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Jack of All Trades

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Vishaan Chakrabarti speaks with inter·punct about urbanism and architecture's societal obligations.

For additional information and to view Vishaan’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: The last time you visited Carnegie Mellon was back in October 2013 for the launch of your book, A Country of Cities, a manifesto for sustainable urbanism. Since then, you’ve left SHoP and founded your own practice, the Partnership for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU). What are the priorities and agendas for PAU and how are they different from what you’ve done previously?

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
Well the priority of PAU—our basic agenda—is to advance enduring civic architecture and strategic urbanism. We’re a firm fully dedicated to the advancement of cities, but we focus primarily on cities in democratic or non-autocratic nations, and we try to work for clients who employ good labor practices with a belief in transparency and accountability. What we’re doing is in some ways just as important as what we don’t do—we’re not doing any single-family residences, we’re not doing correctional facilities, and we’re not working in countries where they use slave labor. We really want to take a fairly definitive stand towards working exclusively in mature, growing, democratic, transparent cities and helping them advance a certain kind of urbanism.

i·p: Does that preclude you then from working in contexts such as China?

We are not working in China right now and we are not pursuing work there. I just want to be clear, I have Chinese friends, I’ve been to China many times; I have nothing against China. But quite a famous architect walked up to me a few months ago and said, “I’m designing four museums in China,” and I said, “Oh, that’s great, what’s going to be exhibited there?” And he said, “I have no idea.” I find this to be shocking—the idea that you would design an opera house that doesn’t have an opera company. In my mind at least, this turns architecture into just another consumable good.

i·p: Is this the space where you see architects as having the responsibility and the agency to have influence over the built environment?

I’m not naive enough to believe that just because I won’t take a certain kind of commission, that others won’t. But, I do believe that issues like the labor conditions in the Arabian peninsula are extraordinarily serious, and just because someone is willing to build a big spaceship in the sand somewhere doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for architects to do.

There’s a larger issue here—I hear architects complain all the time about how they have no power or agency, and I think much of it is because the general public is very confused about where we stand. When the leaders of our profession go off and take no responsibility for the commissions that they do—disavowing projects that are hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars over budget—you can’t sit there and complain about the powerlessness of the architect. We have to take some responsibility for our actions. Part of why I like working in democracies isn’t just because of a certain preference for political systems, but it’s because there is a sense of accountability. I want our work to be held accountable by the general public, and I’m not sure when that got substituted for “bureaucracy.” It’s a fundamental social obligation that we have, and I believe that even in that context, we can do great work and groundbreaking design.

i·p: With your diverse background from working at SOM, in City Planning, at Related Companies, Columbia and SHoP, is PAU an architecture firm, an urban design firm, an advocacy firm, a consultancy, a development firm, or all of the above?

We don’t do development, but we probably do everything else on that list. This is a very common question we get: are we an architecture firm or a planning firm? To me, this is like asking if I use my left eye or my right eye: we see design as operating along a spectrum of scales, with an applicable process that operates across that continuum. What’s interesting to me is that these disciplinary divisions that you just mentioned, really, in my mind derive from the beginnings of postmodernism and the Reagan era, when the profession became much more specialized. If you reach back to the 1960s and early 1970s, you had groups and architects like Team X, Lluis Sert, Le Corbusier and the Smithsons that worked across architecture and planning, and operated at all different scales. I think our profession has lost this idea that we can operate at different scales, and so this is something we’re very much trying to do at PAU.

We’re successful doing this at PAU because of this diverse experience that you mentioned. We really have a quite utopian vision in terms of where we think a more equitable, more ecological city could bring society, but that utopian vision is forged in the white heat of experience. When you’re dealing with urban planning especially, both politics and economics are critical. We can’t afford to be willfully ignorant, which is often a fallback position among designers. To me, knowledge, constraints, an understanding of politics and the economy, race and diversity all play into our ability to read and write the city, and therefore be better architects and designers. We see ourselves ultimately as utopian pragmatists.

i·p: Who are some of PAU’s typical clients, or who would your ideal clients be? What kinds of projects are you working on right now?

