What makes a city a home?

What makes a city a home?

As I continue refining my research question, I begin to dig into the heart of the problems I was looking at — the tension of history and progress. And in my lament over the loss of historical markings of a place in its becoming a city, I discover that it is these features that make it a home.

The vernacular architecture of places are the inherited built environments that its people grow up with. These places are occupied, inhabited, lived, breathed, seen, touched, walked, heard, etc. etc. I recall returning home during the summer and winter breaks, and each time something changes. Or many things changes. New buildings constructed, old ones demolished, New roads paved, old streets cleared. The loss of familiarity was unsettling, as if I was losing my home.

Tying my topic of interest with my discipline, I wish to investigate and dissect the vernacular architecture of Chinese cities, and contrast those with the new built environments. Looking to the structure and program adjacency, I hope to understand how architecture creates a social identity.

At this stage of the project, I believe a fruit of this is a collection of analytical drawings and photos of housing in the cities I visit. As well as a contextual consideration of the community, and consider the differences between a city like Suzhou vs. Shenzhen.

In essence, this is a project that seeks to understand the notion of home. Chinese cities, facing urban migration and economic development, may begin to take new forms. Yet, should we let go of the local built heritage in face of this?

Still in NY

Baboon and Young (1951) shows Picasso’s power of metaphorical transformation at its height. Now please look closer…” I stopped paying attention to the audio guide. Here I was in MOMA, trying to navigate a room swarmed with visitors speaking many different languages, and despite all the bustle and buzz I felt a pause, a little suspension. An unexpected giggle took over me.

Baboon and Young, 1951 by Pablo Picasso

Picasso is known for his love of animals, but as far as I know he never had a baboon. He had, however, a little Claude, who filled his world with games and child paraphernalia. Using two toy cars, one upright, other upside down, Picasso perceptively composed the face of a primate. Framed by two protuberant ears made of cup handles, the striated car hoods became an amusing snout under the windshield eyes. In the back, a car spring was made to stem from the body-jug in the shape of a tail that helps support the bronze sculpture’s weight.

Assembling familiar objects into new possibilities, Baboon and Young plays the line between the artist and the hacker, reminding us that forms of resourceful repurposing exist everywhere. And yet, these practices can be recognized and valorized in very different ways depending on a number of circumstantial factors, such as their institutional framings, the functions they achieve, our expectations about their authors’ creative abilities, or the materials involved.

If that baboon I saw is not jugaad, what separates the two?

Exploring The Sacred Art of Tibet


My ticket to New Delhi and Ladakh is booked, and I’m super excited. I will be in New Delhi for two weeks, and then will be going to Ladakh for two weeks, at the far north of India next to Tibet.

What I have been lately pondering about is the importance of actions for depicting particular ideas. It’s hard to think about ideas that are not manifested in the outer world and just live in someone’s mind. In terms of religion, is one’s beliefs manifested through prayer, performing rituals, and their actions revolving around the religious theme? If that so, what is then the role of the material dimension of religions such as relics, functional or nonfunctional objects, and sacred art?

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a monolithic god and in the basis development of their religion is their holy text. Buddhism lacks personal or the creator God, and hence the relationship is not with the divine but with the self and the environment/others. My main question is how Buddhism’s religious groups and branches were sustained after the death of Buddha? What has been the role of sacred art in the process of spreading Buddhism? In the book “The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning” by Denise Patry Leidy, I have been learning about tracking the architecture style, sculptures, and paintings back to when Buddhism was spread in the neighbor regions of northeastern India, from East Asia to Afghanistan and Persia.

What I do want to explore in this research, through reading books and going to the location, is to examine the role and importance of sacred art and rituals in the development and spread of Buddhism. If such things (sacred art) did not exist and came to being, would there still be such strong influence for Buddhism? Reading about the Buddhist ideas and how they actualize their ideas through performing rituals is the first step, and then by going to numerous different temples in New Delhi and Ladakh, I can feel the scale of this importance and necessity in sustaining their religious beliefs.

Kolkata’s three Chinatowns

This title is perhaps more a provocation than an accurate statement. It is probably truer to say that Kolkata has only one Chinatown in the central area – and it is dwarfing. Yet Kolkata does have three distinct areas that keep a close relation with the Chinese migrants and Chinese Indians of the city: Chinatown, Tangra, and Achipur. Today’s post is about these spaces, and how they fit into the broader history of the Chinese diaspora in India. I base my account largely on a work by Zhang Xing and Tansen Sen[1].

