Global Forces Take Root in Indian Cities

Event: Designing in Context: Ideas for 21st Century Indian Cities
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.07.11
Speakers: Christopher Charles Benninger, Assoc. AIA — Principal, Christopher Charles Benninger Architects; Arjun Appadurai — Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Kenneth Frampton — Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Moderator: Victoria Marshall — Assistant Professor of Urban Design, Parsons the New School for Design & 2010-2012 Fellow, India China Institute
Welcome: Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, AIA, LEED AP — President, AIA New York Chapter
Introduction: Umberto Dindo, AIA — Secretary, AIA New York Chapter
Organizers: AIANY; Center for Architecture Foundation; India China Institute at The New School; Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC); Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects (SIAEA)
Sponsors: Grants: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; National Endowment for the Arts; Underwriter: Duggal Visual Solutions; Lead Sponsors: Hitachi; Robert A.M. Stern Architects; Sponsors: Grapevine Merchants; Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects; Supporters: Bittersweet NYC; CetraRuddy; Kingfisher Lager; Friends: Arup; Benjamin Moore; IBEX Construction; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Perkins Eastman; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Special Thanks: Umberto Dindo, AIA; Lutz Konermann; Catherine Scharf

The contemporary tendency is to view urbanism as a “saleable product” to be “bought, with the hope of profit from resale,” according to Christopher Charles Benninger, Assoc. AIA, principal of Pune, India-based Christopher Charles Benninger Architects. In particular, he bemoans the import of western-style suburban development to India, which he believes is not urban, rejects variety, and “tells 80% of the population to please get lost!” In response, he has proposed “Ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism,” a set of guiding axioms meant to facilitate public participation and refocus urban development as process, not product.

In his plan for Thimphu, Bhutan, for example, Benninger emphasized balancing nature and tradition with the needs for new development. His firm focused on promoting regional integration while maintaining human scale. The development of the plan began with an extensive mapping of natural resources, ecosystems, infrastructure, and heritage sites to define the character of and opportunities for the community. Once the framework was established, “neighborhood plans” were created through participatory workshops.

Recounting his efforts to understand the “cataclysmically changing urban space” of Mumbai over the last decades, Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, concluded that there is “no way to think of Mumbai outside of its spatial predicament.” To Appadurai, Mumbai demonstrates three broad themes that unite the growing roster of global mega-cities: its remarkable density; radical inequalities; and the strong presence of global capital, finance, and urban real estate development. Faced with this “lethal mixture” of forces, he questioned how Benninger’s principles of building upon culture and history may be applied in places where much underlying history and culture is erased daily by massive construction. Additionally, while acknowledging the economic interdependencies between informal settlements and the larger, formal economies of Indian cities, he sees the need to democratically integrate slum dwellers into the larger process of urbanization.

In response to this call for public participation, and as Appadurai put it, a “widening of who is allowed at the table,” Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, added the importance of “knowing who owns the table” in the first place. It is important to connect the divide and interdependence between the global economy and the so-called “surplus people,” to the death of the welfare state in the West, and worldwide struggles between corporate capitalism and democracy. Frampton emphasized the “spontaneous space of appearance” where democratic politics can be played out, as recently demonstrated in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Amidst the global forces at work in Indian cities, planning must “take its point of departure in the current situation as it is,” Appadurai said, and endeavor to “intervene in situ in very messy conditions.”

Note: This event was followed by a book release and talk given by Christopher Charles Benninger about his book Letters to a Young Architect (CCBA Pvt. Ltd., April 2011), a collection of autobiographical narratives and ideas reflecting his spiritual journey from America to India, and the philosophical considerations that matured from his experiences.

