SEA Conversations, 17.06.2022 - 23.09.2022
Drawing Out Natures

Rohit Mujumdar

That last lesson …

Imaginations invent worlds, and how we come to understand them by constructing realities based on specific ways of seeing, listening and sensing. In this series of nine fortnightly monsoon 2022 public seminars, SEA City delves into Drawing out natures to advance imaginaries of engagement with contemporary ecological crises and climate emergencies, and the contests that come to erode and expand sociospatial claims in the shared ecologies of our worlds. It invites provocations on two questions: How can creative, exploratory and analytical engagements draw out natures of the contemporary ecological crises and climate emergencies? How can drawing out natures advance openings for the imagination of ecologically sustainable, and socially and spatially just, futures worlds?

Drawing out natures, in its broadest sense, means an engagement towards making visible, the invisible relations between natures and the natures of agency, insisting, as it were, to move beyond the nature-culture divide. This is not just a necessary and inevitable enterprise today. It is central because, in spite of the necessity and inevitability, such an engagement with ecology and environment remains “that last lesson” in India’s architectural academia and practice in relation to framing the act of imagination.

We make this claim in the backdrop of discussions surrounding pervasive fossil fuel extraction, menacing deglaciation, rising oceanic acidification, spreading wildfires, intensifying suspended particulates, seeping toxins, amplified sound waves etc. that threaten to transpose the shared ecologies of human and more-than-human worlds to a putative tipping point of ecological crises and climate emergencies. Broadly speaking, bureaucratic simplifications of complex knowledge systems that privilege boundary thinking and rights-based approaches that aim to reinforce or push back the simplifications are the two broad interventionist tendencies that have emerged in response. As such, both tendencies expand or erode sociospatial claims on shared ecologies of the worlds that human and more-than-human life inhabit. Drawing out natures extends an invitation to offer provocations that interrogate such tendencies and / or offer newer creative possibilities for imagining future worlds.

This series has been co-curated by SEA City and Shyama Foundation along with ongoing support of the Urban Centre, Mumbai.


The design of Drawing out natures is methodologically structured around three areas of ongoing research and design inquiries amongst SEA’s faculty and students, which include explorations into monsoonal ecologies, architectures of non-extraction, and cohabitation.

This series extended invitations to academics and practitioners not only from the field of architecture and landscape architecture but also from the fields of urban studies, anthropology and visual arts. In extending the invitations, SEA City coordinators were attentive to draw speakers whose explorations and institutional locations of academia / practice were based not only in India but also abroad. They were simultaneously attentive to draw both senior and junior scholars / practitioners, and men and women into conversation.

Since each conversation aims to offer a provocation, they can be (re)viewed independently in the archive. However, given that these SEA Conversations are archived together on a public platform, there could be many ways in which viewers can read the series’ structure and draw connections between the conversations. Three ways of (re)viewing this series of conversations are posed in the passages that follow.  

One way by which viewers can draw connections between the conversations is by following their linear flow. This flow connects the three areas of inquiry amongst the SEA’s faculty and students.  A second way follows the linear flow to read the structure of these conversations in the form of a classical essay’s argumentation - one that has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.


Interrogating boundary-thinking

Search, not for a God particle, but for the interconnectedness between “beings and things” or assemblages that shape “cities and climate,” and “society and planet.” Our first two interlocutors offer this provocation as they interrogate boundary-thinking in “Learning from Ecotones: Educational Experiments for a Critical Urban Pedagogy beyond Anthropocentrism” (Fotini Takirdiki) and “Monsoon as method” (Lindsay Bremner). This provocation is not rhetorical, but rather, it aims to open conceptual and analytical avenues for exploring the drawing out of natures.

Placing it in the backdrop of the ‘science and technology studies’ enterprise helps us understand its possibilities. The natural sciences have concerned themselves, in many ways, with the search for a God particle, that is, the fundamental force-carrying particle that grants other particles their mass. In cartographic explorations in human geography, such an enterprise has found translation in boundary-thinking, that is, in the delineation and establishment of zones that separate, measure, value and put different beings, terrain, weather, material etc. in their “rightful place” at multiple scales, for instance, the “swamp” and “Monsoonal Asia” of colonial area studies that our interlocutors interrogate. The point, line, and polygon come to be its God particles that offer the force of simplification to separate, measure and value complex relationships, ones that are first folded and then naturalized into Cartesian geometries, however incommensurate. More practically, they have found their zenith, so to speak, in large geographical data based information systems to re-engineer territories, resources and populations such that even monetary abstractions of carbon emissions can be traded for credit today.

