The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1862] The Abolition of Congested Urbanism - A Task or a Moral Obligation?

United Arab Emirates

Mega-cities are cities that never sleep. Anything and everything is available 24/7. The way cities like Mumbai, Shanghai, Dubai, etc. accommodate or cater to the ever-growing needs of the urban population through constructing skyscrapers, resorts, water parks and public recreational spaces generates a curiosity as to how certain minds work towards creating these entire new realm of spaces merely through selected data available about a place. The urge to explore and ascertain responses to these unanswered questions is what intrigued me to take up Architecture as my major at university.

As a freshman, architecture at AUS came about as a shock and a surprise. This field is a total world within itself generating several different dimensions through which one can perceive and talk about it. It was a revelation encountering the fact that architects are not mere builders; their work has a psychological and social impact too.

The summer after my first year, when I traveled to Mumbai, India, I was astonished seeing something that I had never foreseen before. During the flight landing, the only thing that was attention grabbing were clusters of un-shapely tin sheds huddled close together, stretching for miles over the city. Having been to India on several occasions before, I lacked to scrutinize or rather ignore this part of India. I guess I perceived these slums as a reality before, something that had been and would sustain to be a part of this ever- growing city.

However, peering down at the city at that moment, the harsh reality hit me that this had certainly become a permanent identity of the city; a city that is the cultural and the entertainment hub of India. The metropolis has been progressing at a rapid pace but the slums in the city have always been ignored and left unattended by the government.

The slums form an integral part of Mumbai because 40% of the city's population lives in 3.5% of its area. (Slums – The Magnitude of the Problem - The plastic sheds that accommodate the poor quiver in the wind as the trains zoom past the city's nastiest slums on their way to downtown Mumbai. They travel barely any distance away from the confines of these slums, where people urinate, bathe or dress, shamelessly on display for the entire world to observe. However, this dilemma of housing the poor of a city, besides Mumbai exists in various other mega cities too like Shanghai, Mexico, Johannesburg, Rio-de Janeiro, Karachi and the UAE, particularly Dubai. These cities are visibly torn between the lavish high- rises that signify the elite skyline on one side and the over crowded shantytowns on the other.

These shantytowns constructed from corrugated tin sheds are also known as human dumps precisely for the reason that they serve as accommodation for more people than they can support. In some cases, 15 square meters of habitable space serves a family of eight or more. (UAE: Address Abuse of Migrant Workers -

There is a popular saying in Mumbai - “ The Elite can accept the poor as slaves, but not as human beings”. It is these slum inhabitants that are responsible for providing all the services within cities, right from taxis, milk, newspapers, vendors, servants, etc. It is due to these slum- dwellers that these mega-cities function, and if they discontinue providing these respective services, indeed entire cities could come to a tumultuous halt.

Being a fourth year architecture student at the American University of Sharjah, this competition encouraged me to think and write about the slum situation in my country. However, since I am studying in Sharjah, UAE and entering my final year as a student, it would be much more interactive and a hands on experience for me as a competition planner as well as my university, if this competition could be developed as a means to adress the housing dilemma for the migrant workers of the sub- continent within the UAE itself primarily Dubai, instead of Mumbai, India. Also, this would sufficiently attract more students to participate in this competition, as Dubai today is progressing at a rapid pace and going global in all spheres of activity particularly design and construction. It is ‘the’ city with a cosmopolitan style where anyone and everyone is battling to fit in.

While the market of the UAE sustains to grow impressively, the communal society persists to decline as the division amid the rich and the poor becomes apparent. Hidden away in the desert away from the glitz and the glamour of the city is the Dubai that the tourists never experience. These labor "slums" situated on the outskirts of the city house hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mostly from the sub-continent. There are no malls, public spaces or beaches here.

