Looming at 15 stories, the hypothetical building has no ground floor.

Human and animal traffic mill at this level, moving from one end of the building to the other. Garbage drops from the tenants above before being pushed to the edges and collected for the recycling plant at the edge of the city. The wind shifts, and the smells from the garbage and recycling plant shift with it.

This is a solution to the problem of slums proposed by Kowalski Hugon, founder of architecture and design firm UGO. Let’s Talk About Garbage is the name of the design concept, and it was Hugo’s graduation project for his master’s degree in architecture. It gained wider notoriety after winning the 2013 Archiprix International — an architectural design competition for graduate students. (For a closer look, check out Hugon’s huge cutaway schematics.)

His proposal draws inspiration from Kowloon Walled City — a former slum of Hong Kong — and the work of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. The plan is simple: renovate the slums so that they’re more functional.

Dharavi sits in the heart of Mumbai, merely 10 minutes from the financial district as a metropolis waxes and wanes around one of the poorest and most densely populated pieces of land on the planet. An estimated 600,000 to one million people live and work in the slum, sustaining an economy of traders and craftsmen that support the larger Mumbai economy. The area also processes the garbage of its neighbors.

It’s here that Hugon imagined his teeming mega-cities. Dharavi has always been a problem for Mumbai’s elites: a famous slum that is the obvious flaw in the jewel of New India. Plans to renovate the area have been kicked around since the mid 1990s, and local politicians are promising that the current proposed renovation project will be finished by the end of the year.

The mega-blocks hope to retain some of what makes the slums work. The interior rooms are designed to be modular, unlike residential apartment units found in Western suburbs and in developed urban India. Half of the structure is given over to recycling facilities. “People become the architects of their own home, as families are able to decide the number of rooms, their arrangement and the materials used,” noted Designboom.

Le Lignon snakes through Geneva. Port(u*o)s Photo

Mixed record

Densely populated mega-communities may appear to be strange Soviet relic — large scale projects that inevitably fail and exact a human toll far greater than the situation they aimed to fix. But that’s not always the case.

Le Lignon in Switzerland houses 6,800 residents and is one of the largest apartment complexes in the world. Despite some debates about the aesthetic nature of the structure (it resembles a giant wall), the area is comfortable, affordable and boasts a low crime rate. But Le Lignon was a well-funded project in a peaceful part of the world. Not a improvised community built from the fragments of displaced peoples.

Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong was a community like this. It grew out of a Chinese military fort and expanded as people were displaced first by British colonial rule and later by the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. At its height, Kowloon Walled City held 33,000 people and was one of the most densely populated locales in the world. In lieu of local police and government, organized crime ran the city.

Joana Sa Lima — creative director of Norwegian design firm Comte Bureau — commented when seeing the Dharavi proposal:

… realize that to design in this context you have to address real problems such as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, gender equity … and only with local understanding and community participation you will be able to make some incremental changes and that eventually, could lead to a successful design.
Kowloon Walled City. Jidanni Photo

New dystopias

Le Lignon works because it was built with these basic considerations in mind. There were no people to uproot, only people to move in while Switzerland was in the midst of a housing crisis.

The government of Hong Kong stepped in and demolished Kowloon Walled City in the early 1990s after evicting its thousands of residents and compensating them to the sum of $350 million. A park is there now.

Dharavi is in the middle of its own, very real, reconstruction project. Unlike Hong Kong — who displaced so many — the government of Mumbai is looking to renovate the area for the current residents. The proposed plans involve large residential buildings with people crammed into spaces less than 300 square feet, but the government is proposing to give those spaces only out to registered residents. Many of the current residents aren’t registered.

There’s also a risk the businesses and exports that sustain Dharavi will be destroyed along with the slum. People will be displaced again, scattered to other slums, other pieces of the metropolis. Conflict will rise again. The human deck will be reshuffled. Students in the West will imagine new dystopias for them.

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