In Learning from Ecotones, Takirdiki explores the swamp to advance three conceptualisations of ecotones as more-than-human interfaces, vessels for imagination, and experimental fields from which a critical pedagogy could emerge to educate planners that helps envision a future beyond anthropocentrism. At stake, in considering more-than-human life as social minorities in the anthropocene lie imperatives of addressing ecojustice that, according to Takirdiki, necessitate a collaborative approach to decision-making in planning practice. Advancing a pedantic approach to what she describes as a “messy exercise,” Takirdiki takes great pain to outline a sensorial autoethnography approach to build capacities of planning students about feral qualities and pathways of more-than-human life in the ecotones.

She holds such autoethnography as an agnostic mirror to interrogate planning expertise through semi-structured interviews with professional planners. If ecojustice is at stake, then her take away message to her audience is that planning knowledges need to mobilise the senses from which they have divorced themselves. This divorce, although Takirdi does not make a reference to it, takes us back to the first experiment of separating planning discipline from architecture by building an alignment with the social sciences. This was the Chicago School’s Programme for Planning Research and Education set up by Harvey Perloff as a part of the New Deal. In spite of its short life between 1949-1956, it became a model for programmes of planning education across the world to follow. Scholarly attention to the imagination of the senses in planning expertise aims to interrogate the narrow focus on the social

In Monsoon as method, Bremner interrogates “the idea that is deeply embedded in climate science and popular imaginary, that climate and society are separate bounded domains stacked up against one another'' (emphasis added). It is language that has made possible such a binary imagination in the first place - one which separates, externalises, objectifies climate in relationship to society while dehistoricising the relationship between race and climate. In response, Monsoon as method, advances cartography and ethnography, to articulate a language for how might we conceive, grasp, redraw the monsoon, and its interdependent and interpenetrating natures? Cartography is deployed, not to construct an objective reality, but to interrogate such claims by making visible inconsistencies, glitches and blindspots in the technologies (satellite data) and moments (places and times of capture) that claim to produce an objective reality. Multi-sited ethnography is deployed to follow routes, times and places that fabricate city economies and built form into architectures that extract surplus value, on the one hand, and the violence that human decisions create on more-than-human life, on the other hand. Monsoon as method situates how intimacies are produced in the metanarratives of cartography and multi-sited ethnography through the interpenetrations of deep geological time, cyclical and dynamic monsoonal (weather) time, and the time of an everyday.

Architectures of non-extraction

Design architectures of non-extraction that rely, not the production of exchange and surplus values, but spatial conditions necessary for the reproduction of life, and in turn, that value local knowledges, materials and resources in such reproduction. Activist practices, advanced both by professional architects and citizen activists, offer us this provocation in the following five conversations on Afforesting urban landscapes (K. Saktivel and Vibhavari Sarangan), Architectural Innovations in Bamboo: Design for mainstream futures (Hemang Mistry), Reclaiming our lost natural building practices (Biju Bhaskhar from Thannal Natural Homes), Maharashtra Stepwells Campaign (Rohan Kale), and Mee Dhamapur Talav Bolto Aahe (I am Dhamapur Talav speaking, Mohammad Shaikh).

The counter fable of ‘non-extraction’ aims to articulate an oppositional practice of resistance that strives to intervene into the spatial, aesthetic and knowledge imaginaries through which architectural practice is deeply fabricated into the creation of surplus values not only in situ but also in the increasingly distant peripheries of resource extraction where dire ecological and social consequences play out. The intellectual resources for constructing this fable come from two separate avenues of ongoing discussions. The first avenue emerges from social sciences research, which has discussed imaginaries where built environments are recast in elite grammars of extraction, containment and displacement through the fable of primitive accumulation, gentrification, accumulation by dispossession, and perpetration of bourgeois environmentalism. A second avenue emerges architectural research and practice, which has mobilised a normative position and strategy for the design of “sustainable builtform” through conceptual tropes such as the ‘local,’ ‘embodied energy’ and ‘green technology.’ in order to reduce carbon dependency and ecological footprint.

