|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018|
Sneha Varghese Proposal
Making Space For Those Without a Place
They are all staring at me. Their probing eyes voice the questions their minds are shouting. Slowly those questions enter my mind too. Now I’m also asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’
I know that this is a public bus stop that everyone has the right to use. I know that this is the only recourse I have for transportation. I know I have the right to commute at any point of time. And yet the fact that I am unwelcome here is louder than any of that logic.
A cursory look at how our environments are constructed will reveal how segregatory they are; unlit streets, incomprehensible signage, unsafe areas, limited mobility infrastructure. Researching for the Berkeley Essay competition and interacting with sex trafficking victims at the Odanadi shelter homes, I was constantly aware of how their environments had exacerbated their vulnerability. Curtailed within the four walls of their homes, they were denied access to schools, employment and amenities and later dragged into exploitative confines that functioned with impunity in the fabric of their cities. These inequitable habitats are the physical manifestation of a larger problem: the problem of discrimination that validates and perpetuates evils like eve-teasing, sexual violence and trafficking; discrimination that has embedded itself into every part of our lives from city planning to popular culture; discrimination that requires multi-pronged efforts if it has to be defeated.
For this reason, I propose the first part of my travel plan to be the CITY2018 Conference in Barcelona themed, “Fearful Futures: Cities in the Twenty-First Century”. The conference is based on the premise that we have entered a stage where notions of progression and liberality lie parallel to gaining traction for conservative and prejudiced rhetoric and it is indeed fearful futures that await the cities of tomorrow if these retrograde ideologies are allowed to thrive. The conference hopes to bring about productive collaboration that tackles the question: ‘Can we turn our societies around to re/create urban areas that are not only sustainable, but safe for all inhabitants regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality and class?’
The organisers, the International Academic Forum (IAFOR) are a research organisation that partners with universities like University of London, Virginia Tech, Barcelona University, Waseda University, etc. to hold conferences that strengthen localised perspectives through international and intercultural exchange. Covering diverse streams of Literature, Performing Arts, Sustainability, History, Urban Planning, Architecture, and Public Policy, this 3 day immersion will expose me to the myriad manifestations of inequity, intolerance and segregation in communities across the world, the various tangents that affect and are affected by it and examples of engagements that analysed, confronted and defeated the problem. The voices that I hear through this platform will help me build me a more coherent image of how, as an architect, I can effectively contribute towards making inclusive environments in my country a right, rather than a privilege.
The venue of the conference, Barcelona, has itself seen an increasing exertion of the ‘right to the city’ with the recent election of Ada Colau, former spokeswoman of a grassroots movement for housing. The city remunicipalized basic services, integrated an explicitly feminist perspective into public policy, and returned ownership of spaces to the citizens. In the days following the conference I hope to conduct an observational study of Barcelona’s egalitarian urban design. Cerda’s l'Eixample district with its uniform and continuous blocks, accessible services, chamfered building corners and intermittent open spaces; El Raval, a former crime-concentrated district that became liveable by the introduction of museums, galleries and plazas that culturally regenerated the area; the multi-modal transport system with its efficient orthogonal bus network, bike routes and bike sharing system, and ‘superblock’ system that concentrates traffic on the exterior and allows pedestrianization of internal streets. Having lived in cities where travelling on foot is an act of faith, commuting is a ludicrous act past sunset, and gender, race and ethnicity divides and dictates the usage of public space, this immersion will be revelatory experience for me and a standard that I can draw from and compare to in my future endeavors.
The most profound moment for me during my essay research was a conversation with one of the residents at the boy’s home, Chandu. We were walking to the bus-stand near the home and on the way we passed a famous tourist spot in that locality. Pointing to it I asked him how many times he had been there, but he shook his head and replied with a non-committal shrug, ‘No parents’. Just two words. Two words that had hung over his existence, closed doors for him and denied him basic rights. For the next part of my travel proposal, I hope to participate in the RISE International In-Loco Workshop for the construction of the God’s Love Orphanage in Maseru, Lesotho so that I can learn hands-on, how I can use my skills to make that reality, ‘No parents’, less debilitative for children like Chandu.
Children in Lesotho have the cards turned against them before they are even born: with HIV virus claiming 23.6% of the population, many contract the virus from their parents or loose their parents to it, and are forced into lives of poverty, bonded labor or beggary. While the government and international organizations strive to counter the AIDS epidemic, there is a crying need for infrastructure that empowers and enables the young to break the cycle of impoverishment.
The In-Loco Workshop is organized by RISE, a US registered non-profit, and is spearheaded by two architects Pedro Clarke and Luca Astorri. Their aim is to not only respond tangibly to the infrastructural requirements but to also improve local expertise so that their interventions are self-sustaining. The 10 day workshop will include local and international design students who, under the tutorship of an international guest tutor, will tackle specific parts of the built challenge. For me this will be an excellent opportunity to translate into praxis the design principles that I learnt through my study of the Odanadi shelter homes and an indulgence into a culture that is much different from my own and yet much alike with respect to the issues it faces. Interaction with like-minded peers and exposure to the practicalities and constraints that riddle social endeavors of this nature, will give me invaluable lessons I can carry forward as I respond to similar calls to action in my country where child protection is still an elusive quality.
In conclusion, this travel proposal which covers engagements at two levels, overall city structure and individual built responses, will equip me holistically with the perspective I need to be an architect who creates space for those without a place in our societies.
Itinerary July 11-12: Flight from Cochin to Barcelona, Check in at Generator Hostel July 13-15: IAFOR City2018 Conference July 16-18: Observational study of l'Eixample, El Raval, Gothic Quarter and important locations such as Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, La Rambla, Passeig de Gracia, La Boqueria etc. July 19-21: Flight from Barcelona to Maseru, Settle in at K4L Hotel July 22: Excursion into the Lesotho Mountains July 23: Initial visit of construction site, Visit to Thaba Bosiu July 24-29: Hands-on Design and Build Experience July 30-31: Flight from Maseru to Cochin
Barcelona Expenditure Visa: 75$; Registration: 93$; Accommodation: 300$; Flight COK-BCN: 415$; Food: 180$; Conveyance & Attractions: 130$= 1193$
Lesotho Expenditure Visa: 150$; Registration: 1595$ (Including food, accommodation and travel); Flight BCN-MSU: 750$ = 2495$
Note: Return flight from Maseru and other miscellaneous costs shall be covered by me.
References: Supervising Professor- Dr. A. Meenatchi Sundaram, HOD, Department of Architecture, NIT Trichy
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