Design Tactics and the Informalized City Symposium

Cornell University Associate Professor Caroline O'Donnel, architecture, moderated a panel on Saturday. O'Donnell was also one of the symposium organizers.
Saturday morning panel session: from left to right are Sabine Müller, Sarah Williams, Maurice Mitchell, and panel moderator Caroline O'Donnell.
Panel participant Sabine Müller.
Panel participant Sarah Williams.
Panel participant Maurice Mitchell.
Saturday symposium guest during question and answer period.
Symposium keynote speaker Alfredo Brillembourg at the Reading Room.
Guests mingle at the Reading Room in the Milstein Hall dome during a break.
Guests accessed symposium and web information at LCD installation in Milstein Hall dome area.
Installation in Millstein Hall dome.
Guest mingle around installation in Milstein Hall dome.
On right, Marsha Taichman, AAP Visual Resources Librarian, talks with symposium guest during a break.
Left to right, panel moderator Milton Curry and Richard Dobson.
Panel participant Priti Parikh.
Marjetica Potrc during an afternoon panel discussion.
Keynote presentation by Neil Gershenfeld.
Keynote presentation by Neil Gershenfeld.
Saturday symposium guests pause between sessions.
Symposium participants pause for discussion with guests.
Rupali Gupte presenting.
Scene in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium.
Yoshiharu Tsukamoto presenting.
Alessandro Petti presenting.
Panel discussion, from left to right: Panel moderator Jeremy Foster, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Rupali Gupte, and <Alessandro Petti.
Keynote speaker Rahul Mehrotra.
Saturday keynote question and answer period.
Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning associate professor and symposium co-coordinator Neema Kudva.

Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lecture Series

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Informality, which was first categorized and described in the 1970s, is now pervasive — across cities, in the places we live, work, and move through the everyday. For many, the informal is no longer a discrete sector appended to the workings of the "formal" city, but an integral effect of the structuring of cities and landscapes by contemporary economic, political, and technological change. Self-built architectures and urban agglomerations, ambivalent landscapes, nomadic and temporal spatial manifestations of informalization are situationally specific, but globally ubiquitous. Design Tactics and the Informalized City brings a discussion of this reality to disciplines that work on the city in material and spatial terms: architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, engineering, media and product design. Charged with shaping and managing living environments, usually on behalf of instituted powers, these disciplines confront significant questions in encountering the informalized city. Working practices and ways of representing urban phenomena, the appropriate medium and matter of design, even conceptions of agency, constituency and purpose, all come to the fore as matters for critical and creative inquiry. The conference brings together international practitioners from diverse design fields to explore these questions through discussions of recent, compelling work.

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To talk of the "informalized city" today is to talk of multiple changes in how urban formations are constructed, governed, inhabited, and represented. With its mobilities, ambiguous social and spatial geographies, its contradictions and inequities, the informalized city challenges many operating assumptions for disciplines that work on the city in material and spatial terms. To work effectively in such settings seems to require identifying constituencies and orchestrating processes and interactions as much as it does designing objects or "solutions". For those who seek to engage with the informalized city in a relevant and ethical way, this raises many questions about the terms, techniques, premises, and goals normally presumed in urban practice.

How can disciplines charged with shaping and tending to living environments, usually on behalf of instituted powers, engage the contexts and constituencies which are occluded by traditional disciplinary boundaries, but ironically, also produced by the assumptions, processes, and instruments of mainstream practice? If conventional terms and techniques used to define and drive urban change — for example, zoning, function, program, and form — have become inadequate for understanding and addressing conditions in the informalized city, what kinds of design tactics are needed in these contexts? How are disciplinary-specific ways of representing "existing conditions," or customary techniques and technologies of "intervention" challenged by such contexts, and how should designers redirect traditional ways of working? If work on the city is not the exclusive purview of professionals, through what kinds of alliances and collaborations might designers enter into more productive relationships with urban "clients," conditions and ecologies usually overlooked by conventional design practice? And how should designers identify and recognize such clients, conditions, and ecologies? What can the design disciplines, defined broadly, learn from the spatial and material tactics of entrepreneurial urbanites who negotiate institutional barriers and indifferent logics to create a place for themselves in the global city? What role might new technologies accessible to both city inhabitants and designers play in constructing new ways of understanding, claiming, using, and developing the city? What new models/interpretations of "spatial production" might help make sense of the effects of these emerging practices and technologies? And how might all these lessons differ or resemble each other across specific locations and contexts, in a variety of cities from London to Lagos? Finally, what are the implications for design discourse and education at institutions in the global North, like Cornell?

