Vishaan Chakrabarti is the founder of PAU (Partnership for Architecture and Urbanism). He is an Associate Professor of Practice at Columbia GSAPP and the author of the acclaimed book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. Although Vishaan has worked at the highest levels of development and real estate, as President of Moynihan Station Venture and Director of the Manhattan Office for the New York Department of City Planning, running a “die-hard architecture practice” is exactly where he wants to be. Social impact and the art of building, he says, are inevitably intertwined.
P: You announce a moral position very loudly on your website: “what we do,” and, “what we don’t do.” Where do these positions come from and how have they influenced your work at PAU?
VC: I consider it more of an ethical stance than a moral stance—I know that is a little semantic, but it is an important nuance for me. I’m always hoping that it doesn’t come across as judgemental or holier than thou. Like you say, on the left side it says “what we do” and on the right side it says “what we don’t do,” and I’m not saying that other architects shouldn’t do those things, or that it’s immoral for other architects to do those things. Specifically, many architects have said, “houses have been one of the fundamental platforms of design exploration throughout the history of architecture,” and that’s of course true, but, after having written a big policy book about the problems of suburbanization, I can’t just go out and start designing suburban houses.
I don’t find an ethical focus in any way being at odds with great design. I’m just as focused on form, light, material, and construction detail as any other architect I know. I’m 51 years old; our generation witnessed firsthand the transformation of modernism from social movement (through arguably the mid-to-late 1970s) to the neoliberal world of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. One of the offsprings of this [shift in thought] was the Starchitect. We saw this transition away from the great humanist architects of the 1960s: Team 10, Alvar Aalto, Jørn Utzon. I don’t think we are breaking any real new territory here with our ethical stance. It is a return to the roots of Modernism—not in terms of style—but in terms of ethical underpinning.
By contrast, in the 1990s, there was an emergence of architect as arbiter of luxury commodity, which really was a blip born in my generation. Some people my age missed the boat because they are still trying to impress their immediate predecessors. But by the time you reach the 2000s, you have 9/11, Katrina, the Great Recession—these series of enormous shocks to the system that create a new generational shift in the field. If you are still playing by the rules of 1996, you are on a completely different chessboard. The world has changed.
Look at Houston: I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard the words “Urban Planning” spoken so much by the national media, other than after Hurricane Katrina. People understand that there are huge architectural, physical, and structural implications to what happened there. Our field, I would argue, has traditionally been about taking on challenges like that. I don’t think of my firm, or firms like ours, as outliers. I think of us as the continuation of this lineage of the human modernist model.
P: What separates your firm from a crowd of others interested in similar public-interest work is that you are eager to work at a scale that requires you to get your hands dirty. How have you navigated large projects in a hyper-capitalist city like New York?
VC: Exactly, including quite a bit of work with developers, for sure. But we’re actually very judicious about whom we work for. The developers we are doing work with right now share our agenda, at least to a significant degree. Going back to the whole “what we do/what we don’t do” thing—what I’ve found very clarifying about that process is it has attracted both clients and design team members who specifically want to be a part of that agenda.
On a panel with Reinhold Martin and Ken Frampton, Reinhold once said, “Why is it that all of these movies depict the end of the world because of climate change, but none of them depict the end of capitalism?” To which Ken Frampton quipped, “Because the end of the world will come before the end of capitalism.” I’m not powerful enough, or arrogant enough, to believe that I’m going to overturn capitalism. It’s not going to happen. What I can do is understand how to work the levers of that system to create what I consider to be better social and design outcomes.
I cringe when I hear architects say, “I only want to do the luxury condos because that is where the good budgets are.” That just means they are not doing their job well. Modernism was partially born from the housing crisis after World War I. That’s a part of our DNA, it’s a part of our blood stream. To suddenly turn around and say, “We can’t get budgets to build mass housing so we’re only going to do luxury towers.” When did this happen? How did this happen?
