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MTF Podcast

MTF Podcast

The MTF Podcast features interviews with some of the most brilliant minds from the worlds of technology, innovation, music, creativity, arts and sciences, academia and industry. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Latest episode:

114. Anna Grichting – Urbanism and Jazz

Dr Anna Grichting is a Swiss architect, urbanist and musician who’s spent her career using arts and design to create a more beautiful, biodiverse and sustainable world, through co-creative, interdisciplinary and holistic approaches to design projects - especially at...

114. Anna Grichting – Urbanism and Jazz

Aram Sinnreich

Anna Grichting - Urbanism and Jazz

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Dr Anna Grichting is a Swiss architect, urbanist and musician who’s spent her career using arts and design to create a more beautiful, biodiverse and sustainable world, through co-creative, interdisciplinary and holistic approaches to design projects - especially at the city level.
 
She’s also an accomplished jazz singer and recording artist who has worked with musicians all over the world, incorporating different spiritual traditions.
 

Transcript

Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. There’s a lot of talk right now about cities. Cities seem to be the atomic unit of public policy. Smart cities, sustainable cities, social progress cities, cities of culture, industrial cities, music cities. And the ways in which we design and develop cities and public spaces, especially post-COVID, once we are actually post-, are central to initiatives like the New European Bauhaus, the Green New Deal, AI4Cities. Things that ask questions about not just “Where shall we live?” but also “How should we live?”.

Now, someone who’s been thinking about city environments from a design, architecture, systems, and social perspective at places like Harvard University and Qatar University, Geneva, MIT, and Vermont is Dr Anna Grichting. She’s a Swiss architect, urbanist, and musician who’s spent her career using arts and design to create a more beautiful, biodiverse, and sustainable world through co-creative, interdisciplinary, and holistic approaches to design projects, especially at the city level.

Dubber      Dr Anna Grichting, it’s great to have you with us for the MTF Podcast. How are you doing?

Anna          I’m doing very well, and thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

Dubber      You’re very welcome. You’re described as various things on the internet, primarily as an urbanist. What’s an urbanist?

Anna          An urbanist is a word we use, I think, a lot in Europe. It obviously has to do with the urban, with cities, with planning, and it’s also quite large because it encompasses all the different scales. And I’m also particularly interested in landscape urbanism. So it’s really this bringing together landscape and urbanism and also architecture and urbanism.

And I think, obviously, for a few centuries, we’ve been dividing disciplines. And increasingly, especially now, looking at ecology, environment, climate change, nature-based solutions, it’s even more and more important that landscape… What I tell my students, or even in conferences, is that landscape, in fact, for me is the foundation of any project of architecture or urbanism because we need to start from the ground. We need to start from the topography, from the water, from the biodiversity, from the soil. Soil is very important. So it’s even the landscape aspect which I find very important.

And why urbanism? Because in certain countries and disciplines, we tend to talk about architecture. We talk about urban design. We talk about urban planning, and urban planning can be very linked to policy or geography. And so we separate it in different… It can be found in different faculties or different ways of teaching. And so, for me, urbanism is a way of really… That’s maybe more holistic.

Dubber      Are cities fit for purpose anymore?

Anna          Fit for purpose? What exactly…

Dubber      Well, fit for humans is probably really what I’m asking.

Anna          Yes. Well, it’s an interesting question because, on the one hand, if you listen to UN-Habitat, etc., it’s saying “Well, in the future, we’re shifting from this urban and rural balance to more and more people will be living in cities.”. So there is that focus, and it’s definitely something we have to think about. Even here in Geneva, we think about, very carefully, “Are we going to eat up…”. We don’t have much territory in Switzerland. So “Are we going to eat up all the countryside and continue sprawling, or are we going to densify the city?”. And, of course, there’s all the questions of infrastructure because you need certain densities for infrastructures.

But, on the other hand, I feel also that we need to look also more and more and study the rural, and instead of everybody flocking to the city, what do we do in rural areas so that people don’t leave the rural areas? How do we make them more attractive? We have a lot of, whether it’s inner Italy or places even in France, these shrinking villages or cities where people are leaving because there’s not activity, etc. Obviously, now, with digital infrastructure, it’s become… And the COVID has shown us it’s becoming increasingly accessible. I know lots of people now, when we’re on webinars, they’re up in the mountains. I was nearly going to be up in the mountains today, but I wasn’t sure about my internet connection, so I came back to the city. So, for me, I think the question is the balance.

And, on the other hand, there’s something quite interesting if… I’m very interested in biodiversity. And because we have this intensive agriculture, we use a lot of pesticides. You’ll actually find, for example, bees, a lot of bee populations. There’s a lot of urban farming in bees. They’re actually healthier in the city because we don’t have this countryside full of pesticides. So we find some of these paradoxes that sometimes maybe the city in some ways becomes more healthy or greener than the countryside because we’re not necessarily doing the right things in the countryside because we’re doing this intensive cultivation, and we’re not really taking care of the soil and biodiversity. So I think we have to rethink all of our structures, generally, yes.

Dubber      Interesting. I’m surprised by the idea that people are moving to the cities increasingly. It feels counterintuitive for some of the reasons that you’ve mentioned. COVID shows that you can work from home. Broadband is getting better in a lot of places. So it feels like decentralisation would be the primary trend that you would see happening. But you think, despite that, there is a reason that people are drawn to cities. There’s a reason that people want to be near lots and lots of other people. What is that reason, do you think?

Anna          Probably several. Obviously, there is the economic opportunities that the city is associated with. Now, whether they’re real or not… Sometimes they are. Of course, maybe it’s more difficult to survive in a city in certain ways. In the countryside, it’s easier to grow your own food. Although, we’re seeing now that that’s happening in cities too. And cities like Detroit, which were shrinking cities, people have started actually… All the vacant lots, people are starting to grow food again, so the city is becoming rural again through this shrinkage. So I would say it’s not that obvious, this difference.

And I was actually recently working for the Aga Khan Foundation. I’ve been collaborating with them, and I worked for them on different projects. But I was reviewing a project that just recently won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It was a project for public spaces in Tatarstan in Russia, and it was under the president of Tatarstan. Tatarstan is a very small republic which has… It’s the only republic in Russia that has a president. The others are states with governors. And so they rolled out this project for public spaces, led by a brilliant young lady called Natalia Fishman, and the idea was to build public spaces not just in the cities but also in the rural areas. And the idea was that every space or village or urban area should have good public space.

So what was interesting here is that part of this project - it has many different facets, which is also why it received an award - it was also involving a lot of young architects, keeping the young architects in Tatarstan because they all want to leave to Moscow. They all want to leave. The attractivity of the big cities. Making it more attractive to work there by having these exciting projects. She created a biennale for young architects. There’s a whole series of things attached to this. So making it more attractive, creating these exciting projects, and also producing locally. So there was a lot of capacity building. Instead of importing maybe badly designed… Or if we want good design, spending a lot of money to import urban furniture, was actually producing it locally. So you’re creating capacity and jobs. And the other thing is having good public spaces in these villages, small towns, means that young people also start to associate more with their place. It creates an identity, etc.

So it’s quite interesting to see how this project of public spaces was also about stopping this migration. Making the smaller towns, cities, also more attractive, and also creating these small industries which provide or make public spaces, maintain them, so that also creates interesting and exciting jobs. For example, one of the producers, I went to see. So I was lucky to visit all of Tatarstan. Either they make agricultural machinery, but then they can also make urban furniture, or they use laser cutting, etc., to make all different parts of this urban furniture, and this also then creates opportunities for youth to then get into these jobs.

So it’s just one example that I find very interesting of… It’s urbanism. It’s an urban project on public space, but it’s really addressing this question of “How do we make all these areas attractive and create this urbanity, maybe, or this public space which people maybe need, also, to…”. It creates an identity, and it’s also, obviously, a gathering space. And so it’s very important, public space.