Jugaad Urbanism Exhibits Energy of the Streets in India

Exhibition: “Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities”
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.10-05.21.11
Exhibition Curator: Kanu Argawal
Exhibition Design & Graphics: Popular Architecture; Omnivore
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter; Center for Architecture Foundation; India China Institute at The New School; Indo-American Arts Council; Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects
Sponsors: Grants: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; National Endowment for the Arts; Underwriter: Duggal Visual Solutions; Lead Sponsors: Hitachi; Robert A.M. Stern Architects; Sponsors: Grapevine Merchants; Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects; Supporters: Bittersweet NYC; CetraRuddy; Kingfisher LGER; Friends: Arup; Benjamin Moore; IBEX Construction; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Perkins Eastman; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Jugaad Urbanism in the Center for Architecture’s Hines Gallery.

Courtesy Center for Architecture

“Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities,” the first U.S. exhibition of Indian urbanism, presents strategies for incremental improvement within an existing framework. Along the way, it tells a story about the dynamics of life in the India’s mega-cities. Perhaps it is a result of what curator Kanu Argawal calls the “sheer impossibility” of Indian urbanization, this strategy of insertion may be partly a matter of pragmatics, but it also presents an argument for the role of planning in a democracy.

Organized by resource categories (water, energy, land, and transportation), each project featured in the exhibition is a result of dialogue between the everyday efforts of urban residents to deal with resource scarcity and design interventions by architects, planners, artists, and activists. Going beyond the provision of service, each proposal demonstrates how resources are woven into the social and symbolic fabric of its community.

For example, the “Sustainable Community Toilets for Shahpur Jat Village” improves sanitation and environmental quality by both preventing ground water contamination and separating solid from liquid waste for reuse in irrigation and fertilization. Within the category of energy, a solar powered street lamp integrates LED lights in a traditional Kalasha form. Benches at the base of the lamp pole feature a knife-sharpening wheel that is used to further charge the lamp. The “e-Charka” project harvests energy from yarn spinning to power a lamp and a transistor radio, providing both a means of income and public information. Under the category of land, projects such as the “Incremental Housing” strategies conceived by the Swedish architects Urban Nouveau and the NGO SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resouce Centres) aim to “preserve and incrementally upgrade” informal settlements, rather than start from scratch.

The spirit of jugaad, defined by Argawal as a “resourceful and innovative bringing together of disparate parts,” is expressed throughout the exhibition. The projects on display clearly go beyond “making do” and improve and reveal new possibilities within the existing realities of urban life. Each project “thinks beyond the object,” stated Argawal. They engage with the surrounding “urban milieu” to harness the energy of the street, which is perhaps the most critical resource of all.

Steven Holl in China and the Battle for Context

Haley recently talked with Li Hu, partner of Steven Holl Architects and director of its Beijing office, in search of a perspective on challenges many other NY-based firms face as they develop projects in China.
Event: Interview with Li Hu — Partner, & Tour with Hideki Hirahara, Associate, Steven Holl Architects
Location: Offices of Steven Holl Architects, New York and Beijing 9.17.07 & 10.15.07

Linked Hybrid under construction in Beijing.

Annique Fung

With four major commissions in design and under construction in China, NY-based Steven Holl Architects (SHA) has jumped full force into the maelstrom of China’s rapid urbanization. Amidst the web of regulatory, environmental, and cultural forces reshaping China’s cities, SHA is faced with building new contexts integrated with existing neighborhoods.

With the recent onset of speculative development in cities such as Beijing, building regulations are constantly evolving, making each new building a “product of a specific moment in history,” explains SHA partner Li Hu. For example, modifications to zoning requirements that stipulate maximum apartment size would preclude approval of projects currently under construction. As a result, to avoid “getting stuck,” the design process must move quickly with a focus on “big urban concepts.”

Another challenge is environmental decay accompanying China’s urbanization, for which SHA has adopted several sustainable approaches. Linked Hybrid in Beijing integrates geo-thermal wells, green roofs, solar shading, and gray water recycling, while the Vanke Center in Shenzen is slated to be the first LEED Platinum building in China. “It is not easy to do a LEED building at this scale,” admits Li Hu, but they are “lucky to have good clients” who support these goals.

