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

Diana Alexandra Mihai Proposal

Integrating Tradition, Innovation and Community Action for a Socially Responsible Architectural Practice

Focusing on the Central School for Girls in Bucharest, I explored in my essay the notion of sacred space as a repository of collective memory and identity. This institution played a seminal role in the history of Romanian women’s education and it holds special importance to me as the first woman in my family to attend university. I would like to use the Berkeley Travel Fellowship to pursue architecture as a social art by assisting disadvantaged communities in preserving their collective past and absorb lessons that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Despite arising on the agenda every time a natural disaster makes headlines, the inadequacy of emergency housing for people affected by natural catastrophes is an issue largely ignored by authorities and architects alike. Only in the last decade a number of architecture NGOs have committed to provide architectural services and construction skills to assist in relieving human suffering. One of these organizations is Architects Sans Frontières-UK, a member of an international network of organizations “concerned with the equitable, social, cultural and environmental commitment of architecture, construction, urbanism and the conservation of historical heritages to Human Development.“ ( Architects Sans Frontières-UK offers building professionals the opportunity to develop their skills and become attuned to phenomena affecting today’s world through a series of international workshops. This summer they are organizing a workshop in Ladakh.

Renowned for its spectacular natural beauty, Ladakh is a region of Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of the Republic of India. It is a high altitude desert and one of the harshest populated environments on the planet. For many centuries, Ladakh was the home of a prosperous and self-sustaining culture, centered on strong community ties and traditions of frugality inspired by a deep rooted history in Tibetan Buddhism. The influence of Buddhism is reflected in the architecture nestled between the mountains. Gompas (fortified monasteries, also serving as universities) represent one of the most significant architectural realizations in the region as well as the palaces, like the 17th century Leh Palace, inspired by the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. People’s close relationship with nature is echoed in the architecture of the houses built out of natural materials, perched on top of elevated sites.

Today, Ladakh faces the challenges brought on by modernization. During the 1970s, the Indian authorities opened up the region to tourism, which has had some troubling consequences for the traditional culture. For example, local materials and construction techniques have been replaced by imported materials and technology. Moreover, in August 2010 Leh, the capital of Ladakh, was afflicted by devastating floods which left many families homeless. As a result of both human-made and natural hazards, the Old Town of Leh has been included on the World Monuments Fund’s 2008 Watch Sites program. The hands-on workshop seeks to develop strategies for reconstruction after disaster in Ladakh and integrate traditional construction techniques within sustainable designs for the region. In the first week of the workshop there will be discussions with the local community to better grasp its issues and needs, as well as explore both current and traditional construction methods. During the second week, specific design solutions and prototypes will be developed using local materials and skills for the problems faced by the community.

My home country has been afflicted with problems similar to those in Ladakh. Romania has suffered repeatedly in the past years from devastating floods, disrupting the lives of thousands of families. Nevertheless, in the face of these adversities the authorities have been unprepared, devising ill-thought-out solutions, which involved expensive concrete houses on isolated sites lacking public facilities. By using permanent materials, these types of buildings render the residents incapable of escaping their tragic experiences.

I believe that there are valuable principles to be learned from vernacular architecture that can be applied in a contemporary manner. Employing approaches such as the use of local and natural materials assembled using traditional techniques provides the buildings with character and shape the community’s collective identity. Moreover, engaging the future residents in the building process is a crucial step towards building their sense of home ownership. Participation in the Learning from Ladakh workshop would enable me to explore how traditional and modern techniques can be used towards sustainable design solutions in post-disaster sites and provide me with the knowledge necessary to assist disadvantaged communities.

Beyond the Learning from Ladakh experience, I would use the Berkeley Travel Fellowship to engage in a tour of historical and modern sites, continuing a tradition that has been a rite of passage in the education of architects. Learning and absorbing the lessons of the past are instrumental for critical new thinking and creating memorable spaces. Thus, I will focus on a series of cities and buildings that embody the notion of sacred space shaped by collective memory and identity. My first stop will be in Delhi, a city which has undergone major transformations since its foundation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker planned New Delhi, the capital of the British Raj, just south-west of Shahjahanabad, the century old capital of the Mughals. Fusing European and Indian classical architectural vocabulary, Lutyens and Baker added to the plurality of architecture in India and marked and important shift in Indian architectural history. Thus, I plan to visit some of the most important places in the history of the city, such as Jantar Mantar, the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the New Delhi Capitol Complex, and the work of Raj Rewal, a seminal architect in the effort during the 1960’s to re-establish a post- colonial link with tradition.

Equally important would be a visit to Chandigarh, India’s controversial newest city. Built in the mid-20th century to embody the social and cultural transformations of a recently independent and unified India, Chandigarh was the political project of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. To put his project into practice, Nehru turned to Le Corbusier, the quintessential figure of Modernism. Thus, Chandigarh became the symbol of modern Indian architecture, but its appropriateness in the country’s context was later put into question. Nonetheless, it is said that the city’s grid was inspired by Jaipur, the 18th century city built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, based on the ancient Navgraha (the mandala of the nine planets). Jaipur will be a must-see in order to see things in perspective.

Contemporary Romania has moved increasingly towards individualism as a dominant cultural paradigm, which has also permeated the architectural profession. If I win the Berkeley Travel Fellowship, I would share my experiences with my colleagues and hopefully inspire them to join me in collaborative socially engaged initiatives. I believe that being socially engaged is crucial for a self-reflexive and responsible architectural practice.

Itinerary: July 14: Fly Bucharest-Delhi; July 15: Arrive in Delhi; July 16: Fly to Leh; July 16-18: Altitude acclimatization in Leh; July 19-August 2: Attend Learning from Ladakh workshop; August 3: Fly to Delhi; August 3-6: Delhi; August 6: Chandigarh; August 7-9: Jaipur; August 10: Fly Delhi-Bucharest.

Budget: Roundtrip flight Bucharest-Delhi: $950; Roundtrip flight Delhi-Leh: $200; Bus and train tickets: $100; Transportation total: $1250

Learning from Ladakh workshop fee: 1240$ (includes accommodation, breakfasts and lunches, course fee, airport pickup from Leh airport, and organised travel within Ladakh)

Other expenses: Leh – altitude acclimatization (3 days): $30/day ($90) Leh – per diem during the workshop (15 days): $10/day ($150) Delhi, Chandigarh, Jaipur – accommodation and per diem (8 days): $45/day ($360)

Total trip cost: 3095$

References: Workshop website: Contact: Katherine Johnson,

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