Rahul Mehrotra on how architecture is being divorced from social context, why we should revise definition of urbanity
In a masterclass at the India Culture Lab, Rahul Mehrotra held forth on the limited definition of urban in India, how architecture is being dictated more by aesthetics than utility and why we should build to foster empathy
Speaking at the India Culture Lab, Rahul Mehrotra held forth on aspects philosophical and rooted in ground realities, ranging from the idea of the urban in India to the agency of architecture and design.
Mehrotra is of the opinion that the current definition of urbanity based on the 2011 Census gives us a very incorrect picture of urban India.
A disproportionate distribution of power and the greed that sets in within the elite who are worried only about their problems is how you get projects like the Coastal Road, he says.
“From the time privatisation gathered pace in India, leading to a corporate culture, people from the corporate world have almost completely disappeared from democratic participation. There are very few exceptions. Scarcely anybody ventures out of his or her firm. It’s as if anybody who enters the corporate world is out of the democratic set-up, leading a lifestyle that prompts him or her to value democracy less and less…. The more privatisation increases, the more democratic spaces shrink.”
At his masterclass at the India Culture Lab, architect Rahul Mehrotra chose to begin not with an anecdote from his practise or the words of a famous architect, but rather lines from journalist Ravish Kumar’s book The Free Voice. It set the tone for his masterclass, which was titled ‘Architecture in Context’. The founder principal of the architecture firm RMA Architects of Mumbai + Boston, and professor of Urban Design at Cambridge, held forth on aspects philosophical and rooted in ground realities, ranging from the idea of the urban in India, the agency of architecture and design, and how we can expand our spheres of influence as concerned citizens.
Mehrotra says that architects look at context in very narrow terms: the climate, geography, and materials locally available. A more ambitious architect may look at culture or the history of the site. “And yet it is site-specific or territory-specific. The real question is, what is the context of the context, and how do you nestle the context within the context? That becomes a productive way to look at architecture. Otherwise, we get stuck in the idea of binaries, which don’t result in hybridities. Binaries are about pulling apart. Design, on the other hand, is about synthesis and blurring binaries,” he explains.
Hybridities are what constitute transitions, Mehrotra adds, and it involves being willing to accommodate people and their needs for a generation or two. Constructing the appropriate narrative for the making of a building, therefore, means employing metanarratives to better understand context. Inequity, shifting demographies are examples of metanarratives, and the context cannot be isolated from them.
He presented the idea of the ‘kinetic city’, which applies to many Indian cities which are considerably informalised. Such cities, he says, are not defined by their architecture but rather the fact that they are twitching organisms; the spectacle in these cities is not a tower or monument, but events like festivals. “Here, the formal and informal city coexist and they need each other, even for their identification and referencing,” he adds.
Mehrotra explains how reversibility characterises public spaces in Indian cities – for example, cricket fields become venues for weddings at night. “Space becomes elastic, it’s reversible. It’s appropriated, re-appropriated and de-appropriated. There’s an ephemeral quality to it, and the reversibility becomes very important,” he explains. The epitome of this phenomenon is the Kumbh Mela.
To better understand our cities is to ask the question, what is considered urban in India? According to the 2011 Census, there are three criteria a place must fulfill to be classified as a town:
• A minimum population of 500
• A density of population of at least 400 per square kilometre
• At least 75 percent of the main male working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits
Mehrotra is of the opinion that the readings we get based on these factors give us a very incorrect picture of urban India. Many towns with populations that are large enough to qualify as cities are still being run by panchayats and denied urban services that they supposedly do not qualify for, because they are not recognised as being urban. “This is the real urban time bomb we’re sitting on. 27,000 cities that are not being imagined as cities. They could become a public health nightmare,” he warns.
Will recognising these spaces as towns/cities and equipping them the way an urban city is supposed to serve not only as a solution to their problems, but also reduce over-crowding in cities? Speaking to Firstpost, Mehrotra agrees with this proposition. "People migrate to cities for two reasons: one is the bright lights, and the other is what is termed distress migration, which is movement because of caste, dislocation due to building of dams, poverty. Migration is complicated, so investing in and creating a decentralised structure is essential. Moreover, we have to focus on making good infrastructure and training smart agents who can imagine such possibilities," he explains.
Mehrotra’s own understanding of what the city constitutes focuses on how it functions and how it is run: “There are three things that make cities: housing, livelihoods, mobility. What makes a city good or not is dependent on how these three factors are orchestrated within a space,” Mehrotra says.
