Preparing Ground

As part of our occasional series of conversations, Nicholas Pevzner and Sanjukta Sen talk with Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha about their ongoing work with contested landscapes, from the Mississippi to Mumbai.

Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. [All images courtesy of Mathur/da Cunha.]

Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha are principals of the design firm Mathur/da Cunha, based in Philadelphia and Bangalore. Trained in architecture and landscape architecture, at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technnology in Ahmedabad and the University of Pennsylvania, Mathur is associate chair of landscape architecture at the Penn School of Design. Trained in architecture and planning, at Bangalore University, the School of Planning and Architecture at New Delhi, Berkeley and MIT, da Cunha is on the faculty of the Parsons School of Design and the Penn School of Design.

In more than a decade of interdisciplinary practice, as designers, teachers and writers, Mathur and da Cunha have focused on the cultural and ecological issues of contested landscapes. In projects, exhibitions and books, they have sought answers to seemingly simple but difficult and indeed fundamental questions — what is a river? where is the city? Their answers often take the form of intricate and original visualizations — what they term “photoworks” and “photowalks,” sectional drawings and collages that at once construct and peel away the many layers of complex landscapes.

Their notable works include the exhibition and book Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (2001); Dynamic Coalition, their proposal for the Fresh Kills design competition (2001); the exhibition and book Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006); and most recently, SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary (2009), also an exhibition, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, followed by a book.

In the largely normative milieu of professional practice, the work of Mathur/ da Cunha is notable for concentrating less on client-driven commissions than on issue-centered public investigations; they work to identify not conventional solutions but rather a range of possibilities, points of departure for transformative projects.

Recently we talked with Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha about the ideas that animate their practice, and worked with them to assemble a slideshow of selected projects.

Dilip da Cunha leads a group of visitors through SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary, a public exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in 2009.

Sanjukta Sen + Nicholas Pevzner: You define your practice as activist. How do you define activism in design?

Anu Mathur + Dilip da Cunha: For us, an activist practice means first that we are initiators. Rather than waiting for a commissioned project, we ask the first question, frame the issue and propose possibilities. Our purpose is to affect change, from policy to pedagogy right down to how people image and imagine environments, both built and natural.

By activist practice we also include the visualization of landscape — how landscapes are seen, imagined and drawn. Visualization underlies history, geography, politics, and policies, and of course design and planning approaches as well. We question the assumptions and limits of the visualizations that we’ve inherited. We’ve found that this inquiry cannot reside wholly within academia because of the over-adherence to disciplines within universities; it cannot happen only through governmental intervention because public work is usually limited to what is accepted or has precedent; and it can’t be realized within the framework of a conventional practice, where one is beholden to client demands.

So our brand of activism is quite different from the more prevalent variety, which is design-build activism. For us, the questioning begins early — way before the project is shovel-ready. It actually begins with preparing the ground that someday will be shoveled — and not just the actual ground, but also the conceptual ground for questions and conversations. This is why we’ve worked so much through public exhibitions — for instance, in the case of Deccan Traverses and SOAK. We find this to be a fruitful mode for dialogue, for introducing the physical and pedagogical impacts that we hope to make as designers.

In the course of researching Mississippi Floods, Mathur/da Cunha traveled to landscapes where few tourists or designers go.

SS + NP: How does this approach affect your choice of projects, and your relationships with clients and communities?

AM + DD: We do not court disaster — yet disasters certainly seem to draw us in. In the case of SOAK, the 2005 flood in Mumbai was a provocation, a challenge to redirect the trajectory of design in the city and even reconstitute Mumbai’s self image. In the case of Mississippi Floods it was the flood of 1993 that challenged us, and in the case of Bangalore and Deccan Traverses, disaster was not a singular and life-stilling event but instead a number of instances of congestion, disturbances and shortages that continue to build up towards big events and everyday crises. Disasters produce a kind of anarchy — of matter, of process — that challenges the neat categories of practice, forcing us to recalibrate our engagement with place, with the processes and materials of landscape. So we often do not begin with a client. We construct our clients — people, agencies and institutions who are willing to hear alternate viewpoints and make new beginnings, especially in the aftermath of traumatic events, when some are ready to question what they usually take for granted, but most are angered and frustrated and want to return quickly to the comfort of the status quo.

