Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Manasvini Hariharan

17.06.2021, Nayla Saniour

Manasvini Hariharan studied architecture in her hometown Chennai, India, before shifting to urbanism. She traveled to Tours, France, on a scholarship for a Master’s degree in urban planning, then returned to Mumbai to apply her skills on the ground in the city. She later moved to Seoul, South Korea, to work as a planner and strategist in urban regeneration projects, along with researching high-rise living. # THE UNDERPAID ARCHITECTURE INTERNSHIP EXPERIENCE I studied architecture in Chennai, India, at the SRM Institute of Science and Technology's [School of Architecture]( Architecture school seems to be a standard experience around the world, with the hectic design studios and longest working hours. We had a mandatory internship semester, which I did at one of the biggest architecture firms in India, a commercial company in Mumbai known for building some of the biggest high-rises and gated communities in the city. I was doing my internship at a time and place when companies still thought it was okay not to pay their interns an adequate salary. I did receive a small stipend, but converted from Rupees to Euros it would have been less than 10 Euros per month. At the same time, we interns were expected to work as much as the other employees, coming in early and leaving late – sometimes past midnight. {{Pic1: Mumbai, India. Photo by Manasvini Hariharan}} # TURNING AWAY FROM ARCHITECTURE AS A LUXURY When I finished that internship, I had mixed feelings: I was grateful to have had a full professional experience as a student, but I was also turned off by working on high-rise constructions that were built right opposite of very poor settlements. This made me feel that architecture only has a luxury value – at least in India – and made me question why I was pursuing a career as an architect. Is architecture only a form of art to be bought by people who can afford it? Everyone needs a roof over their head, and the idea of design as being something that people have to pay extra for simply did not convince me. # A FULLY FUNDED OPPORTUNITY IN FRANCE Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, as I was questioning the direction of my career, the Head of the Department of Architecture of my university approached me and suggested I apply for a fully funded Master’s degree at their partner school [Université de Tours]( in France. At that time, I was actually looking for a job opportunity in Mumbai. I did not want to work at a big architecture office like during my internship, but I did feel that Mumbai was where I belonged. Yet this fully funded opportunity sounded really good since I wanted to take a step back from architecture and direct my focus on the city scale. I did not have a complete picture of what urban planning was, but I was drawn to it because it allowed me to use my background in architecture into many different fields. When I got accepted, I packed my bags and moved to France in 2014. {{Pic2: Tours, France. Photo by Manasvini Hariharan}} # ON BEING AN “URBANIST” The program I enrolled in was the [Research Master in Urban Planning and Sustainability]( It was a nice break from architecture, I had the opportunity to zoom out of the building level and look at the big picture at the city scale. It was also the first time I came across the concept of an “urbanist”. My thesis advisor brought up the term to define people who work at the intersection of architecture, art, design and urban planning. Although this definition might be a little simplistic, this multidisciplinary perspective inspired me at the time. It felt more holistic and closer to what I wanted to be, so since then I am presenting myself as an “urbanist”. # LANDING A JOB AT BREAKFAST During my master’s in France I had my eyes on an urban collective in Mumbai called urbz. Their work revolved around what they called “urban action research” in Dharavi, one of the largest homegrown settlements in Asia (what are often called slums), Dharavi. Their projects focus on investigation and participatory activities with the people in the neighborhoods. While I was in France, I reached out to them and we planned to meet when I would be back in India eventually. So one day as I was passing by Mumbai on vacation, I met the co-founders Rahul and Matias for breakfast, during which they suggested that I join their team. The office at [urbz]( is a multidisciplinary space. One of the co-founders is an anthropologist, the other an economist and urban planner. There are also some architects and a flow of interns coming from various academic backgrounds, such as political science, geo-informatics, journalism and urban planning. We did a lot of neighborhood-based workshops, collected data and conducted experiments on the field within the city. I was also encouraged to express myself through writing articles and reports on urban issues and architecture, a skill that I am glad I have developed. All this allowed me to grow into what I believed an urbanist was. {{Pic3: Dharavi, India. Photo by Manasvini Hariharan}} # CIRCULATORY URBANISM IN MUMBAI The co-founders Rahul and Matias were always researching specific social phenomena at play in the city. One of them was [Circulatory Urbanism](, the concept that people in India have more than one home between the city where they work and their village of origin, and that