An excellent, timely piece in Livemint.com. Can we go beyond the hype and soundbytes and use Design Thinking to change the fortunes of the movement? Can Design Thinking be used to better reframe the problems, change mindsets, and come up with real solutions?
Livemint: Design thinking can help Swachh Bharat
Amrita Chowdhury, 13th October 2016
As we look at the second anniversary of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we cannot but acknowledge how far the conversation has progressed on the vision and yet how little the needle has shifted on the outcomes.
The difference is starker in our urban areas. Cities are the windows to the nation, where the most vocal residents reside and the most influential visitors arrive. Naturally, then, the Swachh Bharat Mission efforts in cities are critical in making opinions about the efficacy of the programme itself. Rural toilet construction statistics notwithstanding, what hits us most is visible urban waste and the crumbling waste management infrastructure.
Errol Haarhoff describes why we need greater cooperation between local stakeholders, community and business involvement when making decisions related to place shaping.
The 21st century has seen a growing re-engagement with urban design across New Zealand. Since the publication of the NZ Urban Design Protocol a decade back, many city councils have made good urban design outcomes a development goal, and larger councils have established departments dedicated to its promotion.
Some city councils facilitate design reviews of major development projects, and many have ‘best practice’ guides, such as the newly established Auckland Design Manual. Many have also established urban design jobs and units, and there is a growing number of professional consultancies that have set up urban design specialisations.
Positive outcomes, I would argue, are beginning to make an impact in a number of ways. We now have public access to waterfronts in Wellington and Auckland, and new urban spaces catering for public life at a scale not seen before. I was among the reported 100,000 Aucklanders who turned out on the day North Wharf/Silo Park was opened and, despite the Wynyard Quarter still being a few years from completion, the public spaces and cafés have sustained considerable public interest.
It is not only in New Zealand that we witnessing an urban renaissance. As a regular overseas traveller, I am left with a strong impression that, in many cities, the public realm one inhabits as a visitor is far better now than it was on my first visits in the 1970s. I have vivid memories of taking a photograph of the Spanish Steps from the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, accompanied by all the unpleasantness of competing traffic noise, vespas, litter and seriously neglected buildings. In contrast, today one can safely wander around this piece of Baroque urban design in what is primarily a pedestrian-dominated domain, filled with cafés, public life (and, of course, tourists).
While these claims could be dismissed as exaggerated observations, they do nevertheless reflect Ali Madanipour’s more systematic analysis of renewed public and political interest in the United Kingdom. He points to an increasing presence of urban design in professional journals, government websites, academic debates, popular media, urban design competitions and advertisements for professional urban designers.
While this growing awareness and activity may, in part, be the outcome of the pervasiveness of information technology in the 21st century, this does not provide a full explanation. Is it that urban design has finally emerged from the shadows of the professions of architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture as a practice in its own right? Or have we returned to a default position that made no real distinction between these professions?
What we do know is that, despite the historic legacy of overlaps between architecture and urban planning, the early part of the 20th century nevertheless saw a parting of the ways. Those, like Patrick Geddes, argued that urban planning was essentially concerned with the social and environmental impacts while architects claimed sole authority over the aesthetic dimensions. Modernism complicated this division, by embracing new technologies of movement, especially private modes of transportation, which led to the sprawling suburbs that define urbanism of the 20th century.
The master plan of Chandigarh was prepared by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, transformed from earlier plans created by the Polish architect Maciej Nowicki and the American planner Albert Mayer.
The utopian visions of the modern city were actualised in post-WW2 modernist reconstruction, Chandigarh in India and Brasilia in Brazil being two examples. The uncompromising hand of Le Corbusier still lingers over the great empty public space in Chandigarh, leaving Rem Koolhaas to ponder whether the modernists who dreamed of a new form of public life, and imagined a liberated ground, understood that, in reality, the public spaces they created were essentially lifeless.