According to the Ministry of Labor, UAE, approximately 85 percent of the UAE’s inhabitants are foreign, and these outsiders account for practically 90 percent of the labor force in the private sector, including domestic workers. (UAE: Address Abuse of Migrant Workers - These laborers are primarily Asian, mostly from the sub-continent and work at construction sites all over Dubai for average monthly wages of 500 dirhams (136 dollars). (Henderson, Simon. High Rises and Low Wages: Expatriate Labor in Gulf Arab States -

While in Mumbai, India, the slums serve as shelter for the poor and the displaced ‘citizens’ of the country that are responsible for providing services to the entire city, the labor camps or labor slums in the UAE are shelters for non- citizen labor workers. These labor workers are the real force behind the creation of Dubai today. It is through them, that the builders transform their magnificent ideas into reality.

Social and emotional exploitation of these migrant workers is through the atrocious living conditions of the labor camps that are a means of shelter to them. The labor camps or rather labor ‘slums’ are shelters where laborers are crammed into a single room with beds placed above each other, making it difficult to survive in this congested space. (Henderson, Simon. High Rises and Low Wages: Expatriate Labor in Gulf Arab States. March 27, 2006. Retrieved 12 February 2008 from Furthermore, these camps are isolated from the main city giving the workers no chance to intermingle with the rest of the city.

Labor camps have inferior living conditions, either overcrowded dormitories or temporary quarters in hazardous and unhygienic camps. Lack of sewage facilities, lack of potable water, and most importantly lack of sleeping space, makes it increasingly difficult to survive within these camps. They are congested and in some cases have up to 12 workers crammed within a single space. In some extreme cases bed shifts occur, i.e. each worker has only 12 hours access to a certain sleeping space and after that, has to vacate it for the next worker for the rest of the day. The bathrooms are closet-sized and shared by up to 25 men. (Williamson, Lucy. Migrants' woes in Dubai worker camps -

These laborers migrate from their respective countries in search for better jobs and standards of living but land up right where they started off.

According to an investigation conducted on labor camps by Khaleej Times, a leading newspaper in Dubai, the construction sector is facing an inherent problem as the grant of work permits in the country is being associated to providing accommodation. This has facilitated the inability of companies to provide housing for the laborers due to suspension of the land allotments by the government for the building of labor. Thus, around 8-12 workers are packed in each room and they are left with no choice but to compromise with their circumstances, so as to cut down on the company’s total costs.

These workers slog long hours in the scorching heat with daily temperatures soaring more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They undeniably deserve comfortable lodging situation for a good night’s rest with hygienic sanitary facilities. Labor camps should also include certain outdoor and indoor recreational facilities that allow the laborers to enjoy quality time with their colleagues. This would facilitate a sense of comfort and relaxation for them and provide something more in return for their hard work rather than only measly wages. The bottom line is that these South Asian workers, even though employed on a contractual basis for a temporary period are employees, and hence their workers rights should be guarded, for as long as they stay in the UAE.

Participating in this competition would be a challenge for all architecture and urban design students including me. Architecture education today is predominantly being branded to cater to the rich and the powerful. It’s being transformed to train students to challenge and compete for the most prestigious and iconic projects. In search for a superfluous identity, the true essence of architecture, which is to serve, has long been forgotten. Often architects are desperately desired in the places where they can least be afforded.

However, the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah does reflect on this social aspect of architecture too. Certain studio projects and various trips have been organized to highlight and enhance the social and emotional aspects of this profession. Recently a trip to earthquake- stricken Pakistan was organized through the school, where professors and students collaboratively helped in the on-site construction of houses for the earthquake victims.

AUS certainly shapes architecture students as experts that are in demand within the region and can get great jobs with comfortable salaries, but it also trains students to critically think and inhabit the social territory of the profession.

This competition would be a significant challenge for any design student owing to the emotional and social intensity the issue of low-cost labor housing entails. Having my major as architecture and minoring in urban design, crafting this competition could be an imperative step in my design education. Furthermore, owing to the reputation and influence of my university in this region, it would be a highly feasible location to hold a competition of this genre. It would aid in promoting the significance of the project as well as serve a challenge for my university to prove its relevance within the region.

