This last spring I had the opportunity to be a part of the Nano City Super Studio. Like most architectural studios, this one too overturned our initial assumptions and we were quickly immersed in the challenge of learning and designing concurrently. The studio began when we arrived in Delhi, India on January 15th, 2007. Despite the week-early start of the semester we were all eager to meet Sabeer Bhatia (our client) and begin this new adventure. That first day, and many others that followed, were filled with a whirlwind of experiences — most of which were facilitated by a bright red Volvo tourist bus. In a week we visited Delhi, Chandigarh, and our site in an effort to gain some knowledge for the studio. Yet, like most short stays our trip was limited by the time it took to travel between sites, leaving us little time to experience India on our own.
The rest of the semester was spent achieving a balance between our client’s aspirations and our design ideas. As designers we had numerous debates about our competing visions for Nano City. Having an actual client for the project also put most of us for the first time in a position of negotiation between our client’s desires, our own professional responsibilities, the needs of the population who currently live on site, and those who will eventually become residents of Nano City. This tension between the professionally defined “client” and the social responsibilities of design was further enhanced by the inherent complexities of an international studio. No matter how sensitive we tried to be to the Indian context and the site, we were always functioning from Wurster Hall in Berkeley, California and, like our experience of India through the windows of a red Volvo bus, we were constantly aware of our own limitations of our experience as Americans.
Yet there is also something universal about our experience as outsiders that represents the conflicts and challenges we all face as designers. Whether we are designing a city in Haryana, India or California, USA we are to some degree always removed from our clientele and we must resist the compulsion to objectify those whom we design for through the actions that we take. While the experience of designing in a foreign context helps us hone our professional skills, it also makes us more aware of our limitations, thereby challenging us to work outside normative design techniques and think critically about the appropriateness of every move. In the end I believe that this experience made my peers and myself better at dealing with issues of professional responsibility in this new world of transnational place-making. Indeed, design is the tool through which we may engage the “other” even as we discover ourselves.
I joined the Nano City Super Studio as a result of my background and interest in development issues in India, as well as the desire to learn about the design process.
As a PhD student my research interests focus specifically on the current trends in architectural practice where architects around the globe often design for sites that they have never been to or have had minimal contact with. As a practicing architect I have lived and worked in Northern India, where I was involved with several development projects that stress local building traditions. The Nano City Super Studio was thus a unique opportunity that helped me develop my research focus and fine tune my thesis topic, which is now framed as: “Bridging the gap between architect and site through technological tools to enhance place-sensitive design.”
So how did a group of Berkeley students bridge the architect-site gap in Northern India? A trip to India seemed to be the logical first step, but a week’s visit there left us with more questions than answers. For example, the most prominent features appearing on our site maps, two rivers delimiting the site, were found to be dry most of the year and flowing with muddy water during the monsoon season. Predominantly, the buildings in the area were concrete structures of poor quality or shabby vernacular dwellings. In contrast the most beautiful visually seductive aspect of the site — a mosaic of agricultural plots of land — was precisely what we were required to change.
Back in the studio in Berkeley, we found ourselves using virtual tools such as Google Earth and aerial photos. The high-resolution images highlighted features that we had failed to notice during our site visit. These included a water source, irrigation tunnels, an avenue of trees along a road, and several other elements which could be combined into a contextualized, practical, and place-sensitive urban environment. And while virtual tools cannot replace the tactile and sensory knowledge gained from a site visit, they definitely complemented it and kept us connected to the site despite the distance.
Beyond my own interests, a project like NanoCity, which combined both theoretical and practical questions, was a perfect fit for an advanced graduate-level studio and influenced all of us considerably. The challenges of designing a new city and the inherent difficulties of bridging geographical and cultural distances, were augmented by the fact this was a concrete project executed together with our client. Working on a real project forced us to deal not only with subjects we are enthusiastic about, but also with those that are usually overlooked in studio-courses such as government regulations, financial feasibility, attractiveness of the solution to potential investors, and of course producing high quality deliverables for our client.
