PRAXIS | 09 URBAN DESIGN COLLECTIVE

An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. Vidhya Mohankumar, founder of Chennai-based Urban Design Collective, elaborates on the collective processes and multi-dimensionality of their urban design practice, publications and fora. The discussion addresses the priorities and learning curves of pursuing such a model, of expanding the discourse on shaping how we live and interact with cities, networks and its systems, participatory planning and research.


URBAN DESIGN COLLECTIVE

Vidhya Mohankumar

Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, and the ambitions it was informed by.

UDC: We had very unassuming beginnings, to be honest, in 2011. It was was not about setting up a practice or a platform. It was more about being a forum for the fraternity of urban designers and anyone interested in cities to come together once every month to say share a project they had been working on, watch a film, go on a best practices field trip or an exploratory walk through some part of the city. But every time we met, there were new people and there was talk about doing something collaboratively for impact. And there was always talk about how it would be more impactful to approach urban issues from a bottom up perspective. Over the next year, it made sense to formalise our existence and so in 2013 we came to be what we are now – a collaborative platform for architects, urban designers and planners to create liveable cities through participatory planning. 

The name Urban Design Collective was pretty much an instinctive choice. We were concerned with urban design and we were a group that were motivated by a common objective – to make our cities better. Additionally, the focus was not economic gains but to build on capital of other kinds – social, cultural and human. What better word to describe this than ‘collective’!

UDC’s oeuvre can be read under six heads –

  • Urban Design, Mapping and Research
  • Community Engagement and Participatory Planning
  • Art in the City
  • Education and Capacity Building
  • Public events programming
  • Publications and Social Media Outreach

Defining these verticals has remained the only aspect of the UDC story that can be traced back to me as an individual. Because beyond that, the shaping of every single project/ initiative within these verticals has always been a collaborative exercise.

But in retrospective, to a large extent, these verticals are direct translations of my own personal leanings. Urban design, research and mapping are of course a core competency. The graduate programme in urban design from the Taubman School of Architecture & Planning, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – although rooted in a reading of American Urbanism – inculcated a rigour and provided the opportunity to learn from fellow colleagues from around the world thus opening up wider perspectives. Following that, my very precious years of working with a stellar team in Murray O’Laoire Architects, one of the largest design firms in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years shaped me immensely as a professional. Apart from being able to work on close to 30 projects in a span of three years, thereby enabling the steepest learning curve for me as a young professional. I also learnt the value that a multidisciplinary team can bring to the work that we do; we were a team of architects, urban designers, urban planners, urban geographers and landscape architects and it was always refreshing to see what each person brought to the table during design discussions. UDC’s structure as a multi-disciplinary cohort is a mirroring of this experience.

Our Community Engagement and Participatory planning vertical is a reflection of my reading of what is lacking in the design of our cities and a possible lacuna that we could endeavour to fill. Our programming of public events be it curated tours, game nights or film screenings are an extension of this vertical and form part of our outreach efforts – both with the community at large and with our own community of urbanophiles.

Art has always been a strong draw for me and I have my undergraduate years at the National Institute of Technology, Trichy to thank for that. I took the opportunity of the Visual Arts course in my first year of architecture and delved into it as if it were an Arts Appreciation 101 course to study the works of several great artists from the renaissance era to contemporary art. After this, I continued to seek out opportunities to ‘keep art in my life’ whenever it was possible – I took a course in the art school while pursuing my masters program (almost giving our director a panic attack because he thought I was insane to take up more credits than what we already had) and made biennales, museums, galleries and public art projects an integral part of my travel itineraries. Richard Florida’s book on the creative economy was the first spark that allowed me to see how two of my preoccupations – art and cities- could merge. This thought stayed with me and our vertical on Art in the city is an exploration in this direction. For us now at UDC, art is a medium, a message and a strategy for creating liveable cities.

My teaching experience since 2008 as a visiting faculty at various universities in southern India manifests itself under our education and capacity building vertical. While this vertical may draw heavily from my pedagogical knowledge, over the years I have seen almost everyone at UDC automatically infer that without building the awareness and sharing our knowledge, we will continue to operate ineffectively and in silos.