In addressing these interlocking questions, the symposium explores the relationship between design projects and design practice(s) in informalized urban settings. We believe that the people best equipped to address this relationship are often those who are "in practice" i.e., designers engaged in mobilizing and tactically negotiating the heterogeneous assemblage of forces, materials, representations, technologies, and actors in such settings. The symposium brings together designers nominally allied with different disciplinary practices from art and architecture to industrial design, urban planning, and civil engineering. To help focus the discussion, the conference is organized around three specific rubrics that cut across categories and scales of work on the informalized city: Visibility, tactics, and temporality.



Friday, April 13

Keynote, Last Round Urban Ecology

Keynote, Creative Acts of Citizenship: The Informal as Practice

  • Teddy Cruz, Estudio Teddy Cruz and University of California–San Diego

Saturday, April 14

Session 1: Visibility

What potential material or programmatic logic of the existing city is encountered/constructed through the project? How are "problems" or "opportunities" defined, identified, mapped? What methods of observation, analysis, representation, and definition/action were challenged? How must the designer's traditional tools of recognition, analysis, and understanding change, dilate or adapt?

Architect as Detective, Narrator and Craftsperson

  • Maurice Mitchell, Department of Architecture and Spatial Design, London Metropolitan University

Mini and Many: Drawing Actions that Shape the City

Data Sequence: Communicating Science, Society, and Policy of Places by Exposing the Invisible

Moderated by Caroline O'Donnell, assistant professor, Richard Meier Professorship of Architecture, Department of Architecture, Cornell University

Session 2: Tactics

How is the "site" of work defined? What broader systemic relations does the project/prototype aim at? How are existing organizations or structures appropriated, redirected, reconfigured? How does the project (re)define the means and methods of design: local knowledge, agents, logics, material and spatial practices constituent in the project; techniques used to intervening in existing conditions; disciplinary procedures used vis-á-vis everyday materials and forces to hand, and resistances encountered; ways of deploying traditional and/or new technologies; in-situ experimentation, demonstration, testing; parameters of/basis for decision-making (agency, authority, knowledge exchange); assemblage of individual and/or institutional actors involved?

Slum Networking

  • Priti Parikh, Development Vision 2020, Imperial College Business School

Pragmatism in Practice

  • Richard Dobson, Asiye eTafuleni and Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project

A Dry Toilet in Caracas and a Community Garden in Amsterdam: A Vision of the Future City and the Artist as Mediator

Moderated by Milton S. F. Curry, associate dean and associate professor of architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan

Keynote, Bits and Atoms

Session 3: Temporalities

How does the design work define its role and operation with respect to the dynamics of the contemporary city? On the one hand: how does the project address or accommodate urban contingencies, practices, and processes, both known and unknowable? For example, how does it provide a framework or vehicle for adaptation, transformation, mutation, appropriation; what ways of working, investigating, acting does the project deploy — processual or anticipatory. Alternatively: how has the work of the project become redefined in time by city inhabitants? How has it transformed or been transformed by its context, or develop additional layers of meaning and functionality; how have material changes, technologies, practices or ecologies introduced through the work been adapted and deployed over time by intended or unintended users.

Provisional Practice

  • Rupali Gupte, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture

Spatial Practice of Public Space

The Camp as Political Project

  • Alessandro Petti, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, Al-Quds/Bard College Jerusalem

Moderated by Jeremy Foster, assistant professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell

Keynote, Kinetic City

Moderated by Neema Kudva, associate professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell



Alfredo Brillembourg began his Venezuela-based architecture practice in 1992. The following year he founded Urban-Think Tank in Caracas, and since then has been a guest professor at the University Jose Maria Vargas, the University Simon Bolivar, and the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). Since 2007, Brillembourg has been a guest professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation where he cofounded the Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory in collaborations with Hubert Klumpner. He has more than 20 years of experience practicing architecture and urban design, and has lectured on architecture at Harvard GSD, AEDES in Berlin, University of Miami School of Architecture, the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo in Sao Paulo, and UCLA. Since May 2010, Brillembourg has held the chair for architecture and urban design at the Eldgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich in Switzerland. He is the coauthor of Informal City: Caracas Case and Rules of Engagement: Caracas and the Informal City. Brillembourg holds degrees from Columbia University and UCV.


Teddy Cruz is an associate professor of public culture and urbanism in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California–San Diego. Cruz has received the Robert Taylor Teaching Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the 2004–05 James Stirling Memorial Lecture on the City Prize, among other awards. Cruz serves on the board of directors of the Council of Design Professionals in San Diego, is a member of the international editorial board of AD Magazine, and is involved in many civic and cultural advocacy groups. Cruz holds degrees from Landivar University in Guatemala City, California State Polytechnic University, and Harvard Graduate School of Design. He was a Rome Prize Fellow in architecture, and has taught and lectured at many universities in Latin America, Europe, and the United States including Southern California Institute of Architecture and at Woodbury University School of Architecture in San Diego.


