HON MENTION: Exaptive Urbanism


September 2014

Exaptive Urbanism: Symbiotic Regeneration of Mahalaxmi Dhobighat, Mumbai

Sep 19, 2014 2:59 AM
by Aclife -  |  2 Comments




title slide

The word Dhobi Ghat is used all over India to refer to any place where many washers together use a designated land as a community workplace to wash public laundry at a commercial scale. Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is the world’s largest open air laundry in Mumbai, India. Spread across 4 acres near the Mahalaxmi racecourse, it employs over 7500 migrant workers who live and work on site in hyper density and unhygienic conditions handwashing over 750,000 clothes on a daily basis. Dhobighat has been serving Mumbai for the past 150 years. In many ways it characterizes a degenerating industrial core of a mega city – caught in the web of poor public policy, failed infrastructure, insalubrious conditions but still functioning with energy and resilience. Dhobighat is a popular attraction among (international) tourists and a challenging site for urban studies.

The evolution of Mumbai highlights that the city has always encouraged forming multiple nuclei of various working communities in a live work setup. Munbai's growth from an island to a megapolis can largely be contributed to some of these iconic live-work communities of Mumbai. Such as:

Cotton Mill workers of Bhuleshwar; Jewellers of Zaveri Baza; Washermen (Dhobi) of Mahalaxmi  and the Fishermen of Girgaum

Such communities had transformed the neighbourhood into a mixed used development that works in a live work symbiotic relationship. Due to divergence of industries, rapid urbanization and new job opportunities, many industries have died. Dhobi Ghat is one of the few remaining such industries which still supports and exploits the live - work synergy.

Evolution of Dhobighat

Dhobi ghat at Mahalaxmi is a 150 year old establishment. It was developed by the British East India Co. in 1858, to serve as a mass laundry for the British Military. Post India's independence from the British Raj, dhobi ghat was authorised as an urban working community and the land was handed over to the Dhobi Ghat association(a group of residents of the dhobi society). Later around 1993 as per revised Development Control Regulations of Mumbai the site was desiignated under industrial reservation as DG (Dhobi Ghat) intended to protect/prevent any form of private commercial redevelopment.

As the city of Mumbai got more urbanized, rising land values and limited infrastructure triggered by high rural migration, led to unchecked proliferation of informal settlements within dhobighat compund. In its recent physical manifestation, it has become a congested and an unhygienic degenerating urban core. The over utilization of the infrastructure to almost seven times of its capacity, could be considered as one of the primary reasons for such a dismay.





Site Details

Location : Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Ward: G- South

Area of the ward: 10 sq kilometers.

Population of the ward: 5,75,094 floating population of about 60,000

Zoning : Falls under Industrial Zone. Nearly 43 Industrial and Chemical setups are noted within a diameter of 1 km of Dhobi Ghat. 

The site is located at Saat Rasta (Jacob circle), near Mahalaxmi Station. Dhobi ghat is marked  as a reservation for industrial development (DG1) according to the Development plan of 1993 (ref image). 

Due to it's propinquity to the race course and a relatively large land area (4 acres), Dhobi Ghat is being eyed by private developers as an ultra prime property for commercial development. The disparity on either sides of the race course (ref image) highlights a dying urban core due to un-planned (informal) development, policy paralysis, infrastructure failure & socio-economic discrepancy.


site layers





Demographic Mix, Business Cycle & Health Issues

Dhobighat has an estimated 7,500 people living on site. Most of these are migrant workers from north and south India. It is shocking to see the ratio of men to women that currently exists. The proposal intends to shift the equilibrium to a more stable ratio by focusing on laundry automation and introducing nature based economies that can engage women in a larger way.



