City as School: classroom correspondence from Mumbai to São Paulo
We speak with Rohan Shivkumar, Maira Rios and Carol Tonetti on their experiences of education in extreme urban contingency.

The narratives of the São Paulo-based Escola da Cidade and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute in Mumbai demonstrate several parallels. Both schools crystallised their agenda in the mid-nineties, both are fairly independent, and both use the intense conditions of their locale as a basis for education and research. Rohan Shivkumar, Maira Rios and Carol Tonetti share their experiences of education in extreme urban contingency.

This conversation is part of KoozArch’s Issue #03 | New Rules for School.

SHUMI BOSE (KOOZ)Both of your schools are in cities under extreme pressure, while also being less confined by traditional institutional protocols. I’d like to learn about what’s special and what is possible where you teach.

ROHAN SHIVKUMARSo KRVIA — the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies — is a private school within Mumbai University. It started in 1992 — I think that was an important moment in India, the early 90s. It marked the privatisation of education, the privatisation of a lot of things that were previously controlled by the state. The founder and director at that point, Sen Kapadia, was an architect. He had a vision of sorts, of an architecture school that was able to challenge preconceived imaginations of what pedagogy could be. He was very clearly frustrated with the conservative nature in which architectural education was being conducted in this country. I don't think he had a very clear idea of what the alternative could be but he had some instincts to change things and he went with those.

One instinct he followed was the decision to create a multidisciplinary space. He knew that conventional architectural knowledge would not be enough to deal with the transformations that the country was going through. It was more than a little prescient, because we did go through a radical transformation in the nineties, whereby the city of Bombay/Mumbai and all cities really became the generators of the economy for the nation. Within the next decades the global economy radically transformed the country, and I think that attitude of multidisciplinarity really helped us evolve an architecture course that was able to address those transformations

"In the mid 90s we began thinking about what architectural education should be, not only as a space of creation of knowledge, but also as a space that participates in the processes that are shaping the city."

- Rohan Shivkumar

In the beginning, there was a lot of emphasis on critical thinking, to reexamine presumptions or received notions around architecture about what architecture is and could be from the earlier generation, and from examples from abroad. It was in the mid 90s when the school started to engage directly with community organisations, NGOs and so on. The city became a laboratory: we began thinking about what architectural education should be, not only as a space of creation of knowledge, but also as a space that participates in the processes that are shaping the city.

Aerial view of Mumbai.

KOOZ I’d love to know how that was received. Bringing the city into the university and finding purpose through using the city as a laboratory makes me think quite directly of Escola da Cidade.

CAROL TONETTI Definitely; it's almost the same concept. In São Paulo, we do have very strong public institutions: for example the University of São Paulo or USP, which is really well-known and respected — a very important school for research, urban planning and design. We have private schools too — a lot of them. Somehow Escola da Cidade is in the middle, because we are a private school, but we are also a public interest institution. We are a non-profit institution, so this is very different: the key infrastructure is public, not private.

The foundation of the school was led by a huge effort from a group of architects. Maira and I were already somehow close to this group, seeing how this school was being created and we’ve both been there since the beginning, learning how things were done. Then, we had a very specific moment in the country's history with policies that favoured the creation of non-governmental institutions of public interest. As the opening of the school approached, we needed authorisation from the Ministry of Education — but when we actually started, we had no place, no building, we didn't know where the school would be. At first we considered a huge and important modernist villa in a park — but we didn't go there, it felt too distant, too estranged. There was a building that we occupied temporarily, and finally the downtown building we have been in ever since. At the same time they named the school Escola da Cidade — the city school. I believe that was very important; it established this idea that we could be everywhere. We didn't have to have an auditorium: the auditorium was there, the city was there as a place, as a case study, as a place where things could happen. The school also started to recognise, in a very free way, what the pedagogical potentials were and how to utilise the city's infrastructure. The first students were also very open to this experiment; artists engaged in it too. They believed in this idea and were also a very important part of the school’s history.

"We didn't have to have an auditorium: the auditorium was there, the city was there as a place, as a case study, as a place where things could happen."