Dubber      It sounds like you’re taking the things that are best about cities and applying them to small places and villages and rural communities but also taking the best elements of what could be considered rural and essentially make cities rural again.

Anna          Yeah.

Dubber      It that the key to it, is to find the best elements of each?

Anna          Yes, I think so. I think it’s, obviously, opening our minds and reintegrating, whether it’s knowledge, whether it’s all this separation, the city and the countryside, etc. So we have to, obviously, preserve. We have to have natural spaces or natural reserves to preserve biodiversity. But, as I was mentioning before with the bees and all this, it’s not always as obvious as we think.

And I think also, at one stage, if we look at the modern movement in architecture and Le Corbusier, who is a very famous Swiss architect here - he wrote about the modern movement in architecture - at that time, it was really… It was interesting because it was very much about hygienist movement, which now, in this COVID pandemic, is interesting too because it was all about fighting the disease in the cities. And people were living in dark spaces, and it wasn’t hygienic. So they came up with this very rational approach to the city, and saying “We have to get people out of these slums, and so we’re going to build these high rise and lots of space and air.”. So, in a way, it was understandable, but it was also very much about separating functions, zoning - very rational - where public space was maybe no longer at the heart of it, communities, etc. So there’s an understanding of that, but there was also, I think… We lost a lot of the quality… What makes a city. And I think now we’re coming back to this much more integrated way of thinking of a city and planning a city and designing a city.

And also, one thing I didn’t mention with the Russian project - which was part of the reason it was also awarded - it was a participated placemaking programme. So the idea that we’re also designing with the people. It’s not like we’re up there saying “We know exactly what you need to be happy and to make a good space.”, but it’s also really this co-creating. Co-creating the spaces with the people. So that’s really important, and it’s also an emerging field of urban design which I think is increasingly important and being more and more implemented today.

Dubber      It’s interesting that you raise both co-creation and modernism in the light of European Commission President, von der Leyen, has announced this New European Bauhaus as this great new European design-led cultural project for addressing the big societal challenges. Do you think that that’s something that can have the impact that’s expected?

Anna          I think it’s a good idea. Obviously, the reference to the Bauhaus is interesting, but it was a certain moment in time with certain challenges. But it’s definitely an extremely important school in integrating the arts. Obviously, we need to take it a step further and integrate the sciences and technologies and nature, have nature-based design and… Obviously. This morning, I was reading an article about the natural capital which is starting to be valued and put into the economic equation. So, yes, I think it’s great to use this as an inspiration, but, obviously, it needs to probably go beyond Bauhaus to integrating also many more disciplines.

Dubber      In terms of ruralising cities, to what extent is vertical farming a useful approach to something like that?

Anna          I think it’s a very good approach, and I think it’s also… I think the scale is very important. And I think this pandemic was interesting to show us also the questions of scale, and whether it’s the scale of our economy where we’re sourcing things all over… We have a global economy, but there are also limits to that. And when we talk about resilience, sometimes we also need to scale down, and we need different types of systems to create this resilience.

So that’s why when I was in Qatar and working on food urbanism, which is something I identified as soon as I arrived there, I thought “We really need to work on this because they import over ninety percent of food.”. Desalination. Water is all from desalination. And the food security… The insecurity is very high. And when I was there in 2017, they had this crisis in Saudi Arabia, and from one day to the next, the supermarkets were empty. So all this work I was doing, the students were all of a sudden really… They understood the work, but they realised how important it was to start thinking about producing more locally.

So, of course, these technical solutions are important because we need to feed the whole planet, but then I think… In Qatar, we were also working with permaculture, with soil, with biodiversity because, of course, in these systems, you’re not going to address biodiversity, whereas if you’re working in the soil and in the ground, you can create really a whole ecosystem with food. Food forests. And I was working with a farmer there, Mohammed Al-Khater, Turba Farms, and he’s actually creating this whole farm based on biodiversity, permaculture, etc., and even showing that how he works on the soil, he can grow things all year round, whereas… I even created a garden in the university, and people said “Well, you can’t grow anything in Qatar.”. So the idea was “Well, you can.”. And he’s going to the state of actually saying “You can actually grow all year round. You just need to know what to do with the soil.”. And he uses both new ideas and new technology and also a lot of very traditional and indigenous knowledge. And I think that’s what’s important, is really using this deep and indigenous knowledge - and that’s also to do with the cycles of what we’re doing - and also the technology.

So I think that this greenhouses, vertical farming are a solution, especially what we did with the students. What I was teaching them was this systems thinking because with this idea of vertical farming, the idea is also… It’s being resource-efficient. And if you can use regenerated energies then you’re recycling as well. In Qatar, there was no composting, so I actually bought a specialist and we built a compost heap on the university because you’re creating a resource. This waste is becoming a resource for growing, etc.

So the vertical farming is really a system where you can be very resource-efficient. However, I think we really should be complimenting and having… For example, if you create a food forest - which means you’re integrating different species and it’s adapted to the climate, you’re creating shade, and the different species are also enabling the pollination - you have a whole system, and you can really create that in Qatar and everywhere. We’ve started working on that. So I think it’s about also these complementary systems, which is also creating a much more habitable space because if you just have buildings and vertical farming, you’re also then generating heat island effects and etc. So vertical farming, yes, but also permaculture, biodiversity, and soil, and really coming back to the soil.

And I thought during the pandemic, what’s really interesting - and this is something that I had learned from Mohammed Al-Khater who’s… He’s actually a natural doctor. He studied as a natural doctor - was this link between the gut biome, the soil biome, and the ecosystem. And we’re talking so much about immunity these days. So when we’re doing this work, we’re really also, let’s say, acting or enabling the whole health of the human and the health of the ecosystem, and so I think that’s important. And, as I said, I’ve met someone in Qatar. He was a brilliant young man, and he’s really doing this. You can actually see his farm and someone who has the knowledge of the gut biome working on the soil biome and creating this… Growing food. Also essential oils. Healing in all different ways.

Dubber      Qatar’s really interesting. It’s certainly an interesting place for a Swiss architect to end up. My knowledge of Qatar extends to hours spent in the Doha airport, but what is it that brought you there? What was the thing that made you think that was a place that you want to spend seven years of your working life?

Anna          Interestingly enough, I’ve never really planned my life or my career. So when I went to Harvard, everyone was saying “Well, what do you want to do after your PhD?”, and I had no idea. It was great to be there, and it gave me four years where I could work on Borders and really develop my research. And when I came back, I worked for the Aga Khan Foundation. So they were working in the Islamic world, and, at the time, they were actually preparing the award ceremony in Qatar. I left just before the award ceremony.

I was offered a position at Seoul National University because I’d been working on the Korean Demilitarized Zone and collaborating with Professor Kwi Gon Kim, who’s an honorary professor there. He’s done a lot of research on the wetlands in the Demilitarised Zone. So I had the work piece. I was about to go there, but the conditions were maybe not exactly the right conditions for me, and it was really a long way to go. And all of a sudden, this interview came up in Qatar, and I flew out there, and they offered me the job. I work also with intuition, and it just felt like the right place to go at that time. I didn’t really know that much about Qatar, but I was… I’m a mountain person, but I’m also… The desert, I found very attractive as well.

And also I’d studied in Harvard. So it’s a university and programme that’s really well established, Seoul National University. And this was a new programme in Qatar University, so, on the other hand, there’s also a lot of opportunities when you’re coming into someplace that’s new. Maybe there’s more to create than when you come into a very established institution.

