Cultural Exchange

Study periods, internships, voluntary work: Habitat Forum Berlin encourages youth cultural exchange in South and Southeast Asia. To determine appropriate assignments, the applicants’ individual experience, qualities and interests are given priority. We rely on long standing relationships with NGOs, civil society initiatives and research institutions in urban as much as in rural areas. For detailed information, do not hesitate to contact us!

About cultural exchange and a few more experiences…

Tobias Kuttler“Since a few weeks, there is a hole in one of the flip-flops I normally wear, at the heel. I kind of like the idea that a tiny part of my body is always directly connected to the ground every time I walk.”
I have come to India with the purpose to do research for my master thesis. I have virtually nothing in common with the people I deal with in my study area every day – a wholesale market in the heart of Hyderabad. We don’t share the same daily routines. Indeed, I constantly feel reminded of my diversity and that I don’t belong to this place. But still, there are occasions when I feel to be in some kind of balance with the people around. In these situations, we leave aside each other’s differences and sit next to each other, make jokes or just enjoy the cool breeze of the night indicating that a day of work comes to an end for all of us. Being allowed to share these moments of relax from the day’s bustle, I feel that we might share the same desires and hopes, that my presence is accepted and that I am part of this world. At least for a short moment. For me, this is a feeling close to “feeling at home” and an enlightening moment in this experience called cultural exchange.
I am a master student of urban planning in my last year of study. I was attracted to Hyderabad, because in recent times, this city’s governance and planning have been instrumentalized to serve the sole purpose of unhindered economic growth, thereby mostly neglecting the difficult social and political landscape the city is struggling with since Independence. Begum Bazar, Hyderabad’s historic wholesale market, mirrors the fragmentation of the city’s social and spatial realities. How to plan in such an environment, under these circumstances?
I believe that in order to take wise decisions in (urban) planning, one needs to work as closely as possible with the people he/she is supposed to plan for and get a deep understanding of their daily routines, beliefs, desires and fears. Having the opportunity to be in India, I am trying to practice this by focusing on the perceptions of urban space – open space, road space, the so-called “public” space – among the people who daily use it. By looking at the uses of space in a specific area, the conflicts these uses arouse, the way territories are defined and space is appropriated, I wish to provide myself the basis for formulating “good” planning recommendations.
The first four months of my work in this very peculiar part of Hyderabad, as well as my life in this contradictory city, challenged me with questions about “myself” and “the other”. How deep can I dive into a world that is completely different? In order to do that, to what extent can I let go what I take for granted and I have incorporated all along my life? How strongly do I want to question what I have learnt as a student of human geography and urban planning? I don’t seek clear answers to that; I rather take the time of my stay as opportunity to experiment with these questions.
Tobias Kuttler, ‘A New Passage to India’

Theresa Zimmermann“Going to India felt like a home-run to me. But what I experience now, is highly exciting. From trying to adapt and being like an Indian, I started reflecting and digging deeper.”
Some time back, I studied in Delhi for a year. There, I felt like I was part of everything. I lived together with my Indian classmates, we shared our every-day life, we sat in silence over a chai, I visited their families and I even started to adopt their behaviors. My friends came from all over India, we all shared and somehow exchanged parts of our cultures. As I stayed for a year, I had plenty of time to let myself dive into the experience of trying to fit in. I felt like I was one of them. It felt good. A year later I spent one month in Hyderabad to work on my graduation thesis about the use of wastewater in urban and peri-urban agriculture along the Musi River. This year, meanwhile studying urban ecology in my master, I have come back to research further about the social and environmental interlinkages of the growing megacity, its food requirements and the effluents it leaves behind – and to capture all in a documentary film.
What I find now is a different India or rather, a different me in India. Here in Hyderabad, where I am staying only for a few months, I have a specific research question, a task to fulfill. I interact with researchers, farmers, government officials and activists and each one of them teaches me many lessons concerning questions of past and present, of cultures and livelihoods, of openness and cautiousness. However, I get to spend only a few minutes or hours with each them and I remain a stranger to them.
Until today, my neighbors don’t see the neighbor in me, but the foreigner. Even though I feel at home in this country, I make the experience of being different, of being exposed to so many new aspects of culture and also of “you” and “me”. I now have a certain distance to what I see and experience, which allows me to reflect a lot. Whereas this shift in the beginning felt awkward, I can now see it as a gift.
The constant alteration between feeling close and familiar and feeling alien and different is what allows to dig deeper. It gives space for real discussions, for reflection over my own culture, the culture I have adopted over the years and of course all the little situations in which I notice cultural differences. It is also helping me getting a better understanding of my research topic and to make the research work more fruitful. The cultural experience which has started almost four years ago moves on and I know that it will never stop.
Theresa Zimmermann, ‘A New Passage to India’

