“…such signs… such buildings!”

Casual Observations of Abu Dhabi’s Quiet Ambition

Kahira Ngige (MUP '19)

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Collage by Kahira Ngige

1. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are twin cities. Like twins, casual observers are shocked when they display divergent personalities. Dubai is ‘bling’, Abu Dhabi ‘underrated’. Both cities are notable for being casually obliterated by David Harvey.

2. I treated coming to the Gulf with a mix of Denise Scott Brown’s bemused snobbery (Vegas!) and Mike Davis’ “arch sensibility” (LA!). In the preface to the second edition of Learning from Las Vegas, Scott Brown argues that the whole point of the book “reassesses the role of signs in architecture.” In essence, she demands that architects take a back seat to pop culture.

3. Abu Dhabi is neither Vegas nor LA. As a national capital, it is self-aware (in a way Dubai is not). Here, symbolism is important, represend by Jean Nouvel’s world in miniature under a sublime dome at the Louvre, Ferrari World in Ferrari Red, and Foster’s mendacious World Trade Centre. In Abu Dhabi, architecture is ‘dumbed down’, meaning it can be literal. However, it can also escape that symbolism. Downtown Abu Dhabi is gridded with pastel colored blocks, Gulf post-modernism built for oil. Beyond this core is the new Abu Dhabi comprising themed islands and hyper-speed technological determinism built for an age without oil.

4. Abu Dhabi isn’t merely an idea in the making (its overall vision to be determed). Rather, it is the constant rewriting of history. Downtown, demolitions of the candy colored old (built circa 1970) and the banal (souks) is common. The Gulf is after all, America - built to British standards. 20th century sins are magnified here and so is constant reinvention. Unsurprisingly, fast food is the glue that binds together this two-tiered nation of citizens (those that belong) and expatriates (those that never will).

5. Unlike LA, freeways in Abu Dhabi offer no pop cultural insights. Driving on a freeway does not make one more at ease with the local vernacular or even attempts to capture that local vernacular. Metaphors in Abu Dhabi are plain in that they are not metaphors at all. A shopping mall is a public space.

6. Abu Dhabi may not be a complete living theme park. However, like one it offers timed entry.

7. Unlike most nations, the UAE does not demand assimilation. There is no test of Emirati values. Yet, bar tourists, all of us are here in the service of the nation. Renier de Graaf, in jest, captured the spirit of the expat lifestyle with the mantra: “invoice early and invoice often.” What he meant to say was “take the money and run” [my translation].

8. Abu Dhabi is a city of memories without ruins. Like all cities, it is this forgetting that allows for growth and further deepening of the city’s founding myth. The city flips the Clintonian logic “there is no them; there is only us”. ‘Them’ denotes: the army of architects, consultants and experts that appear to outnumber citizens 10 to 1, while ‘Us’ designates: Emirati nationals. This is urbanism at a vast scale – a global scale, which demand that all architectural symbols be viewed at a distance as you fly out.


  1. David Harvey described as “socially unjust and environmentally wasteful” (he didn’t bother to visit). Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital : And the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

  2. Raksin, Alex 'City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles' by Mike Davis. Los Angeles Times. Available online at

  3. http://www.latimes.com/la-bk-mike-davis-1990-12-09-story.html# [Accessed 15th July 2018]

  4. Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour, and Izenour, Steven. Learning from Las Vegas : The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977.

  5. A 10km test track is slated to open in 2020 in time for Dubai Expo.

  6. At Your Service: Ten Steps to Becoming a Successful Urban Consultant in Koolhaas, Koolhaas, Rem, Stichting Archis, and International Design Forum. Al Manakh 2 : Gulf Cont'd. Volume (Amsterdam, Netherlands) ; Issue 23. Amsterdam: Stichting Archis, 2010.

  7. The famous quote from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.


Public Parks as Spectacle

Social Life of 19th Century Istanbul

Rana Irmak Aksoy (MArch I ’21)


Image Credit / Bibliography:

Kağıthane River - Sadabad (1880s) by Guillaume Berggren

Proliferation of public parks is one of the key defining features of the changing urban fabric of 19th century Istanbul. Most scholarship has interpreted this proliferation merely as a symptom of the Western influenced modernization of the city. However, these public parks are also important to examine from a social lens because they are emblematic of shifts happening between the public and private spheres of an increasingly cosmopolitan Istanbul.

The notion of public space in Istanbul is of course not confined to this current era of modernization. Courtyards of mosque complexes (kulliyes) functioned as gathering places for decades before the emergence of public parks. At this time, this notion of public space was confined to the mosque’s site where there was still a clear separation between the private (domestic) and public sphere. This separation started becoming less apparent in the 18th century with the opening of imperial gardens to the general public. Sadabad, the imperial garden constructed in 1721 by Ahmed III and reminiscent of Versailles with its winding paths around artificial pools and marble-paved river banks, allowed the public to pass freely from the public promenade of Kağıthane to the imperial palace grounds to entertain themselves in this space. This typology began blurring social spaces between the ruling elite and the public, making Kağıthane one of the most popular excursion spots in Istanbul. Countess de la Ferté-Meun visiting Istanbul in 1816 describes the Kağıthane scene as such: “[…] the sound of this cascade at your feet, these groups of Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish women whose mores, customs and outfits are so varied and who delight, undaunted, in all sorts of divertissements the countryside [has to] offer, make this promenade a ravishing spectacle.”

