By Sophie Haas
5 March 2018
College of Environmental Design doctoral student Padma Maitland (Ph.D. Architecture '20, Ph.D. South and Southeast Asian Studies '21) gives new meaning to the concept of multitasking — he is concurrently pursuing a Ph.D. in both Architecture and South and Southeast Asian studies. Along with juggling two doctoral programs, Maitland has traveled across India, learned Hindi, and founded an academic journal. Maitland received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from UC Berkeley and a Masters of Architecture from Princeton University.
Below is an interview with Maitland on his most recent research and future endeavors.
What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in architecture?
Before starting the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, I was the Assistant Art Director for the Swayambhu Renovation Project in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Swayambhunath Temple—sometimes known as the Monkey Temple—is one of Nepal's most historic and iconic temples. Located in the Kathmandu Valley, its legendary history is connected to the history of the valley itself. It has a long history of being renovated every 50 to 100 years, and it was exciting to learn about that history and feel as if we were part of a longer tradition of engaging with the site. As part of the team carrying out the renovation, I oversaw the documentation of the renovation process and helped with the administration of the project, coordinating with the local community, local artisans, and government officials.
While working on the Swayambhu Renovation project, I met several experts from around the world. One of those experts was Alexander von Rospatt, a professor [of Buddhist and South Asian studies] at UC Berkeley, who was in Nepal to study the history of the Swayambhu Stupa and its many renovations. Engaging with him and meeting other scholars through the course of the project, I began to think about pursuing a Ph.D. focusing on the modern conservation and development of religious sites in Asia.
Since completing my M.Arch. at Princeton University, I felt that I might eventually want to pursue a Ph.D., but I wasn’t sure where or in what field. Working on the Swayambhu Renovation project, I had been continually impressed by how sites like Swayambhu embodied the diverse interests of local and international communities. They are often intensely debated structures governed by multiple local and international agencies. As a result, there are frequent disagreements on the best way to manage them. I felt that a study of the modern history of such sites could offer a compelling way to think about how ancient sites like Swayambhu continue function in their contemporary settings.
Why did you choose CED as the institution to pursue this degree?
Once I was back in the United States, I began to look at different Ph.D. programs. I had done my undergraduate studies at Berkeley and returned to meet with professors and students to see if it might be a good fit for me. I ultimately chose Berkeley because of its long tradition of studying non-Western architecture and because of the incredible students and faculty I met during my visits to the campus. It has been an amazing place to study and I feel very lucky to have been admitted to the program.
Can you elaborate on simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D. in Architecture and in South and Southeast Asian Studies?
As part of the program in Architectural History, Theory and Society at Berkeley, we are required to take a certain number of courses outside of our program. Having received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Grant, I focused on taking classes in South and Southeast Asia Studies. Each semester I take one language class – Hindi – and one area studies course – a different one each semester. The first area study course I took was a methods course with Jeffrey Hadler. It was amazing! We read some of the key texts in the field – works that will be familiar to graduate students across disciplines like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance – both of which were new and exciting to me at the time. I loved the kinds of questions the texts raised and the incredible way Hadler had of making each author feel present – each class often began with an anecdote about each author, and it wasn’t long before I felt like I knew Anderson or Scott, both of whom had been Hadler’s advisors.
I also really enjoyed the engagement of the students in that class whose works ranged from ancient Sanskrit and Cambodian liturgical texts, to contemporary Indonesian Film and literature. I followed the methods course with several other area studies courses, mostly focused on modern Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. After a few semesters, I began to feel there was more to study about modern Buddhism in South Asia than I would be able to address through a degree in architecture, so I applied and was admitted to the department of South and Southeast Asian Studies as well.
How have your interests in architecture and in South and Southeast Asian studies influenced each other? Do you ever find intersections between the two fields?
In many ways, I have always felt my studies in both departments complement each other: studies in architecture offer an approach often missing from the philological studies that generally typify area studies, while a deeper understanding of the texts and histories of South Asia deepens an architectural study of development in the region. The real challenge, though, has been to realize how different the disciplinary expectations and limits of each can be. A Ph.D. in architecture often calls for a very different approach than one in South and Southeast Asian Studies. Especially as my studies in South and Southeast Asian studies became increasingly focused on Hindi Literature, my work for both programs has drifted further and further apart. It has taken some time to separate each project, and to find a way of writing respectively for the different fields, but it has been an extremely rewarding process. The other challenge, of course, is time.
