Student Story: Sara Anand, MA City Design, 2017–19
Sara Anand studied City Design after working in Mumbai with short stints in Berlin and Moscow. Although, her undergraduate study was in Product and Interface Design her work also constituted strategic design for service and systems change. She now plans to establish her career as a researcher and design practitioner, investigating the possibilities of design as a tool to safeguard civic rights and facilitate the co-creation of equitable, inclusive forms of civil society.
When did you first hear about the RCA, and why did you decide to study here?
My tutor in my undergraduate study was an RCA graduate and introduced me to a lot of work here that resonated with me. It had this multidisciplinary yet very critical approach to design. It was always in my plans to study here but never in the School of Architecture. However, finding the City Design Programme was serendipitous, it was a new course and everything that I was looking for – one that provided a new spatial dimension to design that I lacked while fostering a socially driven discourse.
Can you describe what it’s like studying at the RCA?
Someone told me that coming to the RCA is like having the floor pulled from under your feet and being in a limbo, but by the time you finish you feel like you've found your ground. I think it's been exactly like that. The Programme is very demanding and requires immense academic rigour. What I mean by that is being thorough and exhaustive in research practices, critically engaging with theories and concepts, utilising specific terminology and finally producing intentional design proposals. It took me some time to get up to speed, but now, after fifteen months, I feel I can navigate the complexity and be part of the conversation.
Have you been set any particular briefs or projects that you've really enjoyed working on?
The main brief set in the course is rethinking modern planning models through its predetermined spatial manifestation of domesticity, i.e. the nuclear family dwelling and how a disruption of this socio-spatial dimension could lead to new models of planning and subjectivities. The six of us worked on a proposal that aimed to initiate new collectivities of intimacy and care as a response to the studio brief and the multi-scalar conditions affecting health and social care provision in the UK, especially the city of London. This was really inspiring, as it constantly provoked and challenged us to redefine our established ideas of what constitutes a family, how does care manifest in the everyday and what alternative forms of urban life could exist, inclusive of non-familial, non-domestic contexts and non-gendered, non-binary subjectivity. It was intense yet very fulfilling.
Additionally, I particularly enjoyed writing my seminar paper on the ‘smart city’ and its social logic. We had to identify urban planning models and analyse them from a socio-spatial point of view. The exercise added another dimension to my thinking and made me realise: how forms of planning affect our daily lives in significant ways. I was intrigued by the “disruptive” potential of these so called 21st century models in terms of radical social change. What started as a research question quickly became an exercise in finding evidence within planning frameworks of existing or proposed smart city models. It led me to read and analyse image and imagery as cues for our planned futures. I discovered the significance of image making and drawings, especially architectural, as a form of representation, communication and more importantly intention. It reinforced the need for not only being extremely critical about what we perceive and how, but also our intentions as designers and being deliberative through our work.
How has your work and/or thinking changed or developed while you have been at the RCA?
The work we did has crystallised my interest in policy-making and how design can influence policy, rather than the other way around. The Programme aims to rethink the city from the inside out, starting with forms of dwelling, and through that, questions ownership models, notions of decency, morality and intimacy. This re-conceptualisation did not only uncover new perspectives and scales for design interventions but also enabled me to work with architectural research methodologies and emerging socially engaged design processes.
My outlook towards design has also changed radically. I have come to the realisation that design or designers alone cannot resolve large scale systemic issues. While that may sound hypocritical or possibly complacent it is in fact the opposite. It is quite humbling to recognise one’s sphere of influence and interest, especially the fact that everything is not in one’s control. Besides, as a designer, I believe control is the last thing one should aspire for. What is required instead is constant collective effort. That change itself has been an empowering experience.
What is the mixture of students like, and what are the benefits of being in an international community?
What’s great about the RCA is that everyone is there to help you, especially the student cohort. This support is monumental. Our programme had at least one person from every continent, so it was very well-rounded and diverse. That gave the discussions we had extra depth and richness. And, no matter what happened, there was mutual respect, which is so crucial in group work. It was also important for us to establish protocols of working as a non-hierarchical, multi-disciplinary group. This work ethic can be frustrating sometimes but it establishes a great environment to challenge yourself and be challenged.
What have you found to be the main differences between your expectation of studying at the RCA and the reality?
I wasn't expecting to start with the issues of housing. Frankly, a lot of us didn't want to write our briefs confronting housing at the beginning, but now I think this was great. It was exactly what was required. It is only by thinking through the small scale that you can translate it to the large. It is about challenging things you take for granted, destroying them completely, and then trying to build resolutions.
What have you found most rewarding about your time at the RCA?
All of it! I really can't pick just one. It has been really fulfilling as an experience. It opened up alternate ways of living my life and navigating my professional practice. I feel that I have found what I want to continue doing i.e. use design as a tool to safeguard civic rights and collective interest. Being able to find that has perhaps been most rewarding.
Have you faced any particular challenges while you have been here?
Halfway through the Programme, my funding fell through. I sought help from the RCA Fund, who offer support to students who face unforeseen financial difficulties, and that helped to a great extent. They were really helpful, as were the people at Student Support.
Advice for student applying?
Expect the unexpected. It's the most cliched thing to say but I really can't put it another way. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this experience. Be comfortable in not knowing and failing, embrace that.