I’ve had very good friends—Pritzker Prize winning architects—say to me they like working in these places far off in the desert somewhere; they know the buildings are being built by slaves, but it is the only place where they get to experiment! To which I respond, “What kind of colonialist bullshit is that? What do you mean, experiment?” These far off places are “laboratories” for architects because our existing set of regulations and economics won’t let them build anything with slaves here. I think the world looks at all of this and says, “Architecture is an irrelevant profession.” But when architects start belly-aching about feeling irrelevant, they tend not to look in the mirror.
Our firm is really an effort to move back towards a kind of relevance. We’re doing a cultural project in Harlem, a very important project for the city. It’s not a huge museum somewhere with a multi-billion dollar budget. It has a small budget for dance rehearsal space, community spaces, video-editing, and technology spaces that are very hard to find at a relatively low rent in a place like Harlem. That’s the kind of cultural project that gets me really excited. There’s nothing wrong with a big museum. I’m just saying, aren’t we a strong enough profession that we can strive towards more than just this one very narrow bandwidth from the 1990s that defines success for architects?
P: As someone that engages the typical developer tract and actively proposes unsolicited work (for free), how do you understand your own value in the market? We understand you are involved in proposing the Indian Museum of Independence in Kolkata.
VC: Well, look. It involves a lot of risk. We basically decided we are not doing open competitions: open competitions are incredibly exploitative of architects, and it just doesn’t make a great deal of sense to us. But, obviously, competitions have been the main process by which young firms get themselves known in the world. So, we are trying to think of an alternative paradigm to that.
We don’t have a PR firm, but we take positions on things. The big example so far is Penn Station. The New York Times editorial board called us about it and we imagined that we would do a week’s worth of work, or something like that [for that feature]. We ended up doing seven months of work, and got a Ford Foundation grant to do it. That really set the stage for us, and for my thinking about how powerful this could be. It is about being a public intellectual, but it also about being able to use the power of architecture in a very different way. Through drawings, diagrams, models, we can talk to the public about pressing public issues. With Penn Station, our work was able to make clear that there is still much more work to do beyond the [government’s] current proposal.
The most recent thing in the office is the Indian Museum of Independence. In this case, there was no _New York Times_ feature—no one asked us to do it. I was doing some reading about the 70th anniversary of India this year, and a number of different scholars have called for some sort of museum of independence. I walked into studio one day after doing some reading and I said, you know, “I think this should be our next one. Let’s just do this.”
The project is a provocation. It is a provocation not only to India, but to the United Kingdom, and all other past-colonial powers. We think it is the power of architecture to talk about these kind of tough social issues.
All of this started before recent conversations surrounding confederate monuments. Now we are entering this world where we are understanding that these sites of conflict and consciousness are extremely important to the general public. This is a debate that people want to have, and we can help be vehicles for this kind of thing. And, because we can draw things, because we can visualize things, that makes the debate much richer if it is done the right way. Obviously, there is a side benefit to doing all of that—just as you might with a competition win, you get well known. And people might think of you. How does a small firm get on the shortlist for a museum or a train station? At least we have something to show that says we’ve thought about the issues that press on that typology, and we haven’t been exploited by a competition.
The last thing I have to say about that, is that in addition to having really powerful design work, you have to have an articulate voice that speaks to it all. I do a lot of writing internally, for the office. Sometimes I’ll do a sketch that sets the parti for a project, sometimes I’ll write a two-page essay, and that sets the parti for the project. That’s a more open process, because it’s not just about slavishly following the sketch, but more saying, this is a frame for thinking about this issue. I want to bring back the power of clear, concise, powerful English into use for architects.
For some reason, from the late 1980s into 2000, it became very fashionable for architects to speak in terms that were purposely obfuscating, or have websites that are purposely obfuscating. That obfuscation is all about playing an inside game. It’s all about architects talking to architects saying, “Look, we know the code, we know the secret sauce.” I’m less interested in that, and more interested in what clients and communities think about what we are doing. To do that, we have to have a clarity of voice.
P: How do you see a project that is a provocation fitting into a larger political conversation? One that is actionable through existing political or legal structures, even at the federal level?