Can you describe the core of your research at CED?
Since starting at Berkeley I have had two main research topics: the first is modern Buddhist art and architecture in India. This is the focus of my dissertation for the program in architecture. It attends to how the revival of Buddhism in India intersected with the nationalist movement and related developments following India’s independence in 1947. The second project examines the unexpected affinities in the work of Indian authors writing about modern Buddhism and Hindi travel literature. The first project grew out of my involvement with the Swayambhu Renovation project in Nepal, while the second grew out of my interest in Buddhist revival movements and my ongoing studies of Hindi.
In 2016, you were awarded the Spiro Kostof Fellowship, established in 1994 in memory of Kostof, a professor and renowned architectural historian who taught at CED for many years. What research did this fellowship entail?
I was fortunate enough to receive the Kostof Fellowship when I just started my graduate studies at Berkeley. My research interests were still in their beginning stages, but I used the fellowship to study the life and legacy of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar who led a mass conversion of Dalits—those formerly referred to as “untouchables” or members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in India—to Buddhism in 1956. I had learned about Ambedkar from a Nepalese monk who had told me he cried when he read Ambedkar’s autobiography and learned about his struggles with caste.
I remembered being surprised that, even though I had grown up Buddhist and considered myself fairly well informed about different forms of Buddhism, I had never heard of Ambedkar. This was just before starting at Berkeley and I set about trying to learn as much as I could about him and the new branch of Buddhism he established in India. While on the Kostof Fellowship, I did research on Ambedkar and the “neo-Buddhist” movement, especially its extensive architectural legacy. I was even able to travel to Nagpur and visit the site of the conversion ceremony, meeting several people who had been at the ceremony in 1956 and could still recall what it felt like to be there.
What are some of the most profound insights you have received from your research thus far?
Profound is a big word, but some of the more unexpected discoveries I made along the way revolve around the ways in which a history of modern Buddhism in India is intertwined with the Hindu nationalist movement there. The most rewarding personal achievement has been my progress in Hindi. It hasn’t come easy, and continues to be a struggle, but I really enjoy it.
Can you elaborate on your travels to India?
I have actually just returned from living in India for almost two years. I was there first on a junior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies and then as a Fulbright Nehru Scholar. Being in India has been fundamental to my studies, expanding and deepening my understanding of the sites I study. Places I had only read about it books became dynamic and vibrant places, full of contradictions and lived experiences. The other boon has been Hindi. Living in India I got to speak Hindi every day, to use it at home and in the market, and to read various texts with different scholars while traveling across northern India. My chances to speak Hindi are less these days, however, as I just returned from India to start a job in Minneapolis as the Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
What direction are you headed in terms of future research?
Research is a wonderful thing as there is always more to do and new directions to take, but two areas I am keen to pursue in the future are the legacy of American architects in India during the 1950s and 60s and countercultural engagements with India in art, architecture, and literature.
Can you describe your involvement with Room One Thousand, the Department of Architecture journal?
I was the founding editor of Room One Thousand. It had been a dream of mine to start an architectural journal at Berkeley. My hope was that it could become an important venue to help build community and for graduate students to learn about publishing through experience producing a journal. Before starting the journal, I spent over a year working on the Berkeley Planning Journal in order to learn how they were able to run a journal for over 25 years. Following their model, we set the journal up as an open-access web journal with an archive of our issues available on eScholarship. While setting up Room One Thousand, I also met with several editors of other student led journals across campus, including Qui Parle. The editors of those journals became important advisors as we started to create our own. Working with [Rhetoric Ph.D. student] Kevin Block and Anisha Gude, I helped come up with a name for the journal—which is a reference to the room on the tenth floor of Wurster Hall—craft the journal’s mission statement, and solicit content for the first issue. We also assembled a group of Masters and Ph.D. students to produce the journal. I was the chief editor for three issues, after which I stepped aside to let others lead the journal. It has been great to see the journal evolve and change as new students have stepped in to produce it.
What are your long-term goals after completing the Ph.D. program?
I would like to continue researching the art, architecture, and literature of South Asia, finding new ways to share what I discover through publications and exhibitions.