- Carol Tonetti

MAIRA RIOS The main difference, I think, between what Rohan said and our own situation is that we are more based on a practical view than in a critical view. For us, it is crucial to be practical; to run more studios, based on the more pragmatic aspects of practice; to have more architects working together — not just professors, but also architects that would come to teach.

Escola da Cidade, facade. Photo: Lúmina Kikuchi.

KOOZ Carol mentioned waiting for the authorisation from the state to provide architectural degrees; is the course at KRVIA also authorised by a state or national authority?

RS We do provide a licensed course — all bachelors of architecture courses in the country are licensed. The Council of Architecture provides a syllabus — down to the hours and subjects for different years and stages. The University of Mumbai interprets that and makes a syllabus, and we are within that — so yes, we are governed by many bodies. But what we try to do is slip between the cracks between all of these bureaucratic models.

"The school was intended to be a place where we could find new ways of reading cities, and reading the role of architecture within it, maybe to evolve new modes of practice."

- Rohan Shivkumar

KOOZ One of the joys of academia, right? And what do you feel your students really need from you?

RS I think the architectural academy in India had reached — or has reached — a sort of stasis in terms of its presumptions of what architecture can do in the world. The ways in which we used to teach students had almost nothing to do with the way that cities are transforming or the modes of practice that we need. This means rethinking the conventional atelier model. Even the defined client, contractor and architect triangle, from which buildings appear caters only to a very particular kind of mode of production of cities. At least in India, that mode of production serves maybe 10% of the built environment. If indeed architecture’s mandate is to improve the built environment and the places where we live, we need to acknowledge that conventional ways of thinking about architectural thought and practice are, if not unnecessary, rather limited. So we need to start pushing what we call architecture, which is why critical thinking becomes important.

For us, that was an important role that the school was going to play. It was intended to be a place where we could find new ways of reading cities, and reading the role of architecture within it, maybe to evolve new modes of practice. That lovely little triangle of client-contractor-architect requires a lot of social capital in India. Around 50% of our students come from underprivileged backgrounds; those are not the opportunities that emerge for them. So if these people are going to be part of a community whose mandate is to improve the built environment and they also need to earn a living, what do we teach them? What are the modes of practice that they can participate in ethically?

KRVIA students in São Paulo.

KOOZ A great challenge to have. And in São Paulo — in what ways do you think Escola da Cidade serves the city and its students?

MR I would say that studying at Escola da Cidade is also an opportunity to feel and touch the city. Normally, academic or university life is actually very far away from reality, it involves imagining and discussing the city without touching it. I think we change it when we touch it.

CT The first thing is this idea of touching the city, reading the city, viewing the city as the seed for classes. For instance, if you’re learning to draw, you're having drawing classes in the middle of the city, and you have to deal with that. Most of our students come from a pretty wealthy background; they were not really comfortable or confident about the security of the city — at first, they were afraid of it. Then you learn how to deal with people: with people on the streets, with protestors, with all manner of things. The city is a living organism, changing all the time. Everything that is happening in the city informs us as a school, and we are in the middle of it. If there is a demonstration with groups of people in the streets, we are somehow part of it; if you have Carnival, we are in the middle of it. We are really participants in whatever happens in this vibrant living city with all its potentials and contradictions and problems. This affects us a lot, it’s very important.

"Normally, academic or university life is actually very far away from reality, it involves imagining and discussing the city without touching it. I think we change it when we touch it."

- Maira Rios

We especially developed our work downtown and around São Paulo following the transformations in the city centre over the last 20 years, engaging with demonstrations and housing movements that occupy abandoned buildings. This proximity was very important for us to understand other ways of working as a school. We continue to engage and support many housing movements, and we can get involved in different ways of financing research, of working together and developing other projects. Another thing that a school can offer are its resources. We have laboratories and video studios; we have a research department and platforms for more traditional research, but we also have a practical laboratory where teachers and students can work together, even developing projects for other institutions. We’re learning to navigate this infrastructure and how to connect the dots between its different parts.

Finally, we are sometimes approached with enquiries to develop specific research on a particular issue. For example, Contracondutas was this huge project that somehow touched the whole school. In fact the school is like a mobile; its structure has many different pieces, but they can all move. Looking for balance doesn't mean that staying still — it's always in motion, taking action, finding ways.

