Together with colleagues from Kathmandu University’s Centre for Art and Design – Sujan Chitrakar - and with Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture – Arunava Dasgupta from the Department of Urban Design – Shaping Asia-co-speaker Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius has been granted funding that will allow for an inter- and transdisciplinary exchange of students, faculty, museums and non-governmental institutions around the topic of Urban transformation and placemaking: Fostering Learning from South Asia and Germany. The DAAD will fund this initiative in their framework Promotion of Subject-Related Partnerships with Institutions of Higher Education in Developing Countries from 2020-2023. In Heidelberg, the project is located at CATS/HCTS and will be part of the Shaping Asia networking initiative.
The multi-sited network pays particular attention to the study of urban responses to the interconnectivity of natural and man-made crises in cities, e.g., earthquakes, climate change, migration, endangered heritage and cultural diversity. A focus on placemaking, that is, how people shape their urban habitats and everyday worlds in cities, is especially promising for such an approach. To explore this in a multidisciplinary, comparative and connective way is a major goal of this triangular partnership. Thematically seen, the comparative lens on Delhi and Kathmandu contributes to better understanding of intra-Asian urban transformation without reducing the cities to the often attributed stereotypical ‘chaos’. Delhi and Kathmandu are contact zones for a wide range of communities from varying ethnic and geographic origins.
Along with this, the mobile population of migrants and visitors, both domestic and foreign, makes these cities receptacles of cultural and social diversity. Across the wide spread of these metropolises, the multi-layered physical and social fabrics of the city is characterized by distinctive zones of concentrations of urban life and heritage, e.g., mansions (havelis) in the historic town of Shahjahanabad in Delhi or Buddhist compounds (bāhāḥ,bahi) and arcaded rest houses (pati) in the royal quarters in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. Each of these identifiable zones with their local histories has shaped diverse identities that these historic cities unfold as resourceful. Through this, both in Delhi and the Kathmandu valley, many of the erstwhile traditional neighbourhoods have been steadily giving way to new public spaces, gentrification and ‘modernisation’, the idea of neighbourhood, the design of heritage areas, suburban areas and even slums. In such areas, as the old is transformed in terms of its apparent function and relevance, new populations (in Kathmandu from the hills and plains, in Delhi from the country-side and other towns) bring in new aspirations, sensibilities, living narratives and practices of placemaking.
With respect to this subject-related partnership, the following questions are then relevant: How do cities in South Asia change and how can we learn from them in comparison? Can Kathmandu be seen as a ‘Delhi in the making’? How can a perspective from the ‘Global North’ help to better understand urban transformation and placemaking in relation? Such a multilateral network of learning from South Asia and Germany does not exist so far and will be the DNA of our respective curricula and jointly developed modules.
This partnership will jointly explore how institutions of Higher Education can respond to the ways in which cities in South Asia and Germany are shaped and transformed, how and what can be learnt from their often-substantial changes. The aim is to train young generations of students and faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences as well as Art and Urban Design, to shape socially responsible and sustainable career paths by means of handling future-oriented questions and methodological challenges related to the ‘Urban Age’. For this, the partners will 1) proliferate inter- and transdisciplinary teaching and training for their respective established and new combined/interconnected curricula, 2) increase the international visibility of all partners involved Havel;is through the partnership's unique thematic, multi-methodological and multidisciplinary character, and 3) strengthen the Higher Education infrastructure in their institutions and beyond by collaboratively building an open access online archive located at Kathmandu University.
Structurally and methodologically, the three partners have been carefully selected not only to strengthen each other’s position in their national context but also to sharpen their educational profile and cooperation internationally. Each partner brings a particular regional and disciplinary expertise and a bridging element by means of a curriculum that invites collaboration and exchange:
By carefully interrelating the three sites of institutional learning, this subject-related partnership jointly develops a model of new and interrelated curricula (MA, MFA, MUD) beyond thinking within national and disciplinary boundaries. One connecting approach in the program will be the use of collaborative methods of mapping, art production and curation as well as ethnography (field-work with participating observation). The consortium organises joint fieldwork excursions, collaborative writing and curation experiences for students and faculty. Teamwork in Nepal and India will also be based on ethnographic documentation, mapping and micro-space design projects. New collaborative modules will facilitate the partnership’s sustainability.
Another approach is that of collaborative archiving and digitising: The planned Digital Archive for Comparative Urbanism (DACU) is an open access online database, jointly built up for research-based learning. This approach enables teachers and students of this partnership to respond to the challenges of globalising career-paths in Higher Education. Thus, while remaining strong in their individual disciplines the partners will collectively provide sustainable unique transdisciplinary study profiles, attractive for local and international students and with emphasis on collaborative and applied learning and transfer.
Thematic and Method-Based Profiles of the Partner Institutions
The partners’ methodological and conceptual strengths towards the partnership underline the collaborative nature of the project. All engage with questions related to ownership and belonging, making and changing place through people and diverse forms of knowledge in everyday lives.
Delhi: Whose City? Neighbourly Association and Urban Transformation
The contributions from SPA are manifold and rich. Over more than a decade, the Department of Urban Design has developed fine-tuned tools to orient students to the importance of doing outdoor research and train them to engage with everyday urban lives over many years. However, there is still a lack of students and faculty trained in transdisciplinary approaches, and there is a growing need to learn from other institutions in South Asia and Europe.