Christina Peis“For me, cultural exchange means the opportunity to explore a surrounding in a completely different country with its different people, culture, lifestyle and environment not only by interchanging with other young adults at the university but also in the everyday life.”
It is the first time being on my own in a to me so foreign country like India. I had no idea what was expecting me in Mysore. Of course one knows from the media, among other things, the images of the shacks in slum areas, the lack of infrastructure, of water supply and the enduring problem of waste management. In contrast to that the great celebrations, the colorful traditional sarees and the fascinating landscape. But actually, being on site makes me perceive these prejudiced, cursory thoughts in a different manner.
After the first weeks of disorientation, getting to know the city where I will spend the next months, the university, the cuisine, I found my way to deal with everyday challenges such as bargaining with the rickshaw drivers, dealing with the originalities and irritating composure of the indian folks and sometimes slow procedure of bureaucracy.
Undoubtedly, the students and the people I met helped me to turn the initial difficulties to be a part of my daily live. In Mysore I have met great people and I have never experienced such a kindness and great helpfulness.
I came to India in September 2012 through the Exchange Program „a New Passage to India“ to study for one semester at the University of Design in Mysore. Beside some seminars like landscape architecture and urban conservation I am enrolled in the design project „Urban Renewal of a slum area“ located in Bangalore. For me as a student of the master program „Urban Design“ it sounded very interesting: how to deal with the topic of lacking amenities like schools and hospitals, insufficient water supply and involvement of green spaces into the urban fabric?
The experiences that I made lead me to think about my master thesis in a varied way, boosting me to do a lot more research about sustainable development with renewable energies. I would like to analyze how these technologies can be part of the inner cities. Making the city more efficient on the one side and keeping the nature´s resources and culture´s heritage on the other side. The acquaintances at the university were essential for me because through the students I got to know places in India which are very interesting with regard to “urban design”. Moreover, they offered me the opportunity to get in contact with architects that practice according to my interests. Being India in an exciting process of cultural change and urban development, I am happy to be part of an exchange that shaped my further course of my study.
Christina Peis, ‘A New Passage to India’

Tyco Cote“The concept of cultural exchange is just as hollow a word, as sustainability has become recently. I guess it is to be considered as a concept or a given name deriving from the shame of cultural exploitation and rape over the past centuries. My sense of culture is something that can only prevail along and be deeply rooted in a certain amount of factors such as a location, language, cuisine, music, people and the will to maintain one’s cultural heritage. But how do i justify myself, being an alien to all these cultural elements, exploring, learning and ultimately benefiting from india?”
The places I’ve been have only proved one thing in common to me: every culture, every country and all people have their own legitimacy in being. Amongst all there can be no better, no worse, no right nor wrong. This acceptance has always helped me in understanding the people, for I don’t question and refuse to compare. I believe one can exchange ideas and emotions, then learn from another in certain aspects, but again there needs to be a common soil for anything to flourish. I don´t even speak the common languages that are presented to me here.
The word exchange implies that both parts share and profit from another, but when has this ever truly been the case? What does a European, middle class, educated yet opened minded guy like me have to offer and for that matter what can I equally ask for in return?
It seems to me India already is suffocating from both internal and external forces, trying to turn it into something it is not.
I had a lot of issues and topics I wanted to do further research on, before I actually got to India. Once here I threw them aboard, because the scale the themes dealt with turned out to be beyond my capability outside of my familiar setting. I decided to work with something that struck my interest here, something that was very much present within my neighbourhood in Mysore. I am currently analysing middle class single family residential buildings and their development throughout the past decades. A whole lot of them look alike in terms of spatial layout and size, but the decorative elements draw from all architectural styles since modernism.
Some of these decorative elements work well with the overall design, their magnitude on the other hand seem out of place. Ever since the days of the maharajas it has been quite common to copy certain elements and incorporate into the architectural design. This pattern book approach to architecture is still present, while residential buildings are usually executed by professional but not specifically educated contractors. Has the role of an architect become superfluous, when the house owners seem to be perfectly content with the outlook of their home?
Tyco Cote, ‘A New Passage to India’

