“anchors in a mutable field” – mammoth // building nothing out of something

“anchors in a mutable field”


["City Market", a photomontage of the negotiated space of flower market in Bangalore, from Mathur and da Cunha's 2006 book and exhibition Deccan Traverses; image via Places]

In addition to describing a theory of the transactions that govern the interactions between property owners, Roger Sherman’s “Counting (on) Change” also makes the broader argument that architects have incorrectly prioritized stability over flux:

Cities today develop at a rate that outpaces architects’ and planners’ efforts to shape them.  Political and economic circumstances change so rapidly that by the time a plan is realized, it is already obsolete; a mere election or market downturn can radically alter the assumptions and objectives of a project or master plan.  In this milieu, the path of least resistance for urban development calls for action rather than reaction–to develop not in comprehensive wholes, but in realizable chunks or increments, placing an emphasis more on augmentation than on organization.  For architects, the time has come to recognize, finally, that contemporary urbanism is better rethought around conceptions of progress and potential — via design strategies for unfolding the future — rather than another utopian horizon…

Rather than assuming stability and explaining change, this means that architects must learn to assume change and explain stability.  Fortunately, for all their complexity, cities — like self-organized systems — are not entirely unpredictable.  Their ability to adapt to change is related to simple behaviors, or rules-of-thumb…  Those environments must be strategized not just in terms of how they are intended to work today, but also how else they might work at another time or under different circumstances.

This — the need to develop design processes that accommodate flux first and offer structures of stability second — is one of the major themes of the work of landscape architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha.  In a recent interview published at Places, Mathur and da Cunha were asked a question about this issue of stability:

SS + NP: Does your emphasis on change, your efforts to design for mutability, make it hard to find clients in the so-called real world, where both public and private clients tend to favor or at least expect stability?

AM + DD: To seek stability — to settle — is a human condition. For design practice it is important to respond to this need as a negotiated tension between the desire for settlement and the inevitability of change. One way is to construct boundaries, material or representational, and aim to separate, control, predict and manage what’s within. Another way is to construct what we call anchors in an open, mutable field — a process that begins with material specificity but extends in ways we cannot entirely predict. Today, sadly, the former approach dominates design and planning, and we are reminded of its limitations by disasters — like the flood in Mumbai — which are often intensified precisely because of our efforts to control them.

Mathur and da Cunha suggest their entry to the Fresh Kills competition, “Dynamic Coalition” (which mammoth described and discussed previously, near the middle of this post, which is concerned with larger questions of stability in design), as an example of a project that seeks to construct such “anchors in an open, mutable field”:

In our project we explored the role of the designer as the creator of starting points, of anchors for the staging of social and ecological processes over time. Rather than interpreting our responsibility as the delivery of an end-product, a “place” that the public is allowed to enter and use, we developed a strategy which started with various publics — not one generic public but diverse groups, including educators, ecologists, artists, city authorities, garbologists (people who study garbage), etc.

That’s why we called our project “Dynamic Coalition.” We aimed to generate design by working with these various publics on multiple initiatives. And rather than doing a final master plan, which would have formally reconciled the value of each initiative, we developed a strategy that would have played out in time. Some projects might take off, others might not, depending on which agency or group has more power, more funds, more energy. We chose to suspend the idea of a final product that is “phased” in time, and instead focus on where and how a design initiative begins and on how it might evolve and extend in time.

The entire interview is worth reading, branching off into such topics as the importance of landscape representation and what Mathur and da Cunha term “activist practice”.

2 Responses to ““anchors in a mutable field””

  1. namhenderson says:

    I really liked that Places piece. Their Mississippi and Deccan’s books have been on my to read list for too long. Have you read either? Maybe one could be the next book club selection?

    I particularly liked their model of activist practice which took (for the Mumbai project at least) an almost public “marketing” informational campaign using curatorial, tools mixed with PSA type outreach.

    • rholmes says:

      I’ve read the Mississippi book, but not the Deccan Traverses. Both are kind of hard to come by, but worth digging up a copy of if you can (even if it’s just an inter-library loan or something). They’re definitely documents that you want to see as physical objects.