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Geeta Mehta, Otis College’s 2019-2020 Donghia Designer-in-Residence, on the Social Purpose of Architecture and Urban Design

Anna Raya 

Geeta Mehta, who is an adjunct professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University, also is an author, social entrepreneur, and urban designer. She answered several questions before her March 11 lecture at MOCA and master class at Otis College as part of two components of the Architecture/Landscape/Interiors Department’s 2019-2020 Donghia Designer-in-Residency

What are some of the biggest philosophical conversations happening in architecture today? And how do these values/ideas trickle down into what is being taught in architecture programs currently?

There are four seismic shifts currently underway in the practice, education, and discourse of architecture: 1. Productization of architecture 2. New technologies and materials 3. Designing for climate change shocks 4. From form-making to community building. 

Productization of architecture is evident in the way that buildings, and indeed urban areas, have become tools of financial speculation. Expensive apartments and super tall buildings that only 1% of the population can afford are cropping up in every financial hub around the world. These are not for living, but are simply financial investments to either park money, or for a return on investment (RoI) only in financial terms, with no consideration of the ecological or social capital they may create or destroy. The political clout of the real estate lobby in the U.S. is of particular concern, as new legislative proposals relating to the looming climate change shocks and public safety have been thwarted by this lobby, which seeks only to protect its financial return on investment. There is a need to require triple-bottom-line accounting for all projects before approval—that includes the ecological capital, social capital, and financial capital impacts on the bottom line. This will save communities who would otherwise be pushed out of prime downtown locations to distant housing, with poorer people having to invest extra time and money into commuting. The industry will not do it by itself, and the governments should not abdicate this responsibility. 

Never before in the history have architects had the vast choice of material and technologies on their fingertips, which are making architecture much more fun than it used to be. Material specifications can be added to software programs so that if you can manipulate a material on your computer, you can actually build with it.

Designing for climate change shocks is also an urgency now. The younger generation seems to have a heightened environmental consciousness, and I am delighted to see that in my students. The go-go days of cheap gasoline and unlimited robbing of the earth’s resources are over, and there is a need for buildings and urban areas to be more sustainable. 

In historical terms, the philosophical conversation about architecture has also shifted considerably. From the modernist point of view—where form and top-down ideas were paramount—the conversation today is about socially responsible design. That starts with understanding and listening to the users. It is no longer enough to look from above a model and delight over interesting forms—of a tower in the park and the multi-lane highways serving them. So, overall, this is a transformative moment for architecture and all disciplines involved in the built form of our environment.

An Otis College A/L/I student, senior Vanessa Quiles, recently said, “I believe that architects have the power to make a difference in the way a community views its neighborhood.” Do you agree? Is this a sentiment you’re seeing among architecture students today?

Yes, indeed. Architecture and urban design are social endeavors, so they must have a social purpose. The built environment does have a great impact on how people experience their community. Architecture can nurture or destroy the social capital of neighborhoods, a critical ingredient in the lives of people, especially in poorer communities. Are the public realm, the street, and the accessible public space inviting people to meet each other, create trust, and thrive together? Gated communities that separate the rich and the poor, or different ethnicities, actually sow distrust and a sense of resentment of the “other,” which eventually translates to higher crime and despair. I believe that young people today are embracing this understanding. Since design impacts everyone, the rich as well as the poor need to be at the planning table together, as they are the ultimate clients. There is surely more social consciousness today that is moving architecture on from the cleverness of postmodernist architecture to the architecture of social responsibility today. 

On a related note, how have you seen architecture and urban design transform a community? What takeaways from these experiences do you most want students to take to heart while in school?

There are important negative and positive examples of how architecture and urban design have transformed communities, which we can learn from as we go forward. An example of the disastrous outcome of top-down planning was the urban renewal masterminded by Robert Moses that ran the Cross-Bronx Expressway right through the poorer but robust neighborhoods in New York in 1963. South Bronx has never recovered from that. The vitality of the low-rise, street-based neighborhoods that was lost was never regained again. Some of the people from these communities were re-housed in the tall buildings that had better plumbing, etc. In most circumstances, the original residents were simply disbursed without concern for their social capital, which is extremely important for low income communities who depend on each other for childcare and other services and help. Roberta Gratz has documented this episode and others like this in her books, The Battle for Gotham among them. She explains how Jane Jacobs’s ideas from her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, have prevailed and are being embraced across the world, with many new books about her work available now in many languages. A recent feature film, Citizen Jane—which I had an opportunity to contribute to—also emphasizes how people-centric urban planning is so important to practice and teach today, since impacts of architecture and urban actions impact generations.

Affordable housing should not just provide four walls and a roof for a family, but also be a tool of economic empowerment. Organizations such as URBZ, of which I am one of the founding partners, have shown the success of this model in very low-income communities in Mumbai. So, affordable housing should include maker spaces, social spaces, and amenities that people need to build their community and climb out of poverty. Mixed- income, mixed-use housing should be the norm for all housing—affordable as well as market-rate.

