22 January 2009

Bombay Dhobi Ghats, New York Laundromats

a laundry list for urban vibrancy: drip-dry urbanism

Aniket Shahane
In the Laundromats of Bombay and New York, water and power go hand in hand. Not only do they comprise the infrastructure required for the Laundromats' operation (water for washing and electricity for drying), but their availability as resources determines both how and how much space is claimed by this banal activity. The architecture of the Bombay Dhobi Ghats — a generations-old Indian public Laundromat – and the New York City Laundromat unveils the impact of infrastructure on people, activity and architecture.

India's infrastructure can be characterised as fragile at best. Although improving, the supply of both water and electricity are unreliable. Power outages are not uncommon and water is often unsanitary, if running at all. Low levels of water and electricity instill in Indians a frugal mindset towards the consumption of these resources. Water needs to be carefully allocated. Electrical loads must be at a minimum. But what India lacks in resources, it more than makes up for with resourcefulness. In Bombay, a city of 18 million individuals, the human hand is the best means to monitor the quantity of water that flows from a tap. Reliance on manpower is critical and is most evident in the architecture of the Dhobi Ghat.

Like many other Laundromats, Bombay's Dhobi Ghat provides complete laundry services for its clientele including clothing pick-up/drop-off, washing, drying and ironing. However, in contrast to Laundromats that have a stronger infrastructure at their disposal, the Ghat survives on a spartan attitude towards water and energy consumption. It works like this. Upon request, a courier from the Ghat is dispatched to a client's home to pick up dirty laundry. The clothes are wrapped in a brightly coloured sack and swiftly delivered to the Ghat by the courier, usually on a bicycle or other man-powered vehicle (water and electricity are not the only resources that are hard to come by in Bombay). Upon arrival at the Ghat, the clothes are sorted, marked and handed over to the laundrymen. Unlike washing machines, which provide little flexibility in water usage, washing men can regulate the stream of water from a tap so as to use only the amount necessary for a given load of laundry, minimising wasteful water consumption. After the appropriate amount of water is released, soap is added and the washing man begins his job. Knee deep in sudsy water, he dunks a few articles of clothing at a time, pulls them out, smacks the garments on a flogging stone in order to beat out the dirt, and then wrings the clothes of excess water with his bare hands. The process is repeated until the washing man determines the load to be clean, at which point he carries the garments in his arms to one of many clotheslines strung from one side of the Ghat to another to begin the drying process. The clothes are hung to air-dry individually one article at a time; the occasional Bombay sea breeze is far more dependable than the Bombay electrical infrastructure. Finally, the dried, wrinkled clothes are hand-pressed using a heavy iron heated in a wood-burning oven. They are then folded, packed in another colourful sack, and returned by courier to their rightful owner. The Dhobi Ghat is a place of messy, physical work that engages the entire human body and demands much from its architecture.

Above all, the Dhobi Ghat needs to house men performing an arduous job. Unlike the washing machine, a washing man requires more space and maintenance. He needs to be able to bend down, stand up, scrub and flail wet clothes. It's necessary for him to be able to eat, drink and communicate with other washing men. He is far less predictable and productive than a machine. He can slip and fall, take ill, bear a bad mood, or demand better pay. Moreover, the washing man lacks the capacity to wash as many loads as one washing machine. Therefore, in order for the Dhobi Ghat to run as a legitimate business, it needs to house many washing me. With such a complicated program, it is not wonder the Ghats are designed the way they are: they are not enclosed at all. An open Laundromat – one with no walls – gives the washing men enough room to manoeuvre as required while allowing plenty of natural air circulation to mitigate the pervasive dampness. In this open format, rows of concrete pens on the ground are sized to allow one laundryman to wash. Bundles of pipes feed the fragile Bombay water into each one of these pens through a spigot. Overhead a web of clotheslines make an ad-hoc trellis. In Bombay, where the act of washing and drying clothes can't be trusted to resource-guzzling machines, a man inside a concrete pen and a clothesline suspended in open air are the best substitutes.

The architecture of the New York Laundromat, in contrast, is far more subdued. The city's robust infrastructure gives New Yorkers the licence to use as much water and energy as desired, even at a time when the word 'sustainability' is all the rage. This allows the demeanour of the New York City laundryman to be drastically different than his counterpart in Bombay. Like the Dhobi Ghat, the typical New York Laundromat also provides full laundry services for its clients. Once the clothes have been dropped off at the Laundromat, the laundryman empties the bag of clothes into a washing machine, usually separating whites from colours. A plastic dial is twisted to select water temperature, while seven quarters are thrust into a metal try in order to start the machine. After exactly twenty minutes, it stops, at which point the load is assumed to be clean. The clothes are then unloaded by the laundryman, transported in a cart a short distance to the drying machine, and tossed into a dryer. A fabric softener sheet is added, another dial is turned to select the desired level of heat (i.e. electricity) for the job, more coins are inserted to determine drying time (one quarter buys six minutes of hot air), and finally a button is pressed to begin the machine drying process. the only part of the New York City laundryman's job that doesn't involve the use of a machine is the folding of clothes, which has to be done by hand. If clothes are folded soon enough after drying, there is usually no ironing required. Because the laundry process in New York is not nearly as labour intensive as in Bombay, it enables many clients to come in and do their own laundry – an option not available at the Dhobi Ghat. Locals will arrive at all hours, unload a bag of clothes into a washer, return thirty minutes later to transfer the clothes to a dryer, then come back once again to take the clothes home. compared to the Ghat, the New York Laundromat is an easy, tidy operation.

