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In conversation with Vinayak Bharne
Interview by Pallavi Shrivastava

Urbanist Vinayak Bharne is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Urbanism at the University of Southern California and a practicing urban designer. His three most recent books - The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms; Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanism of India; and the forthcoming Zen Spaces and Neon Places: Reflections on Japanese Architecture and Urbanism - provide provocative dialogue on understanding cities within specific contexts across cultures, nations and historical periods. WAN’s Mumbai Correspondent Pallavi Shrivastava spoke to Bharne about the ideas, agendas and inspirations behind these efforts.

Tell us a little bit about your three books and motivation behind each of them.

My forthcoming book Zen Spaces & Neon Places brings two decades of writing and reflecting on Japan, since my first trip in 1993 as an exchange student from India. With the emergence of China and India, Japan has now dropped below the intellectual radar, when, in fact, it continues to remain a very relevant reference for our times. So this book offers a critical reinterpretation of Japan’s complex built environment across history - the import of Tang Dynasty prototypes, entry of European influences, insinuation of Western democracy, rise and collapse of the economic bubble, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster - and their transformative effects in shaping and re-shaping the Japanese built landscape we see today. The intention is to provoke deeper reflections on why and how what we see today has come to be, and learn from it.

The Emerging Asian City was born out of a frustration. There are a lot of books with the title Asian Cities but they are really focused on select regions of Asia, missing the larger point. So this book brought together multi-national, multi-disciplinary scholars who were doing great work on different parts of Asia, to capture - however imperfectly - the sheer breadth and complexity of the various forces shaping cities across Asia today. This book is an argument to notice how regions across Asia, despite their differences, also have numerous overlaps - thereby offering another reading of where Asian cities are heading.

Rediscovering the Hindu Temple makes the point that the Hindu temple today is a lot more than just a historic, classical, sacred artifact. In this book, we explore the controversies behind the treatises that have shaped them and also examine their traditional architectural canons. But more importantly we look into several other dimensions of temples that are typically missed - such as their rudimentary and populist forms as wayside shrines, their presence as larger habitats, or ritualscapes devoted to prescribed and choreographed activity. We simultaneously notice them as contemporary elements, having a profound influence on the Indian metropolitan landscape. So this book provokes a dialog on the nexus and potential of religion and other populist forces as agents and catalysts for urban transformation in India and beyond.

Through your books, specifically The Emerging Asian City, did you encounter a deeper understanding of the subject matter and how does this understanding reflect on your practice as an urban designer?

I think the deeper understanding that emerged from this book was where exactly

 

different Asian cities overlap and separate and why. The Indian sub-continent, for instance, is historically entwined with the cultures of the Persian and Gulf region through the Islamic trajectory, as it is with China and Japan through the Buddhist one. Colonialism; post-independence nation-building; the entry and assimilation of Western democracy; informal urbanisms; sudden cities; the embrace of Modernism - these are phenomena scattered throughout urban Asia in space and time, even though their specific guises may be different. We all know how several Asian nations built brand new Modern cities as emblems of sovereignty after independence.

But six decades later, how and why are Chandigarh, Islamabad, Jakarta and Tehran different? Rapid urbanisation has been a cyclical phenomenon in Asia - Japan in the 70s, Hong Kong in the 80s, Kuala Lumpur in the 90’s and now Shenzhen. The forces shaping different Asian cities have been different but they are not necessarily isolated or regionally unique. This may seem like a pretty obvious point, but very few books have really sunk their teeth into what exactly this means.

Most of my recent professional work outside the United States - mainly the United Arab Emirates, Panama, Mauritius, Kenya and China - has been for private developers or municipalities. In this middle layer, the general ideas we promote in the US - pedestrian-friendly streets, compact development, multi-modality, dignified density etc. - are relevant globally because sprawl is a global phenomenon. The specifics of sprawl, however, both in form and the processes and expectations that generate it, are different across the world.

So the challenge of working abroad in this respect has been one of negotiating where to introduce progressive urbanism ideas from the US authoritatively, where not to, and where and how to adapt them. For instance in China, if you want to make a neighbourhood with small blocks and therefore more streets, many of these streets have to be private and contained within gated mega-blocks. And ultimately how to penetrate the administrative structures of a city and influence and transform planning regulation from being sprawl-driven to something else remains at the heart of all such efforts.