What was very interesting also when I arrived there is that all the education and culture was being led by the women. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former emir, she created Education City. So she brought all these university faculties, she’d pick and choose, and then made one university with all these different faculties. A really brilliant lady. So she was really working in all the social and educational developments, and also the Qatar Foundation that gives the research funding of which I benefitted for my work.

Her daughter was establishing all the Qatar Museums. Well, it was already established, but she was the one who developed and brought all the public art. There was amazing public artists there. I had this opportunity with my students to meet Richard Serra, to meet Jeff Koons, Christo, just before he passed away. So it was amazing because it’s a small place. All these artists were coming. And I was working on public art as well because it was an emerging field in Qatar, and so I was able to get my students to meet these great artists. So this was Sheikha Al-Mayassa. She was developing all the arts. And Sheikha Al-Mayassa’s aunt was the president of my university, so I was in a university which was being run by a woman.

So I must say, when I arrived there, it was very inspiring also because it was really being led - the culture and education and social developments - by women. So I think it was a really good time to arrive in Qatar.

Dubber      And you were teaching female architecture students at the university.

Anna          Yes.

Dubber      What’s the significance of that, do you think, on a long term basis?

Anna          It was interesting for me because I’d actually been… Well, I lived in Ireland when I was young. So I went to high school there, and I was at high school with the nuns, so I was actually quite used to being in a segregated community. And I must say, I never suffered from it. I had a good time. So I tend not to be critical of the place I’m in. It’s always looking at “What are the opportunities?”. Actually, Qatar University was eighty percent female students and twenty percent male, and people often said “Well, the women are harder working.” and etc. So it wasn’t necessarily, for me, a negative thing.

In the master’s programme, we do have men and women. So at that level, in the master’s I was teaching, it was mixed between males and females. But my colleagues were mostly male, so the teachers were mostly males, but the students were majority female. But I also enjoy this… The sisterhood, and the fact of being in spaces with women and developing things with women. I think there’s also a lot of positive parts of being in circles and women’s circles and developing things with feminine and feminine energies.

Now, I am, I would say, for women’s empowerment, and so my teaching… When I’m a professor and teaching, it’s not just about teaching knowledge or subjects, but it is about creating leaders and visionaries and empowering, giving people the power to be creative and also to take on the tasks or to create the projects that need to be done. And this is what we did. We identified projects that needed to be developed in Qatar, and we actually developed some of these projects, and one of the projects we ended up presenting to the Minister of Planning.

So it was really empowering them in this bottom-up approach to architecture, which is obviously not what you would see in… In French, you say an ‘émirat’. An emirate. That’s where you have an emir or where you have this top-down system. For me, that was important, to show them “Well, you can develop a project and then bring it to the right people rather than just waiting for somebody to give you the job and say ‘Okay, this needs to be done.’”. Your job as an urbanist or an architect is to actually see what needs to be done, as well, to improve the environment. It’s not just about real estate or making money or… Of course, we have to make beautiful objects as well, but it’s not just about that. It’s really about improving the environment and the quality of life for everybody.

Dubber      Rapid lane change, you’re also a jazz singer. And I’m trying to picture how somebody who is operating at this level of large-scale buildings and cities and landscapes and gardening and then what I think of as very much in the intimate world of jazz… Partly, I guess, because jazz doesn’t have massive audiences for the most part, but also because it’s a very personal expression. How do those things speak to each other? How does the jazz singer and the architect in you communicate?

Anna          At the root, actually, because I’ve studied, really, these links between architecture and music, I always thought I should choose. And in the end, I never made the choice. And I think the more I move on, the more they’re coming together. And I always loved maths. And for architecture, obviously, there’s a mathematical side, and music is also… It’s mathematical, isn’t it? It’s about proportion and harmony. And if you study the golden rule in architecture, it’s about proportion and harmony. Then you look at spirituality and the chakras and the… I love the number seven. So the scales, everything is found in that.

And I started singing, actually, in Ireland. In my family, my aunt played piano. My father always played a bit and improvised. But in Ireland, I studied singing, and the Irish love singing. So there was a seed that was planted there. And when I studied my architecture studies, I actually started to take classical music lessons, and I founded a rhythm and blues band called The Mad Hatters. Long time ago. And my first concert was actually in the architecture school. We had a yearly bal masqué. It was like the Bauhaus used to do. Bal masqué. What do you call it? A fancy dress, where people got dressed up. And we had one with New York. Everybody was dressed in skyscrapers and… Anyway. So that was my first concert, was actually in the architecture school.

So they did develop together, and - as I said - I always thought “Well, I should do one or the other.”, but then I realise the more I develop that I was an interdisciplinary person, and it’s part of one of my facets. And it’s true that if you’re very career-oriented in academia and you want to have a career path, it’s quite difficult to be interdisciplinary, multifaceted. But, for me, I’ve never had a vision of what I wanted to be that stopped me just developing in all of these facets. Luckily, I didn’t say “Well, I need to be this person or this kind of professor.”, so I developed both of them together.

And one project I did was called ‘Border Meetings’. So when I finished my master’s. It was on the Berlin Wall divided cities. I actually made a CD with… I’d been reading philosophers and poets and… So there was spoken word, and I worked with musicians who play with improvised music, and also there was… I had recordings from Berlin, so I used these recordings, spatial recordings, and there’s even… I talk about the Röstigraben in Switzerland, which is this border between French and German-speaking part. And I had recordings of my grandfather. So I also brought in recordings with places like Berlin or places… So that was a first attempt to really create a CD with my work on the borders.

And when I was at Harvard, I also took a music class in spatial sound composition. And there, I didn’t have any musicians, so I made these pieces called ‘Mouthpieces’, which was all with my vocals, but, of course, you can make all sorts of transformations with digital technologies. At the time, I was going to Cyprus every year many times for my research, and I had recordings from Cyprus, so I also intermingled them. And then it was a twenty-four speaker spatial sound system, so what was really interesting to me as an architect was actually how you build a space through the sound. So I was able to really develop this work from my recordings from Cyprus, from my own vocal production, and then creating space through this spatial sound system.

And then I actually met… There was a musician in Boston who knew songs from… Byzantine Christian songs and also Sufi songs. And so I actually, when I performed this in Harvard, had a real musician on the stage who was playing the lute and bringing this music as well. And another thing, when we arrived in… With ‘Border Meetings’, I was… He was my partner, was a musician. So I’ve always, always been with musicians. So I think that’s also part of it, was being in the musical world, because being with musicians, being in jazz clubs or travelling… That’s how we travelled to Pakistan for the ‘Sufi Moon’ project.

And then when I arrived in Qatar, I was with my husband, actually, who I met in Boston. He was a writer and jazz musician. And it was just the moment that the Swiss was opening an embassy there. So there was really a synchronicity between me arriving there with my husband, who’s a musician, and the ambassador, who was formerly in Syria, had to leave Syria. And so I presented my project to him, and we actually developed a project called ‘Desert Bridges’ where we brought musicians from the US, Swiss musicians, an alphorn player from Switzerland, and there was a jazz traditional singer from Qatar, and we had also some Indian, Syrian musicians. So we did this fusion, and we performed for the opening of the Swiss embassy. This was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. So it was really this bridging of culture. So it’s also about the borders, ‘Border Meetings’, but how music is really a universal language and we can also bridge different cultures through this music. So that was also a great opportunity to be able to create a project in Qatar with my late husband, Cheo Jeffery Allen Solder.

Dubber      So what’s the current project? Musically speaking, what’s the next big thing for you?

Anna          At the moment, I’m working with my trio, Anna Jazz and Roses, with Michel Bastet, who I used to have a trio with before I left for the US and Qatar, and Frederic Folmer. They’re both really accomplished jazz musicians who’ve travelled and played all over the world. And just recently, we celebrated the fifty years of the right of votes for women. This was in 1971 in Switzerland. So…

Dubber      Really? That late?