Our experience was further enhanced by the professors who not only taught the design studios but also acted as consultants to the studio team and arbiters with the client. Their expertise in various relevant fields such as transportation, energy, and international development contributed greatly to the design and learning process. The close interactions between the students, professors, and the client resulted in a mutually productive learning process which in turn helped us devise better design solutions. It will probably be several years before we get a chance to take part again in such a complex design process–particularly one where designers, clients and developers benefit from fruitful interactions with one another.
By Marina Christodoulides, M.Arch, and M.C.P. Student
It all began on January 7, 2007, in the haze of the San Francisco night lights, when UC Berkeley students checked in at SFO airport for a flight to Delhi, India.
“Who is working for Nano City? Is he? Is she?” I thought to myself as I filed into the aircraft — the suspense and excitement building as we funneled into the tight space. I could not begin to fathom what was in store for me and my fellow classmates. I can now say that the excitement and enthusiasm never curbed, that the surprises and curve balls never ceased and the characters involved were rich with idiosyncrasies, making the journey a tumultuous, boisterous affair that culminated into one of my most enriching academic experiences.
The majority of our weeklong stay in India was spent in transit inside a big red Volvo bus, fusing camaraderie between our client, Sabeer Bhatia, and his group, the faculty leading and accompanying the studio, and other UC Berkeley students. As this was my first trip to India, I became mesmerized by the world outside the window. The streets were a continuous spectacle of the hustle and bustle of Indian life. Motor rickshaws, cows, monkeys, bicycles, squatters, villagers, men playing cards, shaving, defecating, cooking, carrying cargo — a bazaar of private life paraded across the stage of the public sphere. The images blasted in front of me like a blaring television screen, consuming my attention and senses even though my physical self remained protected by the now familiar interior of the red Volvo bus. This panorama of sights and sounds was occasionally interrupted with breaks for the restroom and meals, meetings with the Governor of Haryana and its ministers, an intense conversation with the villagers living on the site, and nights spent in the comfort of five-star hotels.
On one hand, the trip to India was a complete whirlwind; on the other, the perspective we gained was a mere Cliff’s notes introduction to our site and its larger context. However, it whetted our appetite for future work and upon our return to Berkeley, we immediately began design work for Nano City while simultaneously taking Professor Nezar AlSayyad’s course on housing and urbanization in the Third World.
So began the challenge of the semester. As we became increasingly educated about issues of housing in different parts of the world, our design required further development. The contradiction of designing a private city with growing awareness toward issues of informality and housing could not slow us down from every impending deadline. And while theory could not be espoused without a design implication, design could not occur in a vacuum of ignorance. There was a constant tug-of-war between our conceptual knowledge and our practical design solutions.
The complexity of the project did not end there. The studio was composed of two eight-person groups that were each commissioned to design a master plan. And while working in groups and for a real client is quite foreign to the traditional architectural studio, it put us in a scenario that was much closer to professional practice. In the end, the product was much richer than anything we could have done as individuals. By continuously learning from each other, and building on each other’s strengths, the final studio product reached an admirable level of resolution.The Nano City Super Studio pushed and pulled at the boundaries of academic theory and practice, of individuals and teamwork, of disciplinary boundaries such as architecture, city planning, landscape and urban design. Through continuous struggle, friction and contradicting demands, we found our home in the complex beauty of the Nano City project.
Innovative projects often have unusual beginnings.
In Fall 2006, I received an e-mail from an individual who informed me that he was planning a new city in India. He wanted to meet me to discuss what ideas I may have for such a project. A new city that would be privately built — indeed, the idea made me wonder! Fortunately, my initial instinct to delete the e-mail and to dismiss the idea altogether did not prevail and I agreed to a short meeting with its sender in my office the following week. On the day of the meeting and after a brief Google search, I discovered that I was about to meet Sabeer Bhatia — the co-founder of Hotmail, and one of India’s if not the world’s, most recognized young entrepreneurs.
Bhatia, a graduate of Stanford University, had come to us in Berkeley seeking our expertise to realize his vision for Nano City — a new, sustainable, eco-friendly, and high-tech city in north India. The 11,000 acre site earmarked for the project is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and within close proximity of the city of Chandigarh in the state of Haryana. By all measure, Bhatia is a dream client: a young visionary whose education and ambition are matched with a social conscience. Having co-founded Hotmail in the 1990s and subsequently selling the corporation for $400 million to Microsoft, he went on to establish other IT companies and develop social ventures beyond technology. Although he came to us mainly for advice about how to pursue his new project, it quickly became clear that his engagement with us was not going to be a passing one.