The spectacle of the diversity of visitors in these new parks evolved into a ‘see and be seen’ dynamic in the public sphere. The first of these modern public parks in Istanbul built in the 19th century was the Büyük Çamlıca Park created in 1870. Rumors alone of the park led “Istanbul’s young revelers and women [….] to start preparing and competing with one another on what to wear.” This modern park, built on the grounds of a former imperial garden, attracted such a crowd that the carriages circulating on the roads traversing the park caused it to be likened to a “bee hive”. The park had kiosks dispersed along the roads, where musicians would play, and food and drinks would be served. 19th century’s first garden parties and masquerade balls (first of which was organized by Sultan Abdulaziz) all took place here. It was à la mode in the evening for the aristocrats to walk around and watch the crowds. One can clearly see a shift from the interest of sightseeing (visiting the parks to see and enjoy nature), to seeing and being seen (becoming a spectacle of the social scene).

As Hannah Arendt states in her essay “Public and the Private Realm” in The Human Condition, public and private space are greatly intertwined in the modern world. Modernization leads to the blurring of the public and the private sphere, and to the emergence of what she defines as “the social realm”. This realm, she claims, satisfies the modern need of public admiration. Istanbul’s public parks became this identified social realm that set the stage for a more modern, dynamic and diverse method of living, defining the social life of 19th century Istanbul.


  1.  Arendt, Hannah. "Public and the Private Realm." The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. Print.
  2.  Çelik, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul : Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.
  3. Evyapan, Gönül Aslanoğlu. Old Turkish Gardens: Old Istanbul Gardens in Particular. Ankara: METU Faculty of Architecture, 1999. Print.
  4.  Gül, Murat. The Emergence of Modern Istanbul : Transformation and Modernisation of a City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
  5. Hamadeh, Shirine. The City’s Pleasures : Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. Print.
  6.  Haskan, Mehmet Nermi.Yüzyıllar Boyunca Üsküdar. Vol. 3. Istanbul: Üsküdar Belediyesi, 2001. Print. Üsküdar Araştırmaları Merkezi.

Spaces of Interaction

Quality, not Quantity: The Case of Bogota, Colombia

Camila Gutierrez Plata (MAUD ’18)

An excerpt from Gutierrez Plata's thesis, "Spaces of Interaction: Quality, not Quantity - The Case of Bogota, Colombia" completed at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018

The public realm is the space where citizens meet with strangers. It is theoretically, the space where anyone can express their opinion, a space where everyone is free. While this may have been the case several decades ago, as Robert Putnam expressed, contemporary society with its technology, privatization of public space, and various other factors, are decreasing the amount of social capital in its communities. [1] One of the reasons why networks are not formed between citizens, is because they do not meet outside the private sphere, limiting both the amount and also the type of people one interacts with. Public space’s role in societies has diminished, but is recently starting to come back as an essential component of cities. As Marmorstein, Neilsen and Juul point out: “When the inhabitants entrench themselves – as an upshot of the common space being driven away by private interests and self-serving considerations – the society’s cohesive force vanishes and concomitantly its potential to evolve”. [2] Since interactions that used to happen in the public realm now tend to happen in the private sphere, citizens have less and less contact with strangers and Richard Sennett’s ideal city, which should do its best to heal society’s divisions of race, class and ethnicity, just doesn’t exist. [3]

Several designers and mayors, with knowledge from sociologists and anthropologists who have studied the urban and people’s relations in the public realm, have begun to focus their efforts into the production of public space, knowing its important effect on society. Although this refocus is in the right direction, due to the way public spaces are analyzed and designed, their efforts end up creating spaces that do not necessarily improve conditions of the public sphere. As any other subject that has to do with cities and societies, the situation in each is different and therefore so are the approaches to improving urban conditions. In the case of Bogotá, and of most Latin American cities, the general approach has been to increase the amount of public space. Although this is a well-intentioned endeavor (for many lack such space due to a high degree of informal urbanization), it completely ignores the social aspects of how public spaces work. By understanding that public spaces are really ‘Spaces of Interaction’, as a researcher, as a designer, as a planner, or as a city mayor, one will give as much importance to the amount of space as to the quality of the spaces created, a quality measured by how much its physical elements and its context influence and encourage more meaningful interactions between citizens. 