In these well-known examples, as in countless modernist urban places, urban design involved the placement of building in space, rather than being concerned with the relationships between buildings, streets and public life.
Among the many examples of modernist urbanism in New Zealand, and the priority given to traffic movement, is Aotea Square and Mayoral Drive in Auckland. Here, we still see a largely uninhabited place surrounded by an arterial road cutting across the much finer pre-existing urban grain of Auckland.
This legacy has left the centre of Auckland city more or less bereft of urban life and activity for half a century. This was appropriately characterised by Roger Trancik as ‘lost space’ – urban land devoted to accommodating cars and traffic, and public spaces devoid of people.
In part, it was the perceived failure of modernism in the 20th century that saw the introduction of urban design programmes in the latter part of the 20th century, with the first programme being established at Yale University in 1952 by Josep Sert. There are now dozens of urban design programmes around the world and, in New Zealand, this includes one at The University of Auckland.
Perhaps one thing we can now all recognise is that we have moved some considerable distance from the traditional modernist urban visions towards one that re-engages with public life and public spaces, although past mistakes continue to present a significant challenge to fix.
The question still to be answered is whether urban design now exists as an independent discipline. Michael Gunder is forthright in responding to this query, arguing that urban design is not an independent discipline but, rather, is – or should be – a subset of wider spatial planning. Contrary to this idea, the urban design programme I completed in the 1970s at the Edinburgh College of Arts, Edinburgh University, was co-opted by the RIBA as an extension to architecture.
Brasilia was designed in the late 1950s. Lucio Costa was appointed as planner, working with Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most acclaimed architect, and landscape designer Robert Burle Marx.
Indeed, the RIBA issued their own diploma, provided you joined, and maintained membership with them, as I did for a while. I would argue that pursuing questions of professional ‘ownership’ of urban design is futile and overlooks much more cogent factors that have impinged on the design of the built environment over the past century.
One factor that changed was the relationship between the professions and the emergence of legislation concerned with land-use control. As instituted in 1947, the UK planning system was concerned with ‘plan-making’ and ‘development control’, as Gallent and Wong explain, “drawing up land-use plans and policing development in accordance with these plans”. The key professional role taken up by planners at this time was thus servicing these needs.
The 1991 Resource Management Act in New Zealand defined the role of planners to the management of environmental effects that human activity and development imposes. This moved consideration of land use away from prescriptive considerations and, in Michael Gunder’s view (cited below), away from being concerned with urban design.
“Once government had constituted a legislated framework… for ensuring that acceptable thresholds of environmental effects for specific activities were not exceeded, planning was legally and institutionally repositioned away from a prescriptive consideration of physical space, the built environment and, especially, from urban design and related aesthetic concerns.”
Increasingly in the 21st century, we are seeing a shift towards more prescriptive approaches to the design of the built environment and this is demanding more design-led thinking.
However, it is not simply about aesthetics – good urban design outcomes involve more complex processes and include many actors and stakeholders. This reflects the idea that different processes and stakeholders come together to ‘shape’ environments.
As Gallent and Wong suggest, when coupled with urban governance, it was a small step to see how “collectively urban actors organise the production flows”, and that urban design should play a more crucial role in influencing the actors and hence these flows, as “new ways of shaping places”. ‘Place shaping’, in this sense, now underpins urban planning in the UK, partly in response to the local government reforms and the wider strategic roles they are given for community ‘well-being’.
New Square at City Depot Site, Auckland, proposed by Natasha Lazavrevich (Urban Design Studio).
At a policy-making level, place shaping is a process to enable them to provide and facilitate necessary services that a community needs, “whilst also striving towards the qualities that communities expect within their neighbourhood; building the context, and encouraging the behaviours, that make places liveable”.