SS + NP: You often focus on remarkable landscapes, places that have been historically, culturally and ecologically contested for centuries, such as the Mississippi River, or the landscapes of Bangalore, or most recently, the waterfront of Mumbai. What draws you to these places?

AM+ DD: Actually, most of the places that we focus on are not obviously remarkable at all. When we began our work on the Lower Mississippi, we traveled to places along the river that no tourist or designer goes to. In Bangalore, many of the places that we started drawing — for instance, the flower markets — were not seen as remarkable; in fact, we were at pains to draw out what we saw as important in landscapes that had become effectively invisible and everyday to those who inhabit them.

From Mississippi Floods to Deccan Traverses to SOAK, we have been singularly concerned with revealing and probing lines of demarcation and categories, lines which can be literal or conceptual — such as the lines between city and river, urban and rural, formal and informal, infrastructure and landscape, land and sea, among many others. And we question the tendency to understand and visualize these categories as separate before they are related, distinct before they are united.

Landscapes of tenacious occupation, from SOAK.

As designers and educators we want to encourage material resilience and tenacious occupation. We have seen how these divisions and lines can harden in the landscape, in civic administration, and indeed in the design disciplines. So questioning them opens a host of possibilities and material practices that have been marginalized, or are not even on the table.

Here our position is not merely critical; rather it is tentative, investigative and imaginative. We are interested in how the flux, the infinite nature of landscapes, can allow for new appropriations, new identities, and new projects, projects that work with negotiated boundaries rather than enforced limits, and that emphasize adaptation not control.

SS + NP: As part of your process, you intensively research the history of places, often going back hundreds of years, to understand how landscapes were understood and manipulated by earlier generations. What are your objectives in doing this? How does this inform your design?

AM + DD: In most of the places we’ve investigated, we find a landscape vocabulary that is taken for granted. We are interested in how this vocabulary has become embedded — in how these places are imagined and visualized, what images and maps show and demarcate, and what they exclude. So in the Mississippi and Bangalore projects, we tracked drawings that did not just represent a landscape but also constructed a geography, and by extension an historic narrative as well.

In Mississippi Floods, we sought to question the act of drawing two lines on a map. These lines defined the Mississippi not as an environment shaped by its own natural processes but instead as a river with a prescribed length, breadth and depth, and with specific east and west banks, all of which are then engineered and maintained. In this sense to draw two lines on a map is to perform a profound act of design, of extraction, of will. We may choose to appreciate or to counter this, but first we must understand the agency of this design act — especially if any meaningful reconstruction is to happen for the landscapes of the Mississippi, for the delta and New Orleans.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ “Design Flood” scenario (right) has become the dominant force in shaping the Mississippi.

When we traveled the Mississippi, we were looking not only at historical maps but also at the working documents of the Army Corps of Engineers. We spent a lot of time looking at how the Army Corps drew their constructions — for example, at how they looked at the meanders when they were trying to cut them off, how they drew control structures such as floodgates, levees, spillways, revetments, etc., how they construed the Mississippi as a quantification of flows. We asked: “How did a particular construction of the Army Corps intersect with a natural phenomenon of the Mississippi?” So when we drew out the meanders, flows, banks and beds — these are the four sections of Mississippi Floods — we were drawing out and also subverting the design language of the engineers, which had been deployed to control the Mississippi. We sought to uncover a more dynamic and layered terrain and history.