Typically a 'dhobi' works 8-10 hours everyday hand washing clothes on a stone with feet submerged in polluted water. Along with washing are the ironing, bleaching, boiling and packing activites also done by dhobis. The diagram below highlights the Owner/Stone Manager/Dhobi work cycle for a given day. 

business cycle

resource data


Dhobighat is plagued with a series of extreme occupational hazards - primarily due to unhygienic conditions, long hours of working in dirty water and smoke from furnaces. The place has some of the most severe cases of tuberculosis and leprosy which are a direct result of boiling clothes in enclosed furnaces and working for over 12 hours continuosuly in water. The resident population is also highly susceptible to AIDS due to the use furnace areas after dark for prostitution.









render animation



jacob circle


bridge view



approach title



Agenda Outline



what is exaptation



role of exaptation



concept title

massing diagram






Ground Axonometric

The ground floor planning addresses the following key issues: The laundry operation is re-organized into two zones to maximize its efficiency, vehicular movement is free and does not interfere with the remaining programs. Hygienic and well ventilated washing area will prevent existing health issues of the workers. For 'Dhobi' wives a clothing workshop is setup and a day care center adjacent to it for their kids. This is a very socially active and culturally diverse community hence an open theater has been provided for their public events. Visitors get a viewing deck perched at 9m to get an aerial view of the revamped 'dhobighat' without interfering with their operations.

core axonometric

Precast, post-tensioned concrete cores are used to support long span girders for bridges. These are ideally suited in our project which has long and narrow (10m wide) slabs thereby leaving maximum open column free area on ground. Being hollow inside they can be ‘exapted’ for vertical circulation and building services



housing axonometric

Housing is meant for resident 'Dhobis' and their families. Since majority of Dhobis are migrant single males, 60% of housing is made of Hostels and Studios. Single Family and Multi Family units are 25% and 15% respectively (which is more than the current demographic need but anticipated for a rise in families as the new live-work-eat model might enourage more dhobis to settle down and live on site)



terrace axonometric

The vast roof slab is converted into a 1 acres urban terrace farm for organic and localized food production. Roof slabs are a major source of heat gain in tropical climates like Mumbai hence for effective passive heating and cooling techniques it is importnat to insulate the terrace slabs. Terrace farming does this job extremely well due to its thick strata of mud/soil (natural insulators).



circulation png

The building form is 'exapted' to serve as a physical link between two critical nodes across the east and west end of the site. The site lies in a critical junction between the Mahalaxmi bridge (connecting east and west sides across the railway line) and Jacob Circle area, hence the potential of the new built form to also serve as a bridge has been exploited. 



materials axonometric


courtyard render


As preivously noted, Dhobighat site has several municipal regulations. One of the most critical being a height restriction as it is situated within the Nehru Planetarium funnel. To maintain the required density (within restricted height) and provide for necessary daylight access and ventialtion, the massing was developed as a staggered triangular loop leaving large courtyard openings with maximum running length of floor slabs. The ground floor is larger open (for ventilation and natural light) with a mix of activities.

Every floor is provided with informal and unprogrammed spaces (galleries of life) to serve the acitivities and social needs of residents. This idea is partly inspired by the Mumbai 'chawl' typology. The skin is proposed to be an operable facade made of two feet triangulated terracotta panels housed in a terracotta jali (serving as structural frame). Terracotta is an affordable, durable and environment friendly material available in a wide range of colors. The operable facade is meant to completely eradicate the need of glass as a second skin (which is an undesirable facade material choice in tropical climates like India) 



final axonometric



bridge view




urban food axonometric

The project creates 1 acre of open terrace farm area. These can be left open or turned into green houses for hydroponic farming. The farms are owned and managed by the dhobighat residents - out of the 7500 dhobis currently employed on site, after automation of the indudtry about 50% would be diverted to the farms along with resident women.



underground water system

site section

The area lies at a low contour flood zone. It was therefore critical to respond to the annual monsoon floods and use it as an opportunity to serve the water needs of the project. The entire ground floor (except the slab over basement parking) is propsed to be made of porous light weight fly ash concrete and natural stone. Natural water would seep into an underground reservoir tank through a series of filters, working as a natural ground water system. Water from the laundry zone would be mechanically treated for soap and detergent content before being discharged via the filters into the underground reservoir.


Ecological - Annual flooding and water related diseases would be countered. Water for urban farming and domestic uses within the site would be available all year round making the food production cost effective and sustainable.

Economic - Loss of work due to 4 months of flooding will be prevented making the laundry business functional at full capacity all 12 months. This has a direct financial gain of around $200 million annually (refer to economic transformation slides). Savings in health related cost and physical well being would produce further personal savings. Water cost towards farming would be minimized.


water animation



resource animation






natural capital

conclcusion title




view from racecourse

Dhobighat, a view from the Mahalaxmi race course on a rainy afternoon (above)


Aerial render from northend of site (below)

dark render



jacob circle