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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

On Seeing

Anu Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha flew here to Rome to give us a lecture titled “Between the Monsoon and the Sea”. The married couple run a landscape architecture practice, Mathur/da Cunha and teach at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on shifting and dynamic landscapes.

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Dilip da Cunha and Anu Mathur

They are quick to first point out the importance of seeing things in a different light in any given design problem. They take on this important paradigm as the basis for all their works, engaging in speculation and pro-active engagements with the landscape to create questions about the design problem rather than simply eliminating issues. They are quick not to reveal projects as they are, but to show the problem of ‘seeing’ behind every project and the underlying biases which we have about them.

Anu and Dilip reveal how often our actions as designers are locked within the traditional perceptions of our subjects and are often at the root of the problem. They bring up the example of the levee system during the flooding of New Orleans. The central failure may not be the levees themselves, but the oversimplified perception of the Mississippi River. Showing us maps of the Mississippi River, Anu and Dilip question the logic of drawing rivers as lines between two points when in reality these rivers are constantly flooded and violating its own boundaries. Such an oversimplification of the river overshadows the reality that this ‘river’ can in fact become everything from large pools of water to systems of waterways, and everything in-between when flooded.

A projection map revealing pools of water from the Mississippi

A projection map revealing pools of water from the Mississippi

They further support their point with a series of pictures of the Mississippi, which are quite different from how we may know the river. We see fields of pools of water, a delta river in a slight brown hue of mud with no clear demarcation between what is land and what is water, and parallel streams of river without any dominant stream — all to further challenge this false convention of a river as a linear element. Exactly what is river and land is clearly destabilized in an effort to rethink the very central problem of the river and flooding.

Photo lapses capturing river differences

Photo lapses capturing river differences

If settlements and designs are built upon this false perception of the linear river, they are bound to fail when these systems fail to act upon unforeseen events such as the flooding of New Orleans.

Anu and Dilip compare between Western and Indian settlements to show us just how different these two societies perceive water and how they influence the design process. The Western notion of barricading cities from the onset of floods is strongly contrasted with images of Indian mounds surrounded by pools of water. New Orleans uses levees to free the land from water whereas the Indian mounds embrace the flood around the settlements as part of its territory. In the Indian sense, there is no flood whereas in new Orleans, the threat of flood is a very apparent reality.

Map representation of the Mississippi

Map representation of the Mississippi

Different ways of representation of cartographical maps further show just how distant our perception is to reality. They support their argument with cartographical maps, which shows the stark difference between reality and our perceptions of water and land. The hard lining of a river and the strong demarcation between land and water shows just how absurd these maps are in places like Mumbai, where flooding is a constant reality. They show just how influential these perceptions are in development and design, as developments are generally built upon previous mappings and are therefore grounded on a false perception of the river.

One of their project proposals in Bombay, India

One of their project proposals in Bombay, India

The way they present their projects is as crafty and as subversive as is in their approach and thinking. They are unafraid to adopt non-traditional strategies and pathways to discover the root of many design problems, employing means of photography, sections, and modes of representation beyond traditional means.

Capturing softscape by section

Capturing softscape by section

Adopting new strategies and new ways of representation, Mathur’s and da Cunha’s diagrams capture these dynamic shifts in land and embrace the ambiguous modes of thinking between water and land. The creation of ‘soft’ boundaries and the embracing of vague and ambiguous space is clearly an influence from their discovery on water and its behaviors.

Questioning traditional norms also means embracing subjects and issues which are typically overlooked and provide for a more comprehensive solution. In one of their projects, they develop barges from the river, which takes advantage of human feces as a way to recycle and generate a profit for the locals.

Mr. Dilip da Cunha and Mrs. Anu Mathur after the lecture

Mr. Dilip da Cunha and Mrs. Anu Mathur after the lecture

As they showed us one project after another, the lecture became a way of revealing to us new ways of understanding water and land. A metaphor which beautifully describes their approach in working with water and land: “the depth of the sea is conscious because of the rising of water, displacement of water, depth and surface, horizon and boundary”

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