Design Prose

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.


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