In Afforesting urban landscapes, Sarangan, a young architect practicing from Mumbai, engages in Saktivel, an established Miyawaki practitioner from Madurai, in conversation about the possibilities of greening in Mumbai’s autoconstructed settlements with highly toxic environments. Sarangan’s desire is to explore the tactical possibilities of greening in autoconstructed settlements without falling prey to the pathological and extractive grammars of cleansing and displacement that have driven much of the urban renewal thinking across the world since the late nineteenth century. Saktivel’s and his experiences of afforestation in Madurai become her interlocutors and bouncing board to work not only through the practical exigencies of Miyawaki expertise but also the tactical opportunities of community- and constituency- building.

In Architectural Innovations in Bamboo: Design for mainstream futures, Mistry poses the audiences with a question: How can bamboo - a material technically classified as a grass, largely used in construction practices across cities in India as a scaffold, and sparsely explored as an alternative in “sustainable” design in the “countryside” - afford the possibilities to craft architectural form and space in dense urban environments? Mistry finds his answer in advancing ‘clustering’ as a concept that structures the rhythms and geometries of space, and the design of the material details that bamboo can afford.  These, according to Mistry, intersect with environmental flows such as wind including possible storms, play of light etc. As his practice goes about building this craft, it attempts to push the boundaries of what design can achieve in terms of the geometries of form and space through a slow-building of the practice’s repoterie of an exploration into bamboo’s tensile/compressive strengths/stresses over successive projects.

In Reclaiming our lost natural building practices, Bhaskar asks a provocative question about the possibilities of constructing buildings that use zero percent cement as a material: “If natural farming, natural clothing, natural medicine can happen … … then why can’t natural building happen?” In posing examples of indigenous knowledge systems in shelter making, Bhaskar opposes cement to “natural” materials such as mud, stone, bamboo, wood, plant and animal derivatives, lime and terracotta from which buildings in the present and future ought to be constructed. This normative position structures the form of his practice, Thannal (which means shade), where design activity is only of its many components, and not necessarily the central one. Thannal is a space for many activities: first, a space respecting indigenous artisans; second, a space for study and documentation; third, a space for research and development; fourth, a space for design; and fifth, a space for dissemination. His presentation demonstrates these facets to articulate what a contemporary architectural studio practice could look like through endeavors such exploratory study trips to build an understanding of indigenous knowledges in shelter making; training of artisans, architects and interested lay people who come to take short taught courses and workshops on indiegnous knowledge systems; and, even the publishing of books, videos and web series.  

In the Maharashtra Stepwells Campaign, Kale, a bike travel enthusiast, speaks about how his travel enthusiasm led him to resign from a plush corporate sector job (on the cusp of the COVID pandemic) and become citizen-environmental activist campaigning for the conservation of stepwells in Maharashtra. “We know that the region of Gujarat has stepwells, but” he asks, “do we know how many equally significant stepwells exist in the region of Maharashtra?” Armed with his bike and a GPS, he has traveled solo around several cities and villages in Maharashtra over the last two years locating at least 400 diverse stepwells known locally as Badavs, Bavdis, Ghodebavs, Pokharbavs, Kunds, Pushkarnis, Pokhrans, Helical Stepwells and Stepped Tanks. Simultaneously he has engaged extensively with local bureaucrats, politicians, lay citizens, architecture schools, history and heritage experts to mobilise and garner support for documenting a taluka-wise inventory of step wells, producing knowledge about their significance, popularising them, and initiating efforts for their revival. Two things stand out in Kale’s talk: first, according to him, stepwells in Maharashtra present the potential for constructing a new history of old trade routes along which several such public amenities were built through the patronage of chieftains, merchants etc., and second, the role that manufacturing of new festivals could play in heritage conservation and revival efforts.
In Mee Dhamapur Talav Bolto Aahe, Shaikh, the co-founder of an alternate residential education programme steeped in values of ‘knowing and learning by doing’ called The University of Life, speaks about the programme’s efforts and contribution to the conservation of Dhamapur Talav. In pushing back the efforts of lake beautification for tourism and leisure activities at Dhamapur Talav, The University of Life mobilised collective action in Malvan taluka of Konkan region on India’s west coast by producing a film through public participation. The film, with the same name as the talk’s title, manufactures a popular local history of the talav and its surrounds as it draws attention to its ecological significance as a carbon sink through the high levels of biodiversity, interspecies interactions and cohabitation.