As a result, we have as a team developed many innovative pedagogical tools to reach out to diverse audiences – our latest obsession being gamification. What is also interesting is that I have come full circle on this because I now take back some of these tools to teach my students at the university!

The publications vertical probably draws on my childhood desire to be a journalist before architecture swept me off my feet! But on a serious note, it draws more on the need to cover all mediums of communication if we are to reach out to varied audiences for effecting change. We originally started out with a blog which had a great run during our initial years. We had several guest writers and even got featured on a list drawn up for best city blogs from around the world by The Guardian. As the work flow increased, we were not able to keep up the momentum on the blog until it was suggested by one of our early collaborators, Ajeetha Ranganathan, that we switch to the journal format. So in June 2015, we brought out our first issue.

Because UDC was founded as a platform to mobilise those who want to change the way our cities are built, it has come to be in many ways a global community of architects, designers, engineers, artists, writers, photographers and many others who are passionate about cities.

City Observer, our biannual journal on cities, was started with the aim to create a conversation on cities and to collaboratively interrogate our urban world keeping this global community we had fostered in mind i.e. we started publishing the journal with the notion that it could be the medium for a broader exchange of thoughts on cities by people from around the world. There is a lot of wonderful work being done that can serve as inspiration, motivation and best practice for all passionate and enthusiastic urbanists who want to see change in their own cities and neighbourhoods. 

But five years later and 10 issues down, as we tread through this post-truth era where disinformation and ‘alternative facts’ cloud our narratives, it is imperative to pause, question and reassess our terms of reference. City Observer has become that space for us and offers alternative ways of reading and understanding our cities and the developments that surround us. 

Lastly, many of our team members love travelling and have travelled far & wide across India and the world and it is undeniable that our collective experiences and learnings from these expeditions always find a way into our projects. People in different cities have different practices and each city in itself works and behaves differently, and therefore there is immense learning from visiting and experiencing a new place. We have sometimes found the simplest solution in one part of the world that addresses a complex problem in another part. 

It does feel inadequate to simply call ourselves an urban design practice although we do believe that urban design transcends several disciplines and brings them all together to create a vision for a place. We are probably more a platform – both physical and metaphorical – that attracts ‘urbanophiles’ to keep coming back. As mentioned earlier too, this has been a very organic evolution driven by the many people who are/ have been a part of UDC since 2011.

What forms the basis of your practice now? What would identify as the main intention of your work? What are the values or principles that the studio is grounded in? 

UDC: Participatory planning is still at the core of our approach to better cities in India. We strive to engage as many people as we can in our projects through collaborations, workshops, stakeholder outreach and other engagement strategies for larger projects. We are also always looking to connect people of all ages to their physical environment, whether through exploratory neighbourhood walks, games designed around urban issues or educational workshops on urbanism and civic awareness. A consequence of all this is that communication design becomes an integral part of what we do as well especially when we are trying to reach such a wide cross section of people. The design or planning process is another holy grail for us – solutions for our projects are never preconceived ideas but are always an outcome of the exploratory process and the insights gained through stakeholder engagements.

Besides this, we have always operated on the principle that sustainability is a default for making liveable cities and over the years we have consciously sought to expand the dimensions of sustainability with each project or initiative – from environmental to social and economic. And this is where our collaborators play such an important role – to magnify the impact of our work through the expertise that they bring to the table and also for us to keep our learning curve in the upward trajectory. There is indeed so much value in building partnerships!

At the outset, how has it evolved, and what is the way forward? 

UDC: When we started out, we found ourselves doing a lot of advocacy, education & awareness building and participatory planning workshops and we used those opportunities to build momentum around the conversation for better infrastructure and cities. We self-started several initiatives and projects because we felt there was an urgent need for urban design that was not recognised in India. Not surprisingly, money was scarce but we ploughed through with the sheer passion of several people who identified themselves with the collective and the values it stood for. For this, we will always be indebted. 

Today we continue to do this type of work, but we are also seeing several client-based projects coming from public agencies and others who are committed to invest in the public good. This has been a welcome trend because it feels like our early efforts are paying off – we have now been able to expand on our work and actually implement change. This also means that we have managed to build a small team of fiercely passionate individuals (we seem to have a magnet that attracts these types!) and a growing list of super-talented collaborators – both individuals and organisations- who work with us as required on a project basis. 

