Now we know that UDC is all about being able to observe, appreciate, critically discuss and also contribute to cities in more meaningful ways as designers and citizens – and have a good time while we’re at it! Well, we got the opportunity to do some of this with the students of Hindustan University this August.
UDC was invited by the Department of Architecture at Hindustan University in Chennai to conduct a workshop for the first year students in the Masters of Architecture ( General ) and Masters of Housing programs. The purpose of the workshop was to provide the students with an introduction to the City and help them understand the city with its many layers and complexities by experiencing it firsthand and recording it. We also threw in a little presentation on graphics and drawing techniques at the end because we imagined it would help the students with their drawing skills. And because we like pretty drawings.
This first edition of the workshop on Reading the Urban Environment (RUE- no pun intended), was a two-day affair involving classroom sessions as well as visits to the site for data recording, study and analysis. Two members from the UDC team – Vidhya Mohankumar and myself – conducted this workshop and we had about 30 students from the two design studios work with us over the 17th &18th of August.
We commenced the workshop with a class room presentation on urban design and analyzing the city. We began with setting up the definitions for some of the terms we always seem to take for granted – terms like ‘City’ and ‘Urban Design’. This was then followed up with a series of visuals on the different layers that make up the urban environment and the ways and means to analyze them through mapping. We spoke about land uses, building uses, districts, neighborhoods, blocks and parcels, streets, buildings, frontages, traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian), parking, public activities and landscaping (yes, that is a lot of information!) – which gives us a snapshot of the urban area at a particular point in time.
By this time, it was generally felt by all that a tea-break was in order and so we took ten minutes off to catch our breath and rest our backsides. And while we are on the break – a note on the students in the Masters’ programs.
The Masters’ programs at Hindustan University are full-time courses with studio sessions and a theory component, that take place over the weekends. These are mainly aimed at professionals / teachers who would want to return to school to equip themselves with a post-graduate degree, but do it without having to give up their jobs. The class therefore was an interesting mix of age-groups, with students who were anywhere between 20 – 50 years of age. Many of them were from Chennai but there were students from other places also, mainly Coimbatore.
To break the ice and get the students thinking and voicing their opinions, we had a small exercise planned for them when we got back from the tea. As the next part of the workshop we showed them photographs of urban areas in Chennai, one at a time. Students were asked to observe these images very closely and tell us what they saw in them. All of the photographs were carefully chosen to show very specific things and/or capture a depth of urban experiences. This turned out to be a very useful little exercise because not only were the students eager to point out flaws in the images and the city (leading to a lot more conversation), but, through careful inspection of their own assumptions, we were able to discuss how some of these observations were really not based upon just what they were seeing but on things they assumed or took for granted to be true. This exercise essentially builds on how many of us tend to have a sort of partial blindness to our surroundings, such that we don’t think about or question the meaning of what we see. We get conditioned to most of our everyday experiences and take them for granted; others we assume to fit into a pattern we know or have seen before. But as designers, this is one of the first things we need to unlearn; we need to learn again to look without any assumptions or biases and observe things for what they are before making a judgment.
I think the point was well made over the course of this exercise and most of the students were coming out with fresher ( if not entirely altered) perspectives to the photographs by the end of it. They were also able to speculate on why certain things existed they way they did, what might be the reasons for certain patterns of events and how might they be able to find out more about the things they were observing. This helped to serve as a warm-up exercise to get them up to speed for field observations on their own site later.
This concluded the first half of day 1 of the workshop. We had a lunch hour in between and here I would like to mention the hospitality, and especially Kerstin Frick, Dean of Post-graduate programs, in making sure the UDC team was fed and watered. Thank you so much!
We were then bussed to the design studio site in the afternoon, to begin the field studies and recording. Vidhya and I organized the students into groups and split them up across the areas of influence and structured their methods of observation. Having done this, the two of us went for a stroll to make our own observations on the site and its context area. The site for the design studios was quite exciting. It is a five acre plot right next to the MRTS railway station in Velachery, with a strong urban context yet not much density in the immediate vicinity of the site. Added to that was the environmental concerns of the site being in close proximity to a marsh (Pallikaranai) and also adjacent to a large dumping ground (Perungudi) which takes in all the garbage from south Chennai. Over the course of that evening and the next morning, the students were asked to observe, document and analyze this site through a variety of techniques.
We were happy to find that most of the students had specific and sometimes insightful observations about the site to share with us, which suggested broad themes of issues and potentials that they could continue to work with, throughout their design projects. Some of the findings were related to the nature of pedestrian and vehicular infrastructure, the quantity and quality of traffic, the physical character of the surrounding neighborhoods, types of housing present in the area, the nature of commerce in the area, the environmental conditions around the site including drainage, soil, topography and vegetation, the climatic factors of comfort for people on the roads, and lastly but most importantly, the impact of proximity to the railway station and the potentials and challenges it offered for development on the site.
On Sunday, Vidhya and I were able to spend some time reviewing these observations with the students in their groups, and talk about further inquiry and directions that these studies could take. This exercise also helped them structure their findings and decide on a common course of action for the whole class by which they could combine their information to create maps of the various urban layers similar to what we had presented to them the previous day and use these as a base of information for their design proposals.
An important skill required for a designer is to be able to state the case for an intervention (what one could call intent or concept) and illustrate very clearly how this has been achieved through design .The concluding session on Sunday was therefore a presentation from us on the various types of drawings that the students could use to present their information, inferences, design concepts and detailed design drawings.
At the end of two days, we were quite pleased with the reception we received from the students, to all that we had to say. Undoubtedly urban design still has a long way to go in Indian cities and it is still the habit, if not the norm right now for mainstream design to be limited to the red-line boundary of the site. In this climate, it is easy to become cynical about what change we can possibly achieve in the public realm or why should we even bother (and yes, we did have to field questions from the students about the validity of thinking ‘outside the (site) boundaries’). But the students were nevertheless ready to try some of the things we spoke about and take on the urban public realm as a consideration in site studies and (hopefully) in their design thinking.
To that extent, we believe the workshop was a success – it got us all observing, discussing and thinking about the city and our own perspectives. This is ofcourse only the beginning of the process and we would love to see how all of this thinking translates into design proposals and whether these ideas are sustained. But the students at Hindustan University have made the effort for a good start and as the organizers, we were very pleased with the results of this first edition of our RUE workshop.
Shruti Shankar is an Urban Designer and architect with professional experience working in India. She enjoys writing and drawing about the making of cities and is always up for a cup of chai and conversations about travel, city-living, music and food, among other things. Catch some of her personal rants on all things urban at Urbanism, something Or Why Cities Matter