Talking with Reena Tiwari: the symbolism of architecture should be social

Monday, May 9, 2011 12:34

Posted by Gricelys Rosario

To read this post in Italian click here: Intervista a Reena Tiwari: Il simbolismo dell’architettura dovrebbe essere sociale

In this interview architect Gricelys Rosario talks to urban designer Dr Reena Tiwari, Associate Professor in the Departments of Urban & Regional Planning and Architecture at Curtin University of Technology Perth (Western Australia) about the impact that the flux of cross-border and national migrants has on contemporary architecture and the role of architecture in building democratic societies.

© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

Dr Reena Tiwari spoke in a panel discussion with Riccardo Balbo, Mario Cucinella and Riccardo Vannucci during the 2nd edition of the Democracy Biennial held in Turin on April 16 2011, the conference was organized by the Fondazione OAT. Tiwari has carried out extensive research on Indian slums, and has realized urban design projects in her native country India, and with her university students in Perth in collaboration with architect VB Doshi, who is also Indian.

The work of Reena Tiwari is strongly focused on social involvement, building strong relationships with communities and analyzing the needs and functions of architecture with its users. Social participation is also a key element in all of her projects and Tiwari has gained international fame for implementing with success an approach PEP: Profile, Educate, Participate, which is replacing the so-called DAD: Decide, Announce, Defend.

Gricelys Rosario: The outlook for young people in Italy in terms of job opportunities is currently not bright, with architecture being a particularly difficult field. The country’s dire economic and political situation is constantly discussed and lamented, engendering a general lack of hope about the future.
Reena Tiwari: In terms of giving hope to young architects, I think the very fact that they are architects should give them hope. We are talking about a profession that deals with creating space, homes, places, and buildings, this alone should give you so much, not just in terms of satisfaction for object building, but in terms of realizing what a single person can do for others if done in the right way, and how architecture influences the social production of space and promotes the social relations within it.

Obviously, if you do a bad job – too bad! But, if you do a good job, then that is when architecture can make a considerable contribution to society building. Some of the problems related to the marginalized and urban poor in our cities could be resolved with minimum positive actions of architects, if only we – as architects – were more aware of our responsibility then we could help the needy much more through positive and honest decisions.

GR: Talking about social responsibility, you have conducted extensive research on slums in India. To some extent slums in India and Latin America share a common condition, which is that slum dwellers tend to migrate towards first world countries (in the case of Latin America to the USA). Once arrived at their destination immigrants follow similar patterns: they work in the informal economy, out of state control, and are therefore unable to reinvest their earnings in their host countries. So, they send their money back home to improve their families economic situation and to build the ‘home of their dreams’. In this context architecture is, once again, used to ‘raise’ people’s social statuses, despite in many cases its aesthetic incoherence and lack of market value. Yet, this type of practice is socially and politically incentivized as migrant remittances constitute the second largest financial inflow to many developing countries, exceeding international aid, and accounting for up to 20% of their GDP.
Do you think architecture could be used as an efficient social mediator between migrants and slums dwellers? In your view could architecture serve to create an identity within the slums, in order to change its relationship with the mainstream somehow?

RT: You have raised a couple of interesting issues. Number one: migration, be it within the country – from the rural to the urban areas – or be it transnational. We should first look at the root cause of it, which is migrants’ role in sustaining the rural economy within the nation or the local economy of cities, let’s say this is the first problem that should be addressed.

You talked about how the manifestation of their hopes is reflected in their architecture, which also speaks about their presumably increased social status in that particular society, but because it is informal, unrecognized, there is no buying and selling, and consequently no economical value attached to it. I think what we should be looking at is how the social acknowledgement of their architecture could create a different impact.

During election times in India it happens quite a lot that political parties visit the slums recognized within their formal political areas, shortly after the dwellers of these slums are relocated to more decent neighborhoods. Politicians engage in this type of operation to gain visibility and popularity, so their purpose is purely political. The outcome is good, because these families get to live in a better place, they have stability once they acquire land tenure and so they start investing in infrastructure and so on; so it is a practice that gives good results, but that sustains the wrong motivation.