In Deccan Traverses we were inspired to peel back the layers of contemporary Bangalore to reveal another historical act of design — another act of visualization. Here our focus was to show how the enterprises of war, surveying, picturing, and botanizing — the four sections of this book — served in the late 18th century to construct the identity of Bangalore as the “Garden City of India.” We showed how these scientific and artistic acts, undertaken by British colonials, had marginalized various local material practices such as keres (water tanks) and totas (working gardens), and also ways of inhabiting place such as maidans, bazaars, etc., that are often dismissed as “informal.” These practices and ways of living are still visible behind the scenes, and they are capable of working with a more fluid and open terrain than are the various master plans of Bangalore, which are based on the fixities and enclosures of the “Garden City” imagination that pervades planning and administration in that city today.

SS + NP: Mississippi Floods and SOAK both investigate landscapes shaped by water, and you often describe landscapes as “shifting, living” places. Tell us more about these themes.

AM + DD: As designers we advocate approaches to water that accommodate rather than control its complicated nature — approaches that do not position water as inevitably separate from land, as blue separate from brown. Water challenges us to consider ambiguity as a condition to embrace rather than erase. Water constructs a keen awareness of time through its absence and its presence; it draws us into a sectional world, an appreciation of depth.

This is a major trajectory in our work, and it’s undergone several iterations, in both material and spirit, from Mississippi Floods to Deccan Traverses to SOAK.

Where does one draw the line that separates land and water in these landscapes of flux? From SOAK.

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.

Maybe we can best address the challenge of negotiating settlement and change in the context of our entry for the Fresh Kills competition, in 2001. We did have a client: the New York City planning department. We had a schedule and a budget. And we had a program of sorts. In the competition brief the city was effectively asking: What should be the future of Fresh Kills? What should be the future of what had once been the largest and most infamous landfill in the world?

The brief did not explicitly assume that the future of the place was necessarily a park or even a singular project. We found this open-endedness promising. But the competition was framed with the tagline: “Landfill to Landscape.” And we did choose to question this brown-to-green premise.

Our inquiry was two-fold. First, we questioned a brief that wouldn’t grant that the landfill already had the status of a landscape; second, we questioned the boundary line of the project, which seemed to us to exacerbate the perception of the site as an inevitably closed figure — as the firmly defined entity it had long been. We asked, “How could this historically closed-off site open a public face to the community?” And we asked, “What exactly is the community here?”

We certainly didn’t know much about landfills or the science of landfills when we began the competition. They’re indeed a new landscape on the block. They behave in totally unpredictable ways. To us Fresh Kills was a fantastic, shifting landscape: it heaves and breathes and changes form. And yet, when you think “landfill,” you think of something very fixed and definite.

“Surface,” a proposed calendar of events, from the 2001 Fresh Kills: Landfill to Landscape competition.

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.

Given our interest in process, some have criticized us for having no interest in material intervention, in actual building. That is certainly not how we see it. For Fresh Killls, we felt that what we proposed was more real, more pragmatic, than anything that a singular image or plan could capture, especially in the wake of 9/11, which occurred a few days after our site visit. This event shook so many things that we take for granted, including Fresh Kills itself, which was reopened as a forensic laboratory to work through the remains of the disaster.

SS + NP: Much of your work is speculative and remains unbuilt. Yet it’s increasingly influential. SOAK, for instance, was a major exhibition in India, and it was well covered by the international press. To what extent do you think your work — not just specific projects but also your approach — is influencing pedagogy and practice? How do you define the success of a project?

AM + DD: Design, in the largest sense of the word, implies a material transformation. And like most design practices, we are definitely interested in effecting transformations. But these can be achieved in different ways. Material transformations can be achieved through the education of citizens or students who will as a result “make” things differently in the longer durée. Or they can be achieved if we are able to build any of the proposed projects for Mumbai, which are outlined in SOAK. Whether we are in control of the final form or someone else is in control, transformations can be achieved; and for us that is success. We want all our projects to have that kind of bandwidth, whether through teaching, outreach or building.

“Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary” was conceived as a civic exhibition and a design and planning strategy. The exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai at the start of the 2009 monsoon.