Moving away from the “tower in the park” model to street-based and infill concepts for affordable housing is among the positive trends today. The New Urbanism movement that seeks to create complete, compact, and connected communities has had great influence in some suburbs, although its impact in low-income areas and downtowns has been limited. Architects like Richard Dattner are also challenging the density argument often used to justify the “towers in the park” model inside cities, and developing alternatives that can actually build a vibrant public realm that helps build social capital.

What are the current thrulines you’re seeing between architecture, urban planning, and community development?

All design disciplines manipulate social, spatial, and visual systems. They are beginning to come together with exciting results. For example, great architecture can only be great if the urban design around it empowers people who live or work in it by providing links to public transportation and a vibrant public realm. An urban area must be ecologically healthy and resilient, and also needs careful landscape planning and environmental design. In my view, a successful building or project is that which, if replicated many times over, would make a great city. If people enjoy being in a building or an urban area and are empowered by it, they feel ownership of it and are more likely to take care of it.

You often speak at forums related to urban design and social justice. How intertwined are these two areas now?

I’m very glad that you have asked that question. Urban design and social justice are deeply interrelated. The experience of cities is about the public realm, which includes the streets, the public spaces, and the publicly accessible spaces inside private buildings. If the streets are designed for cars and not pedestrians, including children and older pedestrians, then they are not socially just. If public spaces are only accessible to privileged, wealthier people, and cut out others, then they are not socially just. If the assets of a city, such as its waterfront, beaches, and parks are privatized, that leaves people out. There must also be environmental justice, in that clean air, water, and sanitation must be justly distributed. 

The areas growing most rapidly in cities around the world are informal settlements, where new migrants or otherwise marginalized people live. These are usually located on less desirable lands, such as floodplains and unstable slopes. The vulnerable people here are in most need of public transportation and other urban amenities that can help them climb the economic ladder. Design with justice, as a goal, would ensure that the infrastructural and social services are easily accessible to them. An inclusive and just city provides mixed-income and mixed-use opportunities for the rich and the poor, as they are usually co-dependent. There is a need for ways for the poor to incrementally “earn” safe rental or ownership tenure, based upon the ecosystem services, healthcare, security, or other services they provide for the city. This will entail currencies beyond just the money currency to measure people’s contribution to society and the environment. Asia Initiatives, another NGO that I co-founded, has developed Social Capital Credits, the community currency for social good that is being used in India, Ghana, Kenya, and the U.S.A. towards this goal.

Having designed projects in countries across the globe, what are the stark differences in these projects, and/or what are the surprising similarities?

I have been very fortunate to work in many countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, as well as North and South America. The big difference is between the expectations that have been normalized.  For example, a typical suburban family home in the U.S.A. used to have three bedrooms and two bathrooms in the 1960s. Now, five bedrooms and five bathrooms has become the norm, even as the size of families has shrunk. Not only is it unnecessary, it is unaffordable in most other countries of the world, where the use of resources is considered much more carefully due to budgets but also due to a culture of thoughtful consumption. 

The rampant consumerism on which irresponsible capitalism thrives is also evident in the destruction of forests and other environmental assets. In cases where wealthy countries want to protect their own environments, there are no qualms about causing deforestation and illegal mining in poorer countries. However, the climate change threats underline the fact that we all share one precious planet, which is currently in need of thought leaders who can change the current destructive course we are on.

Anything you’d care to add in the lead up to your lecture as the Otis College Donghia Designer-in-Residency?

I would like to add that the future of architecture and architects is also going to look different. Robotics and machine-learning are set to have a major impact on the reduced number of architectural jobs in the near future. While there will always be a need for creative designers in every field, the support teams of creative young people who are learning on the job and enabling the implementation of creative ideas will shrink, shrinking the pipeline of creativity. The challenge is to ensure that architects in the shared economy can also make a good living, and have good access to healthcare and pensions, etc. The American Institute of Architects and similar organizations have a huge role to play on this front. 

I would like to end by saying that the future belongs to thinkers, and that “design thinking” is being sought in every field now, so architects and designers have many more venues of employment and opportunities. We look to the younger generation of designers to bring their holistic thinking to the service of humanity as it seeks solutions to the existential challenges of climate change, pandemics, and the resource-depletion of today.  

The Donghia-in-Residency program is made possible by a generous grant from the Angelo Donghia Foundation, which provides support for the advancement of education in the field of interior design, and for the investigation and treatment of AIDS and its related diseases. The Residency is organized by the Architecture/Landscape/Interiors Department at Otis College, which offers a synthetic curriculum of the spatial design fields.

Main image courtesy of Geeta Mehta.