David Seamon’s concept of place-ballet, which happens only in supportive physical environments, depicts many time-space routines (a set of habitual bodily behaviors which extends through a considerable portion of time) and body-ballets (“a set of integrated behaviors which sustain a particular task or aim) fuse together in place, resulting in an environmental vitality that “generates a strong sense of place because of its continual and regular human activity”. [4] The notion of place-ballet is particularly interesting because it is a way of understanding space and time, with the integration of people. Maslow and Steele both acknowledge that sense of belonging and shared symbolic identification are human needs. Shared symbolism can only be achieved if people are in the same space and perceive it not in a similar way, but as a space with symbolic meaning. Public spaces should be these spaces where place-ballet not only happens by chance but is actually fostered, due to the fact that there is a higher chance that there will be more diversity participating in it. By understanding public spaces as spaces for interaction, one can produce that supportive physical environment which Seamon believes is essential for place-ballet to take place.

There are several conditions in the context, both physical and social, that define a space’s potential to generate interactions. These conditions range also in scale (for the location of a space within a city and district is crucial), to the design of the space and the elements within it, as well as with the perception of individuals in the space. In order to create spaces of interaction in the city, it is essential that all scales are taken into account, for no public space will be active if the conditions of its context or its design are not focused on this goal. Bogotá is aware of how important public space is, but what it seems to overlook is that its importance comes from the social dynamics of the space much more than just its existence as a public open area. Changing the frame through which public space is looked at to that of spaces of interaction, Bogotá may manage to continue increasing the amount of public space in a way that has a more positive impact on its society. One way to begin to do so is by changing the way in which spaces are analyzed and the considerations taken to design or redesign public spaces. 

To read this whole thesis further, visit: https://issuu.com/camilagutierrezplata/docs/spaces_of_interacion_low



  1. Putnam, Robert D. 1995. «Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social    Capital.» Journal of Democracy 65-78.    
  2. Marmorstein, D A, T F Nielsen, y F A Juul. 2011. Public Space: The familiar    into the strange. Copenhagen. 
  3. Sennett, Richard. 2006. «The Open City.» Urban Age. Berlin: London School    of Economics. 1-5. 
  4. Seamon, David. 1980. «Body-Subjet, Time-Space Routines, and Place-   Ballets.» In The Human Experience of Space and Place, edited by    Anne Buttimer y David Seamon, 148-165. London: Croom Helm London.
  5. Maslow, Abraham H. 1954. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper   and Row.
  6. Steele, Fred. 1973. Physical Settings and Organizational Development.    Reading: Addison-Wesley.

The Just City Lab

South Africa Edition

Natasha Hicks, MUP/MDes ’19 and Nerali Patel MUP ‘18

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africanpopcultures, •. “Visiting African Barbershops and Hair Salons.” African Popular Cultures, 12 Oct. 2014, africanpopculture.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/visiting-african-barbershops-and-hair-salons/.

This summer we had the opportunity to travel to South Africa on a whirlwind two-week research trip with the Just City Lab and the lab’s founder, Toni L. Griffin (Professor in Practice of Urban Planning). Our mission was twofold: to take the work of the lab global in a series of programs located in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and to seek design case studies to add to the lab’s database. During our two weeks in South Africa, we participated in over 20 different meetings, ranging from engagements with city planners, designers, organizations, entrepreneurs, professors, students and political leaders. The culmination of our trek left us with three key takeaways that resonate with our actions as planners and designers:


1. The importance of calling injustice, an injustice.

Words matter. Words validate, recognize, and affirm. They also have the power to deny and erase. The diluted jargon used by some designers, planners, students and communities that we met act as a silent violence, an erasure of the trauma and injustices of the apartheid city. The call to choose words wisely evoked reflection on some of the terms that we have adopted, which often inflict unforeseen consequences.

When we refer to townships, informal settlements and slums - we imply that they are a transient, temporary, inhuman problems that will soon vanish from our urban landscapes. Rather, generation after generation has sustained them, and thus they are definitely here to stay. While they are “make-shift” to some and “home” for others, in our view they deserve to be legitimized.   It is time to humanize them, and we can start that process very simply by calling them neighborhoods. For us, this is where the Just City Lab’s work really came to life, and where we saw the power of the Just City Index. If we use our words with intention, perhaps our designs will strive to achieve a more humanized outcome.


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Furlong, Ashleigh. “Three Years after the Khayelitsha Commission‚ Is There Any Progress?” Times LIVE, Sunday Times, www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2017-08-25-three-years-after-the-khayelitsha-commission-is-there-any-progress/.

2. Redefining Resiliency

In searching for design case studies we toured a variety of urban projects. A local guide gave us a tour of Kliptown, the oldest township in Soweto. As we shuffled into a shack, not more than 60 ft2, our guide pointed out: “look at their pots, have you ever seen shinier pots anywhere else? In Kliptown, we may sleep on the floor and sleep 10 to a shack but you’ll never see a pot that isn’t shiny.”