VC: Yeah, it’s really hard. First of all, I think it is important to not _just_ be a provocateur. Our housing project in Newark is very important for downtown Newark. It’s something that I believe one has to approach with a sense of earnestness as opposed to irony or aggressiveness. I do think that project will be quite impactful. The cultural building I mentioned in Harlem I see as an extremely important social facility in Harlem. It’s not meant to be a provocation in the way the Indian Museum of Independence (IMI) is meant to be a provocation, or Penn Station is meant to be a provocation. I don’t think everything is about provoking society, \[but rather lies in\] proving that there is a quality, a sensibility, and a role for architects in these places that have long been ignored by a lot of architects for a long time. I think that is more of a provocation to the field, not to society outside of it.
In terms of your question of how one interacts federally, it’s really hard. Unlike what we were told in the Reagan Thatcher era, there are actually a lot of good people in government, and they work incredibly hard. If that person is incredibly busy and works incredibly hard, why do they make time to listen to what an architect has to say? One of the most fundamental framings for us to do, if you are going to try and raise that level of conversation, is trying to understand relevance.
For Penn for instance, one of the things that we were really able to do with our work is to talk about public safety. One of the inadvertent pieces of damage that architects have done to the Penn Station conversation is they say things like, “Well, the existing station is ugly, it is an embarrassment.” If you are a congressman trying to fund Head Start, and there is craziness going on in Washington, the fact that a station is ugly or embarrassing is going to be really low on that list. And, arguably, it should be.
What we were able to do is say, this isn’t just about the fact that the station is ugly and embarrassing. It actually has huge public safety issues, huge public delay issues, and is a real economic drag to that entire part of Manhattan, to this entire part of the Eastern Seaboard that this station creates. Those are things that are going to get a politician to pay attention. You know, we can cry in our milk about political people not caring about the things that we care about, or we can try to reframe what we are saying so that it is something that actually resonates with what they care about. That’s what I try to do.
P: Over the past ten to fifteen years, we’ve seen management consultants, financial consultants, larger banks even, that are dabbling in architecture and planning itself. So, what are the levers you’ve pulled to make yourself valuable?
VC: You can think about it by trying to translate how we think about beauty and form to how doctors think about their work: two surgeons, alone having a drink, may talk about things that are highly specific to their field. But, if they are talking to a politician about healthcare reform, they are not talking about how to make an incision, right? It doesn’t mean that the surgery isn’t important. It’s just that there are different topics at different layers that you need for different audiences.
How do you toggle between those layers? Professionals in all disciplines tend to work in verticals. We’re pursuing a project and maybe we’ve got a client with us, maybe they’ve hired an attorney, they’ve got a vertical of their project. It’s a big project and they need to get that done and it needs to get approved by city government. The person they are going to meet with on Tuesday at 4 o’clock who works for city government–and I feel like I’ve really learned this from having been on different sides of the table–they are actually thinking in horizontals. They are operating in a world where they are going from meeting to meeting trying to thread together a comprehensive agenda. These people that you are meeting with when you are getting project approved—they are looking at the entire city. If you haven’t read the newspaper and don’t understand that maybe a site two doors down from your site had a huge infrastructure problem, or just had a big political scandal erupt around it, so that community is all fired up… if you think it’s just that your project is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you are going to fail in that meeting. You didn’t understand the horizontal context; all you were concerned with is the vertical of your project.
I’m not saying you have to pick one or the other; I’m saying you’ve got to do both. I think the field is more challenging today, not less. If you are trying to do the kind of work that we’re doing at PAU, you have to be a Swiss army knife: you’ve got to be this person who can operate really well in the vertical—in terms of beauty and form, material, construction—and in the horizontal—the politics, including the social, economic, and racial concerns. These things cut across society in all sorts of ways. You’ve got to operate on both axes all the time.
P: Once the work has been done to establish a project, do you think there becomes an intrinsic relationship between the frame and the product? To take the Indian Museum of Independence as an example, do you think there could be 100 different IMI museums that would satisfy the frame you’ve set up, or are you are trying to discover the architecture that actually is built from that frame?