Placing an emphasis on more prescriptive and design-led approaches to urban design has attracted its own criticism. ‘New Urbanism’ is seen as elitist and creates fictional places that rely on nostalgic visions of an imagined past. However, beyond the manifestation of New Urbanism and its critique, the 21st century has seen the rise of neo-liberalism and the not-so-invisible hand of the market, and the fact that this is the context in which development occurs.
The consequence is that urban visions that embed ideas about resilience, enhanced liveability, and quality design-led public realms primarily depend on market responses, rather than on investments by public organisations. Unless market-led development processes share the same development goals of public authorities (such as city councils promoting intensification), the resultant urban fabric may not deliver the public benefits and objectives of good urbanism.
In practice, this requires cooperation between local stakeholders, community and business involvement in decision-making related to place shaping. In policy terms, this means facilitating development while striving towards outcomes that make places liveable.
The alliance between community and business interests in the production of urban places underpins what Ali Madanipour sees as significant roles for urban design in this context. His arguments point to a “surge in the popularity of urban design in the (development) industry” and raises the question about ‘why’. His answer is that this gives industry greater certainty of outcome and that by “articulating a vision for the future and how it can be implemented, urban design can be a source of certainty for the market and support for the state”.
My own research with Lee Beattie – in Vancouver, Auckland, Melbourne, Portland and Perth, where we have interviewed developers and built-environment professionals –supports this contention.
Masterplan for City Depot site, Auckland, proposed by Natasha Lazavrevich (Urban Design Studio).
Another manifestation of this more cooperative engagement of stakeholders around development and place-making is the establishment of urban design review panels. Again, our research points to these processes resulting in better public-realm outcomes, reduced risk for developers, and those aligned with broader urban visions such as intensification. The key to success (again supported by those we have interviewed) lies in having necessary built-environment experts on panels, sufficient flexibility to enable innovation (rather than repressing this through seemingly arbitrary regulation), and trust among the stakeholders that there is a benefit for all in the process.
The key to these successes comes from cooperative actions of the relevant stakeholders, bringing together necessary knowledge across the development process, good urban design, alignment with broader urban development planning goals and delivering meaningful public benefits.
For this reason, urban design programmes at The University of Auckland aim to engender an understanding of the processes that underpin built-environment production and design-led thinking. We frame this not as a new or distinct profession, but as a studio-centred learning process that adds urban design thinking, knowledge and skills to the architects, urban planners and landscape architects participating in the programme.
We now have well over 100 graduates from the Master of Urban Design, most now practising in a variety of professional practice settings. To broaden the reach among built-environment practitioners, in addition to the stand-alone Master’s degree, we are the first university in Australasia to offer ‘combined’ (conjoint) degrees. These degrees enable Master of Architecture (Professional) and Master of Urban Planning students to simultaneously complete a Master of Urban Design.
We have had a high level of interest in this new arrangement that extends the normal four semesters to five. Michael Gunder suggested that it was “time to put urban design firmly back into planning education and practice”. I extend this idea to include putting urban design firmly back into architectural education as well, so that, increasingly, built-environment practitioners can assert their role, knowledge and design-led thinking in the shaping and humanising of urban places and spaces.
Easily one of the most inspiring talks I have watched in some time. Alastair Parvin: Architecture for the people by the people (TED Talk).
Designer Alastair Parvin presents a simple but provocative idea: what if, instead of architects creating buildings for those who can afford to commission them, regular citizens could design and build their own houses? The concept is at the heart of WikiHouse, an open source construction kit that means just about anyone can build a house, anywhere.
He challenges the conventional thinking: “The first is, I think we need to question this idea that architecture is about making buildings. Actually, a building is about the most expensive solution you can think of to almost any given problem. And fundamentally, design should be much, much more interested in solving problems and creating new conditions.”
Love the idea that “If design’s greatest achievement of the 20th century was the democratization of product, it’s greatest achievement of the 21st century can be the democratization of production.”