The architecture of the NYC Laundromat is a direct reflection of its resource-abundant, labour-deficient process. It requires space to accommodate a certain number of machines with identical dimensions and predictable behaviours. A rehabbed ground floor of a row house will do just fine. The Laundromat on Smith Street in Brooklyn is a typical example. Besides the overflow of glaring fluorescent lighting from the large storefront window, there is very little that gives away the activities that occur inside. The interior contains two rows of machines with a centre aisle. Washing machines are towards the streetfront, while dryers occupy the back of the space. The floors, walls and ceiling are a ragtag composition of vinyl and acoustic tiles, in order to provide an economical and acoustically sound enclosure. The architecture of the New York Laundromat is, for the most part, fairly discreet.

In both the Dhobi Ghat and the Smith Street Laundromat, space is generated not only by the physical form, dimensions, and organisations of men and machines; it is also a direct result of varying degrees of access to water and energy. Because the Dhobi Ghat has to be a physically open space in order to function, it is possible for the average passer-by to peer down on the space and witness the chaotic collection of people and clothes, wet and dry. The sound of laundrymen bellowing to each other and the smell of dirty cloth and caustic soda contribute to the public assault of one's sense. The Ghat's location next to the train line allows the activity of clothes-washing to be a landmark passed on the commute to and from work. In more ways than one, the Dhobi Ghat asserts itself onto its city. In fact, this kind of emphatic claim of urban space is typical of Bombay locals. When given scarce resources, countless Bombay residents take matters into their own hands. They claim the space of their city as their own, not just for washing and drying, but also for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, entertaining, defecating, urinating and cremating. Bombay is a city of perpetual urban aggression – each individual carrying out in public what they cannot do in private.

In New York, on the other hand, the introverted nature of the Smith Street Laundromat betrays its city's tendency toward privatisation. The abundance of resources in New York affords a city that is luxurious enough to individualise almost everything, including access to a washer and dryer. Everyday mundane chores such as washing and drying clothes don't require the effort they do in Bombay and are mostly kept out of the public realm. Why air dry outside when there is plenty of electricity to machine dry inside? In fact, it is so uncommon to see clothes hung out to dry in New York that on the rare occasion when it actually happens, it often induces outcries from neighbours. Hanging laundry in New York today is seen as a sign of a neighbourhood in decline. It devalues adjacent property. So even if New Yorkers are tempted to air dry (to save on electric bills, for example), they will most likely opt to be good neighbours and use a drying machine instead. Alas, the price of living in a city with seemingly endless reserves of water and electricity is the burden of propriety: please use a clothes dryer rather than a clothesline to dry your clothes so my property does not depreciate; please grill in your own backyard rather than on the sidewalk so I don't smell your cooking; please play your music in your living room rather than on the street so my quiet evening at home isn't disturbed. The affluence of New York infrastructure has instilled in New Yorkers something that currently does not and cannot exist in Bombay: a common sense of civic etiquette. It is a reminder that commodities as basic as water and electricity have the power to affect people, behaviour and ultimately, space.

Considering the impact of architectural spaces such as laundromats on cities like Bombay and New York begins to shed light on the possibility that seemingly naive everyday acts such as cleaning clothes, washing dishes, or taking baths do much more than tap our collective infrastructure. They promote or sometimes impede urban vibrancy. A vibrant city is an arena for both celebration and conflict, a place that readily counteracts order and predictability with unanticipated spontaneity. Now is a time when New York, despite – or perhaps because of – all its resources, is in danger of becoming so bound by civic etiquette that there is less room left for New Yorkers to improvise on their streets. Conversely, if Bombay's infrastructure doesn't catch up to India's charging global economy it stands to marginalise millions of Bombayites, which could exacerbate, among other things, the city's serious problem of shanty towns (a most extreme kind of urban improvisation). Sustainability and globalisation gurus have drilled into us the notion that we are one global village, inter-connected and networked; consuming resources in New York equates to depleting them elsewhere. But what if New Yorkers relied less on water and energy not only to slow down global warming, but also as an excuse to bring to New York some of Bombay's penchant for spontaneous street intensity? what if the clothesline poles that stand in the backyards of so many Brooklyn brownstones were activated with clean laundry once again, not just to help save the planet, but also to help keep Brooklynites from co-opting their borough's air space? If the proponents of the Green movement are proven correct, then reducing the load on New York's infrastructure might eventually have positive repercussions in other parts of the world. What is certain, however, is that it will almost immediately shift more activity from New York's private to its public realm and help encourage a more free-spirited vigour on its streets.

Shahane, Aniket. 'Drip-dry urbanism' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Aniket Shahane and On Site review

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