Friday, 28 December 2012

Understanding Cities

You might have read in the papers about the ‘BMW Guggenheim Lab’ that is in town these days. This moving lab which has previously travelled to cities like New York and Berlin, before coming to the shores of Mumbai, likes to describe itself as urban think tank, a community center and a public gathering space. Its primary motive is to address issues pertaining to contemporary urban life through various programs and public discussions. We caught up with the Guggenheim Lab’s resident blogger ‘Christine Mclaren’, who has been trying to understand our magnificent city by unique ways like walking blind folded through the city and commuting in peak hour rush in a Virar local!

Christine McLaren

Christine hails from the beautiful Canadian city of Vancouver and is a journalist by trade, a freelancing one. Her love affair with journalism began at university, when she started working for the students’ newspaper. “I realized that journalism satisfied me creatively and academically”, says Christine. Her career started at a Vancouver based publishing house, which focussed on journalism that talked of viable solutions rather than just pointing out the problems. Christine’s journalism career revolves around the intersection between urban developments and environmental and social issues from a solutions point of view.

The opportunity to work for Guggenheim Lab came about when she was researching for a book ‘Happy Cities’, by Charles Montgomery. Then, Charles was working as a member of the Lab’s New York team. The lab was looking for a writer interested in urban issues and he immediately recommended Christine for the job. “Having to get to know a city through this project is the deepest dive that you could possibly have. You start out discussing the issues that are close to the people”, Christine says about the project. She has travelled with the lab to New York, Berlin and now to Mumbai.

It has been amazing to watch the project progress and to see how it changes in the context of these different cities”, says Christine. The crowds have been very different in all of the cities. In New York the crowd was very hip, as talking about design and urban issues is very much in vogue in New York these days. Berlin on the other hand was initially very hostile to the lab, but as days progressed it started to receive good response from all sections of the society. “It was interesting to see how a city can react to something that is coming to be a part of the fabric, to discuss issues, to stir things up”, she says of the Labs experience in Berlin. Mumbai started out a bit slow for the Lab but things have been picking up. Just like the other two cities, in Mumbai too, the lab has found its regulars who attend each and every program.
Christine with the One Square Meter House at the Berlin Lab

Christine has been in India for two and half months now, travelling to places like Delhi, Rajasthan, Chandigarh and Agra. Mumbai, in particular, has been a very humbling and fascinating experience for her. “Suketu Mehta has aptly named his book ‘Maximum City’, everything is so extreme, both the good and the bad and everything in between, which makes this a very exciting city to learn so many things from”, she explains. Comparing her hometown Vancouver with Mumbai, she says that in Vancouver the bigger projects and issues are taken care of very well. In Mumbai, the formal systems have in a lot of ways failed the people. However, the informal systems that people have created within their communities work very well. She feels that it paints a picture of a city that’s very resilient. “In Vancouver we are used to the bigger systems being taken care of and when they are not we become hopeless!”

Mumbai is like an endless well of experiences”, says Christine. And one of her more memorable experience has been the commute aboard a Virar train in peak rush. She was interested in the way the city has kept growing towards the north and wanted to see what impact this has had on people’s lives. Christine is glad that she did the train ride, “It told so many stories of Mumbai in one”. She was amazed at how the way the city has developed forces people to stay so far away from their workplaces, and the conditions in which they commute to work every day. She was astounded that even in all these dysfunctionalities, there was resilience and fortitude at display among the people.

Christine enjoys working for the lab; the very fact that it being a lab, it is always changing, presenting a very dynamic environment to work in. She is very excited to know about cities and the lab provides her the opportunity to dig her hands deep into a city and unravel its secrets. “It is not like talking to city officials. It is doing things like walking through the city blindfolded, measuring your physiological reaction to things like traffic and a street fa├žade”, says Christine. In each city the core team at the lab changes, giving her the chance to work with emerging thinkers from the fields of architecture, urban planning, etc. Also, being a freelancer all her life, this is the first time that she is working for an institution; and this has turned out to be a lesson for her in inter-institutional understanding.
Pic from the crowded Virar train

Mumbai has reacted to the lab with a lot of curiosity. Those who have attended have been awestruck by the quality of discussion happening at the lab. Christine too has enjoyed every bit of her stay and work in Mumbai so far. But she has been travelling non-stop, from New York to Berlin, to Italy and to Mumbai; past few months have been very hectic for her. She longs to go back to Canada, back to Vancouver and to her cabin in the woods. But for the time being she is utilizing every second to explore the marvellous city of Mumbai. We hope that through her work and through the lab, Mumbai is able to come up with answers to some of its most critical problems.

A video from Christine's epic Virar train journey -

The Lab is set up at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla, and it also has another travelling setup. You can check out the Lab’s calendar here

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