The Thirteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2011
Berkeley Prize 2011

Travel Fellowship Report: Christina Monzer


January 7- January 18, 2012 

I finally decided that I would have to be honest with myself. I have had an incredibly difficult time coming up with the right words to capture the whirlwind of experiences that defined my time in India this past January. I had left the United States, and 2011 behind with uncertain expectations, excitement, and the concrete feeling that this trip would change my life forever.

Bhopal, City of Lakes.  Day 1--exploring the lakeshore.

This was exactly what I wanted and hoped for 2012, to begin the year in a place I had always dreamed of visiting, to do something that epitomized my last two and half years at Berkeley and the goals I have set for my future. Upon revisiting the reflections I had made in my blog prior to my departure, I was wondering what I would see, how I would communicate, what sounds, tastes, smells would be experienced in this land that I had only read, learned and watched movies about. It was all slowly, but surely becoming a reality.

I remember being worried about logistics – making sure I packed everything I needed, getting the right immunizations, and hustling to print out all the recommended readings in order to prepare myself for Global Studio. “But I know once I get there it won’t matter,” I wrote. “All that will matter is that I’m present and there to soak it all in. I know that this long journey ahead of me will be full of reflection and reading and thinking and that’s just one step towards being somewhere I have never been. To be able to take it all in and accept any difficulties, unexpected moments and most importantly, heartbreak.”

The idea and feeling of heartbreak came with unpredictability. Literally and figuratively, my heart truly aches when I see people experiencing even the smallest of difficulties. I sat in the San Francisco International Airport on the hazy afternoon of January 2nd waiting to board my flight to Amsterdam. I typed away on my laptop, “It tears me up a little inside when I see an old man or women making their way down the street alone, and more so when I see people genuinely asking for money to buy food or coming up to you with a bag of old rags asking if they can wash cars in the parking lot of a store.  I’ve seen people struggling everywhere I’ve lived or traveled to on so many different levels... especially at home in Ukraine and Lebanon. But I haven’t seen anything yet, and while I know I will likely see the worst in India, I need to look at the positive side of things— that I’m going to be a part of the bottom-up approach to make a difference, even if it’s small. These last few weeks poring over the conference and three-week studio schedule have made me giddy. It is exactly what I have been working through these past two and a half years at Berkeley and it’s a little surreal that I’m actually going to be a part of something so great (Global Studio Bhopal).”

After three tumultuous, exhausting and fascinating days in Delhi and Agra with a fellow Global Studio’r from Germany, I had by far the least painful experience catching a flight to Bhopal. After connecting with a few others on their way to the MANIT campus, which was hosting Global Studio, I took in the newness of yet another Indian city on the drive to our destination from the Bhopal Airport. Passing through the entry gates of MANIT, unloading my baggage from the car, and finally winding the corner of the freshly constructed Girl’s Hostel, I saw new faces sitting, mingling and eating dinner together under white tents in the courtyard. It finally felt very real. I had arrived at Global Studio, and at that moment in time, I had no idea what I was in for.

Re-Imagining Inclusive Urbanization: People Building Better Cities Conference and First Days in Bhopal

 In those initial few days as everyone was getting to know each other and quickly becoming friends, I remember thinking to myself how amazing it is to be surrounded by people from all over the world that had come to Bhopal to take part in this innovative framework of participatory design and planning. Everyone I spoke with had different takes on what was important to them, and how they felt on issues of sustainability, development, architecture, planning, and community. These were all concepts that I had grappled with throughout my time at Berkeley and especially as I began to think about embarking on this journey.

 At this point of Global Studio, I was there to take everything in— From the feelings of being an absolute outsider in a city like Bhopal, which gets few tourists, to getting to know the ways and customs of Indian students who would tell us all about Bhopal as we toured the city by bus, to the intensity of the children who we encountered as we explored the streets of Bhopal . At the conference, I was enthralled and intrigued by the variety and passion of many of the lectures given by renowned architects, planners, scholars and those involved with various Non-Profits and NGOs from all over the world. As I took notes, I couldn’t help but constantly revisit the topics I have I had covered in my UC Berkeley courses, my onsite experiences abroad and in the US, and what the right choices in urbanization could potentially be. The Social Art of Architecture, which was a monumental idea and course that shaped the last two years of my undergraduate degree, was incredibly relevant and pertinent to some of my favorite lecturers at the Global Studio Conference.