Resiliency is a buzzword that has become diluted by academics, cities, philanthropies and profit seekers. The meaning can often feel opaque. However, in a moment of clarity in Kliptown, resiliency was embodied by an unemployed women carefully washing buckets of laundry at one communal tap shared between hundreds. Resiliency revealed itself through the many hair salons embedded between shacks. Resiliency was defined by Black Pride. Defying the expectations of a hostile world, the self pride we observed in Kliptown demonstrated a deeper understanding of what it means to be resilient  - often not measured or understood by our traditional design metrics - a challenge planners and designers should consider when we so frequently use the phrase “designing for resilience.”


3. Design matters, but who has a seat at the table matters more.

As designers, we champion design as a remarkably powerful tool. However, design itself as an aesthetic endeavor can only achieve so much. During our trip we saw an array of socially driven design projects that had a clear social impact.

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Image Credit: Nerali Patel

Our trek left us with one overarching question: how do planners and designers orchestrate the right team? Design is certainly a catalyst for major change in society, yet designers cannot act alone. Half the battle is really about which individuals have a seat at the table. Having projects and clients that represent not just one actor or agent, but partnerships between all sectors will allow for a plan to belong to a collective in which everyone is invested.


New Definitions to Public Spaces

Appropriation and Re-Appropriation of Private Spaces

Hüma Şahin (MArch II ’19)

Presented at Urban Struggles in Mediterranean Cities: The Right to the City and the Common Space
International UnConference held at Athens, School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens
May 3 – June 3, 2018



…Publicness is a performative and incremental condition embodied in the hybrid physical-virtual environments of evolving societies. Publicness happens, taking on a performative aspect that is often lost when we focus too heavily on architectural space alone. Public space is always an appropriation of an existing space, a layering of a political space over legal space…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

When architects and urban planners talk about creating democratic spaces, they fall into the trap of immediately talking about the spatial attributes of publicness. But the search for democracy in urban settings is not necessarily about the sole considerations of spatial phenomenona. In actuality, publicness goes beyond ownership and spatial attributes.

When talking about public spaces and democracy, the architectural space is just the tip of an iceberg. Patrick Geddes points out “The hope of the city lies outside of itself.”

Looking through the lens of democracy, the disappearance of the idea of the “public good” under neoliberalism has had concrete effects in the city.  In the early and mid-20thcentury government-funded parks and squares were broadly provided for all citizens as a disciplinary strategy of social management.

Political power often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye on the control of restive populations. (Harvey, 2013) And while these reorganizations are clear in some cases, in other cases some numb the mind while others mesmerize the eyes of the people.


…Geographer Kanishka Goonewardena has made a powerful argument for the ideological nature of the capitalist city, claiming that the fully immersive sensory aesthetics of urban space make it a very powerful ideological tool. We simply cannot deny what we feel, and urban space is experienced with all our senses…

-        Adrian Blackwell, Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World, 2017

In this regard, public spaces acted as the opium of the people. With commonly used terms like liveliness, beauty, livability, the effects of the state and market regulated public spaces on the society is covered. As urban theoretician Alvaro Sevilla - Buitrago points out, state driven public spaces, like parks, are suggesting a different form of enclosure in the urban setting. Sevilla mentions that the park, in this case Central Park, is understood as an early stage in the project of imposing new social relations through the enclosure of public conduct and he designates the park as a first effort to “tame the urban commons and prevent the subaltern appropriation of public space.” (Sevilla, 2013)

On the other hand, public spaces have transformed into hubs of consumption. What can be seen in this period, is a restricting of spaces of public authority, from their Keynesian Fordist function as normalizing spaces designed to make all citizens into good capitalist consumers, to a new function of differentiation, in which certain segments of the population are more violently policed by the public authority, while others are lavish pseudo-public spaces, designed to encourage consumption practices. In the end,urban designs under neoliberalism, which claim to have produced more livable “public” spaces, have in fact produced geographies of inequality. (Blackwell, 2017)

The traditional definitions of public spaces are not sufficient to untie the knots in democratically suppressed cities. Rather than seeking the public spaces “assigned” with top-down decisions, one can think of re-appropriating private spaces to form them.


Challenging the urbanistic trend of an “apolitical domesticity”, new ways to define public spaces and publicness can be traced to house environments. This exploration of the house environment would bring “political domesticity” where true publicness is located in the house, the traditional hub of “privateness”. In searching for new ways to define public spaces, this investigation would find new sites for the representation for its people. These sites will be helpful in “spatializating", maintaining, and strengthening public interaction, which would otherwise be floating around the city in a nomadic form.

Moreover, these “hubs of privacy” can be perceived as a different form of cul-de-sacs and as an extension of a powerful non-space that denies any programmatic imposition, the street network.

Rather than seeking state and market driven public spaces which are in most cases manipulative and alienating, masquerading behind beauty masks and not helpful in triggering positive change in the society, re-appropriation of the private spaces should be considered.


1. Blackwell, Adrian. “Tar and Clay: Public Space Is the Demonstration of a Paradox in the Physical World.” Public Space?: Lost and Found, by Gediminas Urbonas et al., SA P Press, MIT School of Architecture Planning, 2017, pp. 19–38.

2. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso, 2013, pp. 117.

3. Sevilla, “Central Park Against he Streets: The Enclosure of Public Space Cultures in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York”, 2013


On Architecture, From Architecture

Translating Academia into Practice

Sudeshna Sen (MAUD '19)


Source: Urban Omnibus. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017, urbanomnibus.net/2011/03/teaching-urban-design-2/.

What is the dependency of the discipline of urban design on architecture? Is there a necessity to distinguish urban design from architecture?

For me, this is a vital question that arose as I reflect back on my first year of academia in the discipline and venture into its practice for the summer. It is a culmination of thoughts that manifested after attending a book talk at the MIT Press Bookstore followed by a conversation between Brent Ryan, Alex Krieger and Rahul Mehrotra. The Largest Art, written by Brent D. Ryan, is an effort to redefine the discipline as an art – an art that differentiates it distinctly from other building arts. The book seemed to have focused most of it energy in illuminating aspects which sets urban design apart from architecture – the incompleteness of form and the temporality of interventions.

But before one can venture an answer to such a question, one must understand the foundational dependency these two disciplines share in their intertwined histories. As an academic discipline, urban design was founded at the Graduate School of Design in 1960. The very founding of the discipline was generated around a series of conferences by Jose Luis Sert during the years 1957-1965 to understand the need for and the responsibility of this discipline in the making of contemporary cities.  

In essence as I understand it, the foundation of the discipline of urban design grew out of an attempt to combine the disciplines of architecture, landscape and planning and emphasizing a need for a ‘bridge’ discipline. However, over the years, the attachment between architecture and urban design has only strengthened: urban design interventions are largely considered to be architectural interventions across scales. This dependency seems to have grown out of the need for the discipline of urban design to rely on that of architecture as a visual language and mode of representation.

Cities have been designed long before any formal training in urban design was given. Indeed, the most exemplary urban designs were conceived by engineers, lawyers and socialists. The matters of contestation in the urban realm does not rise simply from spatial incongruencies but from an accumulation of socio-political circumstances. Intervening in the urban requires distinct forms of action arising from the specificity of its geopolitical context. So, the question then arises, how did urban design become so entangled and reliant on the field of architecture to define it? How do we start moving away from architectural design as the solution and start introducing multiple modes of engagement in the learning process? How should we learn urban design and therefore how should we teach it?

Architecture is critical as a visual language and as a methodological tool which helps illuminate scalar and spatial relationships. However, we must not confuse architecture as a representational tool with architecture as a methodological solution to urban design problems. While understanding the need for architecture as a visual language, we must also understand its limitations in communicating essential aspects of urban design projects – among others, these embodying concepts of incompleteness and temporality. Furthermore, since urban design already expresses in-depth knowledge of design thinking processes, its education can and should explore how these processes apply to policy creation, advocacy initiatives, private-public partnerships and community collaborations that are so intrinsic to the forefront of the discipline, issues that recede when urban design is framed as ‘architecture’.

Rather than defining (or re-defining) urban design, maybe we should start by re-evaluating the way we teach it. A methodological academic shift can have huge implications in the way we approach the practice of urban design today. In thinking of urban design as a way of intervening and critiquing the contemporary city, we must acknowledge the complexity that surrounds issues of urbanization. A focus on ‘design’ as the primary skillset has led to the extensive use of architecture as a solution, whereas the applied practice of urban design requires us to be much more versatile in incorporating research and contemporary issues into design, rather than resorting to default modes of ‘architectural design’ interventions.


1. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017, urbanomnibus.net/2011/03/teaching-urban-design-2/.

2. Krieger, Alex, and William S. Saunders. Urban Design. 2009.

3. Ryan, Brent D. The Largest Art: a Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism. The MIT Press, 2017.


The Role of Ephemeral Interventions

Overcoming Crisis in Caracas

Karen Mata (MAUD’18)


‘ReFLORESTAndo’ Project: Process to generate economic resources and strengthen social institutions

Given the complex economic and political situation Venezuela is currently facing, it is critical to start questioning the scenarios produced by the duality of crisis and temporality while reflecting about the role of the city in overcoming crisis. This reflection is urgent for two reasons: firstly, because longstanding crises require long periods of recovery, especially when the social and institutional fabric has been damaged, generating a political trauma that has negative impacts on the execution of urban interventions. Secondly, because crisis that persist generate periods of normalization over social behaviors that modify space, institutions, and the focus and scope of urban interventions.

Henri Lefebvre tells us that “there is a politics of space because space is political.” In Venezuela, this has been taken to both extremes. On the one hand, interactions in public space tend to be more conflictive because of various insecurities and the strong division of society in two opposing political groups. On the other hand, and stemming from this tension, some of the last urban interventions seek to depoliticize the purpose of the projects. Between these extremes, it is also well-known that the public space is what defines the character of cities.