Anna          Yes.

Dubber      Wow.

Anna          Well, it’s interesting. Because we have a democratic confederation with referendums and… It had to be that the men had to vote to give the women the vote so we could change the constitution. We couldn’t change the constitution without the men voting. And it’s interesting, some places, they still vote by raising their hands. And so it took time. Some cantons actually voted before, but it became really a federal law. So, yes, it was very, very late. I was inspired by this, and also just wanted to… There’s a lot of women suffragettes, Swiss suffragettes, and to honour them.

So I’ve started working with my musicians on a piece called ‘We Too’, actually. It’s thinking of the ‘Me Too’, but the ‘We Too’, the really inclusive celebration, it’s about celebrating how far we’ve gone. Of course, we still have a long way to go, but the idea is really celebrating already how far we’ve come and being inclusive and also saying it’s about evolving now together with men in a more balanced relationship. It’s not about just separating ourselves, but recombining. So that’s one thing I’m working on at the moment which I find really interesting and exciting.

And, just an anecdote, because I was obviously doing quite a bit of research on this and there was a lot of programmes. And you can see the Matterhorn on this image behind me because I’m from the valle, from the mountains. And my great grandfather was a mountain guide, and my father was a ski instructor as well as being an engineer and director of a factory. But it was interesting because women climbers… I remember there was one woman who was going to be the first woman to climb the Matterhorn, but women were not allowed to wear trousers, and so she had… They had these long skirts, and because it was windy, they could never really get to the top because the conditions were really bad. I read about this. They used to get fined if they were seen wearing skirts. They would be heavily fined. So there’s some really amusing stories about these women who wanted to be mountaineers and climb mountains, and they couldn’t wear pants to do this, and so… There’s some very, very interesting stories. And even the mountaineering club wouldn’t accept them. So now, obviously, things have evolved, but… Yeah. So we want to celebrate, as well, how far we’ve come.

Dubber      Is it a good place to do that? Is Switzerland… Has it caught up?

Anna          I think we still have a long way to go, but it’s like everywhere. I try not to be Swiss-centric, Eurocentric, especially when I… Like I told you, I arrived in Qatar. There was a woman president of my university. Well, there were none in Switzerland at the time. So I think we always have to be very careful about how we look at different countries.

But just recently, in the valle, for example, where I’m from, we just had these elections. Municipal elections and for the parliament. So the women have gone from twenty-five percent to forty percent. So I think that’s really great. Forty percent in the parliament. In Geneva, we just had a vote last week. We’re going on to the second round, but I think there were seven or eight men and one woman, and she got the most votes over all the men. And, obviously, she’s an ecologist and socialist. So, for me, that’s good because I think we need to go towards more ecology. And with COVID, we need to also be socially because there’s a lot of inequalities which have been revealed and even accentuated with the pandemic. So I’m really, really happy that there’s a lot of women who have social concerns and ecological concerns. So it’s really increasing, definitely.

So, yes. Hopefully, we’re catching up with whoever is the model. I’m not sure. I’d have to do more research to see who we need to catch up with, but… Actually, our president last year was a woman, and we have a rotating system, so… And we do have a good representation in the government.

Dubber      Right. Fantastic. You mentioned the ‘Sufi Moon’ project in passing in that recounting. Do you want to tell me a little bit more about that? Because that’s a really interesting one for me.

Anna          Yes. ‘Sufi Moon’ is a project that I developed with my former partner, Jean-Jacques Pedretti, who’s a trombone player and alphorn player. So he was invited to play in Pakistan with this Sufi soul music festival. So I went along. He was playing with his colleague, Robert Morgenthaler. They were playing alphorns, trombone. So they performed there and played with some other musicians, and we met… It was an amazing festival. I met this singer who’s very well known in Pakistan and also worldwide called Abida Parveen. She’s a Qawwali singer. And all the Sufi singers and traditional singers of Pakistan were performing there. Also an Indian Sufi musician was there. And I was so taken by this music. My discovery of Sufism was through the music there.

And so when we got back to Switzerland, I started to work on this project, ‘Sufi Moon’, and then we found the funding. And so we returned to Pakistan, and we also brought the musicians. So it was with two alphorns and trombone - they were the two Swiss musicians - myself on vocals, and then a Pakistani Qawwali vocalist and a tabla player. And so we created this fusion, and we performed in jazz clubs in Switzerland. We brought them here to Switzerland to perform, and then we performed also in Pakistan. And the highlight was actually performing in a Sufi shrine in a very small village called Pakpattan. The singer we were working with, Sher Miandad, he was actually the singer in this shrine, the Shrine of Baba Farid. So, for me, that was just an amazing experience, to be able to sing in a Sufi shrine with ‘Sufi Moon’, and it was a great experience. And then we also recorded a CD in Switzerland with the musicians.

Dubber      Yeah, that sounds fascinating. Did the music lead you to the spirituality, or was it just as a visitor to a culture that you were singing?

Anna          I’ve always been interested in spirituality, let’s say, as opposed to religion. Because I was working on ‘Borders’ and I… Working in Cyprus and Jerusalem, and living in Northern Ireland and always hearing about Catholics and Protestants and… So I really became interested in the spirituality. So I started to become interested also more in Buddhism and just exploring, and also the more feminine. Why are the women not in these religions? So I was also very drawn to that.

It was definitely the music that then sparked my interest in Sufism, and because it… What was really interesting is, there, that the music… Because in a lot of places - especially in the villages - people don’t read or write, so all this beautiful poetry is transmitted through the music. I’ve always been attracted by Persia, Iran, and I was very lucky to go there several times, especially when I was in Qatar, and then just last year for the Aga Khan as well. And, of course, they also have the… Well, Hafez is my favourite poet. And Rumi, of course. We all know Rumi as well. So I must say that, yeah, I just really discovered the world of Sufism, and I must say, Hafez is probably one of my very favourite poets.

And so ‘Sufi Moon’, the idea of the moon was the feminine but also because the crescent moon is very important in Islam, so it was a way I… How do we bring together these cultures? And so I found that the theme of the moon was the way that I tried to weave the music and the cultures together.

Dubber      Is there a unifying project or unifying vision that brings together these music and spirituality and architecture and urbanism and landscapes and… Is there something that you feel like you’re working on that weaves those things together somehow, or are you over here for a bit and then over there for a bit?

Anna          I think, as I said, more and more I find everything coming together, and I think in the future that’s definitely where I want to go. Where I’m going. I feel there’s an openness and more, let’s say, necessity and reception also for this. Even just talking to you today and being invited. Also that my personality… Because sometimes when I was a professor, I’d hide that I was a jazz singer because… Now, I really want to develop my projects and myself in all these aspects. And I think also that we see that we need more integrative thinking, more interdisciplinary thinking, and I just feel that there really is a fertile terrain for this now. And, as I mentioned, thank you so much for inviting me. But I feel that I’m also being seen in these dimensions more and more, and this is what I really want to develop in my projects. And I think I always had that dream, long ago, of creating a project which would really bring all of this together. So it’s definitely where I want to go.

Dubber      Fantastic. Anna, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Anna          Well, thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you.

Dubber      You’re welcome.

Dubber      That’s jazz musician, architect, and urbanist, Dr Anna Grichting, and that’s the MTF Podcast. Anna is @AnnaGrichting on Twitter and www.annagrichting.com on the web. I’ll put those on the podcast episode page. We’re @mtflabs and www.mtflabs.net, and you can find me @dubber on Twitter. Thanks to T. Bless & the Professionals and airtone for the music, to Run Dreamer for the MTF audio logo, and to the MTF production team - Sergio, Mars, and Jen - for making this possible. You can subscribe, follow, like, share, recommend, and discuss, and, of course, we’d love to hear from you too. But that’s it for this week. Look after yourself, look after your city, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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114. Anna Grichting – Urbanism and Jazz

“Your job as an urbanist or architect is to see what needs to be done to improve the environment, not just about real estate or making money. Of course we have to make beautiful objects but it’s really about the quality of life for everybody.”