As for the way forward from here, while we definitely want to continue to be able to do the kind of work we have been doing, we also want to now actively consolidate our efforts so far by reaching out to public sector agencies either directly or through partnerships to enable change to be jointly implemented by communities and urban local bodies. If we were to look back, our work over the years has spread across several cities and sectors of urban development and also spanned all scales of design responses. We would now like to consolidate as many of these initiatives/ responses as possible for a more holistic impact. This relates back to the earlier point about seeking to expand the dimensions of sustainability. The only difference is that in the process of doing so we want to bring more stakeholders into the idea of collaborative city building as well. 

Another aspiration is to multiply the ilk so to speak… we simply need more people to be invested in their built environments! One way that we have started doing this is through our recently launched grants programme for students of architecture to realise their solutions for urban challenges in partnership with The Center for the Living City and the National Association for Students of Architecture. This is in addition to our Observe programme targeted at enabling the voices of school kids to lead local and global action in the places they care about. Those are two big asks for ourselves over the next decade! 

What are the typologies and scales that you are currently engaged with? What are your interests and what kind of work appeals to you? What work does your studio actively seek? 

UDC: We like to think that we are typologically agnostic – we view our work as a series of challenges and opportunities that we seek to address, and the scales of our solutions are determined by the nature of the design problems. We have made designs for posters to educate people on waste management on one end of the spectrum, and also conceptualised and written regional planning frameworks on the other end. We have designed streetscapes to improve walkability in several cities and also created a gallery installation to highlight 150 years of a city’s development history. We have conducted impact assessment studies for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to understand the impact of the arts on the city and hosted a street theatre workshop with puppets to highlight the issue of conservation in Pondicherry.

It is safe to say that we are more interested in the diversity of issues we try to address than in any fixed type of work product that is rooted in precedent. This in many ways also allows us to constantly expand our repertoire and the corollary too i.e. allow us to work with people who have different skill sets. We also actively seek out diverse user groups to work with as it allows us to exercise our empathy muscle by looking at the world through their eyes. The learning we gain through these experiences and in turn the empathic responses that we are able to generate form some of the very enriching moments in our work. Having said that, we also love what we do because we see cities not just as a set of problems but places with wonderful little quirks, humour, creativity and imagination. Sometimes, we are simply looking for a project that celebrates the idea of the urban like our audio tours and maps of neighbourhoods in Chennai.

What is the nature of the design and thought processes pertinent to your practice? What are the tools of your practice? How have the processes evolved over this decade? How does your studio participate in the process? How relevant is it in your work for the citizens to be involved in the process? Is there a consistent approach or enquiry at the core of the practice that drives the design and informs the decision-making process? What are the factors and challenges that affect it?

UDC: Challenges define and shape our work, literally! 

But yes, we are always constrained by the challenges to the implementation of ideas/solutions.

Funding is ironically one of the biggest challenges. There are still no provisions in most municipal budgets for urban design projects while transportation projects especially for private motorised vehicles still continue to find rows in the spreadsheets. Plus, public sector agencies are so bogged down with the weight of the responsibilities on them that there is an evident inertia for systemic change that prevents them from becoming efficient drivers of change. Multilateral funding agencies and corporate funding come with their own baggage. But if one were to look closely, it is probably not lack of funding per se but the lack of imagination to either find alternative funding sources or make the money go further by opening up to alternative processes. This has also been one of our own weaknesses and while we endeavour to work on it, we could always do with some help on this front! Having said that, we have, in our experience, come across several individuals in both the public and private sector who are willing to spin the system around to make things work and we have been fortunate to have worked with individuals like these. We have also seen that real change happens when people are willing to take this leap of faith! Another challenge with regard to implementation is when some of our design intentions fall through the gaps or there is pressure to alter the design because someone exercised clout. 

With regard to process, public participation in the design process not being taken seriously is a setback… we had one instance where public participation was strongly discouraged! But we went ahead nevertheless, if you must know.

Lack of data transparency continues to remain a huge challenge to address problems holistically. Especially in this age of data, so to speak, it irks us that so much of our time and resources get spent in gathering data to work with. While primary data is of course essential and enriches our design response, the lack of a culture of open data sometimes makes us feel like we may be missing an important piece of the puzzle. We in fact channeled this angst to create a platform for data sharing called The City Archive Project where we collate urban impressions in various mediums. 