Aerial view of São Paulo.

KOOZ I understand that the students you welcome at KRVIA in Mumbai are from a rather different and not necessarily privileged background.

RS In India — or rather, in Maharashtra— universities have reserved seats for students who come from what is defined as ‘scheduled castes & tribes’. So that category, if you like, makes up 50% at least half of our classes. Students get a scholarship to study; we have students from Mumbai slums through to tribal villages outside small towns in Maharashtra. We also have students who roll into school in a Mercedes Benz, right? Because we are in Juhu, in the middle of a wealthy neighbourhood. The range is huge.

"The city, as the site of engagement, is a really important pedagogic tool that we use across almost every single class: from design to drawing to humanities courses."

- Rohan Shivkumar

KOOZ How do you deal with this issue of class disparity and the encounter of the city? More explicitly, how much does politics enter the classroom?

RS It's a good question. The reason I feel this natural bond with Escola da Cidade is that I think both the schools are really interested in concrete engagement with the world. It seems that neither school is interested in abstract imaginings; from the very first lesson, you are always engaged with the world outside. That immediate world is the city. But it’s also rural communities that are in relation to the city, right? The city doesn't end at the boundaries of the city, there are perpetual transactions that overspill its boundaries.

We believe that we need to challenge the presumptions that these disparate students hold. Everyone comes with baggage, in other words, and the important thing is to allow people to discover themselves anew,in relationship with a new context or place. So the city, as the site of engagement, is a really important pedagogic tool that we use across almost every single class: from design to drawing to humanities courses. When a community of students finds itself into an unfamiliar environment, it begins to kind of form new sort of bonds, building respect for different ways of thinking. New power dynamics emerge. We have to be very conscious of the choices that we make, but that gentle engineering or enabling is part of the task. For example, the Dalit community in India — what has been called the “untouchable” caste — has never been part of accepted history; rather, Dalit history was never really told. There is no mention of the communities, the institutions that belong to them. So when we had to create a course where 50% of the class comes from underprivileged communities, we felt we should centre those histories. The way that we actually design courses is intended to maintain that challenge to preconceptions and to self perception.

KRVIA students in São Paulo.

KOOZ Don't you make enemies in the cultural field? Do you have parents complaining about the values you’re teaching?

RS Not yet, at least. But the answer to your first question is a little more complicated. We sit within the University of Mumbai and with that comes all the baggage of the state. The space for critical thinking thus has to navigate this structure. We have to constantly consider how to create a space for liberal and creative thinking within and in spite of this structure. We end up challenging many of the presumptions that the students might have coming from the culture at large, including their family backgrounds.

I use the Constitution of India, the preamble to which has this “freedom, equality, justice” thing, right. Even reactionaries cannot challenge the fact that that is the preamble to the Constitution and is the basis upon which the Indian State has been formed. If that is your baseline, and the way in which you generate value systems and develop your pedagogy, then automatically and implicitly it challenges fascism. Freedom, equality and justice do not fit very easily into fascist ideologies. What we try to do within the school is protect the space of pedagogy through constitutional imaginations of value, to try and deal with that tension. So, ‘the political’ is perpetually present in every class — no question about that — but it’s not necessarily about my politics or anybody else's politics: it is a clearing in the forest. What we do is create that clearing, where different ideas can at least speak to each other. This is how we are navigating some very tricky terrain right now.

"We end up challenging many of the presumptions that the students might have coming from the culture at large, including their family backgrounds."

- Rohan Shivkumar

KOOZ Good to learn how you maintain a sense of political ethics rather than explicit finger pointing. How about in São Paulo: I’m guessing there are no such conditions?

MR You're right, we are totally independent. All the money we have is from the students who pay, so we have no money obligation with the government or any political affiliation. But, of course, we follow all regulations and recommendations from the Brazilian Ministry of Education, which is responsible for ensuring the quality of education in the country.