Richard Dobson, after qualifying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Dobson immediately established his own architectural practice working in the then Black townships surrounding Durban. He subsequently joined a long established KwaZulu-Natal practice noted for its residential, commercial, and historic restoration work, where his particular interest in low-energy construction led to a national design award for a residential walling system utilizing stabilized earth. In 1996, he joined the eThekwini Municipality (Durban) as a contract consultant engaged in implementing the Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project. Starting in 2001, he became the leader of this project and then its successor, the inner eThekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (iTRUMP). In 2006, he cofounded the NGO Asiye eTafuleni — isiZulu meaning “let us go to the table,” but figuratively “let us negotiate” — an NGO offering design, facilitation and development services to the informal economy. Dobson is the coauthor of Working in Warwick, which documents 10 years of development in Warwick Junction, Durban, where unique provision is made for informal workers to trade in public space. His technical, design, and project work has been recognized through national and international awards and citations.


Neil Gershenfeld is the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, a laboratory that breaks down boundaries between the digital and physical worlds. The lab's technological innovations have been seen and used in settings that span MoMA and rural Indian villages; the White House and the World Economic Forum; inner-city community centers and automobile safety systems; Las Vegas shows and Sami herds. Gershenfeld is the author of numerous publications, patents, and books, and has been featured in media such as the New York Times, the Economist, and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. A fellow of the American Physical Society, Gershenfeld has been named one of Scientific American's 50 leaders in science and technology and selected as a CNN/Time/Fortune Principal Voice, and one of the top 100 public intellectuals by Prospect/FP. Research by Gershenfeld and his collaborators at the boundary between physical science and computer science has led to a growing global network of original Fab Labs that provide widespread access to prototype tools for personal fabrication. Gershenfeld currently directs the Fab Academy, which distributes research and education about digital fabrication, and is a member of the research staff at Bell Labs. Gershenfeld has a bachelor of arts in physics, an honorary doctor of science from Swarthmore College, and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Cornell University.


Rupali Gupte is an architect and urbanist practicing and teaching in Mumbai. Currently, Gupte is assistant professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture (KRVIA), Mumbai, where she coordinates the research fellowship and the exchange program. Gupte is a founding member of the Collective Research Initiatives Trust, an organization that works on urban research and a partner with RRarchitecture101, a design practice. Gupte is interested in tactical urban conditions and design interventions and also continues to conduct independent research at the intersections of art, architecture, and urbanism. In the past, she has worked with architecture and urban practices in India, the U.S., and Africa and has been a research fellow at Sarai, a program at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Recently, Gupte exhibited her work at the Manifesta 7 Art Biennale and completed an art and architecture residency at Khoj, an artists' collaborative. Her works include, among others, community design projects, studies of post-industrial landscapes in Mumbai, a multimedia novel of a semi-fictional history of Mumbai's urbanism, a story map of the Mumbai mill lands, and Pothole City, a polemical art installation questioning the role of urban design. She has a bachelor of architecture from KRVIA and a master of architecture from Cornell University.


Rahul Mehrotra is a practicing architect, urban designer, and educator. He is a professor of urban design and planning and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). His firm, RMA Architects, founded in 1990 in Mumbai, has designed projects for government and nongovernmental agencies, and corporate as well as private individuals and institutions. The firm has initiated several unsolicited projects driven by a commitment to advocacy in the city of Mumbai and has recently finished a campus for an NGO that works with poor children, and (with the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative) developed a conservation master plan for the Taj Mahal. Among other projects, RMA is currently working on a housing project for elephants and their caretakers in Jaipur, corporate offices in Hyderabad, and private houses throughout India. Mehrotra has long been involved in civic and urban affairs in Mumbai, where he has served on historic preservation and environmental commissions, partnered with neighborhood groups, and directed the Urban Design Research Institute from 1994 to 2004. He has also lectured and written extensively on architecture, conservation, and urban planning in Mumbai and India. Conserving an Image Center: The Fort Precinct in Bombay, a study he coauthored, led to this historic area being declared a conservation precinct in 1995 — the first such designation in India. Other publications include books on the Victoria Terminus Station, a world heritage site in Mumbai, and most recently, on the city's Art Deco buildings. Mehrotra edited The Architecture of the 20th Century in the South Asian Region and the first of three books documenting the 2004 Michigan Debates on Urbanism. He studied at the Ahmedabad School of Architecture and graduated with a master's degree in urban design from Harvard GSD.


