Frameworks for the Global South: Interview with Meriem Chabani & Maya Nemeta
Meriem Chabani is an architect, urban planner, co-founder of New South, a collective research platform, and associate at TXKL, an architecture and urban practice. Maya Nemeta, is also an architect and urban planner, a regular collaborator with New South, associate at TXKL and teaches at the Marseille School of Architecture. In this interview they speak about developing appropriate frameworks for working in the global South, the agency students have in directing their own educational path, and empathy as a fundamental premise for architectural and urban practices.
You work as part of TXKL, an architecture and urban planning office. However, you and your colleagues founded the collective platform New South to “question processes, resources, traditions, and their impacts on the built environment”. What prompted this?
Meriem Chabani: The feeling of being left out prompted this. In 2013, the year I graduated from architecture school, there was a large exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, a very popular venue for architecture in Paris, which presented a range of architecture thesis projects – but limited to those concerned with Paris and its surroundings. As a fresh graduate, I felt this to be very reductive; My own thesis was on Bangladesh, I had many friends who had worked on southern cities and apart from being some of the best I had seen, I felt that their projects dealt with essential topics. It seemed unfair that there was no space given for exhibiting, let alone having a conversation on the specifics of these kinds of student projects – which address complex political, economic, and social issues in the Global South. I went to a small art gallery near our school and applied to stage an exhibition that would explore this. They agreed. And that’s how it all began.
Our approach is rooted in the fact that if you are dealing with Southern metropolises and the Southern post-colonial, then you need a different framework for analysis and action. This framework is based on acknowledging certain types of urban conditions: unbalanced power relationships and complex political and economic situations. This is also to do with saving time – you don’t need to spend time re-explaining power relations and the impact these have on complex political and economic situations; if you are operating according to this framework from the beginning, that is simply a prerequisite and you can begin to quickly focus on specifics. Perhaps that is an approach in common with anti-racist or feminist practices. We are not necessarily looking for consensuality, universality or a mixed, shared space as a goal, so much as we are seeking to work with non-mixity as a form of urban thinking. There are many different approaches that can be used to explore the city – we have done so through field work in parallel to research and theory – but, simply put, all of them begin by decolonising from the outset.
Thinking not just of acquiring knowledge about but also engaging with the city in order to support that decolonisation process, what forms of spatial practice do you feel can best stimulate engagement?
MC: There is a tendency towards agreeing on the necessity for people to engage with the city, which prompts me to disagree with this idea of individual responsibility, or at least acknowledge the limits of such an idea. What bothers me is the loss of accountability for the people in charge of transmission, teachers giving up on their role as providers of knowledge. In the field of architecture, we expect students to produce – images, texts, projects – which can create an unbalanced relationship, where the teacher actually feeds on the student, rather than the other way around. We absolutely do need to stimulate – that is the basis of our work – but we also have the responsibility to provide a framework. We also need to accept that for the student to grow into their own point of view, we need to be honest about our own subjectivity and lay it bare from the beginning.
Maya Nemeta: I can feel the difference when teaching within the context of an architecture school – an institution that is made solely for that purpose, where the students are just waiting to be taught. With New South’s workshops in Africa, students apply for workshops because the theme interests them. People come from very different backgrounds; they are proactive, each comes with their culture and specific knowledge and the openness to create something together. It’s a very different way of teaching compared to what happens in a project studio or a lecture theatre. In terms of best practice, perhaps it’s about having a mix of this and providing the opportunity for students to be inspired by different teachers who actually care. Yes, we need to give them some tools and stimulation, but they also need to choose their own direction and make the links between different strands of knowledge themselves. What we provide is a framework for that.
How does that work with New South influence your professional practice with TXKL and beyond – is this a way of maintaining your own “engaged education”?
MN: We didn’t expect to use the platform and its resources so much within our projects, but it has helped expand our office’s field of action southwards. It’s very exciting to make bridges between contexts.
MC: I believe that the way we maintain our own “engaged education” is by being aware of the “engagement” required to adequately respond to any given urban or arhitectural situation. When you work in a specific context, you take a political stance. Just addressing the matter of colonisation – especially if you come from France – is still a taboo subject. So, you immediately enter into a political discussion, whether you like it or not. We have been asked questions like “If you are working in the South, why are you working in the North as well?” as though the two are incompatible. For example, many French offices are working in China, following the market. It is as though the transition from North to South is legitimate, but not the other way around.
We believe that direct threads exist between our research and our practice. One of the first projects that we did with New South was a follow up to my thesis project on the garment industry in Bangladesh, particularly focused on Chittagong, the second biggest city and centre of import and export in Bangladesh. To research the industry and address the associated issues, we focussed on an urban scale to examine what the sites of production looked like, and how they fit within the urban fabric. We found high, densely occupied factory buildings that starkly contrasted with the low density built fabric of the semi-rural areas in which they were implanted, as well as large swathes of territory that were fenced off as free zones, entirely administered by foreign companies. The local textile industry thus appeared to be very much out of context, disconnected from the social fabric. The project tried to establish a cooperative of small owners that could dispatch work into smaller production units, integrated within this urbanised rural fabric both from a social and architectural viewpoint.
Can you relate that experience combining both the social and the architecture aspects to an example in the European context within which you also work?
Last year, our entry for Europan 14 focussed on Guebwiller, a French city formerly at the heart of the garment industry. Of course these industries have been de-localised from Europe to Asia, notably Bangladesh, removing the “reason” behind entire areas of cities, leaving neighbourhoods that are empty and encumbered by a dysfunctional urban infrastructure. We found ourselves responding to the same question, posed by the dynamics of the same global economy, but which imposed a different physical expression in a different urban context. We were able to use and build upon the work we had done in Bangladesh. Recognition of the problematic and exploitative nature of the global textile industry and the expression of this in space – the zone, the city, the factory, the house etc. – in a context such as Bangladesh does not preclude being able to recognise how these same economic dynamics have impacted upon the same living spaces in a European context, or vice versa. We consider our role as architects and urban planners to be premised upon an empathy for those that occupy space, so we do not consider this to be contradictory. Nonetheless, we are really happy to have the opportunity to emphasise this apparent tension by drawing upon a common theme across different contexts in order to be able to begin to deconstruct it.
Meriem Chabani and Maya Nemeta associates at TXKL and members of New South. We invited Meriem and Maya to join the Making Futures “Engaged Education” Mobile Workshop that took place in Istanbul, Turkey in September 2018. Picture by Lena Giovanazzi.