Every city, in every part of the world, is struggling with repossessing and redesigning urban wastelands and abandoned infrastructure. While many get torn down to make way for newer developments, some get left behind, derelict and dark reminders of plans gone awry and life passing by. They become save havens for criminal activities, for waste to accumulate, and often become ugly realities we avert our eyes from and quickly drive past.
The High Line viaduct, then a portion of the New York Connecting Railroad’s West Side Line, opened to trains in 1934. It originally ran from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street, and was designed to go through the centre of blocks rather than over the avenue. It connected directly to factories and warehouses, allowing trains to load and unload their cargo inside buildings. Milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods could be transported and unloaded without disturbing traffic on the streets. This also reduced the load for the Bell Laboratories Building (which has housed the Westbeth Artists Community since 1970), as well as for the former Nabisco plant in the Chelsea Market building, which were served from protected sidings within the structures.
The growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s led to a drop in rail traffic throughout the nation, so that by 1960, the southernmost section of the line was demolished. This section started at Gansevoort Street and ran down Washington Street as far as Spring Street just north of Canal Street, representing almost half of the line. The last train on the remaining part of the line was operated by Conrail in 1980.
In the mid-1980s, a group of property owners with land under the line lobbied for the demolition of the entire structure. By late 1990s it was overgrown with wild grasses, shrubs, and rugged trees – an ugly relic in an urban city. Finally, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered the track to be demolished.
Like we saw in Dublin, in New York City as well a group of concerned and creative citizens stepped up, to explore alternative solutions for High Line. In 1999, the nonprofit Friends of the High Line was formed by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the neighbourhood that the line ran through. They advocated for the line’s preservation and reuse as public open space, so that it would become an elevated park or greenway, similar to the Promenade Plantée in Paris.
CSX Transportation, which owned the High Line, had given photographer Joel Sternfeld permission to photograph the line for a year. These photographs of the natural beauty of the meadow-like wildscape of the railway, discussed in an episode of the documentary series Great Museums, were used at public meetings whenever the subject of saving the High Line was discussed. Diane von Fürstenberg, who had moved her New York City headquarters to the Meatpacking District in 1997, organized fund-raising events for the campaign in her studio, along with her husband, Barry Diller. Broadened community support of public redevelopment of the High Line for pedestrian use grew, and in 2004, the New York City government committed $50 million to establish the proposed park. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speakers Gifford Miller and Christine C. Quinn were important supporters. In total, funders of the High Line Park raised more than $150 million (equivalent to $165,449,000 in 2016).
2002-2003. The planning framework for the High Line’s preservation and reuse begins. A study done by Friends of the High Line finds that the High Line project is economically rational, and leads to an open ideas competition, Designing the High Line.
March–September 2004. Friends of the High Line and the Ciy of New York conduct a process to select a design team for the High Line. The selected team is James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, planting designer.
2005–2006. The City accepts ownership of the High Line which is donated by CSX Transportation, Inc. in November 2005; Groundbreaking is celebrated in April 2006. June 9, 2009. Section 1 (Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street) opens to the public.
June 8, 2011. Section 2 (West 20th Street to West 30th Street) opens to the public.
April–September 2012. The New York City Planning Commission approves a zoning text amendment for High Line at the Rail Yards. Groundbreaking is celebrated on the High Line at the Rail Yards September 20, 2012.
September 21, 2014. The third and northernmost section on the park, the High Line at the Rail Yards, opens to the public. Friends of the High Line celebrates 15 years of successful advocacy to preserve the entire structure.
New York is a city in which good things rarely happen easily and where good designs are often compromised, if they are built at all. The High Line is a happy exception, that rare New York situation in which a wonderful idea was not only realized but turned out better than anyone had imagined. It isn’t often in any city, let alone New York, that an unusually sophisticated concept for a public place makes its way through the design process, the political process, and the construction process largely intact. The designers were landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations and the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who joined forces to produce the winning scheme in a competition that pitted them against such notables as Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.
