Godofredo Enes Pereira
Architecture is all about devices—of seeing, gathering, separating, distributing, affecting, fearing, representing. Windows, squares, walls, corridors, furniture, domes, columns, façades; all are components of one or more device. What they do is engage, capture, attract. The story of the one-foot shop, so beautifully told by Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, is surely one of the most curious cases.
Before we speak about the one-foot shop, let us do a detour through what I call “popular architecture.” By this I mean a diverse set of spatial practices that intervene upon the built environment in similar ways to architecture, yet without depending on the expertise of architects. In the history of architectural devices, countless have been invented in this way, from housing types to decorated sheds and street furniture. Popular architecture does not care if its devices are architecture or not, which means it is not concerned with what devices are but with what they do. Thus its devices are less prone to burdening themselves with problems of identity or representation; if they represent, it is mostly because its representations do something. Without cumbersome disciplinary neurosis and self-reflective concerns, popular architecture is quick in breaking barriers and inventing unexpected compositions.
Popular architecture’s devices emerge out of scarcity (of employment, of food) and are composed out of limited resources (of funds, of materials, of infrastructures, of design expertise). They are creative only insofar as people need to live and make a living. In other words, popular architecture is not moved by a willingness to experiment, but rather by entrepreneurship, survival or even desperation. These are territorial and cannibal devices: grounded in life, they eat whatever they can or is available, be it timber or plastic, symbolic or financial. Popular devices are neither part of a critical project against land ownership or real estate, nor do they promote legal indeterminacy or a romantic view of architectural diversity. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, try again, something else. One has to keep living.
The one-foot shop is a perfect example of a device produced by popular architecture. Profiting from the legal possibility to rent shop-fronts, the device transforms the city, re-inventing elevations, compositions and rhythms. It converts a well-behaved wall into a 0.4x5m exchange-device: one foot-inside, one-foot outside. It negotiates informal and legal protocols while generating several more. There is an immense ingenuity and economy of means in this device, but we should first and foremost recognize that its cheap structure for the display of commodities serves more purpose than simply retail. The one-foot device allows for small and micro-organizations of familial units to make a living where there is little welfare. It also creates a series of spaces for speaking, meeting and gathering that in the process, transform the streetscape and its life.
Elsewhere, Gupte and Shetty have referred to the one-foot shop as a “transactional object,” a term that attempts to capture its operations as a device that “settles,” “blurs” and “trips.” But in the present case, the conversation that emerges from the encounter between “design” and “accident” seems to keep this device’s potential at bay. After all, “design,” “accident” and even “friendship” could be used to speak about everything. These shops themselves throw much of the terminology used to describe or conceptualize cities into question, from ownership patterns to formal or public-private distinctions, and “friendship,” “accident” and “design” are too generic to capture what is at stake within them.
In foregrounding the contingent nature of the one-foot shop, the authors risk disempowering the struggles that take place through it. Surely, the one-foot shop is not of any one authors’ creation but of several processes and conditions entering into a precarious composition: from legal loopholes to the availability of people willing to rent walls and the material availability to convert them. And yet, each of the different devices that get to be called a “one-foot shop” has been designed and calculated. Even if built with very little means or support, the one-foot shop materializes design decisions and life projects. They are objects of labor and investment, both economic and affective. One has to rent; to build and insert the display structures, or repair pre-existing ones; to invest in perfumes, pans or shoes, or establish networks with suppliers; to paint, and of course to be in the shop, everyday, selling.
In a similar way, the conversation between “accident” and “design” disregards the singular qualities of this specific device. In surviving and showing an ability to adapt to Mumbai’s shifting modes of production, the one-foot shop has proven to be extremely successful; a success made evident by its replication. In creating something that repeats across the city, the device becomes urban, composing or materializing a series of collective rhythms. Surely this is not all a direct consequence of design, but I do not think the success of the one-foot shop is any more a mix of accidents, encounters, mistakes or shifting desires than any other successful piece of architecture, popular or otherwise. I do not know of any architecture that is not permanently in becoming.
At stake is the problem of how to conceptualize the non-linear and contradictory ways in which cities take shape. I agree with the importance the authors place upon incoherence and contingency, particularly in opposition to a profession that almost entirely understands design as a “linear” and “coherent” operation, to which I would add that it is precisely in its ability to adapt to shifting modes of production that popular architecture often outperforms its expert counterpart. But I do not think this happens because its devices are in any way less precise. On the contrary, we can see how the one-foot shop has precise characteristics that allow it to be identified, discussed and copied—despite all variations.
What I am concerned, therefore, is with what I feel to be a slight confusion between the one-foot shop’s ability to deal with contingency and change and its description as contingent and ever changing. The one-foot shop is very good in tolerating change, and yet it is very, very simple. In my view, it is its ability to provide consistency to modes of living, and to do so at multiple scales—from the scale of the shop-front, to the street and the city—that makes the one-foot shop such a unique and amazing device.
Godofredo Enes Pereira is an architect and researcher. He is currently a Visiting Tutor in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, where he runs ADS7: Ecologies of Existence together with David Burns and Platon Issaias. His doctoral research at the Centre for Research Architecture (CRA), Goldsmiths University London was entitled “The Underground Frontier: Technoscience and Collective Politics” and investigated political and territorial conflicts within the planetary race for underground resources.