School of Architecture Dean Iñaki Alday and School of Liberal Arts Dean Brian Edwards emphasize cross-disciplinary research and education as a means to reveal and support societal and cultural evolutions. Finding connections in their own research, the two deans recently met to discuss the intersections of water, architecture, and the humanities.
Emily Wilkerson: Iñaki, can you begin by sharing the main principals of the Yamuna River Project, a research endeavor in New Delhi, India, that you founded?
Iñaki Alday: The Yamuna River Project started when I was at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA). Now, it’s a UVA-Tulane collaboration, and we work closely with local agencies like the Water Authority (Delhi Jal Board), NGOs, and professionals in India. It was an interdisciplinary project by nature because it was about the relationship between the city and the river. Throughout the years we have looked at this relationship from the architectural point of view, but you have to think of architecture as a holistic field that brings together sciences, social sciences, history, humanities, and technical and ecological issues.
It’s important to know that the river is a goddess in India—so you have a lot of complexity here, incorporating issues of religion, history, the environment, and the pressures of urbanization. We really began to understand the depth of these complexities when we learned from the writer Rana Dasgupta that this in fact started with the British taking ownership of public space in India. So then there was a problem of the commons, changing water from a sacred element for both Muslim and Hindi cultures, to a commodity: a product that comes through a pipe. This double disconnect starts a process that continues to shift with the migration of millions of people from the countryside to the city.
Emily: Brian, you are also turning to water in your current research on port cities. Can you speak about the interdisciplinarity of your research, as well?
Brian Edwards: My thinking about ports is a way of reframing a long-term interest of mine, namely how we understand the relationship between cultural expression and circulation. Port cities have always been especially dynamic spaces—places where multiple communities coexist and cross, rendering them linguistically and culturally complex. I am asking, does creativity itself emerge from cities marked by difference? If port cities turn out to be especially creative places, this puts immense pressure on a more conservative ethnocentric or nationalistic understanding of cultural expression.
Looking at the globe focusing on ports changes our perspective on the relationship between culture and geopolitics. If you consider the many overlapping routes that connect port cities via trade or migration, you get a different picture of world literature or creativity than that which has prevailed since the end of World War II. The competing conceptualization holds that cultural products are the expression of national forms of being, thus it’s not surprising that most literature or art history departments have traditionally focused on national traditions. Think of survey courses such as “American literature pre- (or post-) 1865.” Port cities resist such simple conceptualizations of national belonging. They are diasporic spaces, spaces of disjuncture. Ports give us the opportunity to also consider movement of people and time, what people leave behind as they come and go.
Emily: And Brian, you often refer to “diasporic imaginaries” in regard to your research. Can you expand on what that term means?
Brian: When one is in diaspora, whether voluntary or forced, multiple imaginaries commingle—that of the place that one has left, namely the original homeland, and that of the adopted home. These imaginaries can be very vivid, can be political, can be nostalgic, positive or negative. It is important to note that there is no single diasporic experience, and that different cities give rise to different diasporic expression.
In port cities you have multiple diasporic communities living alongside one another: people with completely different histories who find themselves in a new home. A classic example of this is the Middle Eastern café, where people who come from starkly different traditions but from a proximate region (Turks, Arabs, Iranians, Jewish, Israelis) may gather. Now in a new place, people from a world region find themselves feeling “at home” in a “Middle Eastern” café—something that doesn’t exist, so to speak, in those home countries. (In this example I am referring to a well-known essay by my former colleague Hamid Naficy.) Similar experiences happen often in cities like New Orleans—where multiple Latin American communities coexist in diaspora, for example—and leads to new relationships and new forms of expression.
To speak of a diasporic imagination is to think differently about immigration or emigration, and to complicate the old and arguably defunct ‘melting pot’ concept of American culture, which held that people leave behind everything and kind of melt into something new. For most people, the relationship between homeland and the adopted home is much more complex, particularly in the digital age since technology brings the homeland much closer.
Iñaki: The scholar George Steiner proposed the “Europe of cafés” theory. The cafes are the place where different people gather together, have discussions, and share ideas. One way to look at the different ways we organize our societies is more about the network of cities, which is often much more fruitful than only considering nations, of which I’m really a skeptic. I think the term and idea of a nation is obsolete—it traps us in a political construction.
Emily: How does this great movement of people around the world inform your research and work?
Iñaki: The human is an animal of the city. We gather together in settlements, and we organize our social life in different cities. Port cities have an increased complexity because of the many different people that are arriving, perhaps bringing goods, but also ideas.
Brian: The temporality of port cities is different from that of a land-locked trading city. A lot of what one could say about cities built around trade relates to the element of time. For example, Tehran, Fes, or Cairo are inland cities off of major seas. The time it takes to get to these cities is longer, and therefore those who arrive there tend to stay longer. Whereas if you’re in a major seaport, visitors will stay for a very short time. This has an impact on cultural expression.
Iñaki: You could even say that the physical structure of the city is different when it is built through a crossroads than when it’s built through the focal point of the port—time has a physical manifestation in the city.
Emily: Iñaki, this brings me to a term you and your partner Margarita Jover use: “hybrid infrastructure.” Can you speak more about this?
Iñaki: We have been moving in a process of specialization that has happened especially in the 19th century when we developed specific buildings for a specific purpose. Before that, churches were the main specifically designed building. But in the 19th century we created typologies of the market—typologies of the theatre and typologies of hospitals, for example. In a process of specialization of buildings and spaces, the separation of the industrial area and the residential area demonstrated a real problem. But we are now going back to buildings that are more flexible, more mixed use, more complex. And in the last couple of centuries, infrastructure has become a really important investment.
Margarita and I believe that every infrastructure needs to deal with several functions at the same time, layering issues of public space, issues of social use, and considering people living in, near, or with current infrastructures. I see infrastructures as the cathedrals of our time.
Brian: Infrastructure as the cathedrals of our time—that is great! It’s interesting also to think about North African cities as a combination of forms. In European cities, the monuments are frequently cathedral or castles, but in the case of the Maghreb—Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria—what is architecturally compelling and distinct is each city’s way of organizing space in relation to geography and water.
Emily: Why are you drawn to researching and working with water? What does it continue to teach you?
Brian: Water is full of contradictions—its softness and yet its incredible force. In Islamic architecture, the garden, the water, and the soundscapes of water are essential to the idea of relaxation. And yet we know how powerful water is—destructive and creative. Water is poetic and gives us many of our metaphors for beauty and love, but we also find ourselves trying to escape it: what looks very simple and soft can become quickly cataclysmic. But that is what I am learning from Iñaki, to embrace both aspects of water as poetic.
Iñaki: Water has all kinds of implications. But from my perspective, we must understand water as a living material, almost a living being, like the Yamuna River. It is something that has its own logics and its own will, and in my case, you design with a material that is alive, difficult to grasp, and is never stable. Water is always moving. Even chemically, water changes. I love bull fighting, and the work of art of a bullfight is how you deal with the bull that is a living being. The work of the bullfighter is to figure out how to create art with an animal that has its own will, which is often different from what you want. In that same sense, water for me and Margarita is a living material to design with, to understand the different physical transformations in different ways, and design new ways to deal with uncertainty and change. Water is always crossing outside of what your supposed expertise would be, and always brings you new questions from different perspectives.