Let’s begin with Achipur, since its history goes back to the first Chinese colony in India. Achipur is the name of the land given in the 1778 to the Chinese tea trader Yang Dazhao, nicknamed Atchew, by the British Governor-General of India Warren Hasting. Well connected with the British rulers, Atchew decided to use the land to produce sugar, and inaugurated a mill that would soon recruit Chinese workers brought by Atchew. While there were Chinese people living in Kolkata (then Calcutta) and other cities, especially after the increase of trade routes between Guangzhou (then Canton) and European cities via India, Achipur is the first instance of commissioned Chinese labor force migration that settled in a colony. Achipur, which is located roughly 20 miles from Kolkata, became nowadays a main pilgrimage destination of the Chinese diaspora in India, especially during the Lunar New Year. Reconstructed in 2004, the horseshoe-shaped tomb of Atchew still stands in Achipur, so does the Bogong-Bopo temple which is one of the oldest Chinese temples in India. The memory of Achipur acquired a religious connotation as this mythic pioneer figure is now perceived as a collective ancestor.

Chinese New Year celebration at Achew's Grave, Achipur © Rangan Datta | Flickr

Chinese New Year celebration at Achew’s Grave, Achipur © Rangan Datta | Flickr

The Chinese living in Kolkata formed over time what one can call a Chinatown in the Bowbazar area in central Kolkata. Cantonese, Hakka, and a smaller number of Fujianese people residing in Kolkata in the second half of the 18th century soon built temples and other sort of associational spaces. Other cities also testified to the emergence of Chinese communities nuclei, such as in Mumbai. In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, these communities grew in number and become more and more noticeable. Also, Chinese from different region of origin started migrating to Southeast Asia, as people from the Shangdong and Hubei provinces in the first half of the 20th century. Curiously, distinct Chinese groups based on region of origin in China specialized in different economic activities: Cantonese were commonly carpenters, Hakkas shoemakers and tannery workers, Hubeinese dentists, and Shangdong people were silk traders.

Yet another space in Kolkata concentrated many Chinese migrants and maintains part of this legacy, namely Tangra. Given that the Hindu caste system proscribes works with leather to all but the untouchables, Hakkas specialized in two occupational niches: shoemaking in central Kolkata and later also tanning in the Tangra region. Both areas in Kolkata testified to the growing of the Chinese community in numbers, ethnic associations, religious temples, Chinese schools etc.

Chinese façade in Tangra, Kolkata © Flippy Whale | Flirck

Chinese façade in Tangra, Kolkata © Flippy Whale | Flirck

Of all three spaces, perhaps only central Kolkata’s Chinatown still remain an area of concentration for the Chinese diaspora living in the city.

[1] Xing, Zhang and Tansen Sen. 2012. “The Chinese in South Asia.” Pp. 205-26 in Handbook of the Chinese Diaspora, edited by Tan Chee-Beng. London and New York: Routledge.

geographies of improvisation

As a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the New School for Social Research, I have been developing a project about idioms of improvisation and ad-hoc repair in Brazil, and the ways in which these ideas have been taken up by designers, artists, and hackers to imagine alternative engagements with technology. What kind of society would this be if all of us had repairing and recycling skills? What if objects were not determined by their known uses but by their functional possibilities? What if we didn’t have to fix anything at all? These are some of the questions my informants ask. As a social researcher, my role is to critically contextualize these propositions, but I am also drawn to them in deep curiosity.

Over the past two summers, I conducted exploratory research in Brazil. In 2015, I did participant observation in Complexo do Alemão, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. With the help of Barraco #55, I looked at stories and processes around improvised repair with a particular focus on the recombination of objects beyond their original function. In 2014, I engaged with a number of hackers and activists in the São Paulo area who have been inspired by these precarious practices to articulate their own DIY approaches. Now, I am looking forward to extending the scope of my research and to open it to other comparable experiences of technological improvisation in the so-called Global South. With the ICI Starr Summer Travel Grant, I will be visiting India for the first time. My tickets are booked. Soon I will be traveling to Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru.

The Right To Hack The City?

Can the city be hacked like an iPhone can? If the city is already produced, then is this actually the best way for urbanites to reclaim agency, rather than fighting for their ‘right to produce the city’?

Clearly, Jordenn and I are still asking questions to try to get at the heart of our research question. In fact, after recently attending the Spatial Politics of Work weekend-long workshop with such an amazing group of scholars, researchers, and designers, I’ve only been asking MORE questions.

While on a FaceTime call with Jordenn, I filled him in on some of the major themes of the weekend, one of which being ‘hacking’. As I learned, hacking culture is huge in Shenzhen. This raised the question: what other than phones and computers can be hacked? A system? A building? What about the city?

This is right in line with our interest in the idea urban resistance, but we agreed that they are not necessarily one in the same. Nevertheless, this is the path we are taking for the time being.