We have a great set of clients right now, some of whom I can mention and some of whom have asked to remain confidential, at least for the time being. We are working with Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, doing some very interesting research for them on the transformative impact of technology on urbanism. We are also doing a very significant planning and architecture project for a major client on the West Coast that has the potential for tremendous social impact, and a similar type project out here, in Newark, that spans the scale between architecture and planning. We’re doing some work for Two Trees, the New York developer. We are also in the running to do a major piece of work for a quasi-government agency here, and we’re certainly very interested in doing more cultural and institutional work.

What’s just as important I believe is that we have actually turned down quite a bit of work that I didn’t think was mission-consistent with PAU, largely in the luxury residential market. And again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of work, but I think the world is awash with people who could deliver a high price condo with a brand-name architect attached to it. You’re sitting at a major university, Carnegie Mellon, I teach at Columbia—most of the students that I know don’t aspire to do that kind of work. Maybe a few do, but most don’t. We’re trying to align our firm in some ways with the ethos of what we more often argue and think about in school—issues of the environment, how equity plays itself out, all those big questions.

i·p: What kinds of projects are you doing for those clients? Are they largely master planning? Is it building design? Is it research?

All of the above. We’re doing some straight up architecture, we’re doing some master planning. We generally only do master planning if ultimately we can be the architect for at least a piece of the master plan. Then some of the projects are pure research, in some cases without a site.

i·p: As you just mentioned, a fair amount of what you do with PAU is research, but you also are currently teaching at Columbia. What do you see as the distinction between your research there and the research you do at PAU?

Well, I’ve stepped down as the director of CURE, the Center for Urban Real Estate, in order to really focus my attention on PAU. So, the teaching I do at Columbia now is within a wonderful role as a Professor of Practice—I teach an advanced architecture studio in the spring and I teach an urban theory seminar in the fall, which I’m actually just starting to put together the syllabus for now. I’m sure there will be crossover between what I teach in that seminar, the focus of the studio and the research that we’re doing at PAU. That said, I think it’s important that your academic life and the life of your practice stay somewhat independent of each other. I’m not directly doing any research anymore at Columbia right now—I’m really focusing on the practice. Every once in awhile I think about doing some more formal writing, but I want to get PAU going in the right direction before I embark on something like that.

i·p: In your studio teaching, is the notion of interdisciplinarity between architecture, planning and development—which characterized your tenure as director of CURE—is that still a priority?

It’s really mainly an architecture studio that I teach now. I certainly welcome interdisciplinary thinking, and I think because I’m naturally interdisciplinary it spills into the studio, but it’s not really designed as the major focus.

i·p: What opportunities did you see in setting up an independent practice, and how do you think the practice has changed over the course of the past three years since we last spoke?

I think practice is changing dramatically. I have to answer this question rather broadly—I’m a child of the 90s in terms of architecture, and at that point it was very much a “more is more” culture. You saw these enormous projects go up—lots of exuberance in the architecture but with very little regard to societal need. I think with the onset of the new millennium, with 9/11, the Great Recession and climate change all hitting us with full force, that “more is more” attitude is shifting. If you look at the recent conversations, whether it’s in Shigeru Ban’s disaster relief work, or Aravena’s housing projects, I think there is a shift away from the notion that architecture is only about the shiny new bauble.

With PAU, I feel that we’re a very socially-driven practice, and of course, that has to start internally. I’ve never had and never will have an unpaid employee. We pay all of our people reasonably well—we have to start from inside if we’re going to have a claim to ethics outside. That’s a big shift, but I think it’s still a huge problem in the profession that students are graduating with lots of loans and are sold on underselling themselves in an effort to pad their resume and work for such-and-such a firm. That’s a huge mistake. Architects go through an enormously difficult education that’s time-consuming and resource-intensive, and they should get remunerated properly, at least within the marketplace. I think it starts there, but then extends into asking ourselves how we can have the social impact that we think about in school and that is part of the core humanist tradition of the field.

i·p: So you’re seeking to bridge the gap between what schools have often focused on and the realities of practice?