In this context, CCSCity450 emerges as a project for the reconstruction of the city, as part of the celebration of the 450 years since Caracas’s foundation and led by architects Aliz Mena, María Isabel Peña, and Franco Micucci. This project aims to create spaces for the discussion about the city, appropriation of space, and the urban memory while proposing alternative models for a possible reconstruction in Caracas.

At the end of last year they called for a competition of temporary urban interventions to tackle the crisis, all within a budget of $2,000.[1] Proposals addresed issues such as enhancing accessibility routes to a hospital, tackling food provision, and addressing the challenge of generating resources and empower existing social institutions within the community[2].

In this context, and given the selected projects to be implemented, it is necessary to think about what gets prioritized and who is benefiting from them. How much public participation is really necessary and pertinent? What are the forms in which people can communicate and collaborate to the other public institutions? This could be a way to tie together solutions for an ongoing crisis that demands immediate responses and plans that allow us to rethink ephemeral interventions as structural project bases. This is different to thinking of them as temporal forms of appropriation that will eventually disappear. This is what we should expect from ephemeral interventions in context like in Venezuela.

During any given crisis, the awareness of the urban realm’s trajectory over time is fundamental, both for finding new paths of opportunity and to lessen the difficulties of living in such a troubled city.  In this sense, ephemeral interventions could have a leading role in the reconstruction of the state. Following an urban plan is essential, but more importantly this process must be visible to its citizens, because only then can it have the power to mold and influence future political projects associated with Venezuela’s reconstruction.

To overcome a crisis is to rethink what the future could be, it is to discover and focus on the future we want, based on our own difficulties. That way the difficulties or byproducts of the crisis will be allowed to be incorporated into the process of recovery, which consist on proposing alternative models to foster development initiatives that go beyond a public space that is just a mirror image of other realities.

This text was written as part of the Taller Ciudad Venezuela (Venezuela City Workshop) about the urban situation in Venezuela for an event organized by Venezuelan undergraduate students called Plan País (Country Plan) held in Boston University on March 30th and 31st. The session was moderated by Ignacio Cardona (DDes 19), with Andreina Seijas (DDes 20) as note taker. This is the first time that a session about the role of cities in the reconstruction Venezuela was introduced. It is an event that has taken place for more than eight years where groups of undergraduate students meet to study the future of the country.


[1] Because of inflation now that budget is less than half of what it was when the winners were announced.

[2] This last is a winner proposal called ReFLORESTAndo, by Rodrigo Guerra (MAUD’17) and Karen Mata (MAUD’18) in collaboration with Patricia Álvarez (MDES’18), Pablo Escudero (MDES’18) and Rudy Weissenberg (MDES’18).


Do Good by Doing Well

Design in the Humanitarian Field

Zhuo Pang (MAUD '18)

zhuo pang 1.jpg

IBTASEM playground in Lebanon                     
Source: Catalytic Action  



This time last year, I was reading a book called “Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises[1].” by Architecture for Humanity (AFH).   It was interesting to find out that although the phrase “humanitarian architect” was repeatedly used in the book, the title framed it as “architectural responses to humanitarian crises”, perhaps in response to the debate that all architects wish to do good and that separating humanitarian architects from the others may form further barriers.

To me, the difference between what is humanitarian or not lies in the context of practice rather than the goal of practitioners. Architectural practice in the humanitarian field has only begun to be noticed in the last two decades, especially after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the context of intensified natural disasters, forced displacement and consistent global poverty, the crisis has been protracted and the boundary between temporary and permanent, between humanitarian and development, have been blurred. In the old days when people were only going to be displaced temporarily, a simple shelter (often in the form of a tent or an isobox) would suffice; it was engineers rather than architects who provided solutions. The most important evaluation criteria were efficiency and financial feasibility.

Nowadays when the average time of displacement of refugees are 17 years (according to UNHCR), temporary solutions are not enough.

The physical environment impacts people’s mindsets. Sharing a room with 7 strangers deprives any right to privacy; living in endlessly repeating isoboxes deprives people of identity.  Surviving in “minimalism” without amenities deprives the sense of community. In a word, people suffering from humanitarian crises are exactly those who aspire for normalcy, for all the simple things they could do before everything was disrupted. And this is where designers and planners can contribute.


This is not an easy path because of the almost intrinsic challenges in humanitarian practice.  I want to point out a few based on my observation:

The challenge of building in conflict areas

Humanitarian design often happens in areas without official government, committed clients, competent contractors or a formal tenure system. At the same time, humanitarian players on the ground often have their own agendas and are responsible to specific donors. Repetition of work is typical and pilot solutions get implemented everywhere.  This brings many difficulties in terms of partnership, implementation and maintenance.

The challenge of forming community

Many design efforts celebrate the idea of “creating a sense of community” through place-making; however, in the humanitarian field, people can come from very different income and ethnic groups, all packed into high density environments. Without mutual trust, community is simply non-existent.