When it comes to urban context, every project starts with the site and an understanding of the city. But in cities such as Beijing, where the traditional urban fabric is rapidly disappearing, what is the definition of context? It is mostly “a tabula rasa,” argues Li Hu, and the challenge is “to set a new example for buildings in this new higher-density, high-rise context.” Linked Hybrid — a mixed-use housing complex conceived as “a city within a city” — aims to set this example, in addition to housing 2,500 residents. The project integrates a multi-leveled series of public and commercial programs that serve everyday needs from shopping and recreation to entertainment and social gatherings. The “porosity” of points along the perimeter and the active ground level uses links up with existing street life; the cinema and hotel in the central space spur residents to mingle with neighboring communities. In contrast to Beijing’s many introverted gated developments, the ultimate goal for Linked Hybrid is “to make great urban space that is not isolated but connected.”

Connecting Urban Isolation

Event: This Will Kill That? A reading forum with Alex Kotlowitz
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.07.08
Speaker: Alex Kotlowitz — Author, There are no Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America (Anchor Books)
Organizers: AIANY Emerging NY Architects (ENYA) Committee

When Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are no Children Here; The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America, first visited Chicago’s Horner Homes to write about the lives of the Rivers family, he expected to find a strong sense of community. Instead, he found “a community that had begun to unravel.” Lafayette, the older Rivers boy, explained to Kotlowitz that he has only “associates,” not friends. Having studied the problems of public housing in urban America, Kotlowitz believes that while architecture may have contributed, the real core of the problem is a mix of politics, race, drugs, violence, and a scarcity of work — “the thread that holds the social fabric together.”

While architecture may not be the primary problem or solution, Kotlowitz thinks super-block planning and the lack of public streets enables gangs to control neighborhoods relatively surveillance-free. In recent years, Chicago has razed several super-blocks aiming to decentralize public housing. Old towers will be transformed into low-rise mixed-income housing. Despite these efforts, however, many of the former residents have simply moved to similarly troubled communities. “The stubborn persistence of violence” among the poorest cities has not abated, argues Kotlowitz.

One of the greatest challenges in addressing safety problems is to overcome the profound “physical and spiritual isolation” that Kotlowitz sees defining communities such as Horner. By improving access to educational and cultural institutions, as well as improving the quality of public architecture in poorer neighborhoods, cities can encourage re-integration. Ultimately, however, Kotlowitz believes that to create change, people must tell their stories making them known outside of their communities.

Two-Way Exchange Marks China's Rising Urban Boom

Event: New York/China Dialogues
Location: The Center for Architecture, 03.20.08
Speakers: Li Chung (Sandi) Pei, AIA — Partner, Pei Partnership Architects; James von Klemperer, FAIA — Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Frederick Bland, FAIA, AICP — Managing Partner, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners; Calvin Tsao, FAIA — Co-Founder, Tsao & McKown Architects
Moderator: Susan Chin, FAIA — Assistant Commissioner, Capital Projects, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs
Organizers: Center for Architecture
Sponsors: Patron: Digital Plus; Supporters: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners; EDAW; Jerome and Kenneth Lipper Foundation; Friends: Bartco Lighting; Häfele; Ibex Construction; Let There Be Neon; Tsao & McKown Architects


Vernacular architecture in Suzhou.

Annique Fung

Beyond the simple exportation of Western design, there is an opportunity for two-way exchange between China and New York. Because of China’s building boom, James von Klemperer, FAIA, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), sees parallels to “what happened in New York 100 years ago.” “For those of us who think we understand urbanism living in New York, going to China will teach you a lot,” stated Frederick Bland, FAIA, AICP, managing partner of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB).

