Design Prose

Tall, taller, tallest

Posted in Architecture, City Scapes by designprose on November 22, 2014

Singapore 2012


Myths Around Ergonomics And Workplace Design

Posted in Uncategorized by designprose on October 15, 2014

Ergonomics- a vital study of human use of everyday products while reducing risk of injury, maximizing optimum comfort and enabling better performance. Yet, it is a least understood science and it gets beaten somewhere between branding and advertizing. This conversation with Tim Springer, sprung out of one such conversation that I was privileged to have based on treadmill Tim Springerworkstation that have alarmingly been gaining popularity.

Tim Springer of Hero Inc. with his vast experience of 30+ years on ergonomics and workplace design opens up to explain myths and myth busters around the subject. More than that, he expands his view on history of workplace design, changing technology and its impact and how it possibly is affecting our bodies as we adapt to go around working everyday jobs.

Q. In your long and wide experience as a workplace researcher, what are the
changes that you have observed in the industry in last couple of decades? Tell us a bit about both good and not so good changes that have taken place in this time.

A. Looking back over the 30+ years, from 1970, I’ve been involved in workplace issues, it is apparent that things have changed rather dramatically. [1970s]Herman Miller’s Facilities Management Institute was largely responsible for bringing definition of the role and professional development of the nascent practice. This was a time of rapid, sweeping changes. In the US, the number of white-collar workers surpassed blue-collar workers for the first time around 1980. The personal computer was introduced and rapidly adopted, thus changing the way information was handled. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers. All of which drove the need for more office space and the ability of those workplaces to be adaptable to changing demands.

Since that time I’ve seen four major advances in workplace strategy:

Office 1.0

Office 1.0

This is the original dating from the early 1800s. Workplaces are assigned based on status/ Private offices for leadership (usually with windows – the famous “corner office”) and open bullpens for staff. We still find examples of this in some companies.


Office 2.0

The so-called “open office” or office landscape, was introduced in the 1950s. During the 1970s and 1980s the need for office workplaces grew rapidly. Entry of Baby Boomers in office workers, especially an unprecedented number of women, and advances in computing and information technology were all the big changes shaping the workplace. This new wave of white-collar information workers raised the need for workplaces that responded better to change. The explosion in demand for office space drove exponential growth in the commercial real estate industry, information technology and the office furniture industry. One response was the development of the Action Office – Robert Propost’s orginal design of a responsive, multi-tasking work system. Unfortunately, the functional flexibility of the original design devolved into “systems furniture”. Rather than serving the original intent of work settings that were responsive to changing needs and increase flexibility, systems furniture became synonymous with cubicles, universal footprint “cube farms”, and “Dilbert-ville”
There is nothing inherently bad about systems furniture. We’ve seen it used very effectively. Sadly, we have also seen it used far too often as a way to homogenize space solutions and minimize change. Many companies still use this approach.

Office 3.0
During the 1990s the fledgling Internet coupled with the first generation of truly portable technologies merged to serve businesses’ drive toward continually reducing costs. This, in turn, led to experiments with “alternative officing.” The result was progressive reduction in individual workspace, reduced enclosure by lowering partitions, and a variety of ways to use workspaces (e.g., hotelling, hot desking, telecommuting). All of which had one goal – cut real estate costs. Recently – paralleling the economic downturn and financial crises- this approach has gained in popularity and experienced a renaissance.

Without a doubt this is the worst of the four “generations” of office design. It marks the high point in cost consciousness and the low point in creative design. In Office 3.0 both space and people are treated as commodities – a cost to be reduced by any means. It ignores both history and science from which we know space is not neutral but has a positive or negative impact on occupants.
This approach is usually justified by faulty and disingenuous thinking. “The Calculus of Collaboration – goes something like this:
• We need to innovate more.
• So let’s lower all the walls and put more people closer together.
• By being closer together they will experience “social friction”
• Social friction will lead to them communicating more.
• When they communicate more they will collaborate,
• Collaboration will result in innovation.

The idea of people collaborating and innovating simply because they are in closer proximity to their neighbor is a myth.
I have not seen one credible study that supports this logic. In my experience the opposite is true.
Brill (1984) showed the opposite of this thinking. More openness lead to less communication; while more enclosure lead to more collaboration. Brown (2008) showed that all the new trendy design doesn’t increase communication or collaboration. He found the critical issue is proximity to those one needs to work with.

Increased density and reduced enclosure adds to distraction – the number one complaint since the beginning of the office and the number one productivity killer. Sykes (2004) reviewed research dating as far back as 1955 showing “conversational distractions” as the principal deterrent to office performance and productivity.
Finally, if decision makers were honest they would admit that all this discussion about collaboration and teamwork is a false front for the real reason to pursue this approach – cost cutting. It is a short-term approach to a long-term problem. You can’t grow and prosper by cutting back.

Benching, for example, is one of the latest (and worst) variations on this theme. Benching offices bear a striking resemblance to a school cafeteria along with the noise and distraction.

A common lament from businesses is a lack of occupancy in their offices. This should not be a surprise. As technology has become more powerful and portable, people vote with their feet and find truly alternative places in which to work. While these “third places” are seldom good places to work (e.g. coffee shops) they are better than the office their employers provide.
This approach to workplace design can’t die fast enough.

AWS Basics5.006

Office 4.0

This is a nascent, but emerging approach. Beginning sometime in 2007-2008, at the height of the most recent financial crises, examples and evidence of rethinking workplace began to emerge. Today, six years later this remains an “emerging” trend. Sadly, it may never be mainstream or widely accepted. But several things distinguish this approach from prior “generations.”
1. Designers and facility managers are finally recognizing that work is not done in just one way or in just one type of setting. It is not well served by “either-or” thinking but requires an approach that embraces “both-and” approaches that support multiple work modes and multiple types of work settings.
2. Technology has become truly portable and untethered enabling more mobility within and between places. For example, telepresence – the ability to use technology to communicate in multiple channels between remote places – has helped workers meet virtually and is reshaping thinking about workplace.
3. Agility – rather than simply flexibility – is beginning to emerge as a design goal. Flexibility as a design goal usually results in trying to be all things to all people resulting in nothing done well. Agility is purposeful adaptation to the immediate need.
Several companies have explored new designs that represent examples of Office 4.0. Microsoft in the Netherlands and a number of Google offices around the world show some elements of Office 4.0, although they also retain the hangover effect of Office 3.0.
The Google Garage may be the clearest example of rethinking workplace. Link here. As Louis Sullivan noted “form ever follows function” and the garage focuses on function and agility more than form.

