Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tightly woven or loosely woven but always letting in the air

The place we're staying at in Batticaloa has a huge traditional easy chair that I feel spoils me every time I sit (or lie down) in it. In addition to its capacious dimensions the design is graceful. Most of all I am attracted to the wonderful cane weaving that serves as a seat and back. It's superbly geometric, lightweight yet strong, and it always lets in the air. 

Same goes for the hammock I snuggled into today, mesmerized by the sound of lapping water in the lagoon as I stared up at the wood apple tree above. 

It's not so easy for an outsider to see patterns of how things are put together in Sri Lanka but if you look, they stand out. The easygoing nature of people here, ready with a smile or a friendly nod, is unexpected or even jarring to a Westerner. Where are the frowns and smug expressions we're so used to as we sink into our parkas to avoid the cold? 

I'm the last person to make a stereotype of Sri Lankans. I know how hard my friend Janaka Wijesundara works for the benefit of his students at Moratuwa University. I've seen the time and concern his colleagues put into their work and I know the energy they burn on questions of the " Megapolis" and other worries. For that matter, wherever we stay in Sri Lanka the easygoing smile or wave of the hand of our guesthouse people is underlain by a huge amount of work. It takes a busy staff with a complete set of skills to keep guests happy whether it's feeding them, cleaning up after them, or maintaining their quarters. By the way we think of "foreigners" as Westerners. But did I tell you how hard the Indian guests are on our hosts? Hospitality is much more gratefully accepted by Europeans, at least from what I've seen. 

So what is it about Sri Lanka? I struggle always, wherever I am in the country, to characterize it. One thing I'm sure of, though I can't quantify it, is that people here are hard wired differently than in the West. Our guesthouse host, who was a wing commander in the Sri Lankan Air Force before he took over the guesthouse from his parents, told me the other day his family is "pretty sure" their pet dalmatian will come into its next life as a human. "It's our belief" he tells me. More important maybe was a pile of bags in the lobby the other day, filled with food, that he's giving to charity. Yes we give charity in the West. But here it's different. Or maybe we're different. 

The warp and weave of a society tells you a lot about its people. Maybe you can't understand every piece of the puzzle. Maybe your impressions are a bit hazy. But there is so much to learn here about how to live. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Build knowledge by stepping back

In my recent work with students at Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka I ran across the same problem as I see with my American students. As architects and urban planners, the students diligently work toward design solutions. It's an admirable pursuit. Who doesn't want to make the world better place?
But just like my students in Boston, I want to admonish my Sri Lankan students, "Slow down! Step back!" This may sound like a cruel joke to students who are primed for work. They have studied hard--very hard-to reach the heights they have achieved. They have put their all into academic projects, struggling with the various and sometimes contradictory opinions of tutors, professors, and external jurors during crits. They have striven to produce their best work. And they hope to contribute through their profession. Most important, they want to make the world a better place. 

So here's my question. Can we make the world a better place by "doing" less? Let me put it another way. Can we fill in the intangible missing parts of our designs by observing more and "solving" fewer problems?

Let me give you an example. I was at a field site with an M-Arch student, already an accomplished architect here in Sri Lanka. And he does nice work. As we stood overlooking the colorful, noisy, earthy, dirty, unruly fish market just outside the Galle Fort, he insisted that any comprehensive design he would undertake would necessarily "deal with" the fish market. He called it disorganized and undisciplined. I suggest that a closer look at the market would demonstrate otherwise. 

Taking a further look, or many more looks, and accepting the fish market on its own terms, we are certain to see that there is a fairly strict organization of function. Sellers have their own place, sales and buying are undertaken in consistent, predictable ways. The noise is part of the convention of trade. Even "dirty" goes by the wayside if you look closely. The sellers all have buckets that collect meltwater from the ice. Observe closely and you see order, discipline, and care for the space, all things my friend wants to disrupt!