There is a real need for social activism; we have to take part in educating the general public, whom has closed their eyes to what is going on, people continue to see slum dwellers as others. We have to highlight the problems of these slums, and not allow politics to hide them for voting reasons.


This issues need to be brought-up right in front of the public, so the mainstream is made aware of their duty in order to make a connected city – in terms of creating a connection between rich and poor. Positive actions in poor settlements translate into a more beautiful city for everyone, which benefits affluent citizens too, it is a win-win situation. The main challenge for responsible architecture and social activism is to start educating the public in order to bring these issues to the fore.

GR: You attended Koolhaas’ conference yesterday in which he mentioned the fact that migrant workers in Dubai send money home from their host country to build houses, and rhetorically asked “why is this not called democracy?”. Basically, in the current predicament you only get the right to own a property in a place where you don’t actually work or live. How can this be defined ‘democratic’?
RT: I think I got his point on this one a little bit, it could be called democracy, but as I said in my lecture today, it is a socially and economically constrained or conditioned democracy, due to the economic constraints. The people who migrate from India or elsewhere do so because they can’t get a decent job, because they can’t raise their families in India, so they are forced to migrate to Dubai in search for jobs, in search for money, however, they suffer because they are being exploited, herein lies the economic constraint. With their earnings they are able to give some kind of independence, some kind of a lifestyle, some kind of benefit to their families back home, so the worker’s child in India is able to get a decent education, therefore in a certain sense life is being made. So, there is an element of freedom in the way these people are spending their earnings. But, in order to achieve this freedom they are being exploited, that in itself is not democratic.

© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

GR: But they gain the power to decide?
RT: Yes, that is why I call it an economically conditioned democracy.

GR: Let’s assume the equivalent in Europe of the ‘Indian slums’ is public housing, subsidized by the government. Research in France and Italy reveals that there is a ‘transitory condition within it’, tied to the fact that residents don’t stay for long, most people live in public housing until they have saved up enough to move on to someplace better. As a result residents are less stimulated to improve their living environment. Do you think there is a similar situation in the Indian slums? If so, how have you dealt with it? Is there a way to make some kind of ‘democratic agreement’ which persuades people to raise the standards of shared spaces for the duration of their stay, or for those who will live there longer?
RT: Yes, I understand what you are saying. Since people who live in public housing are often in a transitory phase, they know that upon a betterment of their economic conditions they will probably leave, and therefore they lack that a sense of responsibility that comes with ownership. That it is why the maintenance in those particular of areas are often poor, in addition to this stigma is attached due to their sad state.

I think a couple of things can be done. For example, public housing is always built in certain dedicated areas, which leads to the stigmatization of the whole area. I think public housing should be dispersed, with other housing, so that there is a sense of ‘yes we’re living in a nice area!’ helping people to put something back in to it. Public housing in clustered locations is not the way to go, with dispersed public housing you can have different social and economic groups living together, that’s an ideal situation, but it never happens. Why? Firstly, wealthy people don’t favour it because they think is lowers the value of their properties and land, even though they rely heavily upon the everyday services, and help of these people.

So, if you were to make public housing in a ‘mixed’ way it would automatically become more livable and dignified. This could even ease the job of housing subsidies for the government who could ask the developers to subsidize at least 15% of the building. This could be a way to go.

GR: It would be ideal to get people involved in the social initiatives you mentioned earlier, but in Italy it’s very difficult to raise large-scale interest in public activities. There is a general lack of civic sense, and responsibility and action is largely left to the State. The concept of citizens acquiring their rights through duty hasn’t proliferated through society. What can be done to involve people in shaping the city they live in, and to raise public awareness about the power of society?
RT: I think this happens when people have been living in a particular situation for too long. They have got attuned to the idea that it’s the State’s responsibility, it’s a very top-down approach and they have got used to it. In this case people don’t see it as their right to comment on the kind of environment they live in. They are not accustomed to participating in any kind of decision-making, and they really don’t know what it means because they are so used to living in a certain way.