VC: It’s definitely the second: part of what’s made IMI so hard is that we want an architectural proposal that is not the only solution—there is never one solution to anything—but that has a kind of unassailable logic to it. Otherwise, what have we done? This is the problem with signature architecture, actually. If the design of the project—its form, its tectonics—aren’t directly set by the larger agenda, then, it can be anything. And if it can be anything, then it becomes about self-expression, and only about self-expression. I’m not saying that self-expression is a bad thing; I’m saying if it’s the only thing, then you get into this stylistic approach, where I see the curvy bent titanium over there, I see the curvy bent stainless steel over there, and I see the curvy bent things over there. And I get it. The same architect did the curvy bent building. That holds absolutely no sway for me. Again, that is self-referential. It’s not about the larger issues that I, for one, care about. There are a few well-known architects out there in the world that represent this train of thought, and I think it is both emergent as well as it is historical.
P: How important is engaging those people that you are producing value for? And how much of your work are you are undertaking as the “experts” in construction?
VC: I think it would be incredibly arrogant to try and take on one of these advocacy projects without having the right base of knowledge, facts, and history. If you go on our website and look at our Penn Station video, it is a whole historical research phase that involved talking to three or four of the major authors who wrote books on Penn Station to be sure we had our facts straight. This is a little bit rare when practicing architecture—I find that a lot of architects are comfortable making stuff up.
I’ve taught design studios for years, and I love teaching design studios, but there are problematic parts of design studio. Design studio is geared towards getting people to really dig inside of themselves to design. As a consequence, some studios are still living in that world where concrete knowledge, like the apple that Eve gave to Adam, becomes some sort of spoiler. I think that is deeply problematic in the world we live in. That’s not just about talking to end-users, its understanding all sorts of surrounding ecological and economic issues. Facts are important: we live in a time when the very nature of facts is under assault from the highest powers of the land. I really believe that we are living in a moment where the Enlightenment itself is under question. The last thing architects should be doing, in that environment, is rejecting the importance of facts.
P: If the last thing we should be doing in today’s political climate is retreating from facts, is the first thing we should be doing retreating from architecture, and moving toward more direct involvement in pressing social issues?
VC: It is so ironic that you ask that. When I left SHoP, I had a lot of options. I could have gone into government, or politics, or I could have been a developer and made loads of money. I could have done all sorts of things. But, no, two years into forming what is a pretty die-hard architecture practice, I don’t ever doubt the importance or power of architecture. I think our work is important; I think the work of others is important. Architecture is the physical manifestation of societal values.
Part of why I’ve been so obsessed with Penn station for so many years is because to me, the demolition of the original station in 1963 represents the death of the Public in the United States. It brings you all the way up to the Reagan administration, and in lots of ways, we are still living with it today. There is still this basic question about whether we believe in any sense of a collective as a society. Architecture is the embodiment of that. It is the actual physical representation of that. Gated McMansions. Lots of 20 million dollar private homes built out in the woods somewhere…. that is an expression of society. I think architecture, for good or for bad, actually embodies these things that I really care about.
PAU is pine box for me. I’m in it for good. I’m naive enough to believe that it is deeply impactful. The last thing to say on this is that I think that students get frustrated when they hear from people in the field that architects don’t feel relevant, they don’t feel like they are impacting things, they don’t feel like they have a sense of control, etc…. I think it is just the opposite. I think you can be impactful. You can collaboratively control very significant outcomes on very significant questions if you frame yourself the right way, and frame your practice the right way. And that includes the art of building. I don’t think it is about somehow only becoming an advocate. Even for our Penn Station work, for IMI—these are advocacy projects—we are deep in the weeds of the architecture itself. We are laboring over materials, tectonics, expression, and emotion. I always lament when I see architects that are interested in politics move away from the art of building. The art of building is so incredibly rich and valuable and interesting. I don’t know why one would have to choose one or the other.