CNUdc Interview Series: Dhiru Thadani
In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.
You’ve been involved with traditional town planning and new urbanism for your entire career. How did you get involved in it?
I came to it through dissatisfaction with the built environment in DC. I came to the US to study. It was very difficult as a student to get around without a car, to understand and explore the city. I grew up in Bombay, which was a very walkable city, mixed use, mixed income. Cities like Bombay inspire people to see how they can change their station in life, because there are all sorts of examples around you. The residential building types are designed to accommodate all income groups. Early urban buildings were walkups. Most desirable was the second floor facing the street. As you went up, prices decreased, so the upper floors and rooftop attic spaces were the cheapest, occupied by low and middle class residents, students, artists, or those who valued a roof terrace. Economically, it was a very diverse group living in the same building.
How did you come to be involved with the founding of CNU?
Peter Hetzel and I were teaching together in the mid-1980s, and he and I shared similar positive views about cities. We started to get our students out into Washington to explore the city, to do research. Also in the early 80s I met Andres Duany, who was grappling with similar ideas. We organized a student design project using Seaside as the site, and we had students build a model of Seaside [Florida] to test the urban code, which happened to be the first form-based code. Students, faculty, and TAs built this huge model, ten by twenty feet.
By the 90s, a lot of us working in these areas decided to get together. I helped DPZ organize the first Congress in 1993 in Alexandria, with 200 people. It was by invitation only, and everyone there had something to offer. Everyone spoke for a few minutes, whether it was a little something about code, setbacks, street trees. Mornings were presentations, and in the afternoon we had juries evaluating projects. We got to see what everyone was doing, and criticize, debate, and question it. They were very long days, but you were learning constantly. People still reminisce about that first Congress.
You’ve worked all over the world, and done a lot of your work in India. What are the differences working in India versus the US?
When you’re working in developing countries, your decisions have to be sustainable because you have no choice. Electricity is expensive; water, other resources are all precious and expensive. The principles of new urbanism are a very natural fit within that context. The buildings built in the 70s have proven not to be sustainable, as they were not responsive to the climate. Traditional building forms were built with deep overhangs to provide shade from the sun and protection from the monsoon rains. We encourage our clients to emulate what has worked and steer them away from what has not yielded positive results and untested ideas.
You’ve worked in so many different locations. When you start a project, how do you learn about a place?
I do it through drawing and mapping. I have a collection of hundreds of drawings for buildings, neighborhoods, universities, and cities. The first thing I do after I visit a new place is to make comparative drawings so I can understand the scale, the distances I walked, and how big the spaces are. Those drawings become a catalog that I build of the place. You can use them to start a dialogue with the team. When I was working on a proposal for the Landover, Maryland Metro station, I was able to insert a plan drawing of the entire town of Seaside and show that it fit within their parking lot. It quickly gives you a sense of scale.
It’s why I did a Nolli drawing of Washington in the 80s. When they were building the Tech World building [between I and K Streets and 7th to 9th Streets], they wanted to close 8th Street. The proposed scheme stopped the street in a terminated vista. The area did not have the density and mix of uses to support the proposed strategy. By making a drawing you could see all the small townhouses around the site. The scale was all wrong. But my drawing took me 13 years to finish, and Tech World got built.
What prompted you to write your book, The Language of Towns and Cities?
The book came from everything I’d been doing for 20 years. Every question I was asked at a public meeting, I’d go back and try to figure out the answer. What do I need to change to communicate the concept better? We’ve lost our common language in the profession. An avenue is a specific type of thoroughfare. It’s different from a street or a boulevard. The book came from questions that need to be clarified in the public’s mind, or the designer’s mind. I never set out to do a book. I set out to make my life easier and to be a better architect. Many friends who knew my drawings encouraged me to do the book.
What do you think of the planning work going on DC right now?
I love DC. As a city, it continues to improve. I don’t always agree with the details, but the general concepts are moving the city in the right direction. We’ve got bike share, we’ve got Metro. When Metro started, it was a flawed idea - catering to a commuter-oriented ridership, but a majority of car trips are made outside commuting. It showed a flawed paradigm of planning, not making people’s whole lives more walkable. Now they’re augmenting it. There’s an evolution. DC is correcting the omissions made in the past. Park and Ride is limiting in terms of how the Metro gets used, but luckily that is changing with the reverse commute. One of the most important things in the last 10 years is bringing more housing downtown, to reduce or change people’s commutes.
Where do you see urbanism headed?
Today, because of public participation, the role of the architect or planner is as an educator. The profession has lost all respect from the public. No one believes we’re going to do the right thing, or make something beautiful, because there’s so much ugliness around them. We are forced to educate. There’s a saying that people get the government they deserve. People get the built environment they can imagine. You have to convince people that it’s possible to build beautiful places.
The wealthy can go on vacation and experience beautiful places, but many less fortunate city dwellers don’t have those options. You go see Mont St. Michel at sunrise and it is breathtakingly beautiful and you say “my God, life’s worth living.” It’s incumbent upon city planners to create beautiful places in every city. It should be the right of every individual to have those positive, inspiring experiences.