We, as architects, can actually start enacting change in this situation, that why I said in my lecture today that architects really have to play the role of educators as well, it is crucial to bring these issues to the public eye, and this is where we can contribute. I think that perhaps as educators architects will be able to start getting people involved.

© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

GR: You mentioned in your lecture that people are alienated, that slums dwellers are referred to as ‘others’. In Europe Arabic cultures are sometimes treated similarly, when people air derogative comments freely they are justified as criticism aimed at ‘other populations’.
RT: I think we can only speak of certain things – be it slums, Islam, or authoritarian regimes in China – once we have experienced them in person, we can only really speak as insiders, not as outsiders. If you don’t fully understand a particular situation, I don’t think you have the right to comment.

We are living in a culture of fear, a fear which has escalated since 9/11, the way cities have changed, the way our public spaces have changed equipped with surveillance cameras, big scanners, the X-ray machines, there is too much fear in our lives, we should perhaps take a step back and start looking at things in perspective. While doing this I think we should also encourage people’s individual lifestyle, people have the right to dress in the way they want to, to keep up with their traditions and cultures if they want to, but when they are living in a multicultural society it is also important not to create a cluster or a ghetto of their own, but to have links and open relationships with the rest of the society.

It’s good to have traditions, and to stick to them, but it is also very important to open out and start interacting positively with the wider community, that’s how the barriers will be broken, how gaps will be filled, and that’s the way fear could be lessened.


GR: In your research you talk about density, you propose intensive land use, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality of living spaces. But maybe cities as we perceive them, i.e. city center equals high density, will change. For example cities in the Gulf.
RT: Right. Actually interestingly enough one of my PhD students is working on ‘what is the optimal density?’ I believe it is the one which will make the area work sustainably. If you want an efficient public transport system – green transport – then you need to have optimal density to make that system feasible. The whole idea of nomadic settlements, people moving to one area to another, instead of congregating, is very interesting, that’s where we can start utilizing the potential of technology: we are talking about home as workspace, videoconferencing, shopping and so many other things you can do from home. There is a new kind of scenario where you could live somewhere else, work there and then according to your needs go to visit other places. It has its ups and downs of course, because we will be moving from a physical space to a virtual space, and mankind is ultimately a social animal, we need to have a social space that has this physical condition within it. Both these ideas are interesting; they could work together, a combination of the technological and the physical city with good, workable density.

GR: I would like to ask you the same question I asked Koolhaas yesterday: earlier this week Gustavo Zagrebelsky, president of the Democracy Biennial, published an article as a prelude to his lecture yesterday, in which he basically states that society is structured around three main functions: politics, economics and symbolism. But symbolism is the one that legitimates the other two. Obviously, architecture deals with the creation or interpretation of symbols. In your view are architects today free to build an architecture based on truly democratic symbols?
RT: That’s a tough one! I really don’t know the whole story, or the context, it’s a deep issue. I saw some protests yesterday about high-rise projects in Torino.

GR: This question is not related to the construction of a skyscraper in Torino. But the role of symbolism in architecture
RT: So my answer might be completely different. You mentioned symbolism and how it legitimizes the political and economical grounds of architecture to some extent, and I agree with that. But, one important fact which is missing from this is the social aspect, you mentioned economics and politics, but what about social values? Is a particular piece of architecture defining, symbolizing social values as well? This should be the question.

I don’t think we can change the way each person thinks, but I think as long as we architects are responsible, and our governmental structures are fashioned to aid and enhance a democratic process, then incorporating social symbolism is the only thing which we have in our hands, in our control, because we don’t have much else in control.

GR: Thank you for the talk.
RT: Thank you, I have to say I really enjoyed your questions.


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3 Responses to “Talking with Reena Tiwari: the symbolism of architecture should be social”

  1. Marcia Caines says:

    May 9th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    Q&As with Indian urban expert Dr.Reena Tiwari on the role of architecture in building democratic societies:

  2. Prashant Rao says:

    May 9th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    The role of architecture in building a democratic society. Interesting read

  3. Anna Carbonell says:

    May 9th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    Talking with Reena Tiwari: the symbolism of architecture should be social

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