Their plan struck a balance between refinement and the rough-hewn, industrial quality of the High Line. “We envisioned it as one long, meandering ribbon but with special episodes,” Corner told me. “We wanted to keep the feeling of the High Line consistent but at the same time have some variations.” The design included sleek wooden benches that appear to peel up from the park surface, but also kept many of the original train tracks, setting them into portions of the pavement and landscape. Working with Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, Corner recommended a wide range of plantings, with heavy leanings toward tall grasses and reeds that recalled the wildflowers and weeds that had sprung up during the High Line’s long abandonment. (The line, which opened in 1934, was little used after the 1960s, although its final train, carrying frozen turkeys, didn’t travel down the track until 1980.)
High Line Today
Since opening in 2009, the High Line has become New York City’s second most visited cultural venue, attracting some four million visitors a year. It has been so popular that other cities are following suit, with plans to replicate the formula in London, Chicago, Philadelphia and Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Walking on the High Line is unlike any other experience in New York. You float about 25 feet above the ground, at once connected to street life and far away from it. You can sit surrounded by carefully tended plantings and take in the sun and the Hudson River views, or you can walk the line as it slices between old buildings and past striking new ones. I have walked the High Line dozens of times, and its vantage point, different from that of any street, sidewalk, or park, never ceases to surprise and delight. Not the least of the remarkable things about the High Line is the way, without streets to cross or traffic lights to wait for, ten blocks pass as quickly as two.
The black steel columns that once supported abandoned train tracks now hold up an elevated park 25 feet above the ground. The park’s attractions include naturalized plantings that are inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the disused tracks and new, often unexpected views of the city and the Hudson River. Pebble-dash concrete walkways unify the trail, which swells and constricts, swinging from side to side, and divides into concrete tines that meld the hardscape with the planting embedded in railroad gravel mulch. Stretches of track and ties recall the High Line’s former use. Portions of track are adaptively re-used for rolling lounges positioned for river views. Most of the planting, which includes 210 species, is of rugged meadow plants, including clump-forming grasses, liatris and coneflowers, with scattered stands of sumac and smokebush, but not limited to American natives. At the Gansevoort end, a grove of mixed species of birch already provides some dappled shade by late afternoon.
The park extends from Gansevoort Street north to 30th Street where the elevated tracks turn west around the Hudson Yards development project to the Javits Convention Center on 34th Street. It remains open every day from 7 am to 10 pm.
Every time I travel anywhere in the world, especially in India, most of our modern cities show up as mad and messy spaces of chaos and confusion, polluted and populated in equal measure, lacking much thought or theme in their development. Whether its a humble pedestrian footbridge or a gigantic airport, an road intersection or a shopping mall, as a Design Thinker I am always hit by the apparent lack of design or thought that went into so many of them.
What can happen if a city, reeling from the recession and trying to rediscover its mojo, decides to innovate and try something totally new to design its spaces?
Dublin did. And how!
Ireland, one of ‘PIIGS’ economies, found the Great Recession hard to handle. During the heydays of the development boom, Clongriffin, on the north fringe of Dublin, was supposed to have a population of 30,000 to 40,000, with all the communal facilities they would need. In July 2003, Dublin City Council had granted planning permission for a mixed-use development to be called “Clongriffin at Grange Road, Donaghmede now forming part of the Northern Fringe Development (from Clongriffin to Belmayne). Management plans were completed in 2004 and the development, comprising houses and apartments, started in 2005 and was planned to have educational, retail and service facilities, including a multi-screen cinema.
But construction ground to a halt when the bubble burst, leaving the area’s residents high and dry. The Dublin City Council considered many traditional — and expensive — revitalization projects, but its leadership saw a need for an injection of novelty.