CT By contrast, USP is consistently impacted by state policies that pose a threat to its capacity, whether through the refusal to hire more professors or by cutting funds designated for infrastructure and research. So there’s a sense of being uncertain, but it remains a very important and strong institution. The interesting thing is that we do have to present ‘results’ — but more like pedagogical results — every two to four years. That means the Ministry of Education will come and look at the infrastructure, the courses, the teachers and everything; recently, we passed with full marks. But we are able to manage our mission, our policies and what we believe we should do very well. It's important to say that one aspect on which we are compromised right now is access and equity. We want to have our own programme of equity, providing scholarships for disadvantaged and indigenous and black people. We are trying to fund such programmes, but there is almost no public understanding.


KOOZ In terms of decolonisation — that is, in terms of questioning hierarchies, questioning and increasing access — this sounds like it's a very deliberate programme at Escola de Cidade. How is that being discussed in your institutions?

CT Surely when you are in a place like London — the centre of the project of colonisation — it’s clear that it must be discussed! But it’s never easy. For instance, Maira and I are both white women from an upper-middle class; we had access to every privilege. What we are dealing with now is learning how to decolonise our thinking, because it is really rooted in our society. We must make a huge effort to change this; it is and has been a huge, huge learning process.

As an upper-class white privileged person, what does it mean to try to find different perspectives? Really, it’s about having more students and teaching colleagues who can bring those issues to light. But I believe the main issue is how not to get comfortable in our position; we have to be uncomfortable all the time. Because that's the only way we can try to change our views: to be confronted by different students, different colleagues and different perspectives. Otherwise, everything stays the same. It's really easy to make huge mistakes in believing that you’re decolonising the institution, when you're not. It happens a lot.

KOOZ Are the student body and your faculty happy with this notion of discomfort as a method? Or do you get pushback from those more oriented towards a professional and vocational, even capital perspective?

MR Yes, we do get that reaction. It's hard, because as Carol said, we represent colonisation ourselves — with our skin. We are the colonisers, and yet we talk about decolonisation. So we do face challenges and we seek to bring people from outside the institution to collaborate with us in this important dialogue.

KRVIA students in São Paulo.

KOOZ Rohan, is a discourse around decolonisation on the table for your faculty and student body?

RS It's a fight. The reason to start the Brazil-India exchange is because I felt that we needed to keep the centre off Europe or North America, and to create a kind of horizontal relationship across the global south, if you like. That's the idea: to kind of reimagine knowledge creation through mutual exchange. If colonisation is the imposition of one kind of order upon another, then what does it mean to create pedagogy of decolonisation in action, methodologically?

I had used this metaphor a little earlier, of a clearing in the forest. In that space, we invite differences to come and speak to each other; from that encounter, maybe something new emerges, maybe something doesn't, maybe new networks are formed. But we have to let ourselves be comfortable with the ambiguity of that space and then see what emerges.

Gayatri Spivak had this phrase that I return to. When questioned on who she is and how she is qualified to teach rural women in Bengal — as an upper class woman from Columbia University — she said, ‘My job is not to teach them. My job is to non coercively rearrange desire,’ which is a very lovely phrase. She doesn't say whose desire she's trying to rearrange. But the idea is to create a space where perhaps, through these sorts of encounters, our own desires can be rearranged non coercively. It's a space where we dance together, speak, talk a little bit, and figure things out.

Finally, I do agree with Maira and Carol, we need to be real about our privileges and where we are coming from, to be brutally honest with ourselves about everything that we've done right, as well as wrong. But I think that really happens when there are new, unexpected encounters.

"If colonisation is the imposition of one kind of order upon another, then what does it mean to create pedagogy of decolonisation in action, methodologically?"

- Rohan Shivkumar

CT In that sense, we believe it's always important to listen to the students, because they are always the most important vectors of change. They are always pushing the institution. At first, we were running a six year course, which is too long. Currently, one semester is taken up by a work or research placement; the students choose where to go and what to do. Of course, one issue is the engagement with broader South America, as students choose to go to Colombia, to Argentina, to Chile or Ecuador to study or work in offices. Of course, we also have lots of students that want to stay in Brazil, as Brazil is huge. But as Maira said, just five or ten years ago, more students wanted to go to Europe. And now we see that their desire has shifted somehow. Change is already happening; this is like a body of people trying to look in other directions.

"It's always important to listen to the students, because they are always the most important vectors of change. They are always pushing the institution."