Q. As an expert on ergonomics and workplace, what kind of points you would like to make and suggest for professionals who are interested in diving deeper to understand this field which often gets hazed by popular trends and fashionable statements in workplace industry.

I’ve often said that the burden those who practice ergonomics carry is when they do their jobs well, solutions seem like common sense. But that doesn’t mean ergonomics is simply applied common sense. I like to describe ergonomics as the science behind the art of human-centered design.

We know a lot about how people interact with and experience their environment and the artifacts in it. Ergonomics applies that knowledge to inform designs of devices and environments so that they work. The HERO Inc. goal is “to make the things people use and places and ways they use them safe, comfortable, easy and effective.”

Ergonomics has its roots in two diverse fields – behavioral science and engineering. It combines what we know about human behavior with the functional design of devices and elements. Today ergonomic research touches on almost every form of human endeavor. Generally, ergonomics falls into two major categories: cognitive ergonomics, dealing with how our brains work, how we make decisions, how we experience the world; and physical ergonomics, the more traditional area of size, shape, and physical features of users, devices and environments.
For those seeking good quality information and expertise in ergonomics, a good place to begin is one the professional organizations. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) and the US “sister” organization Human Factors and Ergonomics Society ( offer a deep and rich set of resources that cover all areas of the field. They publish a number of books and journals as well as lists of consultants and academic programs in the field. Many universities offering degrees in ergonomics or human factors also offer on-line courses and summer programs.

One note of caution, a common issue we deal with is advice or solutions offered by unqualified individuals or firms looking to capitalize on the need for solid ergonomics in workplaces. Not everyone claiming to have ergonomic expertise is well qualified. Often what is offered as science is really poor design and/or marketing wrapped in a thin veneer of data. So, the buyer must be especially aware.

While ergonomics may seem like common sense, it’s not something in which one acquires expertise by reading a few articles or attending one or two workshops. You may gain awareness and understanding but that does not qualify as expertise. Gaining expertise and mastery requires years of study and experience studying and applying ergonomic principles. A minimal requirement is an advanced degree from a recognized and respected university program. Membership in IEA or HFES is also strongly recommended.

Q. There are several myths that have become popular in the design industry and one being which we recently spoke offline about is treadmill workstation. In your experience, what are other such examples that took off based on flimsy grounds of health? How can we rectify such myths to take roots?

A. You’re right. There are several ideas that are trendy, but that doesn’t mean they are legitimate trends. I urge people to look at the science – not the marketing hype.
I mentioned benching earlier. This is a space saving measure not a functional solution. Benching assumes people will resist the natural tendency for establishing boundaries and “magically” work together. Science shows this is fallacy.
An early researcher into human behavior and space, Edward T Hall developed the theory of Proxemics in the 1950s. Essentially Hall’s theory posits that there are zones of space that affect and are influenced by human behavior. The smallest and closest zone is personal space. Benching effectively forces people to allow others to operate at what Hall calls “intimate” distances – where noise (operationally defined as unwanted stimuli) creates maximum distraction.
Researchers have provided evidence that crowding affects behavior negatively. The most extreme examples of crowding studies are called “behavioral sink” studies. Here groups were allowed to adapt to boundaries of space, then the space was reduced by 50%. All sorts of aberrant behavior resulted including violence.
So benching is a bad idea for so many reasons.

You mentioned treadmill desks. This is another trendy idea that not only finds no support from science but actually works against what we know.
First walking on a treadmill is based on the legitimate idea that moving while performing office work is good for you (more on this in a moment). But the claims for benefits of walking on a treadmill while doing information/knowledge work are specious. Treadmills when used as workstations lock people into a forward facing position. Lateral movement is either not at all easy or impossible. The noise of the treadmill is another distraction in an already noisy environment. All of which would be enough to dismiss this idea. However, science – specifically neuroscience and cognitive ergonomics – tell us that engaging to two very different types of activities simultaneously degrades the performance of both tasks. We use very different parts of our brains to walk (gross body movements, tactile sensation, balance, etc.) than when we to do information or knowledge work (higher order cognitive processing, cerebral cortex, decision making, language skills, etc.). Doing both at the same time creates “cognitive dissonance” where the signals going to different parts of the brain interfere with one another. The result is like the description of flexibility as a design goal – we end up doing nothing well.
Real world examples of this can be found in legislation in the US to prevent texting while driving; or London’s Brick Lane where light poles are padded to protect people walking and texting.

Treadmill desks are a bad idea – all you have to do is look at the science rather than the hype.

There have also been several news items about how sitting is bad for us – thus the focus on treadmills and other forms of standing workstations.

First, sitting is no more dangerous than lying down or standing. The risk comes from maintaining constrained postures or positions for long periods of time. Doing so, regardless of the position (standing, lying down or sitting) is bad for you. One of the things technology has done is take jobs that were relatively sedentary and made them even more static. People used to get up regularly and move about the larger workplace to communicate with others, to drop off or pick up documents. With computers all that work that required physical movement is now done electronically. Consequently, we find that people are maintaining the same position for much longer periods of time without much movement. This is bad whether sitting, standing or lying down. Our bodies evolved to move. We need to examine the nature of work and try to design jobs that include alternative activity – preferrably activity that involves larger movement than typing or moving a mouse but doesn’t introduce the cognitive dissonance of which treadmill desks are guilty.

With regard to sitting at work, there have been some notable advances in chair design. Materials and engineering allow designers to create more dynamic machines for sitting that respond to shifts in body center of gravity and adapt to changes in posture and position. See this PDF here.
Sitting is not necessarily dangerous. Sitting too long in constrained positions is. Thus, as with many other things – moderation is the key.