Later that week, I received a few answers to my many questions in a thoughtful discussion I had with a friend I met at the workshop—artist, anthropologist, and longtime Shenzhen resident Mary Ann O’Donnell. When I told her about our desire to look at ways people are resisting, or hacking, the city of Shenzhen, she looked at me as if the answer was written on my forward. “The beauty of China is that its designed to be hacked.” She explained that so much of China—everything from cable TV to a water bill—is expected to be hacked into by its citizens, making it socially acceptable and common behavior. “Non-compliance is an art in China.” Mary Ann finished these statements by prompting me to consider how much of this is just “coping” rather than acts of resistance or defiance.

What a thought! This made me realize that we must question everything, even our own assumptions. Back to the drawing board for Jordenn and I…

Urban Growth Patterns

After the insightful seminars held last weekend, I find myself asking new questions on my research and navigating it in new directions.

Instead of trying to uncover the program adjacency of a village that may be developed into a steel-clad city like Shenzhen, why not look to urban developments that successfully retains their architectural heritage? This steered me to consider a comparative study of cities such as Shenzhen; Guangzhou and Suzhou; Hangzhou.

The former two are cities most recognized for their skyscrapers and rapid development. On the other hand, while the latter pair are also considered urban, their emblem as a protected heritage site allowed for a more considered urban growth pattern in which their vernacular architecture are retained.

Suzhou, a prefecture-level city, is protected with a UNESCO World Heritage Site seal. Similarly, Hangzhou, a sub-provincial division, is unanimously acknowledged for its landscape and architectural beauty. Both are economically strong. According to China Knowledge, Suzhou’s GDP “increased by 9.6% year on year to RMB 1.3 trillion, ranking first in Jiangsu province.” in 2013.  The same year, Hangzhou’s GDP “rose 8.0% to RMB 834.35 billion, ranking first in Zhejiang Province.” The stellar achievements of these two “culture hometowns” (“文化之乡”) suggest that steel-glass buildings are not the required hardware for economic success.

On the other hand, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are economically hubs which lack, at least architecturally, the preservation of history and heritage. I wish to find out more if this is the case.

While studying the two pairs I will not only consider their administrative status, but also their economic and social developments. What I am interested in is the growth pattern of a place, village or town or rural are, into a “city” — a functional, accessible, integrated habitat. Furthermore, is an official recognition, such as a UNESCO World Heritage Site label, is necessary for a place to protect its tangible cultural assets in face of urban development. Prof. Mary O’Donnell brought up Lijiang during our chat. It is the first place in China to receive UNESCO’s designation as a World Heritage Site. Yet, the influx of tourism has raised several economical and social problems such as gentrification. It is also here where I question what it means to be a city and whether cities can be grown organically. In other words, whether a place can develop into a city while taking into account its regional characteristics and preserving them. This is because these characteristics are attributed to the lifestyle and livelihood of the locals.

This evokes a secondary questioning: what power do and should the locals have over the development of their homes? In China, the development plans are almost exclusively in the hands of the administration. I want to find how much consideration is given to the people. As Prof. O’Donnell mentioned in the seminar, success in China is defined as the legitimacy of the government. The legitimacy of the government lies in securing the people’s lives. How this is achieved or defined remains to be investigated.


“Hangzhou (Zhejiang) City Information.” China Knowledge. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“Suzhou (Jiangsu) City Information.” China Knowledge. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Intro – Ethical Fashion

Hi everyone! 

I want to start by introducing myself and give you a bit of background info about me. My name is Sophie and I am a Junior/Senior in Integrated Design at Parsons. I am a proud Canadian, originally from Toronto. I am really excited to be travelling to India this summer to conduct research through ICI. I will be researching ethical fashion initiatives, something I have been very passionate about for a long time. I have always had an interest in fashion, and actually started at Parsons as a fashion design major. During that time, I found myself getting frustrated at many aspects of the fashion industry and I felt as though all I was doing was perpetuating the unsustainable cycle of fashion.  After my first semester of sophomore year, I decided to transfer to Integrated Design where I felt I would have the opportunity to study in a more trans-disciplinary way. And although I still love fashion design, I felt like I could learn to tackle these issues by studying sustainability, materials, ethics and business and how these all relate to fashion. 