Stemming from my conviction that successful projects are a product of a close collaboration between an educated client, a competent designer, and an informed public, I convinced Bhatia that we should pursue the project as a college-wide graduate urban design studio, involving a group of faculty from different specialties. Having now become our client, Bhatia also generously funded the studio which included a site visit by 16 students and 6 faculty members for a 9-day trip to India. While in India, the design team also met with government officials in the state of Haryana and other developers collaborating on the project.
The CED has had a long tradition of conducting Super Studios, which are intense design collaborations for a semester-long project and involving several faculty as supervisors. The tradition harks back to studios conducted by Lars Lerup and Stanley Saitowitz in the 1980s as well as those by Mark Mack, Richard Fernau, and myself in the 1990s. It was indeed time to revive this tradition with the Nano City Super Studio. My enthusiasm for the project as well as that of the students was shared by committed CED faculty such as my colleague Professor Susan Ubbelhode — an expert on the architecture of Chandigarh and frequent visitor to India — who agreed to co-teach this studio. Richard Fernau cut his sabbatical short and participated as a studio critic. Robert Cervero, Chair of the DCRP; Chris Benton, former Chair of Architecture; and Ananya Roy, Professor of City Planning and Associate Dean of International and Area Studies, all agreed to serve as studio consultants by delivering lectures on design and planning policy and by participating in all studio presentations.
When we advertised the studio in late Fall as a joint Architecture, City Planning, and Urban Design course we were inundated with applications from students. Since this was a truly interdisciplinary studio, open to students from the whole college, we selected 16 applicants from the M. Arch, M.C.P., M.L.A., M.U.D., and the PhD programs in Architecture, City Planning, and Landscape Architecture.
Our visit to India was an intense experience yet memorable too. We traveled between Chandigarh, the foothills of the Himalayas, and the urban outskirts of Delhi. On a visit to the proposed project site, Berkeley students demonstrated what it means to immerse oneself in the context that they design for. Refusing to simply travel in the confines of an air-conditioned bus or meet government officials, the group visited a few of the villages on the site and spent a session meeting with and interviewing villagers whose fate would be impacted by the project.
From its onset, the studio emphasized both collaborative effort as well as teamwork in the design process. On our return to Berkeley, students were assigned to teams who then delegated individual tasks to each member. Interdisciplinary methodologies were pursued by addressing the multiple scales of design involved in a project of this nature. The studio started with a week-long intense charette where each student produced a master plan. Following the charette the students were broken down into 8 teams and continued to work in pairs for 3 weeks to produce land-use and master plan solutions. This was followed by an intense 5 week session where 4 teams — each made up of 4 students — focused solely on urban design. Finally, the students were divided into 2 teams, each pursuing alternative master plans and also articulating an architectural strategy of which one was selected as a final master
The final design solution for Nano City proposes a three-phase development model which will ultimately include a small educational sector with campuses of major U.S. universities; a business development sector with headquarters of several technology firms (providing biotechnology, informational technology, and nano services); a major housing development of up to 50,000 small, medium, and large size units; and appropriate commercial and recreational services in order to generate a vibrant mixed-use
The end of the semester may have been an ending to the Nano City Super Studio but today the project continues. Nano City Inc. has accepted the general master plan generated by the studio and has officially hired 10 other Berkeley students to further develop it into a more detailed urban design, under the supervision of a few faculty members. The final master plan of Nano City designed by what is now called B-GAP — the Berkeley Group for Architecture and Planning — will be formally unveiled early in the Fall. It stands as a testament not only to the possibilities of collaboration between the different disciplines within the CED but also to the successful collaboration between clients and designers. Indeed, the Nano City Super Studio attests to the creative potential of a paradigm that believes that political position and social responsibility can deliver design excellence. As we continue with design and development, we look forward to the moment when Nano City will break ground in 2009.