With a long history working in China, Pei Partnership Architects melds geometric Modernism with spatial sequences and materials that “evoke what is familiar to the Chinese,” according to partner Li Chung (Sandi) Pei, AIA. In the Suzhou Museum, designed in conjunction with I.M. Pei Architect, for example, gray tiled roofs and white plastered walls echo similar techniques used throughout history. Similarly, KPF created a pedestrian network of through-block connections at the base of the Jingan Complex, drawing inspiration from the fine grain of Shanghai’s traditional urban blocks. Taking clues from the “ingredients” of the Bund, BBB’s Nanjing Road Urban Design Project for People’s Square in Shanghai incorporates water, open green space, and both historic and contemporary buildings to re-brand People’s Square as a “Spectacle Zone” that functions for Shanghai much like Time Square does for NYC.

Shifting focus from the specificities of design to the logistics of urban development, Calvin Tsao, FAIA, co-founder of Tsao & McKown Architects, has teamed with his developer brother and various NGOs to propose economic and community development strategies to improve living conditions in China. In Chengdu, for example, Tsao and his partners proposed land use regulations that focus development in urbanized centers and preserve open space, and specific neighborhood plans that integrate schools, hospitals, and other community services.

The future of east-west architectural exchange is developing. Pei sees an “emergence of a synergy between Western and Chinese architecture practices,” while Tsao more cautiously urges focus on the specificity of place and culture to avoid the “import and export of architecture as product.” While acknowledging “the enormity of problems” in China, Bland believes there is “potential to effect change,” and it is up to architects globally to promote preservation, “not just of buildings, but of a society and a way of life.”

Two Roads to Building China

Event: Made By China Symposium
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.01.08
Introductions: Wei Wei Shannon — Curator, Shi Jian — Co-Curator, Building China: Five Projects, Five Stories exhibition
Speakers: Building China Panel: Zang Lei — Owner, AZL Atelier Zanglei (Nanjing); Yan Meng — Partner, Urbanus Architecture & Design (Shenzhen); Wang Shu — Partner, Amateur Architecture Studio (Hangzhou)
Moderator: Clifford Pearson — Architectural Record
Co-Evolution Panel: Ambassador Richard Swett, FAIA — Managing Principal, Leo A Daly, Washington DC office, & former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark; Kent Martinussen — CEO, Danish Architecture Centre; Dan Stubbergaard — Principal, COBE (Copenhagen)
Moderator: Søren Sønderstrup — Communications Consultant, Danish Architecture Centre
Organizers: AIANY; The Center for Architecture Foundation; People’s Architecture; Danish Architecture Centre; UiD; AIANY International Committee
Sponsors: Patron: Digital Plus; Supporters: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners; EDAW; Jerome & Kenneth Lipper Foundation; Friend: Bartco Lighting; Häfele; Ibex Construction; Let There Be Neon; Tsao & McKown Architects

Dafen Cultural Center

The Dafen Cultural Center by Urbanus Architecture responds to its urban context.

Courtesy AIANY

Both exhibitions at the Center for Architecture — Building China: Five Projects, Five Stories, and Co-Evolution: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China, take up China’s building boom. The greatest challenge facing Chinese architects today is to “be local within a global context,” says Shi Jian, co-curator of the Building China exhibition. Conversely, the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC), seeing China’s growth as part of an international struggle to “co-evolve” toward a more sustainable world, is pressing China’s universities and municipalities to share development knowledge and experience with the rest of the world.

A new generation of Chinese architects, including AZL Atelier Zanglei, Urbanus Architecture & Design, and Amateur Architecture Studio, is responding to issues of globalization and urban growth by embracing both international modernity and the specifics of local context. For example, AZL Atelier Zhanglei used local brick and farmer/craftsmen labor in the Brick House to create modern surface patterns that are abstract yet grounded in local culture. In the Dafen Cultural Center, Urbanus Architecture employed multi-use programming to deal with its urban context. The integration of retail shops, classrooms, and exhibition spaces within the center, and reserving its exterior for murals by local artists, reflects the identity of the thriving artist community.