Let’s take the trench project, in SOAK, as an example. Here we propose the construction of a network of trenches that would disperse and collect monsoon waters — essentially a return to an older sensibility of accepting that the monsoon will affect large expanses of land, and as such a turn away from current efforts to control and delimit its affects. We don’t know how, if at all, one can gauge the impact of the trenches — what transformations they might bring about. But our goal is not only to ameliorate the problem of flooding in Mumbai but also to enhance the civic realm. And even more significantly, we hope to influence how people talk about and think about the seasonal monsoon, so that they would develop again what earlier generations had — an appreciation and even love of the monsoon as intrinsic rather than external to Mumbai’s landscape.

For us it’s also important to find ways to keep the questions open by consciously suspending the idea of “closure” or research “conclusions.” In fact, with every project it’s this precise question — is the project successful? — that raises yet more questions — which we take to the next project.

SS + NP: You’ve developed an array of highly personal and distinctive representational techniques. Is it important to present alternatives to conventional techniques? Is representational style important to recovering something remarkable in a landscape that might otherwise be seen as ordinary?

AM + DD: We never start by thinking that we are doing an “alternative” representation, or even a representation of something in the landscape. We start with very ordinary things, and we photograph, we draw, we dig into histories. Perhaps it is what we photograph, what we look at and research that makes the representations seem different — unconventional or even extraordinary.

And yes, to some extent, we also believe that representation ultimately is a personal act, an artistic enterprise. But here we do not see art as opposed to science; rather we see art as informing or even leading science.

Let’s take Bangalore, for example. If I say “Bangalore,” you would automatically think “city.” But we didn’t want to assume that Bangalore was just a city; we asked: “Is Bangalore a city or more than a city?” And in fact we found plural narratives and parallel practices, and we then challenged ourselves to find ways to represent these. Or in the case of Mumbai — the image of Mumbai has been fixed for a long time: Mumbai is an island city off the west coast of India. For more than 200 years, starting in the 18th century with British surveyors, scholars and administrators, Mumbai has been first envisioned and then constructed and engineered as an island, a piece of land separate from the sea — a fair-weather landscape where the monsoon is feared and unwelcome — except as a means to fill distant but always inadequate reservoirs.

“Sections of Mumbai,” (right), show the gradient of the land-sea interface; this is posited against the popular image of Mumbai as an island city (left).

In SOAK we argue that the flooding that occurs with every monsoon is not simply a natural event, or a failure of engineering infrastructure, or a failure of civic vigilance. The flooding is a consequence of this history of visualization, and the constructions that follow. And this reading of the terrain, which is rooted in the city’s history, continues on in contemporary interpretations and in visions for the city’s future, which perpetuate the idea of an island-city that must do seasonal battle against the waters of both the monsoon and the sea.

SOAK is an effort to offer another reading, another visualization. People in Mumbai — like people everywhere who live along rivers and coasts — have come to depend upon flood control and drainage infrastructure — to depend upon engineers to construct a bulwark against water. So we propose imagining — and imaging — the city of Mumbai not as an island periodically attacked by floods but rather as an estuary that will seasonally soak, a place where the sea and the monsoon are perceived not as invaders but as insiders.

So our drawings often straddle the worlds of art and information communication; and they are indeed both. For us they are works of art and they are narratives, visual essays about the places we’ve researched. And though they are not always done with the intention of implementing the project, they do often construct the ground for projects.

View Slideshow

Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha in conversation with Nicholas Pevzner and Sanjukta Sen, “Preparing Ground,” Places Journal, June 2010. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Kunal Ghevaria

    06.30.2010 at 10:27

    Thanks for the great writeup. I was lucky enough to catch Dilip da Cunha's SOAK tour at the NGMA in Mumbai, and must say that the conceptualization and design of the exhibit were wonderfully thought out and executed. One of the few world-class exhibits I've seen in India. The book is great too.

    I'm glad Design Observer is doing more global coverage now!