The Pied Pipers
Enter Jean Byrne and Jim Dunne, two dedicated citizens who sensed an opportunity. Byrne and Dunne founded the nonprofit Design Twentyfirst Century (D21C), and teamed with the council to use design thinking as a tool for revitalizing the city. Their vision was to get Dubliners directly involved in the revitalization. Dunne was inspired by an exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art about how design could address current challenges.
They brought in Vannesa Ahuactzin, a young American architect who did a year’s programme at the Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto, which specialises in design innovation and inter-professional collaboration.
Five design-thinking steps — discovery, understanding, ideation, prototyping and implementation — served as the backbone of the endeavor. Without any preconceptions of what would be best, D21C asked a team of business school students to interview people in the street about wishes they had for their city. This research collected 1,200 ideas revolving around three broad themes: waste, water and community. Next, D21C organized community gatherings to build a deeper understanding of these themes. Curiously, the theme of waste mutated from trash to ‘wasted potential.’ This revelation sparked an idea that Clongriffin, with property left vacant in the downturn, was a perfect candidate for a pilot experiment.
The team developed five prototype projects. Residents were invited to give feedback. The prototypes generated enough enthusiasm that Clongriffin residents championed three scalable projects — building a path to the coast, running a community center and supporting a new business incubator. These projects improved community spirit and were completed with minimal risk.
With the support of Dublin city manager John Tierney and former Accenture chairman Terry Neill, who’s now on the board of CRH plc, the project developed legs. More than 100 people applied to take part, and 17 – divided equally between the public and private sectors – were selected following the personal ordeal of a day-long interview.
The chosen theme of the project was to “find the hidden potential of place”, and the challenge was to apply this to Clongriffin, a place that barely existed. Apart from all the new apartments, its main “boulevard” has just five businesses operating – a Chinese takeaway, an off-licence, a chemist, a hairdressing salon and (what else?) a Centra.
All of the remaining retail units were vacant, giving the boulevard a desolate air. “We realised there was a lot of wastage in this country during the Celtic Tiger years,” says Vannesa. “So in working on Clongriffin, we wanted to see what is there to tap into, to engage residents in taking ownership of area, make it more interesting.”
The 17-strong project team, ranging in age from 21 to 53, set about trying to understand the place by talking to the people who live there. Not surprisingly in a new area, many of them felt isolated – but many were also keen to get involved in building a community spirit, especially as they are now pretty well locked into living in Clongriffin.
Working with kids (no less than 13 nationalities are represented there) in the two prefab schools, the team gave them a series of images of things in the area, asked them to draw a picture of their favourite place, and ended up with a series of paintings that were put on exhibition in a vacant shop which was turned into a café for a day.
“We only had Thermos flasks and paper mugs, but it was very, very successful,” Jean recalls. “Parents came along, of course, and even curious teenagers walked in and started participating. In no time we had all these conversations going about what they’d like to see happening in Clongriffin.”
One thing the locals are very proud of is Father Collins Park, which Dublin City Council opened in May 2009, with five wind turbines to generate electricity.
At 52 acres, roughly twice the area of St Stephen’s Green, it was designed by Argentinian architects Abelleyro + Romero, who won an open competition for the €20 million project in 2003. The park has since won a number of awards such as The Sustainability Award 2010, Best Public Space 2010, and Best Public Park & Best Environmentally Friendly Initiative for 2010. It was short listed by the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2011. Five 50 kilowatt wind turbines provide power for the projection of water from its central lake, public lighting, maintenance depots, and sports club changing rooms. The 54 acre (26 hectare) park includes some natural woodland. There is a peripheral running/cycling track, six playing pitches and six fitness stations. There are also a promenade, concert amphitheatre, and picnic areas with outdoor chess or draughts boards, two playgrounds and a skate park.
“The park is a huge asset, people are really inspired by it so that’s very good at building optimism,” says Vannesa. But the Designing Dublin team found that the children also wanted access to “wild nature” – like the pond with swans in it half-way along an unfinished pathway to the coast. For them, this is a magical place.