114. Anna Grichting – Urbanism and Jazz

Aram Sinnreich

Anna Grichting - Urbanism and Jazz

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Dr Anna Grichting is a Swiss architect, urbanist and musician who’s spent her career using arts and design to create a more beautiful, biodiverse and sustainable world, through co-creative, interdisciplinary and holistic approaches to design projects - especially at the city level.
 
She’s also an accomplished jazz singer and recording artist who has worked with musicians all over the world, incorporating different spiritual traditions.
 

Transcript

Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. There’s a lot of talk right now about cities. Cities seem to be the atomic unit of public policy. Smart cities, sustainable cities, social progress cities, cities of culture, industrial cities, music cities. And the ways in which we design and develop cities and public spaces, especially post-COVID, once we are actually post-, are central to initiatives like the New European Bauhaus, the Green New Deal, AI4Cities. Things that ask questions about not just “Where shall we live?” but also “How should we live?”.

Now, someone who’s been thinking about city environments from a design, architecture, systems, and social perspective at places like Harvard University and Qatar University, Geneva, MIT, and Vermont is Dr Anna Grichting. She’s a Swiss architect, urbanist, and musician who’s spent her career using arts and design to create a more beautiful, biodiverse, and sustainable world through co-creative, interdisciplinary, and holistic approaches to design projects, especially at the city level.

Dubber      Dr Anna Grichting, it’s great to have you with us for the MTF Podcast. How are you doing?

Anna          I’m doing very well, and thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

Dubber      You’re very welcome. You’re described as various things on the internet, primarily as an urbanist. What’s an urbanist?

Anna          An urbanist is a word we use, I think, a lot in Europe. It obviously has to do with the urban, with cities, with planning, and it’s also quite large because it encompasses all the different scales. And I’m also particularly interested in landscape urbanism. So it’s really this bringing together landscape and urbanism and also architecture and urbanism.

And I think, obviously, for a few centuries, we’ve been dividing disciplines. And increasingly, especially now, looking at ecology, environment, climate change, nature-based solutions, it’s even more and more important that landscape… What I tell my students, or even in conferences, is that landscape, in fact, for me is the foundation of any project of architecture or urbanism because we need to start from the ground. We need to start from the topography, from the water, from the biodiversity, from the soil. Soil is very important. So it’s even the landscape aspect which I find very important.

And why urbanism? Because in certain countries and disciplines, we tend to talk about architecture. We talk about urban design. We talk about urban planning, and urban planning can be very linked to policy or geography. And so we separate it in different… It can be found in different faculties or different ways of teaching. And so, for me, urbanism is a way of really… That’s maybe more holistic.

Dubber      Are cities fit for purpose anymore?

Anna          Fit for purpose? What exactly…

Dubber      Well, fit for humans is probably really what I’m asking.

Anna          Yes. Well, it’s an interesting question because, on the one hand, if you listen to UN-Habitat, etc., it’s saying “Well, in the future, we’re shifting from this urban and rural balance to more and more people will be living in cities.”. So there is that focus, and it’s definitely something we have to think about. Even here in Geneva, we think about, very carefully, “Are we going to eat up…”. We don’t have much territory in Switzerland. So “Are we going to eat up all the countryside and continue sprawling, or are we going to densify the city?”. And, of course, there’s all the questions of infrastructure because you need certain densities for infrastructures.

But, on the other hand, I feel also that we need to look also more and more and study the rural, and instead of everybody flocking to the city, what do we do in rural areas so that people don’t leave the rural areas? How do we make them more attractive? We have a lot of, whether it’s inner Italy or places even in France, these shrinking villages or cities where people are leaving because there’s not activity, etc. Obviously, now, with digital infrastructure, it’s become… And the COVID has shown us it’s becoming increasingly accessible. I know lots of people now, when we’re on webinars, they’re up in the mountains. I was nearly going to be up in the mountains today, but I wasn’t sure about my internet connection, so I came back to the city. So, for me, I think the question is the balance.

And, on the other hand, there’s something quite interesting if… I’m very interested in biodiversity. And because we have this intensive agriculture, we use a lot of pesticides. You’ll actually find, for example, bees, a lot of bee populations. There’s a lot of urban farming in bees. They’re actually healthier in the city because we don’t have this countryside full of pesticides. So we find some of these paradoxes that sometimes maybe the city in some ways becomes more healthy or greener than the countryside because we’re not necessarily doing the right things in the countryside because we’re doing this intensive cultivation, and we’re not really taking care of the soil and biodiversity. So I think we have to rethink all of our structures, generally, yes.

Dubber      Interesting. I’m surprised by the idea that people are moving to the cities increasingly. It feels counterintuitive for some of the reasons that you’ve mentioned. COVID shows that you can work from home. Broadband is getting better in a lot of places. So it feels like decentralisation would be the primary trend that you would see happening. But you think, despite that, there is a reason that people are drawn to cities. There’s a reason that people want to be near lots and lots of other people. What is that reason, do you think?

Anna          Probably several. Obviously, there is the economic opportunities that the city is associated with. Now, whether they’re real or not… Sometimes they are. Of course, maybe it’s more difficult to survive in a city in certain ways. In the countryside, it’s easier to grow your own food. Although, we’re seeing now that that’s happening in cities too. And cities like Detroit, which were shrinking cities, people have started actually… All the vacant lots, people are starting to grow food again, so the city is becoming rural again through this shrinkage. So I would say it’s not that obvious, this difference.

And I was actually recently working for the Aga Khan Foundation. I’ve been collaborating with them, and I worked for them on different projects. But I was reviewing a project that just recently won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It was a project for public spaces in Tatarstan in Russia, and it was under the president of Tatarstan. Tatarstan is a very small republic which has… It’s the only republic in Russia that has a president. The others are states with governors. And so they rolled out this project for public spaces, led by a brilliant young lady called Natalia Fishman, and the idea was to build public spaces not just in the cities but also in the rural areas. And the idea was that every space or village or urban area should have good public space.

So what was interesting here is that part of this project - it has many different facets, which is also why it received an award - it was also involving a lot of young architects, keeping the young architects in Tatarstan because they all want to leave to Moscow. They all want to leave. The attractivity of the big cities. Making it more attractive to work there by having these exciting projects. She created a biennale for young architects. There’s a whole series of things attached to this. So making it more attractive, creating these exciting projects, and also producing locally. So there was a lot of capacity building. Instead of importing maybe badly designed… Or if we want good design, spending a lot of money to import urban furniture, was actually producing it locally. So you’re creating capacity and jobs. And the other thing is having good public spaces in these villages, small towns, means that young people also start to associate more with their place. It creates an identity, etc.

So it’s quite interesting to see how this project of public spaces was also about stopping this migration. Making the smaller towns, cities, also more attractive, and also creating these small industries which provide or make public spaces, maintain them, so that also creates interesting and exciting jobs. For example, one of the producers, I went to see. So I was lucky to visit all of Tatarstan. Either they make agricultural machinery, but then they can also make urban furniture, or they use laser cutting, etc., to make all different parts of this urban furniture, and this also then creates opportunities for youth to then get into these jobs.

So it’s just one example that I find very interesting of… It’s urbanism. It’s an urban project on public space, but it’s really addressing this question of “How do we make all these areas attractive and create this urbanity, maybe, or this public space which people maybe need, also, to…”. It creates an identity, and it’s also, obviously, a gathering space. And so it’s very important, public space.