But I like to think that I am also engaged in another form of practice; research with my students and academic colleagues. This is where I get to engage with issues beyond mainstream city-making and this is where I get to test many of the ideas I write about. We have an ongoing research project to chart multi-disciplinary strategies for the future of Banaras, one of India’s oldest sacred cities. I have a grant to do an incremental enhancement plan for the surroundings of the Ise Jingu, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. We have been studying how to reuse and resurrect the ancient Qanats (subterranean water channels) of Yazd, Iran. I think all these are forms of practice, in that we are engaged in urban change and intervention, whether it is a developer project or a hypothetical proposition.

Do you see the flattening of cultural differences and the slow disintegration of diversity under the rubric of globalisation as a challenge or a fertile phenomenon that may give emergence to something more interesting in the cities of tomorrow?

I think it is both. The flattening of cultural differences began with modernisation but could not surpass the deep-rooted cultural blueprints of many non-Western cultures. In my Emerging Asian Cities book there are several chapters that show how cultural blueprints endure.

They end up becoming commodities for tourism and entertainment, as Kasama Polakit points out in her chapter on the Bang villages of Thailand. They can in fact be reinforced and renewed through successive external transformations, as Robert Cowherd observes in his piece on Surakarta. Jeff Hou examines the juxtaposition of what he calls ‘vertical urbanism, horizontal urbanity’ - in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei etc - where shimmering high-rises rub shoulders with a tradition of informal markets. Vic Liptak

 

follows three generations of a native family in Aksaray, Turkey as they renounce their traditional homes and move to new apartments, and seamlessly appropriate it with indigenous spatial patterns.

Even cities like Chandigarh that were built from scratch as new utopias have been seamlessly appropriated by a native ethos. In other words, if we learn to see globalisation as the continuing legacy of colonialism and modernism, then cultural resiliency is an integral part of that continuum.

Rapid urbanisation gives rise to unprecedented pressure on infrastructure and transport means. Which emerging city do you think has tackled this challenge in the most effective way? Conversely, can you give an example of a developed city that has had to go back and re-work its strategies to rising or changing conditions?

I think most developing cities across the world are being ravaged even as we speak by placeless transportation infrastructure. This is why a city like Curitiba, Brazil stands out. Their 1966 master plan proposed a siphoned urban growth along five structural axes radiating from the urban core, but instead of focusing their infrastructure solely on cars, they initiated a rapid bus mass transit system in the central lanes of these corridors that has now gained global attention.

What is less known however, is that the land fronting these transit corridors was simultaneously zoned for high rise buildings with residential/office uses above and retail/commercial uses at street level guaranteeing that the fabric would not only produce but also attract transit trips. To further incentivise the plan’s implementation, the zoning was changed to permit little to no development in downtown Curitiba whilst promoting high-density mixed-use development along these transit axes. This strategy has not been immune to capital pressures and the development of these corridors is a far cry from the controlled consistency seen in the best Western cities. But this synergistic transit-infrastructure-development strategy in a less-developed socio-economic context implemented through a non-speculative and formal planning means is something many other cities should learn from.

For the second part of your question, Los Angeles comes to mind. Its ongoing rail transit renaissance is actually quite ironic. Barely five decades ago, Southern California had one of the most extensive train networks in the world. But the 1,000-odd miles of rail were gradually dismantled, and circa 1963 closed in favour of an extensive freeway system. As part of Los Angeles’ renewed inclination towards walkability, mixed–use and non-utopian urbanisms, numerous policies are now not only advancing mass transit, but transit-oriented development (TOD) at all scales.

Of course, compared to other American cities, this TOD rhetoric is miniscule, because the automobile still remains the convenient choice to traverse LA’s vast distances. And with conventional zoning still regulating most transit nodes, the idea of introducing density and mixed-use around train stations remains a difficult territory, with progressive developers needing to negotiate new concepts of density and liveability through mainstream planning channels. But what is happening in LA is important. The efforts and struggles of this region can provide real lessons to numerous cities across the world.

Interview by Pallavi Shrivastava. Click here for more information about Vinayak Bharne's latest releases.

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