Rini James“Cultural exchange allows young, curious, impressionable, eager to learn young adults to live in a new environment outside their comfort zone for a significant period of time and undoubtedly change the course of their life. …And this is what this exchange program has done to me!”
As a student of architecture, getting to Berlin is a whole new experience of place, culture, lifestyle, its influences on architecture and most of all about how I would effectively learn and implement it into myself, as a person and my style of design and thought process, with regard to my subject of study. The system of work in here is highly contrasting to the work culture back home. This new system has influenced my tastes, likings and preferences to such a great extent that I am in love with the City and most of all more in love with architecture!
The variety of subjects offered at the University is really fascinating. I have been a little ambitious and chosen subjects which I never knew were associated to architecture! I am currently involved in a Design Studio, titled, ‘ENERGY concrete design competition’ which according to me is a very dynamic approach towards a design project of any character. This studio doesn’t merely concentrate on design alone, but also involves an array of assignments pertaining to analysis of a specific genre of building typology, climatology, sustainability, technology, etc., which while being a part of the design, are broadly discussed and worked out in detail. This has helped me re-learn the process of design!! It makes complete sense to me as it is based on existing theories both logical & practical and at the same time demands research and development of new concepts. Being as challenging as it can be for a student who is exposed to a very small phase of architecture, this program has boosted the zeal in me even more! I have to admit, I find this period of eleven months really short, as I realize everyday, there is so much more I am yet to explore…but…time flies! The variety of books and buildings I am right now exposed to is something I can never get over.
At the Habitat Forum, I have come across a pallet of research methodologies and approaches which sure have influenced me in ways more than one. It has set me thinking about my thesis in a varied way and has also kindled my interest in research much more. So this program has not only widened my horizon towards architecture but my career by and large! Most of all it’s given me an opportunity to grow as a person as well. Being in a City which is a homogenous mix of cultures and lifestyles which is in total contrast to where I come from…I’m loving it!!!
Rini James, ‘A New Passage to India’

Niklas Kuhlendahl“I’m a student of architecture currently doing an internship at the urbanist office ‘Adapt technologies’, Hyderabad, getting fascinating insights into the sometimes chaotic ways of planning in India: the office has recently acquired a huge project, but we can’t really start working for a variety of administrational and personnel issues that are beyond our influence. For me it’s fascinating anyway!”
Sometimes Hyderabad feels to me like a bearer of bad news from the future. All the main problems of humanity are here: far too many people for not big enough a space, scarcity of the most important resources and the lake Hussain Sagar in the middle of town, which could be a beautiful asset, has obviously given up and turned into a bad omen. That’s one side. The other, fascinating and promising, but also tremendously scary aspect is how people deal with it: brave and phlegmatic at the same time. It’s truly impressive how much noise, dirt, stink and congestion they endure – and still carry on. At the same time, this makes me doubt that the majority of people will ever acknowledge the damage that has been done and try to change something. I am wondering if planners and architects are able to do something about that? Which basically is what I am working on right now. I’m interested in the function of architecture as a means of social distinction in India. In what ways is architecture being used as an instrument for representation of social and economical status?
My most notable intercultural experience is best summed up in a short anecdote. It’s been bugging me from the beginning that people here don’t usually cue up, but squeeze themselves into knots in front of any counter, and try to push the others away instead of forming a line. As time went by and I began to live and work here and had to be at a certain place at a certain time (i. e. became a ‘local’ to some extend), it became increasingly frustrating for me to just stand by and always be the last one served. One morning, I found the line to be as messy as always, and when it was my turn, a young woman came to the front of the line and squeezed herself in. Finally, I hissed: “Excuse me, would you mind cueing up?”. The only result was an embarrassed and uncomprehending look from her.
While she bought her ticket, a man waiting next to me explained me that there usually was a separate line for women, but if only one counter was open, women had the right to pass the line and be served first. How very embarrassing! Not only had I broken several social rules by addressing a foreign young woman in public, but also, my complaint was completely unjustified.
There are a number of questions that arise from this: is it wrong to suppress your indignation about people’s misbehaviour? Probably only if you haven’t stayed long enough to be able to tell if they’re misbehaving, or if there’s just some social rule which you haven’t found out about yet. Does that mean it’s best to try and adapt to the local behaviour, even if you really don’t like certain aspects of that behaviour?
Niklas Kuhlendahl, ‘A New Passage to India’