Dubber      It sounds like you’re taking the things that are best about cities and applying them to small places and villages and rural communities but also taking the best elements of what could be considered rural and essentially make cities rural again.

Anna          Yeah.

Dubber      It that the key to it, is to find the best elements of each?

Anna          Yes, I think so. I think it’s, obviously, opening our minds and reintegrating, whether it’s knowledge, whether it’s all this separation, the city and the countryside, etc. So we have to, obviously, preserve. We have to have natural spaces or natural reserves to preserve biodiversity. But, as I was mentioning before with the bees and all this, it’s not always as obvious as we think.

And I think also, at one stage, if we look at the modern movement in architecture and Le Corbusier, who is a very famous Swiss architect here - he wrote about the modern movement in architecture - at that time, it was really… It was interesting because it was very much about hygienist movement, which now, in this COVID pandemic, is interesting too because it was all about fighting the disease in the cities. And people were living in dark spaces, and it wasn’t hygienic. So they came up with this very rational approach to the city, and saying “We have to get people out of these slums, and so we’re going to build these high rise and lots of space and air.”. So, in a way, it was understandable, but it was also very much about separating functions, zoning - very rational - where public space was maybe no longer at the heart of it, communities, etc. So there’s an understanding of that, but there was also, I think… We lost a lot of the quality… What makes a city. And I think now we’re coming back to this much more integrated way of thinking of a city and planning a city and designing a city.

And also, one thing I didn’t mention with the Russian project - which was part of the reason it was also awarded - it was a participated placemaking programme. So the idea that we’re also designing with the people. It’s not like we’re up there saying “We know exactly what you need to be happy and to make a good space.”, but it’s also really this co-creating. Co-creating the spaces with the people. So that’s really important, and it’s also an emerging field of urban design which I think is increasingly important and being more and more implemented today.

Dubber      It’s interesting that you raise both co-creation and modernism in the light of European Commission President, von der Leyen, has announced this New European Bauhaus as this great new European design-led cultural project for addressing the big societal challenges. Do you think that that’s something that can have the impact that’s expected?

Anna          I think it’s a good idea. Obviously, the reference to the Bauhaus is interesting, but it was a certain moment in time with certain challenges. But it’s definitely an extremely important school in integrating the arts. Obviously, we need to take it a step further and integrate the sciences and technologies and nature, have nature-based design and… Obviously. This morning, I was reading an article about the natural capital which is starting to be valued and put into the economic equation. So, yes, I think it’s great to use this as an inspiration, but, obviously, it needs to probably go beyond Bauhaus to integrating also many more disciplines.

Dubber      In terms of ruralising cities, to what extent is vertical farming a useful approach to something like that?

Anna          I think it’s a very good approach, and I think it’s also… I think the scale is very important. And I think this pandemic was interesting to show us also the questions of scale, and whether it’s the scale of our economy where we’re sourcing things all over… We have a global economy, but there are also limits to that. And when we talk about resilience, sometimes we also need to scale down, and we need different types of systems to create this resilience.

So that’s why when I was in Qatar and working on food urbanism, which is something I identified as soon as I arrived there, I thought “We really need to work on this because they import over ninety percent of food.”. Desalination. Water is all from desalination. And the food security… The insecurity is very high. And when I was there in 2017, they had this crisis in Saudi Arabia, and from one day to the next, the supermarkets were empty. So all this work I was doing, the students were all of a sudden really… They understood the work, but they realised how important it was to start thinking about producing more locally.

So, of course, these technical solutions are important because we need to feed the whole planet, but then I think… In Qatar, we were also working with permaculture, with soil, with biodiversity because, of course, in these systems, you’re not going to address biodiversity, whereas if you’re working in the soil and in the ground, you can create really a whole ecosystem with food. Food forests. And I was working with a farmer there, Mohammed Al-Khater, Turba Farms, and he’s actually creating this whole farm based on biodiversity, permaculture, etc., and even showing that how he works on the soil, he can grow things all year round, whereas… I even created a garden in the university, and people said “Well, you can’t grow anything in Qatar.”. So the idea was “Well, you can.”. And he’s going to the state of actually saying “You can actually grow all year round. You just need to know what to do with the soil.”. And he uses both new ideas and new technology and also a lot of very traditional and indigenous knowledge. And I think that’s what’s important, is really using this deep and indigenous knowledge - and that’s also to do with the cycles of what we’re doing - and also the technology.

So I think that this greenhouses, vertical farming are a solution, especially what we did with the students. What I was teaching them was this systems thinking because with this idea of vertical farming, the idea is also… It’s being resource-efficient. And if you can use regenerated energies then you’re recycling as well. In Qatar, there was no composting, so I actually bought a specialist and we built a compost heap on the university because you’re creating a resource. This waste is becoming a resource for growing, etc.

So the vertical farming is really a system where you can be very resource-efficient. However, I think we really should be complimenting and having… For example, if you create a food forest - which means you’re integrating different species and it’s adapted to the climate, you’re creating shade, and the different species are also enabling the pollination - you have a whole system, and you can really create that in Qatar and everywhere. We’ve started working on that. So I think it’s about also these complementary systems, which is also creating a much more habitable space because if you just have buildings and vertical farming, you’re also then generating heat island effects and etc. So vertical farming, yes, but also permaculture, biodiversity, and soil, and really coming back to the soil.

And I thought during the pandemic, what’s really interesting - and this is something that I had learned from Mohammed Al-Khater who’s… He’s actually a natural doctor. He studied as a natural doctor - was this link between the gut biome, the soil biome, and the ecosystem. And we’re talking so much about immunity these days. So when we’re doing this work, we’re really also, let’s say, acting or enabling the whole health of the human and the health of the ecosystem, and so I think that’s important. And, as I said, I’ve met someone in Qatar. He was a brilliant young man, and he’s really doing this. You can actually see his farm and someone who has the knowledge of the gut biome working on the soil biome and creating this… Growing food. Also essential oils. Healing in all different ways.

Dubber      Qatar’s really interesting. It’s certainly an interesting place for a Swiss architect to end up. My knowledge of Qatar extends to hours spent in the Doha airport, but what is it that brought you there? What was the thing that made you think that was a place that you want to spend seven years of your working life?

Anna          Interestingly enough, I’ve never really planned my life or my career. So when I went to Harvard, everyone was saying “Well, what do you want to do after your PhD?”, and I had no idea. It was great to be there, and it gave me four years where I could work on Borders and really develop my research. And when I came back, I worked for the Aga Khan Foundation. So they were working in the Islamic world, and, at the time, they were actually preparing the award ceremony in Qatar. I left just before the award ceremony.

I was offered a position at Seoul National University because I’d been working on the Korean Demilitarized Zone and collaborating with Professor Kwi Gon Kim, who’s an honorary professor there. He’s done a lot of research on the wetlands in the Demilitarised Zone. So I had the work piece. I was about to go there, but the conditions were maybe not exactly the right conditions for me, and it was really a long way to go. And all of a sudden, this interview came up in Qatar, and I flew out there, and they offered me the job. I work also with intuition, and it just felt like the right place to go at that time. I didn’t really know that much about Qatar, but I was… I’m a mountain person, but I’m also… The desert, I found very attractive as well.

And also I’d studied in Harvard. So it’s a university and programme that’s really well established, Seoul National University. And this was a new programme in Qatar University, so, on the other hand, there’s also a lot of opportunities when you’re coming into someplace that’s new. Maybe there’s more to create than when you come into a very established institution.

What was very interesting also when I arrived there is that all the education and culture was being led by the women. Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former emir, she created Education City. So she brought all these university faculties, she’d pick and choose, and then made one university with all these different faculties. A really brilliant lady. So she was really working in all the social and educational developments, and also the Qatar Foundation that gives the research funding of which I benefitted for my work.

