a Chawl which over a period of time has evolved and encouraged the idea of living together as a family with neighbouring units. In Chawls, these passages are a physical extension of an individual unit, where senior citizens play cards in the afternoon and can be used for sleeping at night.

Entrances of individual units

This is vital for a cluster, as it should be designed in a way, it forces you to keep the main door open, but also allows your privacy at the same time. This can be done smartly with minor design intervention.


Most of the interactions between neighbours are not happening because of the closed-door culture. The closed-door culture hampers interactions between neighbours. I think the problem is voice sound. We don’t like people listening to what we are talking about. If the doors are too close, voice sound is bound to spread, forcing a closed-door culture. Visually, we should just make sure that the door is not opening into the other person’s seating space by maintaining a comfortable distance and creating visual barriers to keep the doors open.

Community Spaces

Our ancestors were intelligent enough to understand that social gatherings are important to keep us all together. Only if we are together, we can be happy and we can get the strength to fight external forces. That is the main reason to have so many festivals. It is important for all of us to make sure the tradition continues. Like Chawl, a central big courtyard is a good space for all these sports, festivals and functions. We should make sure that dedicated space is available in every society, which is part of the complex and not secluded in one corner.


This space should be seen through our windows, lobbies, balconies etc so that even if someone is not participating, they are still visually connected with the event.

Overlooking balconies

Balconies need privacy without visual interference. In many societies, it is too open for anybody to peep over, hence we are not using it effectively. A balcony, when designed in a way which stops overlooking but encourages interaction if required, can be an ideal scenario. Instead of the road, if it overlooks a central open space then nothing like it. Balcony overlooking an open space will encourage communal binding between residents as they will be continuously connected to the activities happening in the inner courtyard which is the most vibrant public place in a housing complex.

These are simple but effective steps to make people see, talk, interact, play, work together and bring life to any project. Remember that everybody wishes to have friends with whom they can indulge with, all you need to do is provide the necessary infrastructure for them to sit and talk.

About the author:SidharthSingh

Siddharth Singh is the principal architect of Green Hat Studio, Pune. Since starting his own practice, he has tasted a fair bit of success since then. Recently he won an award in the prestigious Delhi Architecture Festival Awards 2016.

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