Standing workstations are not new – they have been around for centuries (Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill are both famous proponents of standing desks). Standing for brief periods can be a way to relieve stress and engage other muscles. But standing in the same place for long periods of time without relief is not good either.

Other examples:
Display height – As displays got bigger, the height of the display can cause discomfort. Myths include raising the display to be at or above eye height. Similarly, one manufacturer claims displays should be lowered below desk height. Neither is a good practice. A good rule of thumb is the top of the display should be about even with your arm when it is extended directly in front and parallel to the floor. This places the upper right corner of the display (where much of the screen activity takes place) at about 10° below horizontal measured from the eyes. This is the natural area where they eyes look for something in near to middle distance. Our eyes evolved that way. We look up to look for away (“Look, the lions are coming!) we look down to see thing closer to us (“Don’t step on that snake!). So placing something we want to read above 10-15° below horizontal works against this natural behavior. Also, as we age, many people need correction for both near and far vision. Bifocal and trifocal lenses place the reading and middle distance correction in the lower half to third of the lens allowing our eyes to move rather than our heads.
Sinking the display below the work surface introduces all sorts of unexpected consequences. The surface must be transparent in order to see the display. Doing so degrades the quality of the image and often present reflection and glare adding to eye strain. The physical placement causes users to crane their neck forward adding to stress on the shoulders, neck and back. Finally, even with flat panel displays, sinking the display into the work surface takes away valuable knee space forcing increased viewing distances and in some cases obstructing legs and inhibiting lateral movement.

I covered this and other ergonomics myths in this column for Today’s Facility Manager

Q. As a client, who wants to be savvy and informed, what kind of resources you would recommend to them for making sure they are making good decision and investment in making their workplace for their company.

First and foremost, ergonomics is not something you do once. It is a journey, not a destination. It is an approach to providing and managing workplaces that should be
on-going and with time and effort integrated into an organization’s DNA. Getting to that point requires commitment and involvement of various stakeholders in an organization – staff and management; facilities and business units.
Most successful ergonomic programs begin with a committee of users. This group invests the time and resources internally to do the important groundwork. They may decide to hire an objective expert. But effective ergonomic programs always involve an internal group that “owns” the program and processes.

There are many resources available from a variety of sources. The organizations mentioned earlier are a good starting point. Many product vendors offer information as well. However, one must exercise caution in using vendor-provided ergonomic information. Many manufacturers of workplace products make claims about the ergonomics of their designs without valid and reliable supporting research. It is wise to seek outside, objective confirmation.

It’s important to understand work, workers and workplace are elements of a complex system. Unfortunately, in the case of office workplaces the elements are familiar – chair, desk, computer, etc. The complexity lies both in the individual elements and the interaction of the elements.

I often get asked, “if we can change just one thing, what should we change?” A seemingly simple question with a very complex answer beginning with “It depends.” Changing anything in a complex system always leads to multiple interactions and often to unexpected consequences.

Truly qualified ergonomic experts can advise and assist organizations in analyzing their current work setting and making recommendations for improvements. Those recommendations must be based on understanding the functional requirements of the worker in performing his or her tasks and the tools and technologies they employ.

Improvements may be based on changes in the design of work, workflow, operational efficiencies as well as the furniture and configuration of individual and group workplaces.

Finally, ergonomics doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or necessarily involve replacing workplace elements. If done well, ergonomics pays for itself by improving performance, reducing absenteeism, minimizing workers’ health risks.

Generally, applying ergonomics to workplaces involves three stages:
a) Education. Many ergonomic issues are behavioral. One of the difficulties in addressing how people use workplaces is familiarity. The main components of a workplace – chair, desk, computer, etc. are things people use every day. Yet, very often people need to learn how to use these tools and artifacts in ways that are more effective and/or don’t increase the risk of discomfort and possible stress and injury. By launching an education program organizations can raise awareness among the workers and management about the importance of posture; avoiding constrained and stressful positions; starting points for adapting the workplace to the worker, etc.
b) Identification. Once people are aware, they can begin to identify those areas in the workplace that may need attention. Using sound ergonomic information an principles, problems can be classified according to severity and the best ways to address them.
c) Remediation. Some problems will require intervention. This may involve retraining workers how to use devices; adding certain accessories or job aids; or replacing certain elements in the workplace.

Q. In your experience, talk about couple of good projects you have had the privilege of working on with your team. What kind of challenges were you faced with and how did you work to overcome them to create a meaningful solution for your client.

A. As your first question noted, I’ve been around a long time and worked on many great teams with thought leaders in the field. The most successful projects have had several common denominators:
a) A clear and unifying purpose
b) A strong internal champion
c) An involved internal team of influencers representing the wide range of users
d) Commitment to asking the right questions
e) A dedication to doing things right – as well as doing the right things

The other characteristic that has been true of the best projects was our ability to test solutions. From the Sun Microsystems headquarters (A BOSTI project) in the 1980s to the first hotelling project for Ernst and Young in 1990 to a trading floor for Fidelity investments to a complete renovation of a building for Efficient Capital, we worked with the clients to think big, do small and learn fast. What we call rapid prototyping. Workplaces are one of the few designed artifacts that are not tested before rolling them out to the user. Rapid prototyping allows us to try ideas, test solutions and gain valuable feedback to tweak and refine solutions before finalizing them. We also test measures of impact on a small scale. Rapid prototyping allows us to mess with ideas until they work (or they are discarded because they don’t).
The results are multi-fold. Users are engaged in the process and change management is much easier. Change orders are minimized, once the solution is implemented full scale, generating substantial savings. Measures of impact are tested and in place.

Unslumming: Jane Jacobs

Posted in Built Environment, City, Urban Planning, Urbanism by designprose on May 5, 2014

Below is an extract from book by Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It talks about how superficial or rather visual understanding of slums that leads to conventional planning to clear them out as a blight blot ignoring the tremendous energy they contribute in regenerating itself and in effect encapsulating more energy and ambition as a driving force. This is no romanticizing of slums, rather a deeper look at forces that causes them to exist and why they can be a source to less expensive, informal, vibrant with entrepreneur spirit caused due to drive and energy.

