BLOM 08: Housing Humanity, Building Locality. Presented by Claire Barry

Author: Greg McQueen[1]

Blom, meaning to flower or to hang out on the local street corner, are a series of informal discussions organised by 26’10 South Architects to broaden discussions around local architecture.

Perspective 01. Credit: Claire Barry

How do we meet the need for appropriate, feasible and dignified housing for those living on the unplanned peripheries of our cities? This is the question Claire Barry attempted to answer in this year’s 8th Blom session. She presented an exploration of her thesis Housing Humanity, Building Locality which is situated in Nala Sopara, a growing peripheral suburb to north of Mumbai. The area is a spatial buffer, absorbing a stream of people moving to the city from rural areas, and people who have been forced out of the central city by economic pressure. This has placed huge strain on the existing housing infrastructure in the area.

The thesis was approached through a multilayered perspective; typological and ethnographic research, the design of individual units and buildings, the arrangements of those buildings into clusters and the introduction of those clusters into the urban fabric. The thesis was produced as part of her involvement in the Global Housing Studio at TU Delft in the Netherlands.

 In their book ‘Commonalities’, Atelier Bow Wow introduce the concept of ‘typological genealogy’: That it is possible, through the investigation of typological development over time, to discover an ‘inherent intelligence’ in the way that we construct, inhabit and adapt our urban environments to suit us. Barry acted as an architect and ethnographer, investigating both the development of existing built typologies over time and ways residents have adapted the urban environment to suit their cultural, economic and personal needs.

Study existing conditions 01. Credit: Claire Barry
Study existing conditions 02. Credit: Claire Barry

Nala Sopara is primarily constructed of low-rise Baithi chawls and mid-rise tenements, which Barry argues, are an evolution of the Baithi Chawl and BDD Chawl typologies. Chawls were first constructed to house workers around the early cotton mills in the south of Mumbai. The ubiquitous mid-rise tenements in Nala Sopara are a continuation of the Chawl typology and are nicknamed ‘handshake chawls’ because they are so close together that it is possible to shake hands with the neighbour on the balcony opposite.

In Nala Sopara, the function of rooms change throughout the day. Sleeping rooms may be used as workspaces and shops before becoming the family gathering spaces in the evening. The entrance thresholds, often defined by narrow verandah like plinths, are highly social environments, acting as spaces for preparing food, conducting business and passing time with neighbours.

Section 01. Credit: Claire Barry
Section 03. Credit: Claire Barry

Barry approached the design of individual units as suggestive of future development strategies rather than prescriptive. The square meterage of the initial shell is small enough to qualify for government funding and interest free loans. The units can then be expanded by owners as their needs and means grow. Individual units can be expanded on the exterior by filing in balconies an on the interior. The sectional design of the units allows a mezzanine in some sections, through the use of alternating up-stand and down-stand beams.

Structural system. Credit: Claire Barry
Structural system. Credit: Claire Barry

To encourage social interaction, she designed built-in benches along the wide corridors and situated the kitchens adjacent to the corridor edge, framing cooking and eating as a social activity and blurring the boundary between inside and outside. The circulation corridors are intentionally wide to allow residents to expand their homes into them.

At an urban scale, Barry designed a number of building configurations as clusters around staggered linear courtyards to reintroduce and reinforce preexisting spatial typologies. Learning from prior chawl typologies, the buildings have no front and back but rather offer varying grades of public and private space. The buildings are arranged in a staggered formation, giving people glimpses into the courtyards but not revealing them in their entirety.

Basic Cluster. Credit: Claire Barry

The clusters are deigned to be introduced into the existing urban fabric, accentuating pre-existing but unacknowledged paths of movement around ‘community spines’ characterised by larger spaces between buildings and commercial functions on the ground floor. Clusters are placed on slightly raised plinths, a nod to existing typological practices and delineating public meeting spaces.

The staggered buildings curate the spatial experience, shortening site lines and creating spaces which must be explored and discovered.

The architecture proposed awaits colonisation from those who live in it, growing more complex and effective the more residents transform it to suit their needs and practices. The thesis is not about creating buildings as a solution, rather it is about providing the infrastructure for residents to construct their own future. The aim is to catalyse in situ upward economic mobility. Instead of outgrowing their home and moving elsewhere, families can take root and expand their homes as the need arises. This creates a sense of permanence and cultural identity which is lacking in traditionally transient communities. Here, the Modern column and beam system is subverted, no longer one size fits all but rather an opportunity for a multitude of personal solutions.

Perspective 3. Credit: Claire Barry
Perspective 5. Credit: Claire Barry


In her work, Barry mentions the influence of Arjun Appaurai’s collected essays;  The future as a cultural fact, Atelier Bow Wow’s ‘Commonalities of architecture’  andArchitectural Ethnographyand the investigative communal urban work of BV Doshi.

Her full thesis can be found here:


[1]Greg McQueen is a candidate architect and part-time lecturer at the University of the Free State. He is interested in the spaces between buildings, inner city rejuvenation and how architecture shapes societal relationships. (email:

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