Children running towards me for a photo "snap" outside the walls of Union Carbide.

One lecture that resulted in extremely detailed notes and a number of snapshots of his charts and graphs was Chawanad Launsang’s, founder and director of the Bangkok-based Openspace Community Architects. Chawanad stressed the importance of “letting people be the solution” to the problems that urban poor communities face and using a citywide mapping approach that invites many possible actors to contribute knowledge to these communities and assist in finding secure housing solutions for all communities in the city. Both the architect and the planner act as the facilitator and community development worker in the beginning. In addition to citywide mapping, community mapping and site planning also needs to occur within each community in order to identify infrastructural needs, financial recourses, skill sets available in the community, and disaster risks. A “people’s process” is key as it allows for a better understanding of the way of life of community residents and does not simply provide top-down solutions with no input from those who are affected.

Chawanad Launsang presenting about "people's process."

Other speakers were equally inspiring, bringing new ideas and solutions to the mix. Paul Pholeros, principle architect of HealthHabitat, talked about the processes of practice, research, and change that are undertaken by the Housing for Health program and HealthHabitat which have brought poverty alleviation and improved health to Indigenous Australians. Millie Maxwell, a law student at the University of Sydney, introduced the idea of “Microfinance Plus” which seeks to improve access to recourses and to promote inclusion from the bottom-up. Examining the issues of microfinance programs, “microfinance plus” aims to integrate other “capability enhancing components such as literacy training, health services, market access initiatives and business development services” to the provision of credit. Neelam Pradhananga discussed inclusiveness in heritage conservation.  Rodney Harper, an architect and planner from South Africa, presented the transformative role of architects in Apartheid South Africa. Other diverse and relevant topics such as climate change, affordable green building alternatives, sustainable transport, and the role of women architects in Indian slum renewal were covered. To learn more about the conference, read about the speakers and see their interviews visit:

Throughout the conference, I thought a lot about the future of our three studio projects and how these new thought provoking lessons and ideas would manifest themselves in our own solutions to the issues we were about to tackle.

The Global Studio Projects and Beginning to Discover Bhopal

The final part of the conference presented the studio and research options that were available to participants staying for the remainder of the three week program.

The Studio Projects were:

1) HOUSING: Inclusive Planning for and with the Urban Poor
2) INCLUSIVE CITY CENTER: “Knitting together” the old city and the new city
3) SCHOOL PLUS: Inclusivity (& education) through Community Engagement

The Research Projects were:

1) Environmental Justice and Union Carbide
2) Climate change and the city
3) Urban poverty & the slum free city

More details about each of these projects can be found here:

Heritage buildings in Old Bhopal.

As a studio participant I thought about which project I could benefit from taking part in, but also contribute the most to. At first there seemed to be a consensus that people were partial to the Housing and School Plus studios. The Inclusive City Center studio seemed a bit broad and overwhelming due to the fact that there was no concrete community that we would be working with (unlike the Housing and School Plus) studios. However, for me, The Inclusive City Center seemed like the best option; it was very much in line with my own senior thesis on Accessibility in the Beirut Central District. After speaking with Adriano Pupilli, Studio 2’s international Mentor (a former Berkeley Prize Travel Fellowship Winner!) and Rajarshi Sahai, the national mentor, I felt that I could definitely gain a lot from this project, as well as bring my own past research and experience to the group.

Studio 2 - Inclusive City Center discussing issues and city concerns with Chawanad Launsang, Tee Boonmahathanakorn and Adriano Pupilli

Once projects were assigned, we quickly moved forward with our first outing with our group into the old Bhopal. Paul Pholeros accompanied and instructed us to observe and interact without the use of notepads, pens, or photo cameras in order to build a rapport with the communities that we would be spending the next two and a half weeks around. It was clear we were outsiders. We strived to not impose ourselves and instead to focus on building recognition and approachability amongst the people we would encounter on a daily basis.