A talented designer doesn't see through his own biases. What about his students? How do we build knowledge if our basis is our own bias? So perhaps we should be teaching how to learn, how to observe, how to step back from our own "ideas," before we teach principles of design. In fact, I think we should teach and encourage these modalities all through the design education process, to students of every age. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Observe deeply and respond with meaning

Yesterday I participated in the third annual International Conference on People, Places, and Cities in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was my third year at the conference, not such a big deal except that Sri Lanka is on the other side of the globe and in previous years I've had to carve out a week from teaching to travel the distance, participate in student workshops, and present at the conference. 

This year I presented on one of the online courses I teach at Boston University, a core undergraduate course on landscape analysis. There are several features of the course that go beyond the fact that it's online and designed for adult learners who are working to complete their BA. First, almost all of the coursework is designed by the students. Apart from some questions that I throw them, there are almost no assigned readings or lecture material. I designed the course this way because I want the students to define and deliver their own meaning to the course material. I could lecture on the California drought but coming to understand it in their own terms is, I think, more meaningful. 

Second, all of the deliverables for the course are submitted through social media. Twitter is our primary vehicle with slightly longer writing assignments done using Flickr. More than being strongly visually-based I use these media, especially twitter, to encourage spontaneity, brevity, and frequent communication. This in response to proprietary online platforms that BU uses that are clunky, ugly, anti-intuitive, difficult to upload into, and overall limiting. I want the openest and most frequent possible communication in class. In fact, the 50 students generated some 5000 tweets over the eight weeks of the course. My goals of very high engagement and high student enthusiasm were met and exceeded. 

Finally, and this is what I forgot to mention in my talk yesterday, I want all of my students to observe closely, deeply, their landscape. This includes their personal landscape and their learning landscape. 

Close observation affords us with insights we can work with. As we observe we gather data. We can operate with that data to do meaningful work. 

This week as I worked with students at Moratuwa University, which sponsored the People, Places, and Cities conference I evaluated work that was the result of various levels of observation. Mostly I gently prodded the students (and my colleagues) "how many site visits did you do?" From most of the work I saw, I suspect it wasn't many. Architects, planners, and designers are prone, like the rest of us, to throw their "good ideas" at a project with perhaps too little observation, too little supporting data. Potentially, in the wrong hands, this can affect people's lives adversely. 

All of my students, whether here in Colombo or back home in Boston, need to observe more closely, more thoroughly, and more deeply. Gather data that you pick up with your own eyes and ears. Feel and smell the data. Make the data meaningful to you. Then act with meaning. What you produce through your own deep experience will change the world for the better because you have worked to build it and you have felt it. 

I love Sri Lanka. So what's bothering me?

I love Sri Lanka and its people. So it's unusual for me to have a down moment here. The strange thing is I've been kind of down at the mouth for the past day or so. I think I may have found the cause: that four-letter word w-o-r-k. Well at least in part. It has pretty much seemed non-stop for about ten days now, ever since our truncated visit to Galle with students from Moratuwa University. 

I'm loosely associated with the Architecture Department at Moratuwa for my Fulbright, and these days have been a period of feverish activity-a two-day student workshop led by my colleague and friend Koen deWandeler of KU Leuven University in Belgium, an all-day crit of student work, another all-day juried panel of student presentations. A lot to wrap my head around as a biologist-even though I also teach design research methods in the sustainability program at the Boston Architectural College. 

Speaking of wrapping my head around things...perhaps the most amazing thing I've experienced here is a closeness with a world view I've never known before. It's not something I can describe exactly. But I feel it's there in so many intangible ways. The exquisitely balanced food. The massage that connects me to unknown sensations. The look in people's faces or the way they move. The grace in a gesture. The way things seem to "fit together," at least to an outsider. My weeks here have been involved with exploring these intangible landscapes as much as I've been trying to discern how the physical landscape functions. 

So while I haven't been able to characterize fully the intangible human landscape all around me-a landscape I run into every day-at least I'm enough in touch to know it's out there, and that it has dimensions of its own-dimensions I may never come to fully understand. It's with a sense of humility and wonderment that I experience this. And it's that wonderment in part that keeps this experience, a kind of pursuit of a mysterious (to me) way of life, so amazing for me. 