Wang Shu, partner of Amateur Architecture Studio, approaches context as a poetic, rather than a material or programmatic, challenge. Referring to the harmonious relation of man and nature in Chinese landscape paintings, Shu seeks an architecture that integrates “seamlessly into nature.” Incorporating materials and forms of Chinese villages, the firm’s campus design for the Chinese Academy of Arts is intended to evoke a “2,000-year-old village trapped in a bottle.”

To Kent Martinussen, DAC’s CEO, China’s urbanization highlights environmental problems worldwide, which he believes require international collaboration. Pairing several Danish architects with teams from Chinese universities, the Co-evolution project explores sustainable solutions for environmental remediation, infrastructure planning, and site development. In the Magic Mountain proposal, for instance, COBE combined transit-oriented garden city planning with clustered high-rise development. Pointing to China’s immense development capacity, Martinussen emphasized harnessing this power and discerning “how it might be done better, through new alliances and new understandings.”

Coming: InSPIREation for Chicago Shoreline

Event: An Evening with Santiago Calatrava, New York Preview of the Chicago Spire
Location: The Harold Pratt House, 03.12.08
Speakers: Santiago Calatrava, FAIA — Principal, Santiago Calatrava; Garrett Kelleher — Executive Chairman, Shelbourne Development Group
Organizers: Shelbourne Development Group

“Inspired by nature” is a theme for the Chicago Spire, designed by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA. Located on what Garret Kelleher, Executive Chairman of Shelbourne Development Group, refers to as “the best piece of dirt in Chicago,” the Spire will straddle the urban grid, Chicago River, and Lake Michigan. To Calatrava, this unique location provides an opportunity to explore the relation of the urban and the natural, and fulfill the motto of Chicago: “Urbs in Horto,” or “City in a Garden.”

Considering natural forms such as flowers and snails, Calatrava strives to recreate the balance and harmony found in nature. Soaring upward in a tapered and continually twisting form, each apartment will have a unique view of the Chicago skyline. Calatrava aims “to build for people a message of hope that conveys a certain sense of progress and better living.” The “very simple diagram” of the Spire, he says, will allow him to create “a harmony between the people in the city and nature.”

NYC: Surviving Those Rent Increases

Event: Quasi-Public: Paul Goldberger & Danny Meyer in Conversation — The Second Annual Design Trust Council Event
Location: The New Museum of Art, 02.26.08
Speakers: Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA — Architecture Critic, The New Yorker; Danny Meyer — President, Union Square Hospitality Group
Introduction: Deborah Berke, FAIA — Co-Chair, Design Trust for Public Space
Organizers: The Design Trust for Public Space

Bank of America

Rent hikes are responsible, for better or worse, for Starbucks and national banks taking over city street corners.

Gregory Haley

In the face of cries that NYC is losing its soul, Union Square Hospitality Group president Danny Meyer is upbeat. “The real character of my New York,” he explains, “comes from the human beings who choose to live here.” Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, architecture critic for The New Yorker, is not as positive, viewing the city’s ongoing transformation as a homogenization of the public realm, a “spreading of the qualities associated with Midtown throughout the rest of Manhattan.” While acknowledging the promise of the city’s rebuilding over the last decades — it is a safer and more vibrant place — both Goldberger and Meyer believe that this growth has come at certain costs.

Meyer fears that ever-increasing rents prohibit small local businesses with “a point of view” from opening shop, as he did with the Union Square Café in 1985. Instead, banks and chain stores that can afford the rent have proliferated. Yet, he sees emerging new retail models that provide space to hook up with the public realm, such as his Shake Shack in Madison Square Park or even Starbucks. Describing these businesses as “ventures into the real in a virtual world,” Goldberger credits their success to a rising desire for “face-to-face interaction.”