Absolutely, and that gap is enormous today.

i·p: How can we help raise the standards of the profession in the marketplace though? Is part of that convincing the public of the necessity of our services in order to raise wages and perhaps reclaim some of the agency that we’ve lost? Taking on more, instead of continually taking on less?

All of those things that you mentioned should be byproducts of the good work we’re doing. In other words, I don’t think you go into advocacy with the desire to raise the reputation of the profession, up wages, or improve its currency in the public eye. It’s really kind of the opposite—you do good work because you’re passionate about it.

In my mind, there are at least three massive geometric societal trends out there. You’ve got the wage gap that’s widening at an alarming rate, you have climate change, with the planet’s temperature shifting much more rapidly than what scientists predicted even a decade ago, and then there’s a third trend, the geometric increase in technological processing power, which is actually having a tremendous impact on our cities in all sorts of ways. Mies van der Rohe said that architecture should be of its epoch and should try to address the problems of its day—and in my mind, those are the real challenges of today.

As an architect, you shouldn’t run into the burning house thinking about the award you’re going to get because you saved the day—you should run into the burning house because you understand that the people in the house are in trouble. If you think about a doctor, a doctor doesn’t save a life because they’re hoping to get higher income. They’re doing it because they took the Hippocratic oath—it’s the core of their profession. We’ve got to reconstitute the notion of what an architect is supposed to be doing because it comes from the core humanist tradition. For many leaders in the field today, it has become more about chasing the largest commission with the biggest budget to get the most bling. When I talk to students, I don’t think that’s what inspires them, and it’s certainly not what inspires the public when they read front page articles about an architect’s project running an entire town into bankruptcy.

i·p: Do you think that this notion of architecture’s societal obligation is already starting to change as we’re being confronted with these issues?

I do, and I rest a lot of hope on your generation. As people are coming out of school, hopefully they’re shifting the way they think about all of these issues. And part of it has to do with your question about interdisciplinarity. I think that architects have to be Swiss army knives out there—they have to use their left brain and their right brain. This isn’t about sloganism. It’s about getting into the muck and the mire of it, which if you’re talking about infrastructure, or climate change, or social equity are issues that are incredibly challenging. We may fail more times than we succeed, and we may get reprimanded for those failures, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

i·p: In that regard, especially in western cities like New York City, you have the desperate need for public investment, particularly in infrastructure or transit. Just in New York for example, you have projects such as the new Penn Station, the Hudson River Rail Tunnels, the Second Avenue Subway, high speed rail… I could go on. With such limited political will, where should we place our priorities? What role in this political process do we have as architects, planners, and urban designers to push these projects forward?

I’m really glad you asked that question—it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I think we have an enormous role that plays out in different ways. Right now, we’re pursuing a major piece of transportation infrastructure in a public-private partnership that’s a potentially very important project. But beyond that, I also think we as architects can play advocacy roles on some of these large infrastructure issues because we’re trained to see the world differently than most professions. Because of the way we’re educated, we have an ability to synthesize a lot of strands of knowledge—design, urbanism, engineering, etc.—and pull them together in a different way. Sometimes that even means doing unpaid work in an advocacy role because as soon as you have a paying client in the mix, it becomes harder to do so.

i·p: You mentioned the topic of housing affordability, and de Blasio has made that a cornerstone of his mayorship in New York City. Simultaneously however, you also have the tremendous growth of shell companies buying ultra-luxury real estate and masking foreign wealth, as the New York Times revealed in a feature this past year. What responsibility do we as architects have as advocates for affordability? What do you think are the most pressing challenges for housing in New York City?

