4.163J / 11.332J
Urban Design Studio — Pre-Industrial/Post-Industrial: Kolkata's Jute Mills

Permission of instructor
Required of: 
SMArchS (design)

The design of urban environments. Strategies for change in large areas of cities, to be developed over time, involving different actors. Fitting forms into natural, man-made, historical, and cultural contexts; enabling desirable activity patterns; conceptualizing built form; providing infrastructure and service systems; guiding the sensory character of development. Involves architecture and planning students in joint work; requires individual designs or design and planning guidelines.

This practicum/studio proposes a design-planning collaboration to address the post-industrial sites and industrial architectural heritage of Kolkata, Britain’s erstwhile capital in the east and, until the mid-20th century, India’s largest city. Once India’s “primary” city whose imminent explosion in population explosion conjured up horrific futures in the minds of Indian and American policy experts, Kolkata is today a city in decline, with a degraded economic base, and a shrinking population; a striking contrast to urbanization patterns in the rest of India (and Asia). A strong cause for this urban and economic decline is the jute mill system, a sprawling network of industrial sites abutting the city center and the Hooghly River, the hub of a dispersed agrarian hinterland spread over the Gangetic delta linked by waterway and rail networks. In mid-20th century, the global shift from jute usage to cheaper, more durable synthetic fibers destroyed this system, and the economic base of an industrial system 20 times the size of Detroit. Our studio will take up the large riparian lands and buildings of the padlocked jute mills in order to query the intersecting problems of economic, ecological and urban vitality, and the role of planning and architectural/urban design therein.  

In local terms, the jute mill properties today are largely under- or unutilized. Many mills have been closed owing to negative convergences of labor conflict, local political syndicates, the rentierist mindset of the jute mill owners, lack of general investments in the area, and so on. The mills that do continue to operate do so with fifty-year old machinery, aimed at supplying mandated governmental procurement quotas in the jute sector. The mills sit over vast lands, many of them within a short distance from the downtown districts of the city, encompassing multiple, low level uses: “coolie lines” or worker housing, ancillary industrial activity and often untended forest or unused lands. There is the irrational expectation on all sides that land-use conversion to real estate is both inevitable given patterns elsewhere, and will result in windfall benefits to stakeholders able to hold on to “rights” of various kinds in the current impasse; conflict over which in a sense paralyses the process of conversion. 

In technical terms, all of the jute mill properties site on flat, deltaic land with minimal differences from sea level: semi-diurnal tidal bores from from the Bay of Bengal push all the way into the Kolkata metropolitan region. Most of the lower Bengal delta, including Kolkata, is slated for massive inundation with global warming and sea level rise. 

One of the major interests of this practicum/studio is to study how interests are produced and defended, and to understand planning/design as a process of negotiating interests of various kinds and at multiple scales, involving both present and absent stakes on the ground. The studio will particularly concentrate on four overlapping areas of design inquiry

a)    financial outlook in a context of post-industrial blight and a largely pre-industrial hinterland
b)    on the design side, the question of industrial heritage and adaptive reuse of large nineteenth century infrastructure and buildings
c)    infrastructural prospects with a view to connectivity amidst climate/tidal water issues
d)    interest groups politics and unlocking land values.

A particular concern is the question of urban revitalization in a context of deepening economic malaise and poverty. What can planning and design achieve when some of their principal supports, premises, and causes—large financial infusions, programmatic certainty, and presumption of “growth”—might be structurally unavailing in a region owing to larger global and national trends? To a certain extent this might mean checking against classic real estate attitudes to look more closely at the relationships of cities and economies. 

Projects in 4.163

by Adiel Benitez, Somala Diby
Spring 2020
by Angie Door, Tess McCann, Gabriela Zayas del Rio
Spring 2020