Title - Working towards attaining a Cohesive UAE- A Labor Slum Rehabilitation Project

This low-cost housing competition for the laborers entails to be foremost a cost- effective design problem. However, a short essay along with the proposal shall be deemed necessary to briefly explain one’s scheme and outlook towards the competition.

It primarily focuses on issues of safety, health and dignity predominantly lacking in these labor camps .The objective of this competition is to provide the workers efficient low-cost housing to ensure a healthy and respected life-style. The proposal should primarily meet the needs of the workers, providing them with open habitable spaces in contrast to the crammed housing situation existing today and a distinct separation of private and service spaces. Furthermore, the contestants are given complete freedom to opt for any site within Dubai they deem appropriate i.e. either to transform an existing labor camp on site or shift the labor housing to another part of the city. However, a direct link with the infrastructure of the city should play a deciding factor in picking out an appropriate site. To foster a humane environment, good accommodation with communal spaces should be granted.

This low-cost housing project should be defined through

- Cost - Effectiveness

- Horizontal and vertical densification

- Conducive neighborhood with communal facilities

- Sustainable approach

- Basic Infrastructure stipulations

- Sense of care and security

Since the project is at a large scale, teamwork is the feasible approach (2 students per team), as it will be easier to grasp the site and scale as a group and work towards achieving a sound scheme. The group could interestingly be a combination of one student from the AUS and one from a foreign university. This collaborative approach towards the issue will augment two different perspectives and could eventually generate an interesting proposal.

This project or rather the competition will function in distinctive phases over the course of one semester owing to the comprehensiveness of the issue.

Phase 1 – context analyses | schematic analyses of the site chosen by the students

Why was this site chosen as the most efficient place for this project?

Phase II – diagramming concepts and schemes and designing proposals that are site specific and interconnected with infrastructure of the city.

Phase III – materials and tectonics | sustainability

Phase IV – Final proposal of the design competition should enclose -

A brief on the overall design process (1000 words) | scaled computer drawings and renderings | complete final model with site

To ensure that all the chosen teams work at the same level, general instructions regarding the scale of the computer drawings and the final model will be provided online.

An innovative, radical attitude towards low-cost labor housing, either redesigning an existing space, or shifting it to another area is the need of the hour. A critical thought out scheme that has a minimalist outlook and efficiently satisfies the consumer and client needs shall be the undisputed winner. Thinking different will certainly make a difference.

Furthermore, to ascertain that this competition is beyond a theoretical exercise, the winning entry could be published in articles, journals, etc. to highlight the design impact towards low-cost housing and create awareness in the region about the dilemma these workers undergo.

To evaluate this competition, an exciting jury would be a mixture of people from different fields with similar perspectives.

1- Charles Correa – architect for his contribution towards low-cost housing projects and his familiarity with the issues involved.

2- Mohamed Somji – A Tanzanian photo- journalist living in Dubai who has documented the conditions in which laborers live.

3- Ismail Serageldin – a distinguished writer on rural development, sustainability, and the value of science to society. He regards humanity as his family and peace, justice, equality and dignity for all as his rationale in life.

4- Arif Hasan – a leading environmentalist, architect and people-oriented planner acknowledged for his contribution to low-income settlement programs in Pakistan.

Besides myself, Professor Samia Rab, Associate Professor and Chair of Architecture Department at the American University of Sharjah, will act as the co-coordinator of this design competition.

In conclusion, I just want to assert that Dubai is certainly poised to reach great heights. It has got everything it takes to sustain the status of a world- class metropolis. Any city can be illustrious with the support of its people, assets and the right vision. However, a great city is that which not only caters to the nationals but also the migrants. The need of the hour is to canalize this city through a structured cost- effective growth of its labor settlements. Overcoming bias against these workers and regarding them as an important part of the city will give them a home away from home. Remember, man does not live by bread alone.

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