So in a way the student work and especially the conference I just attended only added noise to this pursuit. Part of the noise has been the level and direction of academic endeavor, something that disappoints me whether I'm at home or in another country. From the standpoint of student work it was competent drawings, well-chosen quotes, and fine-sounding ideas that in many (not all) cases clothe half-baked "urban solutions" and poorly thought out concepts. Maybe that's how it always is with students. That's part of the fun and frustration. 

But what about more advanced scholars and "scholarship?" I heard talks the past couple of days that took me right back to '80s post-Marxist deconstructionism. Many of them were read, some just about recited. It's not just the supposed political stance, which people are entitled too. It's about the rote usage of terms like "hegemony," "power," and "discourse" that kept rolling off people's tongues the way the students recited the high-sounding ideas that weren't their own. My complaint is about "more of the same" among minds from whom I expected a bit of nuance. Minds with training and free time (I assume) to do a lot of independent thinking. 

Coming in touch with Sri Lanka is about coming in touch with ideas, feelings, and sensations that are simply and fully new. It's a little raw. But as you let it in the experience is astounding. Having your mind open is the only way to launch into this. Being near closed minds, or minds narrowly focused on Western "critique" is a wan experience that pales by comparison. So besides for "work," which I mentioned tongue in cheek (though some of the 12-hour days were more than enough), I suspect it's the diversion from experiencing the wonderment that's here as low hanging fruit that has turned me off. Looking forward now to a short break as we do some travel and re-start our real work here, cultural landscape ecology. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mega questions in the new Megapolis

Moratuwa University, where I'm spending part of my Fulbright, is one of two architecture schools in Sri Lanka and its urban and rural planning department has led the way here for decades. So it would have been natural for the Minister of Megapolis---yes there is such a thing in Sri Lanka--to have attended the upcoming conference on People, Places and Cities sponsored by Moratuwa University. 

It's a bit of a conundrum actually, isn't it? Blast into the future by building a "Megapolis," more roads, offices, and infrastructure to double the size of Colombo? Or ease into a future that people negotiate from their homes online. Sri Lanka will be the first country on Earth to have connectivity in every corner thanks to a google project that's coming in March. Why not take advantage of that and skip the huge urban growth mistakes we made in the West over the past two centuries? But big construction brings big money, opportunity, change. 

You can imagine that these questions resonate in the architecture department at Moratuwa. Likewise among the urban design folks. Or is it more of the same old same old in the halls of academe?

Well my friend and colleague Janaka Wijesundara sat in the staff room the other day disappointed that the Minister of Megapolis won't be joining us for the conference. The minister had his people call pretty much at the last minute to inform Janaka he was going on a junket to India instead. Last time that happened to me it was with a shortsighted dean (to put it nicely) who cancelled at the last minute on a lunch I had put together to promote her program with another department. More than the slap in the face that it was, I preferred to look at it as a lost opportunity. 

What about lost opportunities here in Sri Lanka? What are the stakes?  Or as my urban design colleagues put it, what about the stakeholders?

Comes to mind the concerted move to evict "squatters" from large tracts of Colombo City to make room for resorts, hydroplane landings, and mega-shopping areas. To accompany these, and well out of sight, mega-housing projects will be lined up in their blocks to re-house the displaced, who are at the bottom of the "stakeholder" pecking order.  We in the West are dynamiting the mega blocks for the poor that we constructed in the 20th century. As a social experiment it was dead wrong. Will it work better here? Why not ask the Minister of Megapolis!

Or ask my friend and colleague Asiri Dissayanake, a young architect trained at Moratuwa and in Belgium, who recently received a Perween Rahman fellowship to work with a small community in North Colombo--one of the communities of "slum-dwellers" that a second-year Urban Design student suggested we evict in favor of mega resorts at her crit yesterday. 