Since we did not have a community of people with whom we were to work and interact directly with, I found that this first outing was vital in being able to feel more comfortable in the space we were to research and create design proposals for. We aimed to be present and available for questions and engage in regular, day-to-day interactions like buying fruit from vendors or chatting with the school children who were always playing cricket (of course, with the help and translation of our the MANIT students and other Indian participants). With Paul Pholeros’ exercise, we aimed to avoid appearing simply as researchers coming from the outside to provide top-down solutions to Bhopal’s problems.

Talking to some boys on a make-shift cricket field on the outskirts of Old Bhopal
Studio 2 – Inclusive City Center before interim presentations.

The first few days of studio were exciting, difficult, and a bit scrambled – not only were we all still getting to know one another and each other’s work habits, but we were still absolutely unfamiliar with our surroundings. There was a lot of breaking up into groups and zeroing in on different concerns and issues we found during our onsite tours of Bhopal. We came to discover that there were certain spaces that lacked the presence of women. Not only was there limited open spaces for boys from the nearby schools and madrasas (Islamic schools) to play cricket, but there was also territorialism associated with those spaces. We were told about the difficulties that fruit and vegetable vendors faced getting from new Bhopal to old Bhopal to sell their produce. As pedestrians ourselves (and constantly observing pedestrians), we found that making our way through the city was difficult and often very unsafe due to the traffic and congestion of the lakeside and central areas of Bhopal. We soon learned about the destruction that heritage buildings in old Bhopal were destined for due to the proposed BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) routes that were to run through the historic city center.

The Inclusive City Center – Approaching and Tackling Our Studio Project

Our first week leading up to interim presentations involved a lot of graphing, charting, and mapping. In groups, we set out to uncover the roots of the issues that came out of our original findings.

Some of our initial questions were:

- Whose city is it?

- Where are the open spaces?

- What activities take place?

- How do people get around?

- What do people know about their city?

- How do people see the future of their city?

-How do people see their city in the future?

My team explored the Chowk Bazaar (the central market place in the heart of old Bhopal) and spoke to women of different age groups to find out where women spend their time, why they do not  go to certain areas of the city, and how they get around. We asked women what kind of changes they hoped to see in their city and what they thought would make areas that they do not visit more friendly for them. At the end of the day, we would reconvene with the rest of our team members and discuss our findings and plot out the next steps in for our short, medium, and long term goals.

We were lucky to have Tee Boonmahathanakorn's assistance in the beginning stages of work. Tee works with Chawanad in Thailand and had a lot of insight on how to workshop our ideas and how to correspond with the community to accomplish some of our short and medium-term goals. Along with our international mentor, Adriano, we came up with proposals for our interim presentations which would allow us to receive feedback from the other studio and research groups, local and international stakeholders, community members, and Global Studio director Anna Rubbo.

We worked tirelessly to put together our presentation and convey our preliminary solutions to the problems and concerns of the Bhopal communities that we worked with. Our overall goals, which came out of our key areas of research were:

- Increasing Safety of Movement

- Enabling Equal Access for All

- Preserving Livelihoods

- Fostering Heritage Awareness

- Facilitating New Activities

- Giving a Voice to the Communities

Of course, these were very broad and general goals, and having only two weeks left to complete them, we had to find ways to intersect these needs of the community, propose plans, and design interventions that the communities of Bhopal and the Bhopal municipally can work with even after our departure.  We came up with a overarching theme, “WE ARE BHOPAL,” that would be used to facilitate some of our design and outreach proposals, such as advocacy for businesses in old Bhopal that would be affected by BRTS routes, a connection between the city and the lake, and the reinvigoration of the Ghatt (an area that serves as a intersection between the lake edge and the old city).

SMS design proposal flyers at WE ARE BHOPAL Festival.

