Living Cities Forum 2023

On 16th November, an assembly of leading architects and urban thinkers came together to explore the role of design, planning and architecture in shaping our society. Now in its 6th iteration, the Living Cities Forum, an initiative of the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, focused on the theme of ‘Infrastructures of Life,’ delving into a rich reflection of the interests, cultures, ecosystems and governance around which a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable society can take shape.

The Living Cities Forum 2023 commenced and concluded with the wisdom of Uncle Dave Wandin, a Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Elder and Cultural Practices Manager (Fire and Water) at the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation. Uncle Dave conducted a Welcome to Country that extended into a synopsis that left the messaging of an incredible collective of keynote speakers hanging in the air to be collected, processed, catalogued and drawn on for long after the closing of the event. He spoke with eloquence, clarity and inclusivity on the holistic thinking that has always defined First Nation’s approach to caring for country, both here in Australia and all around the world.

This article will never be able to do justice to the speakers who joined the Forum from all around the world. For those who were not able to attend and would like to hear more, the full videography of each speaker has been linked in at the end of the subsequent paragraphs which scratch the surface of each deeply important speech.

Nashin Mahtani, an architectural theorist and designer from Indonesia investigating the interplay of software aesthetics, ecological governance and social behaviour to advocate for environmental justice, was the first to speak. Focusing on infrastructure in its public and technological context, Nashin’s work is shaped by the question, what happens when what we think of as public infrastructures are controlled by a small number of people? In considering how we live collectively with different world views Nashin’s work leverages the unprecedented reach and attention monopoly of social media infrastructures allowing her to graft a new system within the existing, one that activates the 6.3 billion smartphones connected to GPS in the world turning them into flood alert devices via a disaster map that is formulated by intelligence. Every time a selfie is taken in flood conditions the software, which has been embedded into the backend of social media networks, is active by hashtags and wording to prompt the poster, asking if they are currently in a flood affected area and if so, to provide further information which allows for almost instantaneous data modelling and mapping. Where once we were able to register seasonal visual cues or read the colour and eddies of a river system, environmental changes as a result of rapid built development have removed many of these. PetaBencana provides new ones, channelling instead of lamenting the rise of social media and recognising that cities today are composed of both physical and digital space. The digital infrastructure is now used by NASA and has been harnessed by over 25 million participants.

View video of Nashin’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

Bangladesh based Marina Tabassum is an architect and educator studying the architecture of transition. With 89.3 mil people currently facing various forms of displacement (due to war, genocide and climate crisis), Marina questions architecture's responsibility within the crisis. In India, the three major river systems are in constant flux, revealing temporary sand-beds that are exposed and then washed over as the rivers ebb and flow in response to the Himalayan ice-melts that feed them. Marina’s studio has designed a vernacular house form — named Khudi Bari — that can be assembled, disassembled and relocated allowing people to safely live on the sand-beds. Constructed from a timber frame with steel joiners, corrugated sheet roofing and materials easily sourced on the sand-beds (such as tall grasses which can be woven into walls) the houses can be purchased in local markets for between $2,000 - $6,000USD. The houses are modular and easily built by the community providing a viable form of housing in refugee camps as well such as one in Bangladesh which currently houses 1 million refugees from Myanmar.

View video of Marina’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

David Fortin is an architect and Professor at the University of Waterloo. His practice primarily works with First Nation’s and Métis communities across Canada investigating the intersections between Indigenous knowledge, design practice and speculative thinking. In a major cognitive shift, Indigenous principles and wisdom are today being called upon for Canadian architectural projects. With a history that cultivated a profound identity crisis, Canada has made dedicated steps towards unravelling its muddy colonisation narrative, fostering a newfound sensitivity to place and the realisation of architecture that responds to both landscape and context. David’s work is centred around an understanding that the current housing system in Canada is flawed. Through his initiative Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA), a set of demands was formulated in an effort to articulate what needs to be done to reform the infrastructure of the housing system.

View video of David’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

Speaking via zoom from The Netherlands, architect and urban planner Eva Pfannes spoke on the local prototypes her studio OOZE has been making for a collective future. Finding common ground with other speakers in her depiction of current global infrastructures being shaped largely by the flow of money as opposed to health and wellbeing, Eva’s work is focused on decentralised nature-based systems. One of her projects, Future Island, looks at the literal effects of global warming, creating an island ecosystem of boulders, plants and water and then heating one side of the island by 5º in order to study mitigation, adaptation and the ways nature copes with global warming. Another project, The City of 1000 Tanks, is based Chennai, India, and identifies the interrelationships between the underlying causes of floods, water scarcity and pollution in Chennai to then offer a holistic solution through infrastructure that draws upon old (using the city’s temple water tanks) and new to devise flood solutions in nature and heritage.

View video of Eva’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

Architect Carles Baiges Camprubí , one of the founding members of architecture cooperative LaCol , presented La Borda- a cooperative housing development in his home town of Barcelona, Spain, that was awarded the Mies van der Rohe Emerging Prize in 2022. Carles’ study and realisation of the sociology and systems behind co-operative housing models that work shared profound insights into community infrastructures for the sustainability of life. Looking at things like what can be taken out of co-housing residences when amenity is shared, the thoughtful division of communal spaces, and the bureaucracy around housing ownership and contracts of sale when property is partially shared, Carles opened a door to a world where the complications of the co-housing model are not so much eradicated but systematically worked through in order to achieve a precedent for future developments.

View video of Carles’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

Speaking from Rwanda, Christian Benimana reiterated the importance of generational knowledge and the wisdom that must be passed down so that younger generations may harness its power for sustainable future global development. Currently leading the implementation of the African Design Centre, Christian is also Co-Executive Director of MASS Design Group where he leads the African Studio looking at ways in which the built environment can act as a catalyst for social change. In their capacity to heal through the nurturing of communities, the cultivation of urban centres and the carrier of individual quests, buildings are seen by Christian to harbour immense potential, impacting the future for many generations. His work on Munini District Hospital shines a spotlight on the ways the built environment improves quality of life and how human health is bound to the health of the environment.

View video of Christian’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

The final speaker for this year’s Living Cities Forum was architect, designer, writer and Enid Storm Dwyer Professor of Architecture at Yale University, Keller Easterling. Keller’s eloquence, articulation and resonance was simultaneously captivating and justifiably terrifying. Her ability to frame the world around her in patterns of repeatable formulas that can be systematically deconstructed, analysed and rearranged has lead to profound insights into how we may reverse the damage that has been done to the built, natural and digital worlds. She proposed a methodology of disruption, one that finds the interplay between disparate problems, seeking out the web of relationships that exist between almost everything and then rewiring that network in a way that garners alternate outcomes. Her theoretical work devises entire new transportation networks that are a hybrid of those that already exist; the notion of ‘unbuilding’ which suggests grouping and scoring housing according climate risk and then rewarding those who score well through things liked pooled mortgages, reduced interest rates and reduced down payments. Keller’s unique view of the world allows for the use of problems as a resource. A fascinating proposal that opens up a staggering wormhole down which we just might discover the treasure-trove of information that already exists with elders, animals and nature.

View video of Keller’s full Living Cities Forum address here.

Words by Tiffany Jade. Photography by Casey Horsfield.