Maurice Mitchell teaches, researches, and directs live projects in the Faculty of Architecture and Spatial Design (FASD) at London Metropolitan University (LMU). Educated at the Architectural Association, his early career included extended periods of work in the shanty towns of Ghana to establish the Tema Housing Cooperative with Kumasi University and as regional building materials adviser to the Southern Regional Government of Sudan — projects covered in his first book Culture, Cash and Housing (1992). Ideas relating appropriate building technologies to architectural education are explored in The Lemonade Stand: Exploring the Unfamiliar by Building Large Scale Models (1998) which highlights the culture of making within architectural education by drawing on the exploratory work produced during hands-on courses run during 25 years at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales. Mitchell's diploma studio at LMU works proactively with a local situation in a transitional urban settlement, devising imaginative responses to specific cultural and technical issues. Work in Kosovo is recorded in Rebuilding Community in Kosovo (2003). For the last 10 years the studio has focused on India. This is covered in Learning from Delhi (2010), which has been shortlisted for the Urban Development Group Prize.


Sabine Müller, together with Andreas Quednau, is a founding partner of SMAQ, a Berlin-based collaborative studio for architecture, urbanism, and research. She is an architect trained at University of Kassel in Germany, and Columbia University. She worked with Asymptote Architecture in New York City, and West 8 Landscape Architects in Rotterdam. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany. SMAQ has conducted urban research projects as well as architectural, landscape, and urban projects in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and received an AR Award for their public bath in Stuttgart and the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction for their Xeritown, Dubai, master plan.


Priti Parikh is a research associate at the Imperial College Business School in London where she works on developing innovative business models for rural electrification in East Africa. She also runs a consultancy, Development Vision 2020, which provides advising services for sustainable infrastructure planning in low-income communities. Parikh has worked as an engineer and urban planner for 10 years in India focusing on slum housing and upgrading with a particular focus on infrastructure (waste, water, sanitation, energy, and roads) and has extensive experience in infrastructure planning for cities and slums. Parikh's doctoral dissertation from Cambridge University, demonstrates the multiplier effect of integrated infrastructure provision using a range of quantitative and qualitative data, including interviews with 700 slum residents. Parikh is currently working on sustainability assessments and monitoring/evaluation of infrastructure projects using participatory techniques and impact assessment tools. She has substantial in-country experience in India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, working with local governments and slum communities and has managed and led multisectoral projects at both city and community scale. Parikh is a fellow of Royal Society of Arts and the recipient of ACE/NCE Outstanding Contribution Award in the United Kingdom and a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers International Development Panel and also was a panel member for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Engineering and Information Technology in the United Kingdom.


Alessandro Petti is an architect, urbanist, and researcher. He is the chair of the Urban Studies and Spatial Practices Program at Al-Quds/Bard College in Jerusalem. He is the cofounder of DAAR – Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency an architectural collective that combines urban intervention, collective learning, public meetings, and legal challenges as a form of political intervention and narration. DAAR projects have been shown at the Venice and Istanbul Biennales, Tate in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among many others. In 2010 DAAR was awarded the Prince Claus Prize for Architecture. Petti has written on the emerging spatial order dictated by the paradigm of security and control and cocurated different research projects on the contemporary urban condition. He is now involved in a new project entitled Campus in Camps, educational platforms, and practice-led interventions in Palestinian refugees camps.


Marjetica Potrč is an artist and architect based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout Europe and the Americas. Her work as an architect often manifests as visual art installations that translate phenomena within the built environment for museum and gallery visitors. Her onsite projects, which are based on participatory design, include Dry Toilet (Caracas, 2003) and The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife, and Their Neighbor (Stedelijk Goes West, Amsterdam, 2009). In 2011, she was appointed as a professor at the University of Fine Arts/HFBK in Hamburg. She has received numerous grants and awards, including the Hugo Boss Prize in 2000 and the Vera List Center for Arts and Politics Fellowship at The New School in New York City, in 2007.


Yoshiharu Tsukamoto is an architect and a cofounder of Atelier Bow-Wow with his partner Momoyo Kaijima since 1992. The pair's interest lies in diverse fields ranging from architectural design to urban research and the creation of public artworks, which are produced based on the theory called “behaviorology.” The practice has designed and built houses, public, and commercial buildings, mainly in Tokyo, as well as Europe and United States. Their urban research studies lead to experimental project “micro-public-space,” a new concept of the public space, which has been exhibited across the world. In addition to the practice, Tsukamoto is an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, and has been a visiting faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design and UCLA.


Sarah Williams is currently the director of Columbia University's Spatial Information Design Lab. Her research focuses on the representation of digital information and ecological design and planning. Prior to her work at Columbia University, Williams started the Geographic Information System (GIS) Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, she also worked with the SenseAble City Laboratory, a joint program between MIT's Media Lab and Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Williams has also worked with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project and the Philadelphia Water Department. Williams has a background in geography, landscape/urban design, and urban planning with a master's degree from MIT in urban planning and urban design and bachelor's degree in geography and history from Clark University.

Cosponsored by the Institute for the Social Sciences and the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.