I clearly believe that we should be advocating for more affordable housing and especially mixed-income housing, a model I very much believe in. We also have to continue to explore construction technologies because the budget numbers around affordable housing are very, very difficult. That’s a piece of it for sure, but I’ve also recently been thinking a lot more about the notion that most cities today are spreading into a multi-nodal model, where there are many districts across the city where people can both live and work. There’s tremendous opportunity there in terms of making cities more affordable because it no longer becomes about the ease of trying to commute into the Central Business District, where so much of the cost of housing lies. That then helps to ease the stress on hub-and-spoke infrastructure systems and creates more affordability around those nodes, so people can walk to work, get their kids to school more easily, and get fresh food faster—almost a village-like existence.

As a result of this, in a lot more of the master planning work, I’m seeing much, much more mixed-use than we used to see before. Usually, if there was a big site available in the city, it almost always became this huge housing project, maybe with a set percentage for affordable housing. Now with mixed-use, in addition to that percentage for affordability, there are actually places where people can work, and a school, and stores where you can get food—because affordability isn’t just housing costs, it’s commuting costs, food access, everything.
Getting those nodes to operate more self-sufficiently I think is the real opportunity for housing affordability. The thing is, when you look at our most unaffordable cities—when you look at New York or San Francisco—the very heart of the city is going to be unattainably expensive for most people to live in. That’s even more true in San Francisco than it is for New York. So the question is, can you instead shift the balance so that living in central Manhattan or living in central San Francisco doesn’t have to be the only option to live a truly urban lifestyle.

i·p: How do we address the issue of foreign investment? With the Panama Papers and other revelations, we’ve seen the emergence of a global problem that crosses borders yet has a material impact on the day-to-day life in cities worldwide.

I’ve got to tell you on that one—I think it’s a completely overblown issue. Perhaps it’s a significant issue in London, which has become such a recipient of global investment that entire neighborhoods have gone dark because they’re second homes for people, but I think with New York and that New York Times story, it’s completely overblown. If you want to talk about the scale of those towers on 57th Street and so forth, fine. But a few thousand apartments here and there is simply not going to move the dial in a city of eight million people. Those shell companies—yeah, a lot of them are shady, but some are just people protecting their privacy because all of this information is now available to the media.

Put it this way—I tried to outline for you the major issues of the day, and I just don’t think that’s one of them. Take the wealth gap issue; I think in a city like New York, very little of the wealth gap is created because of foreign investment. The large majority of it is because New York has a ton of high earners in a variety of fields—particularly banking and real estate—and the compensation gap between those high earners and a school teacher or a janitor has gone up by an extraordinary number of multiples. That’s a much bigger issue than some foreigners buying apartments in New York City. At the end of the day, it’s a drop in the bucket.

This is what I mean about sloganism; I think we have to be very careful. As a progressive-minded person, we’ve got to pick our battles. There are things we’re going to be able to tackle and there are things we’re not going to be able to tackle as architects. We have to be careful and avoid histrionics. That four or five part series in the New York Times about this issue—that was completely histrionic, and there was largely no news in any of that. It was largely just polemics. This is where I think we have to be careful not to get distracted.

i·p: I’ll ask one last concluding question. In your opinion, what do you think that architecture and design specifically can contribute in tackling these difficult urban issues, and how do you see yourself working between these disciplinary boundaries as creating conditions where design can have an impact?

I think that design has an impact at all scales. Again, it’s about reading and writing a place, and so design does a number of things, from creating civic delight—really important in terms of making cities places where people actually want to be—to creating what I call discursive space, or public space that encourages serendipity—the ability to protest or engage in civil dialogue. I think design also has a huge role to play in terms of infrastructure and climate change, but also affordability, as we were just discussing. And finally, I think we should think about design in the broadest terms. During the course of a day, I often go from the design of an elevation on a building or an entrance, to designing a legal system or a financial system for a site. I like thinking about design across a broad spectrum, which might be really specific to us, but is something that I really cherish about the field. Design is fundamentally about conjecture; it’s thinking about a future that doesn’t exist. The scale of that conjecture can manifest in all sorts of different ways—it can be at the scale of the building, the scale of the street, the scale of public space, or even at the scale of geopolitical systems. Being able to traverse those scales, really is my main goal and the trajectory of PAU.