Mellon Seminar and Architecture Studio Collaborate on Urban Aesthetics in Southeast Asian Cities
Cornell students in architecture, city planning, landscape architecture, anthropology, and Asian and religious studies, spent several days together in September, touring Southeast Asian cities and exploring contemporary conditions found in the region's water-based urban centers.
The joint field trip combined graduate and post-graduate students from Flux Navigations, a seminar for students in the humanities and design disciplines, with architecture students in the expanded practice studio, Floating Cities: Mekong. Both classes were examining meta-issues in global urbanism, focusing on the socio-cultural conditions in water-based Southeast Asian cities that are simultaneously experiencing the impacts of globalization and climate change. One group addressed the condition from a position of design, the other from the position of cultural theory and analysis. Bringing the two groups together to learn from one another was a central goal of the field trip.
"The idea was to decenter the students from their native disciplinary sensibilities," says assistant professor of architecture Jeremy Foster. Foster cotaught Flux Navigations with Arnika Fuhrmann, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Floating Cities: Mekong with Lily Chi, associate professor of architecture. "They were encouraged to draw intellectual connections between, and lines of inquiry that linked, their two approaches." The studio challenged students to draw in the Mekong's water traditions to explore design alternatives to current urban development in the city of Ca Mau, while seminar students were asked to examine the same traditions from a humanistic perspective.
An expert on contemporary Vietnamese cityscapes was an important collaborator on the trip. Kelly Shannon, professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, helped set up interactions with the local designers, guides, and translators. According to Foster, she "smoothed the way with the local authorities to allow us to work in the city, and her knowledge of the city helped structure the fieldwork."
Once in Ca Mau, students were joined by Shannon and divided into mixed teams and given a range of field exercises that involved observing and mapping a variety of urban phenomena. These included how informal activities and economies structured the public realm, and how the natural areas within the city contribute to livelihoods as well as microclimate and hydrological management.
"The group exercise was enlightening for some of the seminar students," says Foster. "Humanities students often talk about space, but don't have much occasion to think beyond text or theory. Being in situ in Southeast Asia with students used to working on an everyday basis with space in very material and practical ways was eye opening."
At the same time, the seminar students brought a distinct cultural and social sensibility to the fieldwork.
"One of the seminar students in my group really helped diversify my perception and understanding of Southeast Asia's complex and nuanced cultural relationships," says Jordan Berta (M.Arch. '16), a student in Floating Cities: Mekong. "This student had lived in Cambodia, and pointed out the ways the two cultures, as well as most of the peninsula, associate with water."
For an architecture student in the seminar, the trip was a chance to garner a new perspective. "It was my first experience at Cornell studying architecture as a form of cultural expression, just like food, music, textiles, or dance," says Anamika Goyal (M.Arch. '16). "Unlike site visits in studio, I was simply trying to see and understand what was happening, and not looking for ways to fix or improve upon what was already there. I was able to better understand the relationship between things like daily family routines and the layout of a house, or globalization of the tech industry and transportation infrastructure. These are all things I've been interested in but, until now, had not yet paid attention to first-hand."
Urban analyses generated during the collaborative exercise were used by Floating Cities: Mekong participants to inform the development of new housing quarters that reflect existing social patterns and practices, while still anticipating the economic, social, and environmental challenges of the future. For students in Flux Navigations, the trip was a chance to gather raw materials for a term assignment — the documentation and evocation of a distinctive local "urban phenomenon," using filmic representation to articulate its associated material spaces, practices, and processes. Their findings will be presented as digital mappings, videos, websites, and installations in the John Hartell Gallery in the spring semester.
Flux Navigations is the second of a six-part seminar series funded by the Andrew D. Mellon Foundation. The Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities focuses on the intersection of these disciplines, and brings together faculty and students from multiple colleges and disciplines to examine the city and its many representations, sharing and exploring methodologies, technologies, and pedagogies in the study of the urban condition.
By Rebecca Bowes