Diego Jaimes

Delhi receives us, an interdisciplinary group of students, with its overwhelming amount of information and stimuli, its conflicts and its stories. We have a week to dive in and try to understand the way people belong -and don’t- to the city, observing case studies. My group went to Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi: a place shifting in use, with a dense fleeting population, needing to understand itself both as a piece of heritage and a commercial center, to defend from the action of real-estate stakeholders that could threaten the social structure.

Heritage in the place is a hinge, holding together the historical objects that find themselves “trapped” in layers of more recent construction, and the living practices of its inhabitants: Private life and workspaces pour into the street and through the virtual layer established by the chabutras; courtyards, alleys and rooftops blur the line between inside and outside. Food, drinks, manufacture, exchange, education, family, friendship and partnerships establish a layer of intangible cultural heritage that make the place unique. We confront the place and each other, our different methodologies and ways of thinking, to communicate creatively an understanding of Dharampura.


Communitary Places in the Haveli: Dharampura, Old Delhi


And what do we do? Asks Arunava1. We are at the closing session of our excursion, in the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. His concern is honest, expressing the challenges multidisciplinary work presents: We are a group of students and professors coming from various backgrounds, geographers, historians, artists, designers, ethnographers, anthropologists, designers, and artists. Our hosts are urban designers who spent a week with us showing us the city, Delhi, their work field. Our excursion has among its goals learning together diverse research and methodology. It is – in a way – an exercise of translation for all of us; for the architects, the process means bringing a wide array of information into design solutions. This difficult process is what I want to address as a gap in my excursion outcome, presenting a preliminary idea for an urban design, as a reflection on what we identified on the field. 

One of the things that calls our attention was a disruption concerning residences in the neighborhood. Traditionally, a large extended family nucleus shares a household, hence the large size of the houses. Today, social customs are shifting, living is atomizing, and people are moving into smaller family units (often far away). This is making the large structures outdated, threatening their heritage value. Two tendencies have been identified by our colleague urban designers, due to this behavior: first, commodification, where traditional owners beautify old houses and give new uses to them, namely hotels and “heritage” apartments. This may support preservation of the buildings, but sets gentrification processes, identified by Herzfeld 2 to push traditional inhabitants away, and with them an array of intangible heritage practices. Second, segmentation, where housing units are “chopped up” into smaller rental units to fulfill new living requirements. This adapts to the new ways of living, but breaks the traditional use of the buildings, and since the “big” owner of the house is lost, care and preservation for common areas (façades, courtyards, terraces) falls: this threats the heritage value of the buildings as built monuments. 

A second situation we identified while walking through Dharampura and leading street interviews to business owners, inhabitants and pass-byers is a demand for common open spaces. 

The neighborhood’s thin streets were designed for pedestrians but have been invaded by motorcycles; a huge flux of fleeting population makes the streets busy, and puts an obstacle for them to serve as a meeting point. The doors of temples, and few places where the streets grow a bit wider – always accompanied by a Chai stall – become thriving places of reunion. The Chabutras, thin platforms in front of the households, about 50cm from the street floor, are the center of this socialization. In this few places, conversation, art, manufacture, and traditional exchange is performed: it is the scenery for the intangible heritage of the neighborhood. Having more space would enrichen this exchange. 

I propose placemaking as an instrument to face these situations: it is, in Silberberg and al.’s definition3, to conceive spaces built by and serving community interaction, that become systems of social exchange: places. It entails understanding what community needs, and how it appropriates spaces. It helps constructing identity. In Urban Design, it makes shape respond to lived experience. In the case of Dharampura I propose courtyards and rooftops as intervention spaces. We went into and up to them during our fieldwork, and experienced how they shift and expand the experience of space. They provide places of silence and wider views; they give other perspectives. They are transforming, as new inhabitants come in. Some are commodified, other are slowly degrading. 

Work shall begin identifying a case study of a Haveli that unites: 1. Threat by degradation, 2. Willingness/feasibility from the owner, 3. Change of traditional inhabitants, 4. Relative ease of intervention 5. Structural stability. After identification, further research of the place should be carried through ethnological methods, to engage with the activities, sociabilities and aspirations of its inhabitants. This would give place to a concrete approach on intervention, conceptually, to make courtyards and/or terraces semi-public spaces. It may be as simple of opening doors, creating chabutras inside courtyards, or placing stalls at ground level in Havelis. It can go further, and entail punctual landscape interventions, vertical circulations, or common appropriations of some (traditionally) private spaces. It seems the changes in use are transforming the traditional “privacy” of Havelis and bringing them into the Public Realm4: as academics, we have an agency in proposing them to go to functions that are communitarian and take care of the vernacular heritage and, to an extent, of the buildings. I can envision how interventions of this type may not only help to thread social ties from the inhabitants of the neighborhood, but also generate a sense of pride and spontaneous acts of preservation of the physical context where they are found in. 

1 Arunava Dasgupta, Professor of Urban Design, SPA Delhi
2 Michael Herzfeld, “Ethics and Profits: Economic Development, Hospitality, and the Preservation of Urban Heritage,” in The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and the City, ed. Setha Low (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), 437–50.

3 Susan Silberberg et al., “How Placemaking Builds Places and Communities,” 2013, 72.
4 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). 


Participants Bio

Diego James, a student assistant (HiWi) in the Chair of Visual and Media Anthropology at HCTS. B.A., Architecture from the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, worked over 10 years as an architectural designer. Now finishing his M.A. in Cultural Heritage in the HCCH, Heidelberg University, where his research deals with understanding built cultural heritage as a maker of cities, communities, and societies. Committed with cultural management and exchange.