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MONSOON ASSEMBLAGES

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MONASS (MONSOON ASSEMBLAGES)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

The ambition of this project is to deliver an interdisciplinary design-driven inquiry into the impacts of changing monsoon climates in four of South Asia’s rapidly growing cities. This will be undertaken at a time when climate change and urban development conspire to produce unlikely futures for urban survival. Extreme weather events, all attributed to the monsoon’s capricious nature, are resulting with increasing frequency in water shortages, power failures, floods, out-breaks of disease, damage to property and loss of life. In responding to these events, the project will challenge the dominant view of the monsoon as a natural meteorological system outside of and distinct from society. Instead it will propose that the monsoon is a co-production of physical and social dynamics entangled within historic lived environments that can be analysed, worked with, shaped and changed. To do so, an unconventional interdisciplinary team will develop a novel research methodology around the new operative concept of ‘monsoon assemblages.’ This will bring together the spatial design disciplines with the environmental humanities to advance research of lived environments as indivisibly natural, social and political and to propose models for intervening in them through design.

The project aims to shift conceptions and understandings of the monsoon as a natural meteorological system; to deliver a ground breaking new approach to the design of cities by treating the monsoon as an organising principle of urban life, not an external threat; to assess the potential impact of this approach for urban policy, planning and infrastructure investment; to assess the new political, theoretical and aesthetic agendas for the spatial design disciplines and the environmental humanities this opens up; and to engage critically with the climate change adaption paradigm through the innovative idea of climate co-production.
Since the start of the project in 2016, the project team has been undertaking research into what it might mean for the science and design of cities to think about the monsoon not as something to climate-proof against, but as something to understand cities through and to co-design them with. Through a lived environment approach, the project team is investigating climate change as relationally co-produced by a more-than-human weather system (the monsoon) and human-ecological relations. It has designed a novel, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the entanglements of the monsoon in urban life and space, and to suggest ways that spatial design might respond strategically to stressed urban climates. This has involved short bursts of field work in Chennai, Delhi and Dhaka where the project team has been assisted by research collaborations with local institutions. As the process has developed, more-than-human interlocutors have become significant characters in developing researchers’ understandings of monsoonal regimes, and the use of data driven computational tools has been coupled with analogue participatory methods to draw out the spatiality of the monsoon at multiple scales. Through these methods, monsoonal cities and many of their human and non-human interlocutors have been drawn, described, narrated and analysed. Representational tools have been used to devise strategies to spatially reorganise conflictual monsoonal relations. To date three cities: Chennai, Delhi and Dhaka, have been approached in this way, with work on a fourth, Yangon in Myanmar about to begin.

During the course of the action to date, 3 x year long Master of Architecture design studios at the Host Institution, involving 20 students each year, have been aligned with Monsoon Assemblages. Studios have responded to project briefs framed by monsoonal questions in Chennai, Dhaka and Yangon, and students have undertaken field trips to these cities. These studios have tested the extent to which architecture students can be encouraged to think at scales beyond the building envelope, to which architectural software (rhino, grasshopper) can be used to model earth systems and to which software not generally used by architects (real flow) can be utilised to visualise non-human monsoonal phenomena, such as rainfall, flooding, erosion, percolation etc. to inform design strategies.

In order to extend its networks and deepen its responses to its research questions, Monsoon Assemblages has organised three annual research symposia and exhibitions at the University of Westminster: ‘Monsoon [+ other] Airs’ (20-21 April 2017), ‘Monsoon [+ other] Waters’ (12-13 April 2018) and ‘Monsoon [+ other] Grounds’ (21-22 March 2019). These have been structured around the monsoon’s three material elements - air, water and ground and comprised key-note addresses, inter-disciplinary panels and exhibitions. These have brought together established and young scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines, literatures, knowledge systems and practices - theoretical, empirical, political, aesthetic, everyday - who seldom talk to one another – to engage in conversations about monsoon aesthetics, epistemologies, histories, ontologies, politics, practices and risks. They have established Monsoon Assemblages as an international forum for novel, interdisciplinary research and dialogue. Symposia proceedings are published in the form of print-to order books or downloadable PDF’s from the project’s web site, http://www.monass.org.
Progress beyond state of the art

Progress beyond the state of the art in the science and design of cities in changing monsoonal climates has been made by the project by bringing together philosophy, historical research, field work, ethnography, cartography and design. This has been tested to date in Chennai, Delhi and Dhaka, with work on Yangon about to begin. The project team is pursuing a lived environment approach as the basis for transformative ideas to reimagine and remake cities as co-productions of human and non-human agencies. It is investigating climate change as relationally co-produced by more-than-human weather systems and human-ecological relations. It has designed a novel, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the entanglements of the monsoon in urban life and space, and to suggest ways that spatial design might respond strategically to stressed urban climates. This draws theoretically from anthropology, assemblage theory, design theory, ethnography and more-than human theory and brings a number of different discourses and knowledge systems into conversation - design, everyday life, indigenous knowledge, meteorology, planning, science, theory etc. As the process has developed, more-than-human interlocutors have become significant characters in developing researchers’ understandings of monsoonal regimes, and the use of data driven computational tools has been coupled with analogue participatory methods to draw out the spatiality of the monsoon at multiple scales. Through these methods, monsoonal cities and many of their human and non-human interlocutors have been drawn, described, narrated and analysed, and representational tools have been used to devise strategies to spatially reorganise conflictual monsoonal relations.

Expected results till the end of the project

Project website
3 x interdisciplinary symposia hosted
3 x symposia proceedings published
3 x student exhibitions mounted
3 x broadsheets of student work published
6 x open access peer reviewed journal articles published
3 x urban design strategies developed
3 x exhibitions and workshops in Chennai, Dhaka and Yangon mounted and organised
1 x international conference and exhibition organized
1 x book published
Multiple videos, maps, models and audio-visual outputs
2017 Chennai M.Arch design studio exhibition, University of Westminster
2018 Dhaka M.Arch design studio exhibition, University of Westminster
Apartment buildings built in the Pallikaranai Marsh, Chennai
Road construction, Sreenagar, Dhaka