there are constant fluxes between them. While urbz originally began this research to explore the migrational ties between Mumbai and the Konkan Coast in India, it was a subject that was relatable to people from around the world: people often move to bigger cities for higher education and opportunities. In the workshop about migration that we conducted at [Arc en Rêve Centre d’Architecture]( in Bordeaux, France, I was part of the team talking to various visitors about their own circulatory experiences. All participants expressed that they could not easily pin their roots to one place. It was clear that in this increasingly mobile world, having two or more “homes” was natural. We then transformed the results of the project into texts, maps and drawings, which we exhibited at Arc en Rêve Centre d’Architecture, and later at the “Mumbai Return” exhibition at the Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai. # JOINING A NEW STUDIO IN SOUTH KOREA I left urbz after nearly two years of working there to take some time off. During this time, Yang Seunghee, a collaborator of urbz with whom I had developed a close relationship, invited me to come to Seoul to help her set up her new urban practice, [Yangji Design & Research]( Seunghee, after a short stint in Mumbai had moved back to her hometown to establish a workshop-based style of work, which was relatively unknown in South Korea. She wanted to convince the government officials of the value of participation with local citizens, and she was hoping I could support her in bringing a fresh perspective to urban regeneration projects. She also wanted to draw on my research and writing skills to help support her PhD research on high-rise living culture. Since I had just taken a good break, I was ready to jump on this new adventure – so I applied for my visa and moved to South Korea. # URBAN REGENERATION FOR SMALL CITIES I moved to Seoul in 2018, back when the president had announced a country-wide urban regeneration program for small cities. Since most of the development in South Korea was centered within the capital Seoul, smaller cities were slowly deteriorating and losing their inhabitants. The regeneration program created new opportunities for urban planners to work on master plans for neighborhoods around the country. At Yangji, I worked on setting up the GIS software framework for the office to facilitate the mapping and analysis of spatial and geographic data and helped with strategizing for urban master plans, workshops and community activation projects. # RESEARCHING THE PHENOMENON OF HIGH-RISE LIVING While master plans and workshops were a part of my daily work, for most of my first two years at Yangji I was researching the high-rise living culture in South Korea, originally Seunghee’s PhD topic. When I first arrived here, I was shocked by the sheer number of apartment buildings: they seemed to extend like an endless sea in a dystopian vision. They all looked the same, as if they had been copy-pasted by a few real estate development companies. As I delved into my research, I learnt that this was caused by the rapid boom in construction after World War II, around the 50s and 60s, aided by government policy, laws and private conglomerates. The result is that Korea has earned its nickname of being the “republic of apartments”, and has also become a “developed” country within just one generation. {{Pic4: Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Manasvini Hariharan}} A few years ago in the early 2000s, South Korea reached 100% of its household-to-housing supply ratio. Yet large high-rise complexes were still being built, even in smaller cities that did not need that density. The purpose of our research was to question why these apartments were still being built and for whom. For the majority of the South Korean population, living in an apartment is also an indicator of climbing up the social ladder since it is associated with a better quality of life. Were the apartments being built as a status symbol or as an investment opportunity? During our research I applied for a grant from the [Korean Culture Center]( (KCC) of India in New Delhi. We used the funds to make a [small exhibition comparing Seoul and Delhi high-rise buildings]( What was most striking was that they were so similar that visitors could not tell the difference between the apartments in either city: we were encountering a globalized phenomenon of generic apartment production. # SETTING THE SPOTLIGHT ON ASIA Through my work I have been exposed to several geographical contexts, from India to France and South Korea. Oftentimes we, in South Asia, look to the West as an example for urbanism. Yet working in Mumbai and Seoul showed me that Asia has a lot of potential and is becoming a breeding ground for urban experiments that the West can learn from. A lot of my work also involves looking up international references for our urban planning projects. In the last few years, my references for case-studies in urban commons, public-private partnerships, placemaking, pedestrianisation, participatory practices come just as much from cities in China, Japan, India, and Indonesia as they do from the West. Sometimes, I find that South Korea itself has instances of the best practices that it is looking to follow. It is time that Asia looks to itself to learn some lessons and starts using itself as a reference to find the right experiments to grow from.