- Carol Tonetti

KOOZ I really like what you’re kind of implying about learning from students and student bodies, especially now. How is the dynamic of teaching and learning at KRVIA?

RS We get very young students — they're 17 and up. In India this means we get very sheltered or protected kids: the entire world view is determined by their personal experience and their social media feed, really. I'm from a generation that believed in a certain way in which we learn; a certain kind of presumption that we had of language and many other things. I feel I need to relearn; the world has changed substantially. And the way that students begin to engage with knowledge both forms and disrupts certain equities, especially in India.

Studio workshop at Escola da Cidade. Photo: Lúmina Kikuchi.

KOOZ Certainly there's a lot of rethinking and relearning ahead for us, as educators. Tell me about KRVIA’s visit to São Paulo. What sorts of parallels — or unexpected contrasts — did you discover?

RS Being with my students in São Paulo was enlightening. Somehow you work through the contrasts and the similarities constantly. One of the things that's interesting about São Paulo and Mumbai is that both of them started their lives at almost the same time. They hold almost the same population, with almost the same number of people who live in slums or favelas. So that is the beginning. Both of them were fundamentally Portuguese cities, then India turned British, but not São Paulo. But our visit was a discovery of contrasts and similarities.

At the end of seven days, the students came up with four themes. The first was how both cities work as arrival cities, spaces that can provide a foothold for somebody to become a citizen. The second theme was on water and rivers, looking at how both cities have done different things with that over time. The third was on horizontality and verticality in planning, looking at how democratic systems and top-down systems interact with each other. And the fourth was quite straightforward, actually: looking at the visual cultures – graffiti and so on — within São Paulo.

If you just take those four themes and think about Mumbai, different things emerge: the visual culture of the streets in Mumbai is extremely politicised, with many claims to the city made through the visual culture. Or the straightforward fact that both São Paulo and Mumbai are arrival cities; which parts of the city house its workers and so on.

KRVIA students in São Paulo.

KOOZ Super fascinating. Maira, Carol: At the time of speaking, you have not yet visited Mumbai. What are you hoping or expecting to find?

MR It's interesting… in Brazil, I don’t know if we think that much about India. We don't talk about India, we don't have this huge imagination about India. And so whenever we think about India, it's lost in our legends, in mysticism and magical religions, you know? We imagine something exotic, spiritual, connected to the sky. It's this strange idea we have about India — and then there’s a lot of relating Chandigarh because of Brasilia, we do talk a lot about Chandigarh. But Mumbai, it's something else. It's not known, it's something else but then I would say it's also closer to São Paulo. Relating what we live in and where we are all the time, you know, to India rather than the idea of India will be very interesting for us, I think.

KOOZ We look forward to hearing more about collaborations in the future; thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your time.


Maira Rios is an architect and urban planner who has trained at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of USP and the FAU Porto. She has been professor of the undergraduate architecture course at Escola da Cidade since 2003 and has held the position of deputy director of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of Associação Escola da Cidade since April 2019. Maira was also managing partner of the architecture firm B Arquitetos (with Paulo Emílio Buarque Ferreira and Felipe de Souza Noto) between 2004 and 2018.

Rohan Shivkumar is an architect, urban designer and filmmaker practicing in Mumbai. He is the Dean of Architecture at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies. He is also a principal of the architectural and urban practice the ‘Collaborative Design Studio’ and is a member of CRIT- an urban research collective based in Mumbai. His work ranges from architecture, urban research and consultancy projects to works in film and visual art. His work has engaged with governmental and non-governmental organisations with urban design projects like the Churchgate Revival Project and the Tourist District Project.

Carol Tonetti lives and works in São Paulo, Brazil. Practising in between the fields of art, architecture and research, she seeks to explore the potentialities that the space agency can mean to the art object, the architecture, the design and urban/public space interventions. Her production presents repercussions in research and teaching, intertwining her performance with O grupo inteiro, a group formed in 2014. Graduatedin Architecture and Urbanism in 1998, from FAU-Mackenzie, and holding a PhD i from FAU-USP (2020), Carol teaches various courses at Escola da Cidade.

Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.

12 Jun 2024
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