Our present urban renewal laws are an attempt to break this particular linkage in the vicious circles by forthrightly wiping away slums and their populations, and replacing them with projects intended to produce higher tax yields, or to lure back easier populations with less expensive public requirements. The method fails. At best, it merely shifts slums from here to there, adding its own tincture of extra hardship and disruption. At worst, it destroys neighborhoods where constructive and improving communities exist and where the situation calls for encouragement rather than destruction.

Like Fight Blight and Conservation campaigns in neighborhoods declining into slums, slum shifting fails because it tries to overcome causes of trouble by diddling with symptoms.

Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic. The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so. To overcome slums, we must regard slum dwellers as people capable of understanding and acting upon their self interests, which they certainly are. We need to discern, respect and build upon the forces for regeneration that exist in slums themselves and that demonstrably work in real cities. This is far from trying to patronize people into better life, and it is far from what is done today.

Women in Architecture: Kevin Mark Low

Posted in Architecture by designprose on January 8, 2014

This article first appeared on World Architecture News, here:

Q:What is the state of women architects in Malaysia. Is it culturally progressive or regressive for female architects to thrive?
Kevin Mark Low elaborates his stand below:
I do not believe one’s sex plays much of a part in one’s ability to thrive professionally in Malaysia, though it very well might in another country. Through my years working in Malaysia, I am quite glad to say that I have never experienced an intelligent statement, comment, or question by a female or male architect that was not given deep regard, and with that individual earning the greater respect of others. Perhaps the deeper aggression associated with men enables certain advances and opportunities denied women, but I believe that culture here has little to blame for.

Having taught at the University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur over the past ten years, I have found female students to actually have an edge over male students with respect to a quicker understanding of concepts, ideas and issues of content over those of form. I do believe women have it in them to be greater architects than men. However, I also believe women to be better nurturers than men, and when it comes to raising a family, a woman will make sacrifices few men would ever consider, let alone undertake. The fact is that many of us do grow up, get married, and ultimately produce children – if there exists fewer women than men in architecture performing at the very highest levels of the profession, I believe it is only because the very best women architects are doing their best work caring for their families as a sacrifice they cannot see any other way but make.

Please do let me try to explain further, as I didn’t think earlier that an involved discussion was necessary for the WAN interview – you see, I approach things from a considerably more biological and psychological perspective, which if you don’t mind, ill try to clarify. The human animal is, by and large, a predominantly sexually-driven one (yes, we can go on talking about the rationality and sense of self-awareness that marks human beings different from animals, but so much of what drives us is our sexuality – almost every experience of human want in life relates to our sexuality. Not sex, mind you, as these are two completely different things). As such, the individuals we each feel we are is very much a part of our perception of our own sexuality. And medicine has found that the hormones most responsible for determining our sexuality comes from the brain. I believe it is the combination of these hormones, and human perception of the physical sexual organ most acutely associated with each sex (from the very first moment we begin to grasp concepts of space and form) that has the male mind see itself as occupying space, and the female mind as being part of it – each incidentally corresponding to how the penis is an object in the space it occupies, while the vagina is that space within, which it has nurtured/created.

Of course there are many other specific biological, social and cultural mechanisms that determine how we each perceive and relate to the creative act, but by and large, the profound depth of that psychological difference between the sexes results in men arriving at the objectification of situations much quicker, reducing problems to tangible attempts at solutions faster, whereas women take greater time to understand the abstract and conceptual aspects of any problem set before them, before any attempt at resolution is made. I must emphasise there are obvious exceptions, as nurture plays an equally important part in how each mind develops, with special circumstances affecting how certain individuals might prove otherwise, but generally speaking, and certainly within the context of Malaysia, I have found my male students to arrive at formal solutions considerably faster than their female counterparts – merit of solutions however, happily notwithstanding. As an aside, I suspect the female aspects of my psyche are more dominant than my male side of things, possibly as a result of particular circumstances in my formative years, while it might not be wrong to say your male component is a touch stronger than your female side, for the same reasons. This might not impact our intrinsic sexuality, but it well makes us a touch different from the norm.

So men lean towards objectification and women, conceptualisation. An interesting addendum to this is the fact that form is intrinsically also easier to work with than concepts, due to their tangible nature. As such, not only does objectification happen quicker and easier for men, they are simultaneously helped with it through the pure nature of form itself. It should be remembered once again though, that being quick with form doesn’t necessarily mean being good with concepts.

For the reasons above, I believe that the male facility with objectification is what drives them quicker to some degree of recognition than women, as a pure default of the immediacy which form is assimilated, categorised and hailed, but also for the sad state of the world with its preoccupation with the iconisation and objectification of the same – a biologically male trait. And the fact that women are generally more inclined to engage conceptual issues (which take so much more time due to their richness) rather than immediately formal ones, simply means that they take longer and have to develop the patience to produce tangible solutions. Both very difficult tasks.

Which brings me back to the point I attempted to make in my earlier reply regarding women and children – you see, more women, for the reasons I have given as the nurturers they biologically and psychologically are, simply have the patience to do what men are less capable of – raising children – in sacrifice of their careers. The more involved reason I have provided here (which I had not described earlier in reply to your question, due to its length) is something I believe to be a lesser effect of the same biological and physiological tendencies built into being either male or female.

It isnt the system that limits the aspirations of women, it is firstly due to innate sexuality that certain roles are naturally assumed. After that, it is the system that limits content in preference for form. The unfortunate fact is simply that women are generally more driven by content, and men, at form. As such women are marginalised by default of the system, not limited by intention.

At its most profound levels of expression, form finds nurturing through issues of content, taking deep patience and time. As is most commonly evidenced however, form develops through the subtle aggression of objectification, requiring neither considerable effort of patience nor engagement of content, and can be accomplished within short turnover of time. The latter is simply what more men than women, identify with.