Thing is, they're not "slum-dwellers." They are a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, religion, and occupation of some 100 families who moved here three generations ago from different villages. They work, they send their kids to school, they are regular people. Thing is, they don't have proper deeds (Asiri's project is focusing on that as a first priority) and they don't have proper sanitation facilities (a close second on the to-do list). The Perween Rahman project (the award is small money, just USD2000, is aimed at building sustainable communities among under-serviced rural and urban populations in South Asia. It's not a handout. It's a ladder to climb to a little higher level of self-sufficiency. 

Of course the job as minister of Megapolis is political. And so are all the questions that surround Megapolis. There are high stakes. This is a stab at the future and no one can predict that future. It was political that the Minister backed out. And the conference itself is political. Bringing an international group to Colombo to discuss urban questions is huge. And it positions my colleagues as leaders in their own country and in South Asia. It's an opportunity. I've learned from it the past years I've attended. Too bad the Minister won't be there to learn something. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Learning by painting. Conceptualizing ancient irrigation tanks ofSri Lanka

I came to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship to study cultural landscape ecology. In the back of my mind I had hoped to set up a studio and do some painting. As luck would have it my guesthouse has an empty beach cabana where I could get to work, just a few feet from the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. 

We got to Colombo after several weeks of walking, exploring the by-ways of the countryside in the North and North Central Provinces. My focus was irrigation tanks, large bodies of water induced over the centuries to gather, filter, and distribute water to the rice fields. Amazing as these are as a scenic feature (and they are abundant--as many as one per square kilometer in parts of the country), it is even more amazing to start to understand how they work. 

For me this learning came not from reading articles but by tramping along and through the (seasonally dry) tank beds. Feeling the contours, the breezes, the angles and colors was my goal. And it taught me a lot. 

Coming to paint the tanks seemed a natural idea, not as scenery, at least at first, but as a kind of map. I had studied topo maps of this part of Sri Lanka for several years and recently got a hold of the new and immensely informative 1:10,000 series. 

But as it turns out the tanks are less lines on a piece of paper than ever-changing focal points of the local landscape. Mappable? Yes. But every map is an approximation. 

As I set to work, very lightly painting with linseed-oil thinned paints, I tried to depict the mosaic form that characterizes tank vegetation. This meant irregular shapes that suggested change and impermanence. I painted the several of the various named components of the tanks (there are upwards of 50 according to my friend and colleague MUA Tennakoon who is rehabbing tanks with the help of the UNDP). 

What emerged on canvas was, to me, something that approached a depiction of organs. Not by intention I was conceptualizing the tank as a body with its component organs, most of which filter, move, and detoxify water, much as our organs do. Could the tanks have been designed as a reflection of the human body? Perhaps the Mahavasama or other written work will be able to enlighten us as to these inscrutable, complex bodies of water. 

So with a new model of tank morphology and anatomy in mind, I look forward to a break from Colombo. Hopefully Janet and I will take off next week, after the International Conference on People, Places, and Cities sponsored by my friends at Moratuwa University. Maybe I'll be able to test my organs-and-body hypothesis further as we wander through the landscape observing, documenting, and analyzing what we see. 

My hypothesis itself I think is less important than the idea that we learn from doing--even (or especially) by doing art. Lots more opportunities for this kind of learning are coming up the pike during this amazing Fulbright. 

At Moratuwa University

I am at Moratuwa University for the third year in a row. Last October, when I participated in the second annual student workshop connected to the International Conference of People, Places, and Cities, I had the sad feeling that it would be my last visit to Sri Lanka. Two proposals in two years had been rejected by the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies (AISLS) and my first stab at the Fulbright had also received a thumbs down. I had another application to the Fulbright in the hopper but my hopes were not high. 

So here I am in the courtyard of the School of Architecture in the moments before the student workshop is set to begin. The familiar setting, the humid, muddy courtyard, the eager and dutiful students piling in to the conference room where only last night I participated in crits with the advanced masters students. The moments of calm before the flurry of activity, presentations, and discussions that will characterize the day's progression. 

What a great feeling to be here. I was picked up two hours early by my posse, the third year masters students who I spent the weekend with in Galle. The excitement, the activity, the unmistakeable feeling of "arrival" in a setting I had hoped for, I don't really know why, since my first visit here in 2013. 