Her daughter was establishing all the Qatar Museums. Well, it was already established, but she was the one who developed and brought all the public art. There was amazing public artists there. I had this opportunity with my students to meet Richard Serra, to meet Jeff Koons, Christo, just before he passed away. So it was amazing because it’s a small place. All these artists were coming. And I was working on public art as well because it was an emerging field in Qatar, and so I was able to get my students to meet these great artists. So this was Sheikha Al-Mayassa. She was developing all the arts. And Sheikha Al-Mayassa’s aunt was the president of my university, so I was in a university which was being run by a woman.

So I must say, when I arrived there, it was very inspiring also because it was really being led - the culture and education and social developments - by women. So I think it was a really good time to arrive in Qatar.

Dubber      And you were teaching female architecture students at the university.

Anna          Yes.

Dubber      What’s the significance of that, do you think, on a long term basis?

Anna          It was interesting for me because I’d actually been… Well, I lived in Ireland when I was young. So I went to high school there, and I was at high school with the nuns, so I was actually quite used to being in a segregated community. And I must say, I never suffered from it. I had a good time. So I tend not to be critical of the place I’m in. It’s always looking at “What are the opportunities?”. Actually, Qatar University was eighty percent female students and twenty percent male, and people often said “Well, the women are harder working.” and etc. So it wasn’t necessarily, for me, a negative thing.

In the master’s programme, we do have men and women. So at that level, in the master’s I was teaching, it was mixed between males and females. But my colleagues were mostly male, so the teachers were mostly males, but the students were majority female. But I also enjoy this… The sisterhood, and the fact of being in spaces with women and developing things with women. I think there’s also a lot of positive parts of being in circles and women’s circles and developing things with feminine and feminine energies.

Now, I am, I would say, for women’s empowerment, and so my teaching… When I’m a professor and teaching, it’s not just about teaching knowledge or subjects, but it is about creating leaders and visionaries and empowering, giving people the power to be creative and also to take on the tasks or to create the projects that need to be done. And this is what we did. We identified projects that needed to be developed in Qatar, and we actually developed some of these projects, and one of the projects we ended up presenting to the Minister of Planning.

So it was really empowering them in this bottom-up approach to architecture, which is obviously not what you would see in… In French, you say an ‘émirat’. An emirate. That’s where you have an emir or where you have this top-down system. For me, that was important, to show them “Well, you can develop a project and then bring it to the right people rather than just waiting for somebody to give you the job and say ‘Okay, this needs to be done.’”. Your job as an urbanist or an architect is to actually see what needs to be done, as well, to improve the environment. It’s not just about real estate or making money or… Of course, we have to make beautiful objects as well, but it’s not just about that. It’s really about improving the environment and the quality of life for everybody.

Dubber      Rapid lane change, you’re also a jazz singer. And I’m trying to picture how somebody who is operating at this level of large-scale buildings and cities and landscapes and gardening and then what I think of as very much in the intimate world of jazz… Partly, I guess, because jazz doesn’t have massive audiences for the most part, but also because it’s a very personal expression. How do those things speak to each other? How does the jazz singer and the architect in you communicate?

Anna          At the root, actually, because I’ve studied, really, these links between architecture and music, I always thought I should choose. And in the end, I never made the choice. And I think the more I move on, the more they’re coming together. And I always loved maths. And for architecture, obviously, there’s a mathematical side, and music is also… It’s mathematical, isn’t it? It’s about proportion and harmony. And if you study the golden rule in architecture, it’s about proportion and harmony. Then you look at spirituality and the chakras and the… I love the number seven. So the scales, everything is found in that.

And I started singing, actually, in Ireland. In my family, my aunt played piano. My father always played a bit and improvised. But in Ireland, I studied singing, and the Irish love singing. So there was a seed that was planted there. And when I studied my architecture studies, I actually started to take classical music lessons, and I founded a rhythm and blues band called The Mad Hatters. Long time ago. And my first concert was actually in the architecture school. We had a yearly bal masqué. It was like the Bauhaus used to do. Bal masqué. What do you call it? A fancy dress, where people got dressed up. And we had one with New York. Everybody was dressed in skyscrapers and… Anyway. So that was my first concert, was actually in the architecture school.

So they did develop together, and - as I said - I always thought “Well, I should do one or the other.”, but then I realise the more I develop that I was an interdisciplinary person, and it’s part of one of my facets. And it’s true that if you’re very career-oriented in academia and you want to have a career path, it’s quite difficult to be interdisciplinary, multifaceted. But, for me, I’ve never had a vision of what I wanted to be that stopped me just developing in all of these facets. Luckily, I didn’t say “Well, I need to be this person or this kind of professor.”, so I developed both of them together.

And one project I did was called ‘Border Meetings’. So when I finished my master’s. It was on the Berlin Wall divided cities. I actually made a CD with… I’d been reading philosophers and poets and… So there was spoken word, and I worked with musicians who play with improvised music, and also there was… I had recordings from Berlin, so I used these recordings, spatial recordings, and there’s even… I talk about the Röstigraben in Switzerland, which is this border between French and German-speaking part. And I had recordings of my grandfather. So I also brought in recordings with places like Berlin or places… So that was a first attempt to really create a CD with my work on the borders.

And when I was at Harvard, I also took a music class in spatial sound composition. And there, I didn’t have any musicians, so I made these pieces called ‘Mouthpieces’, which was all with my vocals, but, of course, you can make all sorts of transformations with digital technologies. At the time, I was going to Cyprus every year many times for my research, and I had recordings from Cyprus, so I also intermingled them. And then it was a twenty-four speaker spatial sound system, so what was really interesting to me as an architect was actually how you build a space through the sound. So I was able to really develop this work from my recordings from Cyprus, from my own vocal production, and then creating space through this spatial sound system.

And then I actually met… There was a musician in Boston who knew songs from… Byzantine Christian songs and also Sufi songs. And so I actually, when I performed this in Harvard, had a real musician on the stage who was playing the lute and bringing this music as well. And another thing, when we arrived in… With ‘Border Meetings’, I was… He was my partner, was a musician. So I’ve always, always been with musicians. So I think that’s also part of it, was being in the musical world, because being with musicians, being in jazz clubs or travelling… That’s how we travelled to Pakistan for the ‘Sufi Moon’ project.

And then when I arrived in Qatar, I was with my husband, actually, who I met in Boston. He was a writer and jazz musician. And it was just the moment that the Swiss was opening an embassy there. So there was really a synchronicity between me arriving there with my husband, who’s a musician, and the ambassador, who was formerly in Syria, had to leave Syria. And so I presented my project to him, and we actually developed a project called ‘Desert Bridges’ where we brought musicians from the US, Swiss musicians, an alphorn player from Switzerland, and there was a jazz traditional singer from Qatar, and we had also some Indian, Syrian musicians. So we did this fusion, and we performed for the opening of the Swiss embassy. This was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. So it was really this bridging of culture. So it’s also about the borders, ‘Border Meetings’, but how music is really a universal language and we can also bridge different cultures through this music. So that was also a great opportunity to be able to create a project in Qatar with my late husband, Cheo Jeffery Allen Solder.

Dubber      So what’s the current project? Musically speaking, what’s the next big thing for you?

Anna          At the moment, I’m working with my trio, Anna Jazz and Roses, with Michel Bastet, who I used to have a trio with before I left for the US and Qatar, and Frederic Folmer. They’re both really accomplished jazz musicians who’ve travelled and played all over the world. And just recently, we celebrated the fifty years of the right of votes for women. This was in 1971 in Switzerland. So…

Dubber      Really? That late?

Anna          Yes.

Dubber      Wow.