In Conversation With Vinayak Bharne

Posted in Built Environment, City, City Planning, Uncategorized by designprose on December 24, 2013

The edited version of this interview first appeared on World Architecture News, here. Complete conversation is presented below.

Urbanist Vinayak Bharne is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Urbanism at the University of Southern California and practicing Urban Designer. His three recent books, “The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms”, “Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India”, and the forthcoming “Zen Spaces and Neon Places: Reflections on Japanese Architecture and Urbanism” provide a provocative dialogues on understanding cities and city-making with their context across cultures, nations and histories. WAN’s Mumbai Correspondent, Pallavi Shrivastava spoke to Bharne about the ideas, agendas and inspirations behind these efforts. Excerpts from the interview below:

Q. Given your multiply rooted identity, you have a far more nuanced understanding of the East-West dialog on Cities that we are currently seeing taking shape. Do you think there is a much larger theme that is unfolding in urbanization than merely the geographic tirade that we tend to witness?

The ongoing East-West dialog on cities is part of a much larger theme that is trying to make sense of the bewildering global scene unfolding in front of us. It is a theme that has intricate ties with complex economics, communication and foreign policy, all of which is forcing nations, cities and communities across the world to reconsider their priorities. Urbanization is part of that. As Robert Kaplan points out in his book “Monsoon,” it is part of the shifting geopolitical focus of the now-departed twentieth century, where the Western Hemisphere lay front and center. This shift is focusing strong attention on what cities in Asia, South-America etc. mean – not out of casual curiosity as has happened before, but out of sheer need and hope.  This is an unprecedented theme, wherein Western architects and urbanists looking for work abroad will have to recognize that the work they have done and continue to do at home – good, bad or ugly – has in some ways always been connected to that abroad, because cities abroad have always looked to the West for answers even though they may deny it. In turn native urbanists abroad will now have to rethink what their cities really mean, and reconsider how to engage with them. In some ways all three of my books spark off from the urgency within this discourse.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your three books and motivation behind each of them.

3 books

My forthcoming book “Zen Spaces & Neon Places” brings two decades of writing and reflecting on Japan, since my first trip in 1993 as an exchange student from India. With the emergence of China and India, Japan has now dropped below the intellectual radar, when, in fact, it continues to remain a very relevant reference for our times. So this book offers a critical reinterpretation of Japan’s complex built environment across history – the import of Tang Dynasty prototypes, entry of European influences, insinuation of Western democracy, rise and collapse of the economic bubble, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – and their transformative effects in shaping and re-shaping the Japanese built landscape we see today. The intention is to provoke deeper reflections on why and how what we see today has come to be, and learn from it.

The “Emerging Asian City” was born out of a frustration: There are a lot of books with the title “Asian Cities”, but they are really focused on select regions of Asia- south-east, middle-east etc – missing the larger point. So this book brought together multi-national, multi-disciplinary scholars who were doing great work on different parts of Asia, to capture – however imperfectly – the sheer breadth and complexity of the various forces shaping cities across Asia today. This book is an argument to notice how regions across Asia, despite their differences, also have numerous overlaps – thereby offering another reading of where Asian cities are heading.

“Rediscovering the Hindu Temple” makes the point that the Hindu temple today is a lot more than just a historic, classical, sacred artifact. In this book, we explore the controversies behind the treatises that have shaped them, and also examine their traditional architectural canons. But more importantly we look into several other dimensions of temples that are typically missed – such as their rudimentary and populist forms as wayside shrines, their presence as larger habitats, or ritualscapes devoted to prescribed and choreographed activity. We simultaneously notice them as contemporary elements, having a profound influence on the Indian metropolitan landscape. So this book provokes a dialog on the nexus and potential of religion and other populist forces as agents and catalysts for urban transformation in India and beyond.

Q. Through your books, specifically, The Emerging Asian City, did you encounter some deeper understanding while curating and writing the series which you had missed earlier?

I think the deeper understanding that emerged from this book was where exactly different Asian cities overlap and separate – and why. The Indian sub-continent, for instance, is historically entwined with the cultures of the Persian and Gulf region through the Islamic trajectory, as it is with China and Japan through the Buddhist one. Colonialism; post-independence Nation-building; the entry and assimilation of Western democracy; informal urbanisms; sudden cities; the embrace of Modernism – these are phenomena scattered throughout urban Asia in space and time, even though their specific guises may be different. We all know how several Asian nations, after independence, built brand new Modern cities as emblems of sovereignty. But six decades later, how and why are Chandigarh, Islamabad, Jakarta and Tehran different? Rapid urbanization has been a cyclical phenomenon in Asia – Japan in the 70s, Hong Kong in the 80s, Kuala Lumpur in the 90’s and now Shenzhen. The forces shaping different Asian cities have been different but neither are they necessarily isolated nor regionally unique. This may seem like a pretty obvious point, but very few books have really sunk their teeth into what exactly this means.

Q. How does this understanding reflect on your practice as an urban designer while working on projects in different regions? Where does it intersect, amalgamate and differentiate in actual design solutions and implementation? Does this make it easier or challenging given the complexities of urban fabric and issues?

Most of my recent professional work outside the United States – mainly the United Arab Emirates, Panama, Mauritius, Kenya and China – has been for private developers or municipalities. In other words, it has been in the mainstream layers of city making – in that, I am not dealing with impoverished or alternative contexts, or conversely iconic high-budget creations. In this middle layer, the general ideas we promote in the US – pedestrian-friendly streets, compact development, multi-modality, dignified density etc. – are relevant globally, because sprawl is a global phenomenon. The specifics of sprawl, however, both in form and the processes and expectations that generate it, are different across the world. So the challenge of working abroad in this respect has been one of negotiating where to introduce progressive urbanism ideas from the US authoritatively, where not to, and where and how to adapt them. For instance in China, if you want to make a neighborhood with small blocks and therefore more streets, many of these streets have to be private and contained within gated mega-blocks. And ultimately how to penetrate the administrative structures of a city and influence and transform planning regulation from being sprawl-driven to something else remains at the heart of all such efforts.

