Design activism: Dilip da Cunha & Anuradha Mathur

Aug 1, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer
  • Architect Mathur and da Cunha

This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
Above: Anuradha Mathur (left) and Dilip da Cunha

Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur are the principals of Mathur/da Cunha Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning, based in Philadelphia and Bangalore. Their work interrogates cultural and ecological issues arising from critical, contested landscapes, and uses artistic and design modes to visualise how water, represented in terms of scarcity and excess, can offer new interpretations of landscape practice and design. Mathur and da Cunha also co-authored Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (Yale University Press, 2001), Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (Rupa & Co., 2006) and Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary (Rupa & Co., 2009). In Brisbane recently for Experience, the 2012 Australian Institute of Architects national conference, they spoke to AR about how reconstruction of history can radically change our understanding and design of cities.

'SOAK – Mumbai in an estuary' by Mathur and da Cunha


Maitiú Ward: During your presentation at Experience, you spoke about ‘design activism’. What precisely do you mean by that?
Dilip da Cunha
: Well, we start with a certain design language, such as the way in which we read the surface of the earth, something that designers take for granted. So, for example, the river is a place where water is on the other side of the line – you have a river that flows. But that is not just a river, it’s also ‘flow thinking’ – you’re thinking in terms of water flowing. Water flows from mountain to sea, and designers in a city would see themselves on the river. This is a language now in common use. Ecologists use it, historians use it, geographers use it. It’s a particular reading. It’s flow thinking, it’s line thinking, it’s taking everything for granted.
But we see our task as questioning that. So, is it a flow system? What if it is an overflow system? Why don’t we see it at a different moment in time? It’s calling attention to another way of reading the land. Water is everywhere, and seeing it overflowing the surface, you don’t see a linear system where water begins at a source and runs down to the sea. You will see it draining the land, and there are cultures that have actually lived with this complex surface of holding water where it falls. So for us this leads to a different design imagination, a different kind of engagement and possibly a different way of looking at how the design process then evolves.
I’m giving you just one example of a river, but it’s the same thing with cities, and city thinking, and the distinction between urban and rural. It’s always the urban that is defining the rural. The rural has never defined the urban in that sense. All the measures on the surface of the earth are urban, and some dictate design practice more than we think. So, with ‘design activism’ we see ourselves as actually challenging the language of design that is in place, challenging the language that is being used to solve fundamental problems like floods, which in fact is the same language that has actually caused the problem of floods. We need a relatively new imagination, and that stems from a new language of the land.
Mathur: With design activism, we are saying that the role of actually re-imagining is something we as designers can take on – we don’t only have to follow somebody else’s imagination. Surveyors give us a certain reading of territory but we don’t have to just build off that. We take Google Earth for granted today, and it looks real because it’s a picture, but believe me it dictates a complete way of looking at things, which could be very different from somebody who walks around all the time and sees things from that viewpoint.
Design for us doesn’t begin only with a project or the client or a competition. We always ask, “Where does design begin?” It begins with reconstructing that imagination for ourselves. There are moments where everybody can see that there is a paradigm shift needed, but we are just so blinded by the comfort level of certain things, hoping that if we could just get more technology involved then that will solve it. In the mid-90s we started working on the Mississippi floods project [which explored how representations of the Mississippi River have shaped both the containment of it and its design]. It was then that it hit us: it’s not about more technology – more this, more that. There is something in the way we’re looking at these landscapes that is the problem.

It goes back to first principles.
: Yeah, exactly. So, what are the first principles of settling in a place? How do we think about place? Sometimes it takes us a long time to wind back to where we began. Sometimes it’s very quick. Sometimes it may even just be the result of a competition, which makes us question something, and within a very short time frame.
Cunha: Even the act of settlement should be questioned. Say you’ve got water in a place, land in a place, and you’ve got the settlement, but if you actually look at a surface amid, say, a monsoon, where there is water everywhere, then maybe we as human beings don’t ‘settle’ – we actually anchor. The act of anchoring can then lead to a different understanding of how we inhabit, questioning the language of cities.