Anna          Well, it’s interesting. Because we have a democratic confederation with referendums and… It had to be that the men had to vote to give the women the vote so we could change the constitution. We couldn’t change the constitution without the men voting. And it’s interesting, some places, they still vote by raising their hands. And so it took time. Some cantons actually voted before, but it became really a federal law. So, yes, it was very, very late. I was inspired by this, and also just wanted to… There’s a lot of women suffragettes, Swiss suffragettes, and to honour them.

So I’ve started working with my musicians on a piece called ‘We Too’, actually. It’s thinking of the ‘Me Too’, but the ‘We Too’, the really inclusive celebration, it’s about celebrating how far we’ve gone. Of course, we still have a long way to go, but the idea is really celebrating already how far we’ve come and being inclusive and also saying it’s about evolving now together with men in a more balanced relationship. It’s not about just separating ourselves, but recombining. So that’s one thing I’m working on at the moment which I find really interesting and exciting.

And, just an anecdote, because I was obviously doing quite a bit of research on this and there was a lot of programmes. And you can see the Matterhorn on this image behind me because I’m from the valle, from the mountains. And my great grandfather was a mountain guide, and my father was a ski instructor as well as being an engineer and director of a factory. But it was interesting because women climbers… I remember there was one woman who was going to be the first woman to climb the Matterhorn, but women were not allowed to wear trousers, and so she had… They had these long skirts, and because it was windy, they could never really get to the top because the conditions were really bad. I read about this. They used to get fined if they were seen wearing skirts. They would be heavily fined. So there’s some really amusing stories about these women who wanted to be mountaineers and climb mountains, and they couldn’t wear pants to do this, and so… There’s some very, very interesting stories. And even the mountaineering club wouldn’t accept them. So now, obviously, things have evolved, but… Yeah. So we want to celebrate, as well, how far we’ve come.

Dubber      Is it a good place to do that? Is Switzerland… Has it caught up?

Anna          I think we still have a long way to go, but it’s like everywhere. I try not to be Swiss-centric, Eurocentric, especially when I… Like I told you, I arrived in Qatar. There was a woman president of my university. Well, there were none in Switzerland at the time. So I think we always have to be very careful about how we look at different countries.

But just recently, in the valle, for example, where I’m from, we just had these elections. Municipal elections and for the parliament. So the women have gone from twenty-five percent to forty percent. So I think that’s really great. Forty percent in the parliament. In Geneva, we just had a vote last week. We’re going on to the second round, but I think there were seven or eight men and one woman, and she got the most votes over all the men. And, obviously, she’s an ecologist and socialist. So, for me, that’s good because I think we need to go towards more ecology. And with COVID, we need to also be socially because there’s a lot of inequalities which have been revealed and even accentuated with the pandemic. So I’m really, really happy that there’s a lot of women who have social concerns and ecological concerns. So it’s really increasing, definitely.

So, yes. Hopefully, we’re catching up with whoever is the model. I’m not sure. I’d have to do more research to see who we need to catch up with, but… Actually, our president last year was a woman, and we have a rotating system, so… And we do have a good representation in the government.

Dubber      Right. Fantastic. You mentioned the ‘Sufi Moon’ project in passing in that recounting. Do you want to tell me a little bit more about that? Because that’s a really interesting one for me.

Anna          Yes. ‘Sufi Moon’ is a project that I developed with my former partner, Jean-Jacques Pedretti, who’s a trombone player and alphorn player. So he was invited to play in Pakistan with this Sufi soul music festival. So I went along. He was playing with his colleague, Robert Morgenthaler. They were playing alphorns, trombone. So they performed there and played with some other musicians, and we met… It was an amazing festival. I met this singer who’s very well known in Pakistan and also worldwide called Abida Parveen. She’s a Qawwali singer. And all the Sufi singers and traditional singers of Pakistan were performing there. Also an Indian Sufi musician was there. And I was so taken by this music. My discovery of Sufism was through the music there.

And so when we got back to Switzerland, I started to work on this project, ‘Sufi Moon’, and then we found the funding. And so we returned to Pakistan, and we also brought the musicians. So it was with two alphorns and trombone - they were the two Swiss musicians - myself on vocals, and then a Pakistani Qawwali vocalist and a tabla player. And so we created this fusion, and we performed in jazz clubs in Switzerland. We brought them here to Switzerland to perform, and then we performed also in Pakistan. And the highlight was actually performing in a Sufi shrine in a very small village called Pakpattan. The singer we were working with, Sher Miandad, he was actually the singer in this shrine, the Shrine of Baba Farid. So, for me, that was just an amazing experience, to be able to sing in a Sufi shrine with ‘Sufi Moon’, and it was a great experience. And then we also recorded a CD in Switzerland with the musicians.

Dubber      Yeah, that sounds fascinating. Did the music lead you to the spirituality, or was it just as a visitor to a culture that you were singing?

Anna          I’ve always been interested in spirituality, let’s say, as opposed to religion. Because I was working on ‘Borders’ and I… Working in Cyprus and Jerusalem, and living in Northern Ireland and always hearing about Catholics and Protestants and… So I really became interested in the spirituality. So I started to become interested also more in Buddhism and just exploring, and also the more feminine. Why are the women not in these religions? So I was also very drawn to that.

It was definitely the music that then sparked my interest in Sufism, and because it… What was really interesting is, there, that the music… Because in a lot of places - especially in the villages - people don’t read or write, so all this beautiful poetry is transmitted through the music. I’ve always been attracted by Persia, Iran, and I was very lucky to go there several times, especially when I was in Qatar, and then just last year for the Aga Khan as well. And, of course, they also have the… Well, Hafez is my favourite poet. And Rumi, of course. We all know Rumi as well. So I must say that, yeah, I just really discovered the world of Sufism, and I must say, Hafez is probably one of my very favourite poets.

And so ‘Sufi Moon’, the idea of the moon was the feminine but also because the crescent moon is very important in Islam, so it was a way I… How do we bring together these cultures? And so I found that the theme of the moon was the way that I tried to weave the music and the cultures together.

Dubber      Is there a unifying project or unifying vision that brings together these music and spirituality and architecture and urbanism and landscapes and… Is there something that you feel like you’re working on that weaves those things together somehow, or are you over here for a bit and then over there for a bit?

Anna          I think, as I said, more and more I find everything coming together, and I think in the future that’s definitely where I want to go. Where I’m going. I feel there’s an openness and more, let’s say, necessity and reception also for this. Even just talking to you today and being invited. Also that my personality… Because sometimes when I was a professor, I’d hide that I was a jazz singer because… Now, I really want to develop my projects and myself in all these aspects. And I think also that we see that we need more integrative thinking, more interdisciplinary thinking, and I just feel that there really is a fertile terrain for this now. And, as I mentioned, thank you so much for inviting me. But I feel that I’m also being seen in these dimensions more and more, and this is what I really want to develop in my projects. And I think I always had that dream, long ago, of creating a project which would really bring all of this together. So it’s definitely where I want to go.

Dubber      Fantastic. Anna, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Anna          Well, thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you.

Dubber      You’re welcome.

Dubber      That’s jazz musician, architect, and urbanist, Dr Anna Grichting, and that’s the MTF Podcast. Anna is @AnnaGrichting on Twitter and www.annagrichting.com on the web. I’ll put those on the podcast episode page. We’re @mtflabs and www.mtflabs.net, and you can find me @dubber on Twitter. Thanks to T. Bless & the Professionals and airtone for the music, to Run Dreamer for the MTF audio logo, and to the MTF production team - Sergio, Mars, and Jen - for making this possible. You can subscribe, follow, like, share, recommend, and discuss, and, of course, we’d love to hear from you too. But that’s it for this week. Look after yourself, look after your city, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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