One of the issues plaguing urbanisation in India is that plans meant for Mumbai are implemented in other towns. “You need a completely different imagination if you’re looking at an urban-rural landscape… The tyranny of images has driven the narrative of urban form in India,” he explains. The image is now becoming more important than the intent of the building. This devotion to the image and aesthetics is making us design absolute solutions, says Mehrotra, even for those problems that are temporary, thus moving away from elasticity and reversibility. This is especially problematic in a country characterised by flux – for half of the year, 40 percent of India is urban, and for the other six months, it is 60 percent urban, he informs.
“The landscape we are experiencing today is a landscape of transition. We moved from socialism to capitalism, but for decades, we will be transitioning from socialism to capitalism. These are not overnight changes that can be instituted by writing and passing bills that turn into law. Where this plays out the most is the built environment. We think of absolute solutions, but why don’t we design for transition?” Mehrotra asks.
He believes challenging the importance we give to aesthetics and the image is important to ensure the imbalance between spheres of concern (the issues we consider important and fight for) and the spheres of influence (the change we can enact) is corrected.
Mehrotra cited an example from his own practice to explain how to design for transition. The Visitors’ Centre at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is a nut-and-bolt structure that can be dismantled in 48 hours, and it was built so because Mehrotra felt that the future generation may envision the space in a different way. This is a contrast to what could have come in its place: a solid structure built in the same style as the museum itself, which would not be malleable to changes in society and future generations’ aspirations.
Architecture is being moulded by impatient capital, says Mehrotra, “because it becomes architecture that has to be realised very quickly. Capital is inherently impatient. It determines the materials with which and the way buildings are made.” The result is that architecture has become autonomous and less useful to society, but what prompts this movement towards autonomy? Mehrotra says it is a consequence of a lack of urban design. “The emerging urban structures that we are constructing are not healthy armatures that allow things to relate to each other. They’re creating disaggregation, disjunctures; for example, the freeways and the manner in which they cut through the city. Urban design is about seeing how the different components of the city come together and how they can be efficiently leveraged. That whole culture is absent,” he explains.
The result is “bizarre adjacencies” – high rises buildings with slums at their base. Mehrotra says that we’re not anticipating what our cities need. “In a situation like that, if capital has to realise itself – a lot of it is sloshing around – the only way it can realise itself is by isolating itself and making itself self-contained, cutting out all social factors, but having a parasitic relationship with the city. They get their domestic help and drivers from these places, but they don’t want to look at them. It’s a combination of a simultaneous rejection and dependency,” he adds.
How, then, do we slow down capital and make it more patient? Mehrotra says this is possible when capital resides in spaces like foundations and universities. “It becomes more and more impatient when there is an anxiety about realising its value quickly and for narrow means. It comes from greed and the anxiety that capital brings, it comes from the desire for people to make it quickly and become rich. It comes from the individual becoming the centre of the equation,” he says.
One of the key criticisms of the Coastal Road Project in Mumbai, among those related to the environment and livelihoods of those living along the shore, is that it will serve only a small percentage of the city’s population. How did this kind of design, which aids the lives of the privileged minority, come into prominence? There are three reasons, Mehrotra says, the first of which is the inequity in society, because power lies in the hands of few people who are only worrying about themselves. “Second, it comes from the fact that the government in the post-liberalisation era has absolved itself of planning. Planning can only be a State subject, because it is about the common good, and it hasn’t been given due attention,” he says.
The third reason he cites is the lack of an overall vision of what the city should be. He compares freeways and projects like the Coastal Road to having several bypass surgeries, when what the city needs is a metaphorical change in lifestyle through exercise and a better diet. One of the ways to build a healthier city would be to build links to Navi Mumbai and open up land there, so even those who are not wealthy can build houses, he says.
“A disproportionate distribution of power and the greed that sets in within the elite who are worried only about their problems is how you get projects like the Coastal Road. If you put even one-tenth of that money into improving railway stations, it will benefit 90 percent of the population,” he adds.
Having said this, Mehrotra is optimistic about architecture’s potential to build a better society. “In India, we need to think more about how we can make a better society, and I mean this in all dimensions – culture, economics, pluralism. The physical nature of architecture can go a long way in achieving this,” he says.
He presented another example from his practice, of a building in Hyderabad for which a green façade was created. In addition to improving the image of the building through a profusion of plants and flowers and giving employees a pleasing view, the presence of this façade has increased interactions between those who were tending to the plants and those who worked in the boardrooms and offices. “They [the employees taking care of the plants] can walk on the scaffolding and water the plants at any time… In this way, the employees who are paid the lowest salaries are empowered, because the image of the building is dependent on them. Empathy is created in the process. We must build for empathy,” he says.
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