As a practice, it has been a real challenge to remain optimistic, multiply voices and retain stamina to work against the tide but then again, these are probably just our occupational hazards! But specifically in terms of growth, there was an aspiration in the early years to have several teams working in different cities across the globe… each of these teams would be anchored and shaped by individuals who shared the same passion and common objectives. Each of these teams would respond to their local contexts but with a common ethos that would define UDC. Although we now have several passionate collaborators who are based in various cities, these collaborations did not translate to the setting up of several teams in these cities. It turned out that though the initial aspiration was to have polycentric hubs, we ended up more as a hub and spoke model with our Chennai set-up being the hub.

Coming to the set-up itself – we operated for the first 5 years remotely from the homes of each of our collaborators! It was only in 2016, that we got an office space to work out of. And for this we have MOAD- The Madras Office for Architects and Designers to thank for… for allowing us to squat out of their space! Our ‘encroachment’ continues till date and it has been a real joy to share space with a studio that values sensitivity in approach as much as we do. Conversations between the two offices have enriched us and also mean double the fun when it comes to extra curricular activities.

MOAD have also been very accommodating space-wise – we have held several of our public events, community meetings, design workshops, educational workshops, game nights and much more in the office… and they are always happy to pitch in if we need extra hands during these events.

Culture

UDC’s work culture is rooted in a world of no hierarchies and that every person has the potential to positively impact our cities. An intern who joined the practice two days ago has just as much of a say as someone who’s been here for several years. We consciously stick to this, as this is what allows us to be good listeners outside of our office when we engage with communities and that is where the magic happens, when we stop speaking and start listening! 

Much like our affinity for diverse projects, the way we work also varies across the types and scales of work we do. Be it questioning Chennai’s evolution that resulted in the marginalisation of the fishing community at Urur Olcott Kuppam, or the ability of architecture to change people’s perceptions of eco-houses in Tirunelveli, all projects are a point of investigation for us and this curiosity is what primarily drives projects forward. Instead of taking anything at its face value, we like to question it and challenge its existence, and the facts that emerge from our inquiry shape the way we approach any project. 

To draw large parallels about the ways we work, we always begin with sound research (primary and secondary) and then focus on validating our findings through collaboration with experts and/or members of the local community. Then, we engage in an open-dialogue to shape the overall trajectory of the project which is underpinned by the desired outcomes. This then guides the next steps to follow, each one of our team members takes ownership of one piece of the puzzle and takes it to completion. These individual pieces can be varying scales and forms, be it designing tangible things like building a brick wall to show the potential ways of working with mud, illustrating postcards to showcase the built heritage in our cities or even programming a holistic survey that captures the urban mobility trends. We meet at periodic intervals to learn from each other, to critique our ways of working, reflect and iterate our methods to constantly optimise and improve efficiency, and eventually to bring all these pieces together into one cohesive piece of work.  That being said, because of the nature of the work we do and its infancy in India, we use many of our projects as our own benchmarks and try to outdo them each time we start a new one. 

UDC in many ways is like a living being, our team expands and contracts as per the boundaries of each project.

Our core team has always been lean, say 3-6 members at any given time. However, most projects bring in a large pool of on-site researchers, surveyors and people with any/all other skills required to produce the best possible outcome. Even though this may sound a bit cliched, we are all family at UDC. We care for each other deeply and this care in many ways also translates into the work we do. This is also why nobody really quits or leaves UDC, even when people choose to take a different path in their career, they always find a way to contribute to our work and remain a part of the UDC family. 

What is the aspect of work that you value the most? What are the critical parameters of a project that make it successful for you?

UDC: To put it very simply, getting a public space project/ intervention actualised especially in the manner in which we envisioned it and being able to see behavioural outcomes that we had designed for are the biggest measures of success. But we probably would not survive emotionally if we measured ourselves solely by that yardstick given all the challenges that such an endeavour entails. And so, while the making of liveable cities remains our holy grail, over time, we have found other parameters to measure success for ourselves.

