Vishaan Chakrabarti: Bringing Real Estate Into the Urban Fold

He is reshaping architecture education by teaching real estate development with a combination of pragmatism and lofty ideals.

OCCUPATION: Educator, urbanist, architect
AFFILIATION: Columbia University
LOCATION: New York City

When asked about the speculation, in the overlapping circles that comprise his professional life, that he’d like to be mayor of New York, Vishaan Chakrabarti laughs, but he’s got an answer ready: “Let me put it this way: I’m Indian and my wife’s Greek, so there are certain corners of Queens we’ve got locked up.” Certainly, the self-described urbanist has a power player’s résumé. Chakrabarti has been an associate partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the executive vice president of design and planning at the mega–real estate development firm Related Companies, and a transportation planner with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. From 2002 through 2005, he ran the Manhattan office of New York City’s Department of City Planning, where he was involved in the West Chelsea rezoning that helped create that post-millennial landmark, the High Line. But since 2009, Chakrabarti has focused on Columbia University’s quarter-century-old real estate development program (a part of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), of which he is the first full-time director, and which, in Chakrabarti’s view, “should give students the tools to be prosperous developers, but also the philosophical underpinning to build a better world.” The key, he believes, is a holistic, cross-disciplinary model that does away with the antagonism between development, architecture, and planning, and focuses on, Chakrabarti says, “creating a more sustainable urban development that’s resilient in the face of economic and environmental forces.”

His approach is a response “to the massive urbanization that’s happening worldwide,” he explains. “We’re hitting seven billion people. If we’re going to live in a sustainable manner, then we have to design cities that will see us through the next couple of centuries—with more density, and the infrastructure to make that density manageable.”

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In his free time (between four and seven in the morning), Chakrabarti is at work on A Country of Cities, a book about “imagining an urban America by eliminating the ways we’ve put our thumb on the scale in terms of favoring suburban development.” As for politics, he bemoans the loss of public faith in government, “because there are certain things only government can do,” he says. “We need a world in which public-sector action triggers private-sector market response. I’m not sure that running for office is the most attractive path for me,” Chakrabarti admits. But, he adds, “If you’ve got a great leader, you can do great things.”

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