Jana Gutge“During my Masters course at the TU Berlin I emphazised my studies on public urban space and the people using it. Coming to India, I was interested in seeing what this relationship in the Hindu context is, how culture and society are reflected in everyday life and how this would effect its environment.”
I started my research in a neighbourhood, which is mainly influenced by commercial activities and heavy traffic, prospected to be a highly developed area in terms of real estate and private investments. Public space, as far as I have experienced it in Mysore, are the streets. At the site I studied the appearance of street vending and tried to find out under what circumstances and conditions this phenomenon is enabled. The role of vendors in creating and activating a place, used and shared by all income groups, is one of the things I observed. Although these street vendors are to be considered illegal on paper in terms of occupying space, they are undercover tolerated by local governmental enforcement. Yet remaining victims of their undeclared status, they are always beware of spontaneous shifts of toleration.
What is the role of political and planning authorities and their consideration of public space within the urban development? Related to my research topic, how are unofficial activities that shape the life in public spaces regarded or even incorporated into future development planning?
During my research hours I have encountered and interacted with a lot of people. These conversations, both most helpful and sometimes annoying, made my time more lively and made me feel more familiar to the neighbourhood. The people’s behaviour, being curious and sceptic in the beginning, turned into a friendly interest, which unfortunately stopped at a certain level because of language difficulties and me still being a foreigner to them.
Personally I would have liked to overcome this gap in order to gain a deeper insight of their lives and to have a better understanding of their position in the Indian society.
Jana Gutge, ‘A New Passage to India’

Anjali“Walking down a narrow path,
feeling and sensing the familiar
until I reach the very end
I saw a tree on an open land
Bearing fruits of boundless variety.
It gave me choice to choose any
and each fruit I plucked,
gave me a wisdom new.”

The last two months have helped broaden my viewpoint not just towards architecture but also towards life, society and people. I met people with wide variety of thoughts and thinking methodologies.
I am learning and unfolding something new each day: new technologies, new buildings: the expression of culture. I have got an opportunity to rediscover architecture from various other fields like philosophy and I look forward for the next nine months of exploring and seeking new experiences.
Anjali Ramachandran, ‘A New Passage to India’

Boris“Cultural exchange gives one the possibility to get to know different cultural layers and levels in order to understand processes of cultural development and change. It helps to broaden one’s horizon and to sensitize the personal understanding of other cultures”.
I am a student of architecture from Technical University of Graz (Austria), where I started my studies in 2003. Currently I am living in Berlin (Germany), where I first came to work as an intern in an architectural studio. The following year I was able to get an ERASMUS scholarship at UPC/ETSAV Barcelona (Catalunya/Spain). Personal reasons brought me back to Berlin in 2010, where I got in touch with Habitat Forum Berlin while I was conceiving of my diploma thesis. With their help, I was able to organize a four-month research stay in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal in India.
My stay in Calcutta lasts from April to July 2011 and also involves an internship in a local architectural studio. After returning to Europe, I will continue to work in Berlin and Graz and am planning to complete my thesis by early 2012. In my thesis, I am dealing with different forms of habitation, their relation among each other and to their environment at the city-scale. The “East Calcutta Wetlands” – especially the recent urban development along the “Eastern Metropolitan Bypass” – serve as an example for an unregulated and fragmented city-expansion. Their current situation can hardly be overviewed, nor their further development forecasted. I assume that within this particular situation, expectations and general values regarding “home” are changing and will give way to community-based strategies of independent adoption and flexibility, rather than boosting the need for a maximum of individuality according to the framework of conventional master plans.
I’m representing Habitat ThinkTankNorth which acts as the counterpart of Habitat ThinkTankSouth [Hans Hortig / Karoline Kostka], with which it stays in a conspirative exchange and wide range of interactions within the timeframe of March – July 2011.
Boris Murnig

Hrushita“When I first heard about the opportunity of a cultural exchange program in Berlin, the only thing that appealed to me more than architecture or academic experience was to live in another city, far away from home for one year. I saw it as a chance to explore a whole new lifestyle and culture, a chance to meet and be in another part of the world. Moreover, Berlin would be every architecture student’s dream to visit and every architect’s case study”.
Speaking of my related work of study, which is architecture, Berlin is a feast for the eyes and the soul. I had a vague idea of what I was looking for before I came here, and for me as India is to spices, Europe is to museums. I see this as an opportunity to not only be a visitor but also take something back with me for my case-study work and maybe come back again in the future to research more on the “museums culture” of a city. The interesting aspect of this for me was studying a case in Berlin and doing a design very contextual to India. I see this as a chance to broaden my idea of a context-based design and hence achieve a genuine contrast study between here and home.
As of now, we are involved in a seminar at the TU, titled ‘Climate Change and shifting Culture’ and also working with the Kunsthochschule of Berlin, Weißensee on a sculpture-based program. I must mention the difference in the approach at the university here and college back home. It’s a very interesting jump as now we are more process oriented (not result oriented) and have access to wonderful books, which stimulates intense discussions in class.
Time flies here day by day, as one can see the city is vast and even more to someone new in town. A lot of time goes by reading books and visiting places, at the same time experiencing a momentary cultural shift, working with people from all over the world, knowing more about the work of this forum – this is a chance to grow socially and (not last but least) ‘architecturally’.
Hrushita Davey, ‘A New Passage to India’