One of the five projects selected for detailed study by a sub-group is to complete the missing link of 300 metres, so that Clongriffin residents can make use of the trail.
The aim is to get them directly involved in the project, even designing it themselves, so that the community will have a sense of ownership of this potentially important amenity.
Another project is called Hothouse – essentially, a community centre where people can meet. Prototype designs for this much-needed facility, on a site just south of Father Collins Park, are being worked up by local residents with the aid of four architectural technicians from the DIT School of Architecture. The final scheme might even be built.
Other projects include Grow Local, which aims to help budding entrepreneurs by providing space for them to develop their ideas, using one or other of the many vacant retail units as a base.
Another sub-group is looking at Local Expression, which is essentially about enlivening the area and perhaps even transforming some of the areas of wasteland left over after the boom came to a sudden end. This might include painting hoardings around the sites and turning them into art objects, like the gable murals in Belfast.
Finally, residents felt there was a need for a “communications exchange” to let people know what’s going on. They already have a website (www.clongriffinresidents.com) and big billboards packed with local information, but the more innovative ideas include messages in the sky, given that it’s visible on the approach to Dublin Airport.
End-of-project activities this Saturday from 11am to 9pm include a “60-minute makeover”, transforming an empty shop beside Centra on Clongriffin’s main street into a prototype community “hothouse”, an exhibition of models made by local children showing how they see the future, and to cap it all, an an “imagination celebration”.
D21C and the Dublin City Council used the design-thinking method to engage citizens and find innovative solutions. Design thinking provided a powerful problem-solving method that gave structure to the process of understanding stakeholders’ perspectives and then translating them into scalable, innovative solutions. Beyond the projects, Dublin had trained a team of volunteers to put their design-thinking skills to work in all the areas they touched.
Now, imagine Design Thinking for our cities! We would love to. Any ideas?
Continuing on our journey to find Inspirations, we look at India’s greatest architect, Charles Corea. Corea, the man who designed some of India’s finest modern buildings passed away earlier this year. What followed was a flood of obituaries that celebrated the man and his work. Here is a short one that appeared in The Hindu a few days after his death, which I particularly enjoyed reading.
Charles Correa firmly believed that architecture and urban design were instruments for social change. A tribute by Durganand Balsavar.
Charles Correa had the rare ability to combine pragmatic complexity with wit and humour — not only in his writings, but also in his architecture. The architect who passed away recently, was widely recognised as one of the most distinguished architects of our times, the visionary revered the notion of ‘open-to-sky’ spaces — be it the courtyard, the kund (tank), or the chattris (umbrellas) on the open terrace. With a scholarly understanding of politics and history, Correa engaged fearlessly with the polemics of the city, urban space and architecture. The quintessential Renaissance architect was an activist, urbanist, theoretician and thinker, engaged in an impatient yet rigorous search. In a distinguished career spanning over five decades, Correa believed that architecture and urban design were instruments for social change. Charles Correa, B. V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, Raje, Stein and Kanvinde, each charted a new trajectory in architecture. It’s no wonder that Correa received a gamut of national and international awards, including the Padma Vibhushan.
Setting up his practice in 1958 after returning from MIT, a young Correa was assigned to design the Gandhi Smarak in Ahmedabad. In the early years of Independence, the nation was discovering its own destiny with the Socialist credo — ‘simple living, high thinking’. In response, he designed with a rare simplicity, deploying exposed bricks, clay tiles, exposed concrete and wooden louvers. It was a combination of square modules, carefully proportioned and placed at a reverential distance from Gandhiji’s ashram. An inclusive and egalitarian space, the Gandhi Memorial is open to village communities and urbanites, making no distinction between them. Correa had the ability to convey his ideas with simplicity, but beneath the veneers resided layers of complexity and a questioning mind.
Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur
With each project, Correa had begun an excavation of the principles in history. “We cannot comically imitate history,” he would impatiently remark, “History is a profound repository of space and time. It is the abstract principles we discover in history that we imbibe and learn from.” The stark exposed concrete of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh (1955) and Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad (1962) echoed a universal emancipatory tone. It was stoic and monastic. However, it did not respond to the diversity of expressions of an energetic new nation and its people.
Along with B. V. Doshi and Raj Rewal, Correa embarked on a process of imbibing memories of the past, while paradoxically looking into the future. Indian cities and the precincts of the past became the new references — Fatehpur Sikri, old Goa, Madgaon, Padmanabhapuram, the towns of Rajasthan, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Hampi, Agra, and Vijayanagara.
The pristine forms disintegrated, to allow the expression of fragmented mass, introverted courtyards open-to-sky, cascading steps, pergolas, vernacular colours, verandahs, natural light, shade and breeze, with informal spaces for gatherings. When Correa was commissioned to design the Jawahar Kala Kendra, an art and cultural centre in Jaipur, it was a project to express this vibrant juxtaposition of history and the promise of the future. Correa had been fascinated with the skies and the cosmos, similar to Sawai Jaisingh (18th Century), who had been provoked to build these gigantic instruments — Jantar Mantar to probe the skies. Despite its contradictions, Correa designed the plan of Jawahar Kala Kendra based on the nine square Jaipur mandala representing the celestial mythical deities of the Navagraha. Correa’s project consists of nine squares with a corner square displaced, echoing the plan of the city. A spirit of experimentation, allowed an organic union of colourful wall murals, collaborating with artists in the creation of space. The ‘awakened walls’ transformed the experience, bringing in a metaphorical interpretation through images.
Kala Kendra, Goa
The paintings of Chirico, sketches of the legendary Mario Miranda, in Kala Kendra (Goa) lend an illusory depth to plastered blank walls. The collaboration with artist Howard Hodgkin for the British Council in New Delhi created a surreal experience of the shadows of a tree symbolising India.
The culmination of this stage of experience was the Salt Lake City Centre at Kolkata, where the architect inverted conventional notions on their head with a vast expanse of steps and open-to-sky spaces. This is probably one of the most successful constructed public spaces in contemporary times.
Correa’s last three off-shore projects were the McGovern Institute of Brain Research (MIT), the Ismaili Centre (Toronto) and the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (Lisbon). This centre was an incredible, symbolic gesture for humanity’s quest to discover new frontiers.
Correa’s incredible oeuvre is more relevant than ever before, given the fact that millions continue to migrate to our cities, in search of a new beginning.
The writer is the Principal Architect, Artes – Human Development Collaborative
When we speak of Design Thinking, what do we think? Is it Design, or Thinking? And where is the Thinking when we are creating solutions for the public? As Chennai drowns due to lack of Thinking, isn’t it time we looked at Public Spaces more, and focus on “Citizen Centred Design”?
A classic example: an upcoming Bangalore pedestrian footbridge near Yeshwanthpur railway station across Tumkur Road. Pedestrians in the city hardly ever use the numerous skywalks Bengaluru has to offer, since these skywalks are constructed with little to no planning and often cause inconvenience. (Read about this “footbridge to nowhere” here and here)
Can we not think more, and Design urban solutions with greater Empathy? Clearly, in this case, the officials and designers who planned and built this thing didn’t bother to check with the users as to what their real needs, real pain was. They ended up solving the wrong problem, something like “How do we cross the road?” instead of what should have been solved: “How do we enter the station from the other side of the road?”
Apparently, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) wants 54 skywalks across the city. These are either important junctions where multiple roads meet, or mid-blocks with prominent properties on either sides requiring pedestrians to cross the road regularly.
In India, when we are planning Smart Cities, we must be smarter in Designing those cities. Can the city planners and administrators not consider Citizen’s pains before coming up with solutions? We badly need “Citizen Centred Design”. Or else we will be stuck with many such monuments of foolishness and waste.