Teaching the Urban Studio from the Home
Early on when the pandemic and its resultant isolation was becoming an absolute reality it dawned upon me that I am going to have to teach an urban design studio from the comfort of my home. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that everyone in the studio is going to be situated in different parts of the country and that would allow us to explore urban conditions across various kinds of cities and urban neighborhoods. This to me was liberating. We were no longer thinking of the urban as associated with only larger towns and cities. A student from a remote village in Kashmir or another from a small agriculture community in Wadgaon near Wardha, would end up exploring their village and its environs. At the same time there were students located in metropolitan areas, two tier cities, three tier cities, towns, company towns, and many such urban agglomerations, exploring their own immediate surroundings.
We decided to call the studio The Structure of the Ordinary. Borrowing the title from the dutch architect N.J. Habraken’s 1998 book which was titled The Structure of the Ordinary – Form and Control in the Built Environment. Our studio we hoped would allow the individual students to get closer to their own neighborhoods and help understand the mechanics of everyday existence. This would lead to propositional ideas and positions for a sustainable transformation of their own neighborhood.
While the students were put through a rigorous 16 week studio process that included new methods for observing everyday activities in the neighborhood using short videos and interviews with various residents, the distance between us the mentors and the students and their neighborhood as sites of inquiry was inescapable. This distance had two distinct impacts on our teaching practices. First the mentors had to rely implicitly on the information and data that was presented by the students and as a result they felt that the onus of the ground reality (and to some degree the later program formulation) of the neighborhood studies lied primarily on the students. This was a particularly difficult position for the students. Having always been told what the project is with a clear brief and deliverable or atleast a common site where the ground data is shared and collectively generated, here was a studio where you were on your own. What data you presented was the absolute fact for the purpose at hand. And the teacher’s response was almost always speculative. This condition where the students are in a state of doubt as to how the studio unfolds and the mentors are always in the speculative mode was refreshing. The second direct impact was more distressing. For the mentors, seeing the students and looking at the city and the neighborhood only through the mediated environment of the screen created a degree of robotized detachment. Interactions on online media platforms also came with limitations of screen time engagement, which resulted primarily in data sharing.
Given these limitations and understanding that this was the first online urban studio, the students were able to demonstrate their learning fairly well. What was missed though was the pressing need to work collectively and collaboratively. Although this was tried towards the end when the students were expected to present in thematic clusters.
Learning from the first online urban studio in 2020 the next year the studio was structured keeping in mind the absolute need to create ways of collaborative working. This year the studio was titled Towards and Safer City – Designing a Resilient Neighborhood. While most of us were locked indoors navigating everything from basic essentials to our personal desires through a mediated virtual environment, the world outside seemed a distant reality once again. We knew that this was only an apparition. It was not surprising then that we found ourselves observing the space around us with acute attention. Our homes, our terraces, our backyards and gardens and our immediate neighbourhoods, had become predominant geographies of our bodily existence. No one thought that we would be here after a year and half, and yet here we were forced to reconcile with the reality that our neighbourhoods held key positions in our urban systems.
The students this time were expected to work in teams of five working on one neighbourhood which was identified after a round table discussion between the five students and the mentors. It was imperative that at least one student was currently a resident of the neighbourhood that was selected for the study. This student would become the key neighbourhood reporter and was responsible for bringing ground information to the team. The others in the group were responsible for conducting extensive remote secondary investigations. They would collectively build the simulations and maps from the secondary and primary data that was collected.
The results of collective working were remarkable. Sharing of information and building the knowledge of the neighbourhood together created a sense of solidarity between most groups. Furthermore the studio also required the students to work in constructing a masterplan for the improvement of their study neighbourhood. Multiple propositional iterations for the masterplan allowed for collective action of the group to take shape. Working together in groups created the energy and the tension that was most needed in an urban studio. This work was compiled together as online accessible neighbourhood reports. The students went on to detail the masterplan components as individual projects and presented the findings and designs collectively.
While we keep inventing ways of conducting online studios looking at cities across the country, the limitations of physically engaging with a new city, its neighbourhoods and its people is unmistakable. Staying in a city for a week or ten days, submerged in watching the day to day life of a city up close, interacting directly with the systems of movement, material transactions, socio-cultural activities and events, listening to people tell their stories, walking with local historians and seeing buildings new and old, enjoying the food and public places of the city, the gardens, the ghats, the mosques, churches and temples; subsuming ourselves as a group of learners is indispensable for a successful urban studio
Structure of the Ordinary – 4th Year Studio 2020 -Site Locations
Mentors – Sonal Sundararajan, George Jerry, Samarth Das, Shirish Joshi, Tript Kaur (Teaching Assistant)
Towards a Safer City – Designing a Resilient Neighborhood – 4th Year Studio 2021
Wadala: People Fragments Boundaries – Masterplan
Credits: Mansi Patankar, Shivam Rana, Riddhee Patil, Twisha Ranapuria, Amit Nar
Mentors – Shirish Joshi, Sandeep Menon, Dipti Talpade, Arijit Sen, Sagar Oke, Karan Rane, Lubaina Rangawala, Charvi Mathur