BMW Guggenheim Lab reaches Mumbai

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a mobile laboratory with a purpose that travels to various cities and explores urban issues and through public engagement aims to understand urban fabric and its culture in context. The Lab comprises of interdisciplinary teams of urban planners, sustainability consultants, educators, researchers and traffic consultants and it aims to serve as a platform to facilitate and encourage a dialog between citizens and professionals about the urban spaces we inhabit.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab was launched in Berlin and ran from June through July; later it ran in New York from August through October. The Lab has now travelled to Mumbai and is currently camping at its central location, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum and will run through 20 January 2013.

Pallavi Shrivastava, WAN’s Mumbai Correspondent, had the opportunity to interview the Lab’s Curator, David van der Leer. Below are excerpts from the interview which gives an idea of the Lab and what it aims to do through its various events and activities. A full schedule of the Lab can be found here. Some of the interesting ongoing discussions and reflections on Lab have been written by the bloggers. Find them here and here.

Pallavi: What has been the idea and inspiration behind the BMW Guggenheim Lab and what is it looking to explore in the cities it is traveling to?

David: The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a project that Maria Nicanor and I started a few years ago in the hopes to bring everyday urban citizens into conversations about cities that are typically limited to city officials, policy makers, architects, designers etc. Would the conversation get more diverse, would we get to new ideas? We wanted to test what would happen if our conversations would take place outside in the city instead of in auditoriums. And what we have learned so far is that the conversations are indeed different in tone, and that we come to new ideas.

How were these specific cities selected? Did the BMW Guggenheim Lab have any set criteria before it narrowed down on these three cities?

The Lab has been interested in going to different continents. The nice thing about the current mix of cities is that we have cities of three completely different scales and densities, with very different social contexts. Together they give us a decent outlook and understanding of some of the key issues taking place in urbanism today.

After New York and Berlin, the Lab is currently in Mumbai. Were there any similarities in terms of urban design issues and also any stark difference that the Lab team has had the understanding of?

The conversation in each of the cities that we go to is different. In Mumbai the conversation has quite strongly focused on the relationship between the individual and the community and its impact on design issues and policy decisions. The Lab Team for Mumbai has worked up a series of design projects and research studies which is quite different from the approach in some of the other cities.

For Mumbai specifically, how does this city differentiate itself in terms of challenges, learning’s and urban context?

Mumbai is one of the densest cities in the world. As a result, the urban issues that we are running into in many other places tend to get intensified here. Just think of Mumbai’s issues around transportation, or housing. Just to name a few.

Coming to public spaces issues in Mumbai, what has been BMW Guggenheim Lab’s learning and unlearning so to speak?

Several of our studies for Mumbai are focused on the topic of privacy. In most of the local languages there is not a good word for privacy, which already shows how little the topic is being discussed. Our studies show that people in Mumbai have rather intense home environments and as a result of that look for privacy all around the city sometimes in most unexpected places. It would make sense if this had an impact on the design, for instance, public spaces but it doesn’t always. So this is one of the issues that we are looking into.

Does the BMW Guggenheim Lab team feels that Mumbai citizen’s response to the Lab has been similar as it was in New York and Berlin? If not, what has been the difference in their perspective?

The great thing about the Lab is that it is different wherever we go. In Mumbai the interaction has been very direct – with many great questions about what the Lab can do for this particular city. For me personally it is most important to get everyday Mumbaikars to speak up about their city – which in the long run can have impact on policy decisions and the development of design ideas. But probably more important in the short run is a series of very tangible projects that have been developed for Mumbai (the design and studies).

How were Lab sessions and events curated and what was the background research before narrowing down to current sessions that are currently taking place in Mumbai?

In each of the cities that we go to we bring together a team of four Lab Members. In Mumbai we are working with Trupti Amritwar Vaitla (architect and planner, Mumbai), Hector Zamora (artist, Mexico and Brazil), Aisha Dasgupta (demographer, London and Malawi) and Neville Mars (architect and planner, Netherlands and Shanghai). Together they spent several months in Mumbai to do research, meet with tons of people, and see lots of areas in the city. They developed the general premise of the Lab for Mumbai, which we then developed further with them as well as with a team of local programs experts.

The beauty of our project is that it is all about the process. So we will be able to explain to you better what our project has really turned into at the end of the run of the Lab – as we need the engagement of Mumbaikars to come to further new insights.

Moving forward, what does BMW Guggenheim Lab see changing through these initiatives and how does it hope to see positive changes envisaged through the Lab?

It is interesting to see how this is also different for each of the cities that we go to. In New York a neighborhood organization (First Street Green) continued our work on the Lab site after we left with great cultural programs focused on the neighborhood and the city. In Berlin we have various design and research projects that took on a life of their own. My favorite one there was a crowd-sourced bike map project in which Berliners could suggest where to lay bike paths – a project that is now being analyzed by the city council and that seems to have a serious impact on where bike paths will be installed over the coming years.

But again in the long run it is very important that everyday urbanites start to speak up and think about their cities much more- which over the coming decades will have a serious impact on design and policy.

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