But I like to think that I am also engaged in another form of practice – and that is research with my students and academic colleagues. This is where I get to engage with issues beyond mainstream city-making. And this is where I get to test many of the ideas I write about. We have an ongoing research project to chart multi-disciplinary strategies for the future of Banaras, one of India’s oldest sacred cities. I have a grant to do an incremental enhancement plan for the surroundings of the Ise Jingu, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. We have been studying how to reuse and resurrect the ancient Qanats (subterranean water channels) of Yazd, Iran. I think all these are forms of practice – in that we are engaged in urban change and intervention, whether it is a developer project, or a hypothetical proposition.

Q. Do you see the flattening of cultural differences and the slow disintegration of diversity under the rubric of globalization as a challenge or a fertile phenomenon that may give emergence to something more interesting in Cities of tomorrow?

I think it is both.  The flattening of cultural differences began with modernization, but could not surpass the deep-rooted cultural blueprints of many non-Western cultures. In the Emerging Asian Cities book there are several chapters that show how cultural blueprints endure. They end up becoming commodities for tourism and entertainment – as Kasama Polakit points out in her chapter on the Bang villages of Thailand. They can in fact be reinforced and renewed through successive external transformations, as Robert Cowherd observes in his piece on Surakarta. Jeff Hou examines the juxtaposition of what he calls “vertical urbanism, horizontal urbanity”  – in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei etc – where shimmering high-rises rub shoulders with a tradition of informal markets. Vic Liptak follows three generations of a native family in Aksaray, Turkey as they renounce their traditional homes and move to new apartments, and seamlessly appropriate it with indigenous spatial patterns. Even cities like Chandigarh, as I argue in one of the chapters that were built from scratch as new utopias have been seamlessly appropriated by a native ethos. In other words, if we learn to see globalization as the continuing legacy of colonialism and modernism, then cultural resiliency is an integral part of that continuum.

Q. Rapid urbanization gives rise to unprecedented pressure on infrastructure and transport means. Which emerging/developing city according to you has tackled this challenge in a best and worst way? And why do you think so? And which developed city according to you had to go back and re-work their strategies to rising or changing needs.

I think most developing cities across the world are being ravaged even as we speak by placeless transportation infrastructure. This is why a city like Curitiba, Brazil stands out. Their 1966 master plan proposed a siphoned urban growth along five structural axes radiating from the urban core, but instead of focusing their infrastructure solely on cars, they initiated a rapid bus mass transit system in the central lanes of these corridors that has now gained global attention. What is less known, however, is that the land fronting these transit corridors was simultaneously zoned for high rise buildings with residential/office uses above and retail/commercial uses at street level guaranteeing that the fabric would not only produce but also attract transit trips. Further, to incentivize the plan’s implementation, the zoning was changed to permit little to no development in downtown Curitiba, whilst promoting high-density mixed-use development along these transit axes. This strategy has not been immune to capital pressures, and the development of these corridors is a far cry from the controlled consistency seen in the best Western cities. But this synergistic transit-infrastructure-development strategy in a less-developed socio-economic context, implemented through a non-speculative and formal planning means is something many other cities should learn from.

For the second part of your question, Los Angeles comes to mind. Its ongoing rail transit renaissance is actually quite ironic. Barely five decades ago, Southern California had one of the most extensive train networks in the world. But the 1,000-odd miles of rail were gradually dismantled, and circa 1963 closed in favor of an extensive freeway system. As part of Los Angeles’ renewed inclination towards walkability, mixed–use and non-utopian urbanisms, numerous policies are now not only advancing mass transit, but transit-oriented development (TOD) at all scales. Of course, compared to other American cities, this TOD rhetoric is miniscule, because the automobile still remains the convenient choice to traverse LA’s vast distances. And with conventional zoning still regulating most transit nodes, the idea of introducing density and mixed-use around train stations remains a difficult territory, with progressive developers needing to negotiate new concepts of density and livability through mainstream planning channels. But what is happening in LA is important. The efforts and struggles of this region can provide real lessons to numerous cities across the world.

Q. What do you think is one of biggest challenges facing the transportation sector in various cities of the world? Why? And are there few basic measures that cities can take to improve their transport networks.

In the United States, where regulation is everything, we are simply trying to reduce dependence on the automobile and repair the physical damage wrought by decades of regulated but myopically planned infrastructure designed exclusively for cars. In many other countries, one of biggest challenge is precisely reinforcement and regulation. So there are significant differences. But I think one challenge that unifies cities across the world is how to get transportation sectors to talk to other sectors of city planning (and vice versa) before implementing anything. This is something every city can actually do. If you are planning a highway, how can you simultaneously anticipate strategies for economic development, how can you rethink zoning around a new transit corridor right away – not as an after-thought as it is often done. In other words, how can transportation (and all other) sectors of a city-planning department stop working in isolation as if the others did not matter.

Q. Do you think people take on the identity of the City or a City takes on the identity of people who inhabit it? Do you think the identity of the City is static or something constantly transforming and evolving?

All cities are phenomena in flux. So how can the identity of a city be static? Granted, some cities change faster or more dramatically than others, but ultimately they are all events in time. The Japanese architect Toyo Ito had once remarked, “if a Western city is a museum, the Japanese city is a theater.” He was referring to the relative permanence of a European city versus a far more ephemeral city like Tokyo, where land scarcity compels constant demolition and rebuilding. Physically, Tokyo changes dramatically every few years. On the other hand, I am reminded of Venice, where in 1902, the campanile in St.Mark’s Piazza collapsed for the second time. And even as a heated debate ensued about its future, the citizens and elected officials simply decided to replicate the fallen icon, so that the visual image of the city would be the same.

The socio-physical disposition of every city influences its inhabitants only as much as they influence it. The thing that interests me here is what I like to call urban immunity. Japanese citizens for instance, have since historic times lived with the idea that their cities will be destroyed from time to time and rebuilt again – this is unthinkable for many of us. When people from highly regulated cities visit less regulated ones, they react immediately to ad hoc development, unhygienic surrounds etc. But for the inhabitants of that city, it is part and parcel of daily life. The identity of a city does not stem only from icons and monuments, but equally from the deeper psychological structures and expectations of its people.