Should we return to pre-settlement rhythms?
: There is no going back any time, only going forward.
Da Cunha
: It’s about reading how we inhabit the earth. Take Mumbai. I can look at specific infrastructure insertions as anchors rather than as places in the city. These are the anchors that begin new things. We’ve been working in Philadelphia, and there are vacant lots in Philadelphia, and a competition to design for vacant lots. But designing in a vacant lot, in the inner city, becomes an infill situation, and contributes to completing the city.
So, how can I take this as a point of initiation that can begin a new kind of inhabiting? It is not ‘pre-settlement’ or anything, I’m just saying “I anchor”. I take an initiation, and I anchor, and that begins rhizomatic growth. There’s a case to be made that that’s the way in which all inhabitations actually develop, although the language by which history has described inhabitation is divided between settlement and the nomad, or settlement and pre-settlement, and the rest of it. All that is grounded in language. So we’re actually looking at how infrastructure precedes design, and how infrastructure can be designed.
: Another example is New Orleans. It reads itself as an entity, almost, let’s say, by extreme design, and then it moulds itself around like a medieval town, maybe because it was trying to keep water out. But say it sees itself as part of the fluctuating landscape – it would still need levies, but the levies become places where high grounds connect with high grounds. The image that this is the municipal limits of the city actually has a lot to do with certain decisions made about infrastructure and how infrastructure operates.

'Mississippi Floods' and 'Deccan Traverses', books by Mathur and da Cunha


Do you consider yourselves to be landscape architects or architects?
: I think both. I am an architect first, then a landscape architect. Dilip is an architect but he has been teaching for 10 years in the landscape architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, and he is also a planner. We just think of ourselves as designers, really.
Da Cunha
: And we design everything from doorknobs to regions.

Is it useful to draw a distinction between ‘architect’ and ‘landscape architect’?
Da Cunha
: When you make the distinction between architects and landscape architects as a disciplinary boundary, one tends to think of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, or of architecture as ‘building’, or landscape architecture as ‘country’ and architecture as ‘city’ and so on. But we look at landscape as a ‘ground’ for architecture, a ‘ground’ for design. In some ways it makes us uncomfortable to use the term ‘landscape’ so sometimes we prefer the word ‘terrain’. Our activism is directed towards terrain, a way of seeing architecture as a condition on this ground. It doesn’t inspire horizontal separation between landscape and architecture but is this vertical thing of what emerges from the ground, whether it’s a tree that grows from the ground or a building that grows from the ground. To us it doesn’t really matter – things grow out of rich terrain.
: We’ve given up the battle of trying to name what we do. It doesn’t matter. I do think landscape is a really rich term, but the only problem I have with it is that it’s too easily reduced to ‘gardening’ or ‘parks’.

Is there a difference between the idea of ‘terrain’ and of ‘site’?
Da Cunha
: The idea of ‘site’ tends to come with certain boundaries in place, and that may be just the way in which architects operate more than anyone else. But when we say ‘terrain’ we’re talking about a moment that goes beyond boundaries and into an open sense of ground that even, for a moment, accepts distinctions between land and sea.
: With site, one tends to say “I analyse my site”. You think you need to know everything within that and then you need to find its relationship to other things. But it does create, I think, a distant relationship with something else. With ‘terrain’, your product may not be any larger in its footprint, but instead it becomes about how it’s situated and what it draws in.