Hans“I’m currently part of the DAAD program ‘A New Passage to India’ which connects the TU Berlin and the Mysore University, school of design. After all this experience cultural exchange means to me: sitting together with Mohammed from Iran on a rooftop in Mysore talking about German food and Indian architecture”.
After summarizing my latest academic work, from water management and treatment in Istanbul to urbanization processes along the Tiber River in Rome, I decided to start a research project on the Kaveri River in South India. As the only perennial river in peninsular India the Kaveri seems to be an important source in an area of water scarcity. About 2000 years ago, with the construction of the Grand anicut dam, the regulation of the river began and set the base for great empires and cultural developments in the delta area which is, due to the paddy cultivation, nowadays called “the rice bowl” of south India. In the last decades the main focus was not only to serve agricultural purposes but to save the growing demand of urban drinking water and provide water for industrial uses. This led to the construction of huge technical infrastructures like dams, canals and pipelines. My research tries to add a social-spatial view to the given technical description of the Kaveri territory to get a deeper understanding of the complex, rhythmic interaction between water and men in the landscape.
Together with Karoline Kostka I constitute Habitat ThinkTankSouth which acts as the counterpart of Habitat ThinkTankNorth [Boris Murnig], with which it stays in a conspirative exchange and wide range of interactions within the timeframe of March – July 2011.
Hans Hortig, ‘A New Passage to India’

Karoline“Cultural exchange for me is the extremely alert and conscious perception, involving all senses, of a new environment – that which makes you curious, keeps your mind open and questioning. It encourages to understand dynamics of urban development and trains you to handle the circumstances and conditions for design-processes in new cultural, social and religious settings”.
During my studies in Landscape Architecture at the Technical University Berlin, which I started in 2005, I focused on strategic, interdisciplinary operations and designs at different scales within the spacial and social context. That means designing large inner city green open spaces, developing alternative strategies for space-production within a neighborhood or developing small punctual interventions, whereby the city and the urban system always operates as the major reference.
In Mysore, I am interested in observing the multi-functional uses of the existing urban infrastructures. I am trying to articulate the shift of the South-Indian urban landscape that one can attribute, either directly or indirectly, to the introduction of new or transformed infrastructural developments or even to their absence.
I am keen in discussing changes of “mobility-behaviour”, of street and cityscapes and the shift of urban uses that are fundamental in terms of architectural typology, spatial constructions, visual display and uses at and along transport systems.All this while looking for things that are specific to a South-Indian city like Mysore, where the problems of mobility and the lack of infrastructure fundamentally impact on the city-shape since over 100 years.
Together with Hans Hortig, I constitute Habitat ThinkTankSouth which acts as the counterpart of Habitat ThinkTankNorth [Boris Murnig], with which it stays in an conspirative exchange and wide range of interactions within the timeframe of March – July 2011.
Karoline Kostka, ‘A New Passage to India’

Vaisakh“Cultural exchange gives the opportunity to experience a very different surrounding where these feelings/style were only read or seen in media. As I believe, architecture or any particular art form is always born from the lifestyle and behaviour of people around it. The opportunity to be in Germany and especially Berlin is giving me a better idea about a development with respects the culture around it, being part of the culture itself”.
Why Berlin? I am interested in the city planning of Berlin especially in connection to its public transport system and open plazas which we lack back in India. Feel happy to see developments like Reichstag, Jewish museum, holocaust memorial etc., which are among my all time favourites.
As far as research is concerned, what I am currently interested in is sustainable development – the ways in which to produce renewable energy and self-efficient living thanks to basic technologies. I wish to analyse the effect of technological advancements in our living environment and how these methodologies can be adapted so to protect our tradition, culture and natural resources, which enriches the quality of our life. In a city like Berlin, I am feeling inspired to studying the urban influence of a particular building or development which changes the life around it.
Vaisakh Varkey Mathunny, ‘A New Passage to India’

  • English
  • German
  • BLOG