The challenge between temporary and permanent

In the spectrum of temporary, transient, and permanent, architects are more comfortable dealing with the latter; however, it is not rare to see  purportedly transient housing become permanent in practice. Conversely, people may not welcome permanent architecture because they do not perceive this place as their final destination, and any permanent gestures are perceived by people as consolidation of their current condition.


Challenges remain. Successful humanitarian practices typically begin as successful architectural practices . As Shigeru Ban put it, “you need to be a good architect in the first place.” As cliché as it may sound, a good intention, an adaptive mindset and professionalism shall do the work.


  1. Architecture for Humanity (Organization). 2006. Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises. New York: Metropolis Books.

The Risk of Privately Owned Public Digital Place

Urban Planning Principles Should Be Applied to the Digital Realm

Mariah Valerie Barber (MUP '19)


As a Master in Urban Planning student at the GSD I frequently wonder why our discipline pays so little attention to digital space. What occurs in digital space is rapidly changing the layout of cities, management capacity, how people organize, movement within it and how urban dwellers interact and socialize with one another. Users of applications, search engines, and social media platforms create digital data trails which have capacity, especially when spatialized to inform us in the decision-making process about how these people move around, what spaces are frequently visited - what is or is not working. In terms of infrastructure, should we as planners advocate that people have access to the same opportunities to exist in digital spaces? I argue that digital space should benefit from some planning, zoning, and place-based policy initiatives in both the physical and digital public realms.

Digital space could benefit from the guiding principles of planning as a discipline. Digital space and the UX design practices that create it use many of the same principles of navigability that have been essentially standardized within the field. Many planners utilize urban sociology methodologies and theories to justify their proposals. In fact, neuroimaging of the brain has shown that the same areas of the brain that are employed while an individual navigates physical space are active in navigating digital platform or general web browsing. Similarly, within digital space there are different cultures, norms, and manners of social conduct that can be visible.


Notions of Publicly Owned Public Space Vs. Privately-Owned Private Space in the Digital Realm

When thinking about the rules that govern digital space, I think of differences between  publicly owned, publicly managed and a privately owned, pseudo public space, and how the rights of the urban dweller and the manager of these spaces differs. In the US it assumed that when someone is in a privately owned public space they are subject to the rules of conduct as determined by the individual owner or entity, whose end goal in providing the space in the first place is to generate profit or provide the space as a type of amelioration of the social costs that went into developing other elements of their property.  They determine hours of operation, the physical design, and surveillance.

In turning back to digital space, users are subjected to the rules as determined by the platforms or applications that provide the “infrastructure” of digital spaces. Often, these spaces are privately owned by companies, the vast majority of which are providing the space in order to profit from it, which in the digital world equates to individual’s data. Wwhen it comes to digital space, the fact that the same standard’s regarding privately owned public physical space apply as a status quo is not only absurd, but extremely precarious.

Unlike physical “public spaces” the digital is not restricted by factors such as which neighborhood it is located within and the physical limits of hosting only a certain amount of people at a given time. While I think that many planning solutions could easily be applicable to the digital realm, assuming that because a digital space is privately managed the individual should be subjected to the rules of the private jurisdiction is problematic in terms of the high user populations and the fact that digital space combines, fuses, and mixes with commonly agreed upon notions of the public and private in ways that until recently we have never fully experienced.  

In thinking of the digital public realm, theoretical models such of those of Hannah Ardent, Habermas, and Sennet can easily be applied. As Hannah Ardent distinguished in her political theory work, “The Public Realm and Public Self,” there lies a nexus between an individual when alone and in a public space, or the “space of appearance.” Additionally, the importance of public space for people to organize, gather, and protest has long been studied in western political urban sociology. Such spaces have been historically linked to many revolutions and political shifts. Such capacity is frequently associated with digital space. The term “social media justice worrier” or phenomena such as the social media organizing that led to the Arab Spring offer examples of such similarities between the digital and the physical public while also providing nuance.


Planning Digital Space

Digital space should be planned along standards that mix models of theory and practice while taking into account the interfusing of private and public that occur within it. I am eager to explore ideas of local governments playing more of an active role in governing digital space. Scalability is obviously an issue, with such platforms it can’t be ignored that digital space should be fit for local contexts.

For example, China’s political relationship with information, data, and censorship have, as a nation, essentially planned digital space to fit the rules and policies of their “real-life” counterparts.  Rather than allow Facebook, Amazon, Uber to dominate the nation, they made sure to block them from entering and instead encouraged domestic versions of similar technology. The way in which that captured and localized wealth created by such platforms, tailored the platforms to the culture of China, and maintained many of the principles that are governing China today. Regardless of the controversy surrounding its control and monitoring, this can be viewed as an impressive endeavor.


For Now

In the short term, I believe there could be huge benefits for local governments to digitally plan space as it applies to capital capture. One example is requiring apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Via to pay city taxes when users access their digital services from within the physical boundaries of their jurisdictions.  