You’ve talked about the importance of exhibitions. Is that with a view towards agitating not just the disciplinary boundaries of architecture, landscape architecture and urbanism, but also creating public momentum around a project?
: That’s right, and we sort of learned that as we moved along. When we first worked on the Mississippi project, it sort of rattled around academic institutions and we were a little frustrated because we felt that we’d like to have more conversations with people who are actually engaged in these landscapes. And so the other two projects we did, Deccan Traverses and SOAK, opened with an exhibition and the books came later. But the public exhibition was the first thing in situ, in place, and it was a great learning experience for us because then we had a very different kind of feedback loop.
Da Cunha
: There is a side of design that takes its cues from history, from ecology, and we need to appeal to that because history is written in the ground. It takes a certain language for granted. A very important public exhibition goes beyond design to actually construct the ground of design. And when we are changing the ground of design, we are also changing the ground of history. Take the case of Mumbai. Is Mumbai an island or an estuary?
When we move from plan to section, it’s a huge difference for us as designers to actually see it from above, to see it as a series of sections. No historian actually looks at land and section. They take the island for granted. So if we say Mumbai is an estuary then all the events of history change. It’s not about someone coming on a ship to land – there is a relationship between land and sea and that’s completely different from the way the events of history are written. And it’s fascinating the way children are educated into this language. It’s an awful system, because the imagination has been curtailed right from the time we’re in kindergarten, even before.
: In a sense we’re rewriting history as designers. We’re looking back at the same maps historians have looked at but we have a completely different reading of them. So we almost have to do exhibitions as a form of recounting – reconstructing the history and then situating our projects within this new history. It’s not enough just to put a project out there, a book, and say people have to read it. We also have to build the exhibition.

Images from 'Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape'


Your drawings are obviously beautiful, but I see them as much about constructing a narrative as they are about creating beautiful drawings. If you’re trying to draw in people from outside the disciplines of design and architecture, that’s probably more engaging in terms of explaining your proposition.
: It’s interesting. When we start, we don’t think we are making beautiful drawings or not making beautiful drawings. We are just making drawings. It’s like as an architect, if you are going to say something through building something, you’re going to build it well. You don’t want to purposely not build it well to make a point. So we draw to the best of our ability, and then maybe it becomes a thing in itself as well.
Da Cunha
: Obviously you have to make things in a fundamental way, but then there is a certain narrative in the exhibition, as well. But there is also this other side that we appeal to and that is the demonstration of projects. There are some people who will take to narrative, and then there’s another group we could appeal to by saying, “What is the possibility?” But if you do this then people say, “Okay, so what?” You’ve got this other alternative imagination, but so what? So we say, “Okay, this is why.”
Because the point of departure is so fundamental it cannot be argued, and we say design cannot be argued on so-called principles that everybody sort of accepts because it’s a radical shift and so it can only be demonstrated. You demonstrate the possibility, and they say, “Okay, we get it.” We communicate through demonstration and we communicate through an act.
: In many ways, even when we did the exhibitions, we had a certain consistency when we started to look at every project and draw them, but we had many meetings with officials and did whatever it took to get them to understand what we were trying to say. Sometimes we have to use historical maps or old drawings just to open up ideas. Every project we approach differently – we don’t start with a certain style or drawing.

Your work might not produce built outcomes, necessarily, but what about policy, cultural behaviour, shifts in disciplinary thinking?
Da Cunha
: I would say yes. When we started our Mississippi work years ago, it was before Katrina had happened. We just felt this was an important scale – the scale of the Mississippi landscape and the impact of it on the culture of engineering. And when Katrina happened, even though we weren’t directly involved with the projects happening there today, we found that through studios we’ve done, through talks we’ve given, that many of our colleagues have picked up on what we’ve said. We find a very different language being used today than it was before we had done that work.
Somebody was saying that New Orleans was a “disaster by design”. I almost think we were the first people to have said that, because it was always seen as a natural disaster. In lecture after lecture we said, “This is not a natural disaster – it’s a disaster by design.” It’s a kind of cultural objective. We definitely led the way because designers hadn’t been looking at those kinds of issues.

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05 Aug 12 at 7:38 AM • Steve Fargo

what rubbish. 10 years teaching this at Penn?


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