With the positive feedback and constructive criticism we received at the interim presentations we were able to move forward with some of our sustainable and manageable plans for the next two weeks that remained. We surveyed Bhopali communities to get additional feedback on their hopes for the future of Bhopal, photographed people and places, conducted traffic surveys of key choke points from the lakeside to old Bhopal in order to get better insight into what the community needs and wants. We worked hard to reach out to the community and connect with local artists, merchants, students, and musicians to plan the “WE ARE BHOPAL FESTIVAL” that took place in the Ghatt.

Demonstration project: WE ARE BHOPAL Community Consultation Framework (“CCF”).

Our design proposals were placed on posters with information for the community to text a number and let us know what they thought about these interventions and how they might positively or negatively affect them. At the festival, children were able to draw their visions of what they would like the Ghatt to look like, and adults were able to write down their opinions of these design interventions. The festival also included a photo exhibit of the “Faces of Bhopal” where people were able to take their photos home with them. A local artist worked with people who came to the festival to create a mural of their vision of Bhopal. A local historian gave a talk about the history of Bhopal, and musicians provided further entertainment. Overall, the event was a success and brought attention to the changes that the communities want for a Bhopal.

The design proposals, which included a floating walkway along the lakeside edge (or VIP road) that would connect the old city to the lake and bypass road traffic, and the development of heritage trails that would map the significant heritage building in Bhopal while creating links between the old and new city, were presented to the Bhopal Municipality for potential inclusion in the new Bhopal Master Plan.

Hard at work!

 A “Community Consultation Framework” (CCF) was also developed and presented to the Municipality. The CCF informs the community of current and upcoming municipal and regional projects that could affect their livelihoods, it allows the community to get involved in the design and implementation process, it facilitates the interaction between development stakeholders and the community, and furthermore increases the access to information concerning new development projects. A Community Consultation Center in the heart of Bhopal was also proposed. This center would be a place for Bhopalis to come and learn about changes in their city and participate in workshops. The center would house a documentation library, offices of relevant government departments, meeting rooms, and a helpline/call center.

Input on Ghatt development at the “CCF” demonstration project.

The last few days of studio were a whirlwind. After the “WE ARE BHOPAL FEST” we worked through the morning to review and organize all of the data we gathered into our final reports which were to be presented the following day. It was no simple feat to make sense of what the myriad of communities in Bhopal wanted for their city and how to best frame it for government stakeholders and scholars. It was amazing to experience and be part of the diligence and passion that culminated in those last days with my team members.  At the final presentations at the MANIT campus auditorium we were able to present our work to the other studio and research project groups, as well as key government and community stakeholders.

Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi.

Final Reflections

As with any short and intensive time abroad participating in studio and research work comes the desire to succeed, frustration arising from conflicting interests of teammates, and exhaustion from working long hours. In the end it was all worth it, and we made the most of our free time, celebrating our accomplishments, treating ourselves to delicious Indian cuisine and relaxing when possible. Global Studio took us to Sanchi and the Udaygiri Caves in Vidisha, which was a fantastic way to spend our day off between interim presentations and the last two and half weeks of studio and see more architectural and historic wonders of India.

The novelty of meeting, interacting with and then working with some extremely talented individuals did not wear off throughout the trip. It was incredibly sad to leave and say good bye to these new and great friends I had made in such a short time. I am beyond excited to have this network of fellow Global Studio Participants to be able to connect with down the road.

Sugandha and me at the Udayagiri Caves in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh.

Being a Berkeley Prize Travel Fellow and having the opportunity to participate in Global Studio Bhopal has provided me with insight into a holistic way of approaching a variety of issues that both cities and communities face. I able to approach the studio with the knowledge I had gained over the course of my education, and through my developing interests in this field of architecture and planning, but also put to use my skills and contribute my own understandings of the vital topics covered over the course of Global Studio. This experience has and will continue to shape my educational and professional career and I am forever grateful for being presented with this opportunity through the Berkeley Prize.

To see more of my photos from Global Studio:

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