New Yorkers “believe change is in our DNA,” claims Goldberger, but they also want to “keep things the way they are.” A vibrant public realm thrives on diversity of use and place. In the face of current real estate pressures, however, sustaining this diversity requires a balance between change and preservation. City dwellers must act to ensure that what once happened naturally in Manhattan will continue, states Goldberger. If NYC were to stabilize, he warns, it would “be the equivalent of death”.

Mumbai Makes Room

Event: This Will Kill That? Maximum City: A reading forum with Suketu Metha
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.15.07
Speaker: Suketu Metha — Fiction Writer, Journalist, Author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Organizer: AIANY Emerging NY Architects Committee

Suketu Metha

Suketu Metha reads from his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

Katerina Kampiti

“Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us,” writes Suketu Metha in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. With the decreasing viability of agriculture in India, and economic opportunities expanding in urban centers, cities such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are experiencing mass immigration. Facing rapid growth and economic disparities, Mumbai is a testing ground for the compatibility of largely unplanned urbanization with both modern democracy and an ancient culture.

In addition to providing utilities, housing, transportation, and open space, Mumbai faces the paradoxical challenge, as relayed to Metha by Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra: “If we make the city nice, with good roads, trains, and accommodation — if we make the city a nicer place to live — it attracts more people from the outside.” To plan for the future, Metha suggests that architects need to understand the complex and informal social networks of the city. Currently, there is “almost no dialogue” between architects and the local citizenry; most architects “simply tell the people how to live,” rather than “asking them how they want to live.”

Within the hyper-density of Mumbai, “the greatest luxury is solitude,” says Metha. Every economic, ethnic, and religious class is forced to interface. Scarcity of space in Mumbai precludes the development of gated communities, and results in rich and poor living in adjacent, if unequal, accommodations. He evokes a metaphorical cross section of Mumbai society when describing a typical high-rise tower. Wealthy residents live atop a parking garage that also houses the residents’ drivers and their families. Differing economic classes may “not like each other, but they need each other to survive.”

Metha is optimistic for Mumbai’s future, however. Indians “make space where none exists,” he states when describing crowded trains. “Come on-board, they say. We’ll adjust.”

NYC’s Anxiety of Change

Event: This Will Kill That? presents Adam Gopnik discussing his book, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (Knopf, 2006)
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.26.07
Speaker: Adam Gopnik — writer, essayist, commentator
Organizer: AIANY Emerging NY Architects (ENYA) committee

Through the Children’s Gate


When reading his essays, one can picture author Adam Gopnik exploring the life of NYC streets, rather than laboring behind a desk. Since returning from Paris in 2000, many of his wanderings, recorded in Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, are attempts to understand events that have affected and continue to profoundly change NYC.

“Change as creative destruction is the rule of living in a capitalist society,” according to Gopnik, and that change is a defining aspect of NYC life. Over the last 25 years NYC has made “enormous gains in civility,” says Gopnik, but at a cost to its identity. Without nostalgia for the 1970s, he mourns the loss of variety and pines for the earlier “soulful and funky New York that seemed worth moving to.” Simultaneously, he acknowledges a tendency to attribute “virtue to the old manufacturing city” and a “moral uneasiness with the new city of finance.” Can this perceived loss of identity be fixed, wonders Gopnik, and if so, should it? Furthermore, is the apparent loss of diversity in NYC real, or simply perceived?

After 9-11, the city changed again and for Gopnik the tragedy highlighted that “more than any other city, NY exists at once as a city of symbols and associations, literary and artistic, and as a city of real things.” In Gopnik’s experience of that day, “the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.” Simultaneously, the everyday city and all of “the little rituals of New York” were “enacted more mindfully.” In the struggle for normal urban life post-9/11, Gopnik, stresses that “anxiety is provocative, a stimulant that makes you act out; fear is silencing, a paralytic, and it makes you burrow in. Movement and activity can eliminate anxiety,” he adds, while “fear can only be cured by retreat.”