Q. As a researcher and academician which is one of the most interesting Cities that you see yourself going back for your ongoing queries and seeking answers. Please elaborate.

I would say Tokyo. As I write in the final chapter of my Japan book, for most non-Japanese architects and urbanists, particularly from the West, Tokyo epitomizes the extremities of contemporary urbanism. The cost of living is more than 50% higher than New York. The amount of private space per capita is 66% lower. Parks constitute merely 5% of its land surface in comparison to 30% in London.  But despite these delirious densities, the amount of space actually occupied by its over-nine-million occupants on its 622-square-kilometer spread is only around 52% (though it rises up to 70% in central areas). Of course, none of these extreme numbers mean anything to most Tokyoites, for whom, the city is in fact a mosaic of discrete social worlds, urban neighborhoods, streets, destinations, efficient trains, and thousands of social places. I find Tokyo very similar to Mumbai in its pace and visual intensity, but far closer to a European city when we look at its cleanliness, order and daily efficiency. For me Tokyo is one of most livable and walkable cities in the world, even though it has evolved largely without formal planning and where one lives with the knowledge that its destruction can come at any moment. I continue to find this very intriguing because it challenges how we make, experience and live in cities, physically and mentally.

Q. What is your advice to young and emerging professionals in urban design and planning around the world and what suggested readings you would recommend them to not miss in understanding the subject.

Some days ago, an experienced planner put up a list of what he considers to be the 100 best books on city-making ever written. The list has all the obvious suspects and classics – from Jane Jacobs and Camillo Sitte to Andres Duany and Rem Koolhas – and attests to the vast and impressive scholarship on the subject of city-making over the past few decades. But for me, it suggests equally the shocking and dangerous Western-centric provincialism and intellectual dominance that pervades the idea of the “good city” globally – even at a time when transnational fluidity is less viscous than ever before. This is a gap that needs serious attention over the next decade by emerging professionals.

We also need urbanism and planning heroes beyond European and American ones. If you think about it, most figures beyond the West that have gained a global profile have been architects, not urbanists or planners, even though they may claim to be so. They have not really been invested in the complexities of city-making as much as making great buildings. If you look at their monographs, they are really about buildings as objects or isolated projects with nothing about processes or engagements in city making. I think the agenda of urbanism has not really attained clarity or dominance beyond the West, and even for a layperson, the idea of an urbanist or city-planner remains vague at best. If the 21st century is the century of cities, then this is the biggest task at hand – to make urbanism the real agenda of our times, to prioritize urbanism before architecture, and to help citizens understand that cities are not made by architects, but by many other actors and entities.

The Bilbao Effect

Posted in Uncategorized by designprose on November 6, 2013

Excerpt from a chapter, Building and Making of a Place from the book Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger,

A City is much more than an assemblage of streets, however, and it is worth stepping back a bit farther to say something about the city at this moment in history, not only as a work of design but in a broader way, as a figment of our culture. How much do cities mean in an age of cyberspace, and how much does sense of place- one thing we expect buildings will help to give- matter? For all that our culture today celebrates architecture, even wallows in it, with spectacular buildings by famous architects increasingly the norm in large, medium, and small cities around the world, I am not sure that we any longer have the ability to create in a city as strong a sense of place we once did. Paradoxically, the explosion of exciting architecture- what some people call ‘the Bilbao Effect’- has not done much to counter the trend for cities to become more and more like other cities, and the sense of any place as special, rare, even unique is fast disappearing.

On Urbanism and Architecture

Posted in Uncategorized by designprose on May 17, 2013

There is much more to urban design than a plot plan. Diagrams do not resolve the integration of culture and commerce, the relationship of the public realm and private enterprise, the balance of new building and open space; they do not create the kind of places that combine memory with a vital and active urbanity.

And if I may add to what Ada Louise Huxtable said in her book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change (2008) that there is more to urban design and architecture than a plan and drawings which do not capture the quintessential human presence and how they may organically grow or wither in that space in sum or its parts. The enterprise, the human spirit, the experiential relationship, sometimes detached and sometimes intimate, that we carry with place and space is beyond the plan and that is the real process in making of a place which is never really complete like a place is made but its continuously evolving, placemaking.

Interview: Kevin Mark Low of smallprojects

Posted in Architecture, Built Environment by designprose on March 27, 2013

I recently had an opportunity to interact with Kevin Mark Low at 361 Degrees Conference. Kevin is a deepportrait-1-200x200 thinker and his approach to architecture is enthralling, this I say based  on detailed, well-thought out answers to questions I posed him on behalf of World Architecture News and his talk. Kevin Mark Low, an architect based in Malaysia whose work has gained global recognition, left his corporate architecture job to reclaim and pursue old dreams and established his practice, smallprojects in 2002, which he runs singlehandedly. He has since lectured internationally and conducted workshops and design critiques at various universities.

Q: What inspired you to be an architect? And growing up as a professional architect, whose work you looked up to?

A: Many things really – my mother who taught geography, encouraged my ability to draw, without knowing that some of the worst architects in the world draw beautifully and some of the best, awfully. My father, being more taciturn, didn’t appear to bother much with what I decided, but the important thing was their both supporting the decisions I made – especially my mother and whatever she saw in me at the time, which pushed me just that bit further.

Throughout architecture school and my working years, I found, I was less fascinated by architects than the specific buildings they did – over the course of my life, these were Cimitero Brion (carlo scarpa), Zimmerman House and Clooney Playhouse (Frank Lloyd Wright), Barragan House (Luis Barragan), Lunuganga and the Alfred Street house (Geoffrey Bawa), the Louvre Museum intervention (I.M. Pei), Exeter Library (Louis Kahn), the St. Louis Gateway Arch and MIT Chapel (Eero Saarinen), Casa En Valle de Bravo (Alberto Kalach), Chapel of Hope (Sigurd Lewerentz), Chapel at Ronchamp (Le Corbusier), Maison de Verre (Pierre Chareau), Commerzbank headquarters (Norman Foster) and the Cabrer house (Lacroze/Miguens/Prati). I feel that these architects built each work with a profound understanding of their specific context.