The global fast fashion industry has created unequal and unfair wages, working conditions and lifestyles for the workers while also producing a lower quality product. Slow fashion allows the utilization of sustainable materials and more ethical working conditions while producing quality products that can be better marketed and sold. With the monopolization of GMO cotton in the global supply-chain, many are questioning the supposed advantages of GMO cotton in the fashion industry. My research will focus on the state of sustainable fashion in India, by looking at how local and global clothing retailers who operate in India, approach issues of sustainability, more specifically focusing on cotton. My studies in the Integrated Design program at Parsons have exposed me to a variety of courses such as Business Ethics, Global Issues in Design and Visuality in the 21st Century, Design Thinking Lab, Materials and the Environment that have expanded my curiosity about the production process of fashion and have probed me to ask the question: How might we integrate ethically grown cotton into our local/global supply chain?

My interest in this issue has thus expanded and, as I have done more research to understand the growing, harvesting, and producing facets of the cotton industry, I have realized that much of the cotton sourcing and production occurs in India. As a major hub for trade and production, focusing my research in India will allow me to explore cotton’s route from crop to commodity, allowing me to investigate local and regional offices of global manufacturers and the ways they are considering issues of sustainability and ethics. With this knowledge I hope to look at how local and global companies based in India could operate more sustainably and ethically, while still profiting and expanding as a business.

In order to accomplish this goal,  I plan to visit with the emerging class of young fashion designers who are committed to sustainability and ethical practices. I want to understand how they operate sustainably and see what models and systems they have in place to ensure ethical and sustainable standards. I want to find out more about how they developed their businesses to be sustainable. What was their reasoning to develop their business to operate sustainably? Was it always their goal to operate sustainably or did they evolve into practicing more sustainably? In addition to sustainable practices related to cotton, do they practice sustainability in other ways? Are they concerned with providing fair wages and good working conditions for their workers? I want to look at their business model and supply chain to see how it might compare to those of a company with no commitment to social responsibility. I want to see what we can learn from the operations of sustainable companies based in India. Though this research, I will evaluate the successes of these companies’ processes and also how they could be improved in hopes to design solutions to some of the problems uncovered during this research.

In addition to learning about the ways companies are behaving and researching what efforts have been made, I will also be examining the market for such a field within India. In order to understand this, I plan to interview shoppers and experience shopping experiences first hand. Is there a market in India for ethically produced clothing? Is sustainable fashion popular in India? What other parts of the world do these companies sell to? Does the average Indian consumer care about sustainability? Is the customer aware of the materials used in their clothing? Is the vendor aware of the background of their goods? What is the demographic of the consumers who care about ethically and sustainably produced cotton goods? Who does not care?

Ultimately, I will use this research to propose systems in which we can design and produce more ethically and sustainably. I plan to learn from these companies and bring my research back with me to integrate into my own design practice.

All in all, I hope to keep this blog fairly informal and honest and show you all how things evolve over the course of this process. Please comment with any questions or suggestions you may have for my time in India!

~ Sophie

Designing for Change

There are an estimated 20 to 65 million citizens in India trafficked into forced labor, according to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. Of these, millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking. This issue continues due to rises in increased mobility and growth in industries that use forced labor. Many of the victims are children—and children, in any case, are the future of any society.

In addressing this problem, I’m very fortunate to be traveling to India this summer as a part of a larger ongoing project, beyondABC, with Kate Wallace and Keiji Kimura. As a previous ICI Fellow, Kate traveled to India and researched youth trafficking and exploitation. Moving forward with Kate’s research we are exploring ways to educate at-risk youth about trafficking and exploitation through a fun and interactive approach. As a collaboration, we are looking at this through different lenses within our field of expertise to address the issue.


Realizing that the issues may be on the systemic level, we still want to provide education and equip youth with tools and knowledge about their situation to prevent them from being susceptible to trafficking and exploitation. Through small change and aspiring youth to dream about their future is my goal. As the future of their society, they are key to the success to their lives.

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We are all dreamers, shaping and shifting our very world through imagination and creativity. Tackling everyday problems to much larger issues, we use design in different ways to gain insight, discover new ways of thinking and seeing, and to problem solve. It is not to say that design is the answer to our problems, but it is another way to look at the world.

To design is to dream.

in search of the big small

Ice white, glass windowed, with simple lines and square round corners. It could be just another high-tech gadget, but it’s a clay fridge. An affordable, durable, clay fridge that keeps water fresh, as well as perishables, without using electricity. Commercialized in India since the mid-2000s, the Mitticool was the result of ingenious make-do design. Many other devices have recently been developed in the spirit of practices like jugaad – a colloquial Hindi term for quick fixes and improvised solutions with whatever is at hand – in the belief that these frugal and flexible inventions have the potential to respond to the toxic exhaustion of our current modes of production and consumption. As waste accumulates, and the world turns poorer and more unequal, and climate and finance reveal themselves as less predictable than we once believed, notions of sustainability, resilience, and improvisation gain an urgent appeal. Could it be that these modest, localized practices hold keys to titanic, global challenges?


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