The diversity of stakeholders that we interact with as well as the diversity of work products that such interactions engender has become a valued parameter.

One of our colleagues in fact pointed out that he has never worked on two similar projects at UDC. As an extension of this, the empirical learnings from a project are another important parameter for us. Positive feedback from user groups and their willingness to engage productively in the processes we design for participatory planning are also powerful measures of success in all our work. To see the system change, ever so slowly but steadily to incorporate real community engagement as one of the criteria (not just to tick a checkbox but to actually listen to people), and to be able to fuel this change has also become one of our success parameters.  And lastly, being able to find like-minded collaborators – especially people from other disciplines – who we like working with and vice versa and who we can learn from to manifest better projects and solutions collaboratively; we value this very highly too. 

What is your reading of contemporary architecture / urban design practices in India? How do you seek to position your work and your practice within the larger discourse on this discipline in India? 

UDC: Our reading and possibly even our response to contemporary practices of architecture/ urban design in India is that there is an urgency to address the question ‘What more can a city be?’

Urbanisation today is as much a cause as a consequence of contemporary practices. In turn, the quality of urbanisation determines the quality of life for us as people living in such urban agglomerations. Cities have always been places for aspiration and indeed we get the city that we collectively aspire for. The bulk of our post-independence era was spent in building the economy and alleviating poverty and the post-liberalisation era may signal higher levels of prosperity but it also produced economic schisms within our society. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, in retrospect, was the first attempt to set the course for urban development in the country but without strengthening of institutional capacity, it ended up being centred on the delivery of projects and failed to make the paradigm shift towards the act of city-building through a process that is rooted in design & planning. Its call for institutionalising citizen participation through the implementation of a Community Participation Law (CPL) also remains largely unfulfilled. In the end, we continue to be plagued by the current approach to designing and building cities as a series of disconnected projects. And now more than ever we are attempting to leapfrog to an urbanism that is merely a clutter of imported ideas manifesting themselves as projects that are inconsequential to the vast majority.

Holistic long-term planning frameworks that are rooted in values of equity, inclusivity and sustainability are urgent needs for our cities. There is also a need to see merit in the incrementality of solutions that are guided by such frameworks. And finally, as daunting as the idea of collaborative city building may seem, it still needs to be acknowledged as a viable utopia.

As we step back and look at our own work over the years, we seem to have developed three major preoccupations – all shaped by our reading of contemporary practices. One is the ‘production of space’ as theorised by Henri Lefebvre, specifically the spatial triad and its interpretation and manifestation in our own cities. Decoding an urbanism for Indian cities that is rooted in empirical research and practice is equally a fascination as it is a praxis requirement for us to be able to arrive at the best possible response to a given challenge.

The second is the idea of ‘people in the city-building process’. Public participation in our cities is failed by several factors – lack of access to information, slow pace of delivery of basic services, politicisation of municipal structures, a lack of commitment to prioritise participation are but a few. As a result, we constantly seek ways to overcome these factors and increase levels of community engagement. Urban design cannot and should not be done inside a room with a small group of individuals. In our world at least, that would amount to heresy.

And the third is our own positioning in the midst of the first two. We believe that the role that we define for ourselves too is critical to the success of the project. And in doing this, three questions continually serve as guiding lights-

  • How can we find new ways to embrace the local when designing?
  • How can we reimagine the inclusion of ecology in our cities?
  • How can we include the invisible and the neglected?

As Erik Adigard des Gautries, San Francisco-based communication designer, multimedia artist and educator says – ‘Design is in everything we make, but it is also between those things. It is a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and philosophy’. And that just about sums it up for us.


Images & Drawings: courtesy Urban Design Collective
Filming: Muvi Media | Editing: Gasper D’souza, White Brick Wall Studio


Praxis is editorially positioned as a survey of contemporary practices in India, with a particular emphasis on the principles of practice, the structure of its processes, and the challenges it is rooted in. The focus is on firms whose span of work has committed to advancing specific alignments and has matured, over the course of the last decade. Through discussions on the different trajectories that the featured practices have adopted, the intent is to foreground a larger conversation on how the model of a studio is evolving in the context of India. It aims to unpack the contents, systems that organise the thinking in a practice. Praxis is an editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass.



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