Of these, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Luis Barragan and Geoffrey Bawa are the only three whose architecture consistently engaged the aesthetics of age in the way of time passing. Perhaps, this as yet undocumented understanding had the deepest impact on my own development.


Q. You mentioned something intriguing in your talk about natural state of ways and materials in architecture and your ongoing query on why buildings can be as imperfect as us human beings? Can you elaborate on it?

A: In the way sixty-year-old people look a touch strange when they try to look like sixteen-year-olds, buildings that attempt to defy the passage of time puzzle me. I have a greater affinity for architecture that looks its age, architecture designed with sufficient confidence such that the knocks and scrapes of its making and use add instead of detract form how it is ultimately perceived. There is something about the wrinkles and lines of an old face that is beautiful, that tells its own rich story of scars, tears, joy and pride. In the same way some of us age with dignity and grace, so architecture too can – the question is what one does to encourage the circumstances under which such gracious aging happens. As such, I select materials and engage methods of construction less for how they are able to hide inaccuracy or imperfection, growth and decay, or the ravages of use, than for how all these aspects find their natural place as part of the aesthetic character, the life of the building. Perhaps I can quote from a passage I had written in smallprojects (adaptus 2010) –

“The way in which I interact with my architecture is total; friends are made of contracts and contractors, of detritus, building culture, materials and their manufacture, the act of use, of maintenance and the tectonics of construction. As friends, they are less there for the act of building than for what they intrinsically are, evidenced in the final product; one chooses not hide the nature of one’s friends but to discover them over time. Design thus becomes less the act of showing than of revealing – that of the details of space and its assembly, of production, of weaknesses and strengths of materials, and the character of elemental finish. A construction effort observed to be less skilled through act or appearance is not always rectified, but is instead given integrity through the design of its relationship to its immediate physical context – the materials and processes of construction, each understood for their basic characteristics and specific applications, find expression in the tectonics of what is created. And the simple issue of time passing becomes natural; that familiarity and sense of scale that only comes with age guide my deliberations and decisions, as time has considerably less impact on the quality of light and space (as volume) than it does on the materials that reveal them. Architecture, as a process does not end when the building is done, it barely begins. People age, as do materials and buildings: I am predisposed not merely to make their transition as gracious and dignified as possible, but to reengage them in ways I never realised were possible.”

Global culture has become somewhat of a beast obsessed with the novelty of form. It has certainly grown past its previous romance with the spectacle of it, but the problem still remains that if the form of a work fails to excite or stimulate and present formal experiences in some fresh way, it warrants less attention. And a great part of this zeitgeist is driven by the immediacy, the instantaneous nature of the Internet – nothing is new or fresh if it is posted a day later. As such, we have evolved an architecture of the photoshoot, of work that has to be imaged as soon and as quickly as it is completed, an architecture intended to be experienced in completeness from the first day it is inhabited. For the work I do, it is not possible for me to think of architecture as ever complete with the completion of the contract – with something as dynamic, unpredictable, and human as architecture, as architects I believe we can only ever begin what time alone can complete.

Link to the full interview is here.

The Global Urbanist: A Woman’s Right to Enjoy the City

Posted in Uncategorized by designprose on March 5, 2013


Home to 5.5 million women, Mumbai is considered one of the most modern, cosmopolitan and safe cities for women in India. Yet, not a day goes by without news of a woman of any age or class being molested, attacked, sexually harassed, compromised or violated in some way. With recent debate spurred by the incident in Delhi of a 23-year-old girl being mob-raped in a moving bus then beaten and left to die, it is important to question the forces that lead to this reprehensible behaviour against women and how much of it is facilitated by planned and unplanned urban spaces.

The phenomenon of women keeping away from public spaces because of physical threat is common in India. Growing up in Mumbai, I had internalised this as second nature, allowing it to determine what my movement through the city would be. Stay indoors after dark; move in herds of friends or male company, or at least in the company of a known person; always be on guard in public, especially on public transport; and later, keep questioning whether the groping, letching, staring, or whistling was accidental or intentional. This kind of covert, negotiated presence in public space is true for most Indian women. Each has devised their own compromised mode of urban movement whether it’s to the office, college or merely going out.

Link to the full article at Global Urbanist, here.

This article first appeared on The Global Urbanist on February 26th, 2013.

Modern Architecture by Vincent Scully

Posted in Architecture, Books, Built Environment by designprose on January 10, 2013

51JPAtx5GLL._SL500_SS500_To understand architecture, it is important to understand forces that define and shape them. Contemporary and modern architecture of today was evolved from historical style which no longer could serve the changing times brought on by massive human movement across geographies and onset of industrialization. Modern Architecture by Professor Vincent Scully works as a thoughtful primer towards understanding what we have come to inhabit. He looks at the metaphysical force as well that humanity has never tried to explore fully quite like the modern times. Expression through architecture also encompasses this, this overthrowing of stabilities of thinking, of communities and settlements.

In all these ways, the old stabilities have been overset, and human beings, in the mass have been given an architectural environment which is an image of modern world itself, in which they do not know exactly who or where they are.

He has therefore vacillated between a frantic desire to find something comprehensible to belong to and an equally consuming passion to express his own individuality and to act on his own. He has become at once a tiny atom in a vast sea of humanity and an individual who recognizes himself as being utterly alone.

And thus, modern architecture has embedded these tensions of belonging and unbelonging at the same time and pursuit, the quest of anchoring and exploring, both at one time. Quest to find answers where have we come from and where are we going and how to express stable architecture in this impermanent state of mind.

And since, of all the cultural divisions of Western civilization, America was the one to which the future seemed most open and in which the sense of actual uprootedness was most strong, it was in America that the polarities were first swept away in terms of a new, continuous architecture order.