by Devanshi ShahJul 30, 2021
At the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, there are a series of participants that are not part of the Golden Lion competition. Defined as Stations and Co-Habitats, these presentations are case studies or projects developed by researchers from universities around the world, that in some way respond to curator Hashim Sarkis’s curatorial question 'How will we live together?' One of the co-habitats of the Venice Architecture Biennale comes from the Harvard Graduate School of Urban Planning and Design. Spearheaded by Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and Sourav Biswas, Urban and Landscape planner and a former Research Associate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, the co-habitat is titled Becoming Urban: Trajectories of Urbanization in India.
With a title that implies a future completion, the research is very grounded in an investigation of contemporary understanding of the Indian subcontinent's urban discourse Mehrotra and Biswas draw from a wealth of census data to establish appropriate terminologies and methodologies of analysis and study. Some of the ideas explored in this installation stem from Mehrotra's extensive research on what he calls extreme urbanism. In their interview with STIR, Mehrotra and Biswas define some of the more nuanced aspects of India's urban discourse, which is intrinsically linked to its density and population distribution. They also draw attention to the dominance and focus on larger cities, as opposed to the often neglected and splinted urbanism of informal settlements.
This shift in focus is communicated in the biennale presentation through very specific terminology, such as the urban-agrarian field. The installation itself sits in the Arsenale and includes a series of carefully crafted maps that highlight and explain the urban-agrarian field. This is accompanied by a 12-minute-long video which can also be viewed on STIR website. The research re-looks at the typologies of the informal settlements, particularly those of the aspirational migrants as a separate entity, or armature instead of being clubbed together under the rubric of slums. Using census data, the research and conversation encouraged the need for an anticipatory framework to address housing and infrastructure, for the self-built housing and settlement typology, beyond an urban erasure.
In de-centring the research, the project looks at understanding the dynamics of the urban migration between metropolitan and agrarian spaces in the subcontinent. This does raise the question of the inherent duality of the discourse. Over the course of our conversation, Mehrotra carefully contextualizes how these binaries can be operated, saying, “Dualities are a great way to organise the world around as generally. These binary organisations of our understanding the patterns that surround us, in many disciplines like with anthropology where people are divided by literary and oral traditions. I think for differentiating design and by extension urban planning, landscape and all that is that design is inherently a synthesis. Design is inherently about seeing how you can dissolve those binaries and not reinforce the binaries.”
While not defining a potential outcome, the installation does present a hypothesis in the form of a case for informal settlements and urbanising villages. This moves away from the notion that only large metropolitan cities can, or rather should, be developed. Instead, the research seems to reveal the importance of transitioning settlements and re-interprets the understanding of what urban planning can be when viewed from an urban agrarian lens. And the census data collected seems to support that. This reinforces the title of the exhibition, 'becoming urban', as an ongoing process, especially in an Indian context.
Architect: Rahul Mehrotra (American/ Indian, b.1959), Sourav Kumar Biswas (Indian, b.1986) at Harvard Graduate School of Design (USA, est.1936)
Design team: Isabel Oyuela-Bonzani, Maria Letizia Garzoli, Lamia Almuhanna, Juan David Grisales, Cole P. Skaggs, Angela Sniezynski, Sanjiv Shah, Prathmesh D. K., Meena Hewitt, Ela Singhal, Dan F. Borelli, R. S. Iyer of Associated Press
Photo Installation: Design consultant Dan Borelli
In collaboration with The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute (USA, est.2003) at Harvard University, and Architecture Foundation (India, est.2016)
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.