The focus for joint fieldwork and teaching is on the way communities can claim, retain and make places of belonging in a rapidly changing city. In most traditional settlement fabrics, the ‘street’ has remained the social space of community life for centuries, where the private worlds of families gave way to the public sphere of the community. The collective association and connected meanings of spaces of dwelling intertwined with the dynamic public life of surrounding urbanity become the foundation of community belongingness and social cohesion. This forms the connective thread weaving the social and physical fabrics of our cities.
However, over time, the processes that determined the making of physical environments, for example the joint family as the primary social unit, have either eroded or been replaced with emerging patterns of change. New populations, speculative real estate pressures, commercialization of residential areas, dying industries, and gentrification have added to alterations and transformations to older neighbourhoods. Such juxtapositions of the old and new in terms of social flows and urban form result in a condition of mix and increasing heterogeneity in an already diverse scenario. Whom do these places now belong to? How does placemaking happen in a mixed multi-faceted group of urban dwellers? Who is included and who excluded in the occupation and use of spaces with the altered complexion of social structure? How is the ‘new’ neighbourhood defined now?
The key area where students will be trained through the tested joint module is the 15th century Mughal city of Old Delhi. Known as Shahjahanabad, this was a city of havelis (mansions), katras (housing clusters), kuchas (residential alleys), galis (lanes) and mohallas (neighbourhoods) to be seen as physical counterpart of the social content of the city. From the idyllic walled city for a flourishing empire of the past to one of the largest centres of commerce in the Asian sub-continent, comparable to Kathmandu, Old Delhi encapsulates urban transformative forces that mega-cities in this part of the world have confronted and offers invaluable lessons of change and adaptation. It is important to re-visit such local urban references to study and learn for future habitations, to re-orient educational perspectives towards these enriching sources of knowledge systems that are today more relevant than ever before.
Heidelberg: Knowledge Shapes the City
The aim of this focus is to further differentiate and expand the curricula of various Masters at Heidelberg through courses on urbanization, migration and mobilities. This requires a multi-disciplinary approach and systematic collaboration with universities in South Asia to ensure the best training for the internationally and disciplinarily diverse students at Heidelberg University.
HeiU offers two foci for curriculum development and faculty/student training. One is the rich expertise in Digital Humanities and online database development, especially the database on urban endangered heritage in Nepal (NHDP). Another focus is the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Heidelberg, a planning tool that seeks pioneering solutions for complex urban design and societal challenges for an open society. IBA’s theme is Wissen/schafft/Stadt, with subthemes relevant for the partnership: Learning spaces, knowledge city of tomorrow, connectivities and coproduction. Here, visions for the future knowledge city are tested by means of experimental and site-specific case studies. Of key importance is the concept of diverse sites of knowledge (including sites of memory) that shape a city. Collaboration with IBA enables the partnership to explore what planning and participatory procedures for the Global South context (selected projects, e.g., migrant housing, street art).
Kathmandu: Communities, Creativity and Heritage
Kathmandu University’s Department of Art and Design has been instrumental in shaping Nepal’s creative industries. While it has been successful in recruiting educators and shaping students who have contributed significantly to diverse fields from literature and art to product and community space design, the institute has had limited success with building a strong system that supports research-based knowledge creation. Higher Education in this field would substantially profit from systematically collected data on historical and contemporary issues related to art, heritage and urban change.
With the partnership, it hopes to: 1) build institutional capacity in the formulation and implementation of documentation, research, digitising and archiving practices into its curriculum; 2) support a group of research-oriented faculty members; and 3) build a local, national and international network of experts and consultants. The resultant knowledge base will be used to inform the critical tools that challenge and examine existing trends within Nepal’s haphazard modernization process; recall traditional design and intangible use of public spaces; and present sustainable and inclusive alternatives to current building approaches. Here, KU will profit from the material and archiving experience collected and shared by HeiU’s Nepal Heritage Documentation Project (NHDP) since 2018.
Three forms of heritage and community construction impact KU’s thematic focus: A central site of KU-based work is Itumbaha, one of the 18 former Buddhist monastic compounds (including residential and public sites from the 11th century) in Kathmandu. Since 2000, and especially after the 2015 earthquake, it has witnessed a strong out-migration of its traditional inhabitants while new migrants moved in, contributing to changes to its community spaces and architectural structure. How has this dense urban centre adapted to changing populations, religious, political and economic transformations? How have neighbourhoods changed, how can we learn from Old Delhi’s local transformation? To address such questions, a framework for harnessing multi-disciplinary expertise from fields like architecture, art, urban design, geography and anthropology is needed.
Another field site for the partnership is Sunakothi, a small farmer’s town south of Patan known for its outstanding Newar architecture. Due to plans of road-widening and ‘modernisation’, the town is undergoing considerable transformation. Local initiatives have begun to resist the demolition of built heritage and seek to revive shrines and resthouses. This brings in the third type of fieldwork sites: arcaded resthouses (pati), a unique type of semi-public urban life that is still strongly connected to monastic courtyards and public squares, to intangible heritage such as processions and other religious rituals. How such urban forms contribute to community-building and how they can be sustained is the leading question here that will be explored in concrete applied restauration projects on the site.
Members of the Thematic Partnership
Sujan Chitrakar, Centre for Art and Design, Kathmandu University, Nepal
Arunava Dasgupta, Department of Urban Design, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, India
Christiane Brosius, Visual and Media Anthropology, Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg, Germany