Cultural landscape ecology, the interdisciplinary, somewhat intangible focus of my work here, is real. And every day I find out more about it in ever-unexpected dimensions. The soil scientist, a tried and true researcher who banks on the empirical, who tells me frankly that the ancient irrigation tanks were built by giants inspired by sutras. The journalist and urban planner who reports on cosmic forces that influence human behavior. The agronomist who swears that using different building materials changes the energy and fate of a space. These are real. As real as any "scientific" study of my topic. Real because they embody, or at least provide examples of the "culture" in "cultural landscape ecology."

So where am I in this process? Where am I heading? How to make sense of these and a million other interactions that spring from a collective human heart I have not read before?

To say that I'm pleased with how things have gone is a gross underestimate of my feelings. My frustration with no language skills is natural and I think positive, indicating to me the wish to reach out and understand more. Trying to put this all in a pedagogical or research context I can understand is hard. As hard as it is for Janet to wrap her head around the gross misuse of western medicines in a poor country with supposedly well-trained physicians and an Ayurvedic heritage all its own. 

So buildings stand and traffic roars and the ocean pounds the shore and money changes hands. But all these "realities" come to nothing in the broader vision of a place and its people who remain as mysteries to me one month in. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I came to see

I came to see water
And I came to see the tanks
I came to see the tanks
And I came to see flow
I came to see flow and I came to see energy
I came to see energy
And I came to see smoke
I came to see smoke
And I came to see temples
I came to see temples
And I came to see images
I came to see images
And I came to see the tanks

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Three paintings and a landscape of abundance

My Fulbright in Sri Lanka has focused on cultural landscape ecology. With a strong interest in the amazing irrigation tanks of this place, some 30,000 human-built lakes that have been in use since ancient times, my research has taken me to spots of incredible beauty. These are not the kind of take-your-breath-away scenic marvels like the Canadian Rockies. In fact they are peaceful, gentle spots of intense intimacy. They are also emblematic of the abundance of this country. As the chief source of water for dozens of strains of rice that are native to Sri Lanka, the tanks and tank landscapes are synonymous with the culture of plenty that characterizes this generous land. 

This brings me to one of my favorite topics, iconography the study of images and symbols. Religious imagery abounds in Sri Lanka. You can't take a bus ride without running into a portrait of Lakshmi, the goddess of plenty. At almost every tank I've visited there is a shrine to Ganesha, the elephant god. And on less frequent occasions, especially in the North, I've had the delight of encountering Hanuman, the god of many positive attributes, not least of which is his monkey-like face. 

All of these gods embody or are associated with some aspect of plenty. In a recent trip to Jaffna, in Sri Lanka's far north I came across another religious image in front of a Hindu kovil that I've pondered upon. I can see that it depicts a conch shell. But can we interpret it else wise? Could this "vessel with wings" actually represent a kind of vision of plenty, with bounty overflowing its rim? Kind of a "cup runneth over" reminiscent of the stupendous spillways of irrigation tanks I saw last May after the rains?

Going only on instinct I decided to depict this image using my new oil paints and board. As I worked on and squinted at my emerging triptych it came, in my mind at least, to represent the gods I mentioned above. My paintings are abstract to the max but I hope you'll enjoy them. 

Here is Lakshmi. Instead of the lotus on which she's traditionally situated, I have her floating atop the furrow patterns you see in a typical rice field. 

Sorry I don't have a photo of her. As I look through my images there are so many of the other deities. 

Like Lakshmi, Ganesh is ubiquitous all over Sri Lanka, including the Sinhala Buddhist south. I was drawn to this runic Ganesh I saw next to a tank in the Dry Zone, painted on a rock. There are so many more. 

My Ganesh happens to have the suggestion of a bodhi leaf for a trunk. 

Finally, Hanuman. It seems the farther north you travel the more outrageous his depictions. This one was sitting in a cage outside of a kovil on an isolated road between a Point Pedro and Vallipuram, a long walk we undertook without getting lost. Maybe this Hanuman, who's covered with rolled betel leaves, was watching out for us.