In thinking about the dialogue regarding platforms and technology in the United States, it is seemingly almost always about “disruption”. How people move around or interact with others has often been in ways that are largely positive. However, the role of government has been significantly weakened in the process. Although only few cities have been able to do so, this may represent the beginning of digital planning practices.   


  1. Benfield, Kaid. “The Important Difference Between a Public Space and a ‘Common.’” CityLab. Accessed April 9, 2018. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/07/sustainability-and-urban-commons/6200/.
  2. Dossa, Shiraz. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12286.
  3. The Public Realm and the Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12286.
  4. Garrett, Bradley L. “The Privatisation of Cities’ Public Spaces Is Escalating. It Is Time to Take a Stand.” the Guardian, August 4, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/04/pops-privately-owned-public-space-cities-direct-action.
  5. Granville, Kevin. “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens.” The New York Times, March 19, 2018, sec. Technology. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explained.html.
  6. “Harvey_condition_postmodern.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018. https://selforganizedseminar.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/harvey_condition_postmodern.pdf.
  7. Hu, Winnie. “When Calling an Uber Can Pay Off for Cities and States.” The New York Times, February 18, 2018, sec. N.Y. / Region.
  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/18/nyregion/uber-lyft-public-transit-congestion-tax.html.
  9. “ISL-6_Plans_and_Situated_Actions.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018. http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/xerox/parc/techReports/ISL-6_Plans_and_Situated_Actions.pdf.
  10. McConnell, Paul. “Urban Planning and Digital Experiences.” Paul McConnell (blog), October 5, 2016. https://medium.com/@pmcconnell/urban-planning-and-digital-experiences-how-1960s-urban-planning-principles-can-improve-your-345e67d6b329
  11. Shenker, Jack. “Revealed: The Insidious Creep of Pseudo-Public Space in London.” The Guardian, July 24, 2017, sec. Cities. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map.

  12. “Sociology Beyond Societies - Google Search.” Accessed March 3, 2018. https://www.google.com/search?q=Sociology+Beyond+Societies&oq=Sociology+Beyond+Societies&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.373j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

  13. “SPLINTERING URBANISM Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition - Stephen Graham.Pdf.” Accessed March 3, 2018. https://dubravka.memoryoftheworld.org/Stephen%20Graham/Splintering%20Urbanism_%20Networked%20Infrastructures,%20Technological%20Mobilities%20and%20the%20Urban%20Condition%20(3302)/SPLINTERING%20URBANISM_%20networked%20infrastructures,%20technological%20mobilities%20and%20the%20urban%20condition%20-%20Stephen%20Graham.pdf.

  14. “Urban Cyberspace Policy Initiative in Manchester.Pdf | Cyberspace | Internet Forum.” Scribd. Accessed March 3, 2018. https://www.scribd.com/document/293524618/Urban-Cyberspace-Policy-Initiative-in-Manchester-pdf.

  15. Yepes, Veronica. “The Mexican Path Toward Having Smart Cities.” Infrastructure Mexico (blog), November 2, 2017. http://www.infrastructuremexico.com/2017/11/02/the-mexican-path-toward-having-smart-cities/.


Against Hybridity

A Return to Separation

Rob Meyerson (MAUD '18)


Image by John Gollings. Phillip Island House, by Denton Corker Marshall

The idea of limits is crucial to contemporary life.  Limits bring order and understanding to space, they provide a frame for which to enter and exit.  How else do we feel the excitement of moving through the chaos of one environment and into the sanctuary of our private rooms?  Thresholds, portals and entrances provide the rhythm for our experiences and encounters on a daily basis. 

It is within this ideology I would argue that an urban-architectural project could exist. There is a tendency to celebrate the generic nature of the expansions of many contemporary cities.  Sprawl and urbanization have been a result of many factors and forces, and the outcome a new form of territory.  This new form of territory has blurred the boundary between the traditional center and the periphery, to a state where we really have no definition of the city anymore.  

In defining the city, or at least the idea of a city, we may be able to argue for the return of true urban design projects.  These are projects which have value in either being part of, or against the city.  The projects that sit on the fence are precisely that – they give up something to be a part of something else. Projects that stand for something take on a ratbag attitude, somewhat naively but at least they stand strongly in favor of something.  To be clear, this is not an argument against the explosion of urbanization, but simply an approach to claim one side or the other.

What would a project look like that argued for the return of the definition of the city?  One answer could be that of limits.  In other words, the new project could have no real interest in style or facade, but be purely concerned in defining itself against what it is not.  It is a project that sets up boundaries between itself and the rest, which states clearly its political intention without blending in to the rest of the city.  The urge to blend, to mix or to become hybrid has diluted the power of the urban-architectural project to make a statement.  Once the ability for urban projects to comment on their position in the city is lost, they may no longer be urban at all.


  1. Rowe, Peter G and Kan, Har Ye, Macau and Its Borders, in Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Developmental City in China, Harvard Design Studies, 2016 pp 132-145