At a moment in history, when over 30 million people worldwide are living in refugee camps, architect Rahul Mehrotra talks about his ideas of elastic urban planning, of how design interacts with infrastructure, governance and people. By mapping ephemeral settlements like the Kumbh Mela and the Burning Man, a temporary city that springs up annually in Nevada, America, Mehrotra draws attention to new ways of reading a city. Excerpts from an interview:
Your Munich show, “Does Permanence Matter”, questions long-term planning. What was the prompt for this exhibition?
The exhibition, which began in September, is based partly on a new book, Ephemeral Urbanism — Does Permanence Matter? This research is a follow-up on the work we did on the Kumbh Mela between 2011 and 2013, where we developed a taxonomy for ephemeral landscapes. The prompt for the exhibition was manifold. Firstly, it was a good way to communicate this research to the public, and the curator of the Munich Architecture Museum, Andres Lepik, was interested in it. It was also perfect timing to have such an exhibition in Europe since Germany is grappling with the question of refugees. The idea was to present this imagination of the urban — a landscape that is ephemeral and yet productive, both in an economic as well as a cultural sense.
Your extensive research on the Kumbh Mela, and the book, points to the possibility of a different community experience. But as inequities get sharper, are such ephemeral settlements the privilege of the rich, because most of the country lives in unorganised colonies anyway?
This question already draws its own conclusions but I will try to answer it from a different perspective. The research we did at the Kumbh Mela and for the subsequent book, and then this second volume, is intended to broaden the discussion on urbanism and urban design. For too long we have taken permanence as a default condition, and architecture has been the central instrument to organise the city. With the flux that we are experiencing in today’s world, this assumption needs to be questioned, because the design of transitions, and transitory environments, is going to be a bigger challenge. It is useful to look at temporal or ephemeral landscapes more carefully — not as a way to suggest this as an alternative but as something that needs to be simultaneously situated in this debate about urbanism.
Can ephemeral cities such as the Kumbh Mela and the Burning Man measure up to the elements of city planning?
Absolutely. These settlements have all the systems that replicate the functioning of a “real” city, sometimes more efficiently. For instance, the Kumbh Mela is one of the most efficient deployments of the grid for a city that spans a river. Here, every road of the grid goes across the river in the form of a pontoon bridge. So, there are no bottlenecks and the grid is very robust. In regular cities that have a similar situation, often there will be two or three bridges that cross the river — you see this in Manhattan and Ahmedabad. In the case of the Burning Man, the city diagram is also very clear — a grid organised in a crescent with a navigable layout. Besides the replication of the physical systems of the city, what’s amazing and impressive is the governance structure. I have not been to the Burning Man but have spent time at the Kumbh Mela, and it was the cleanest and most efficiently administered Indian city I have visited and lived in for a short period of time.
Do you think temporary cities are more truthful about human lives?
Completely. They teach us about temporality, detachment and unselfish service. They teach us about the limits of things, objects, relationship, and life itself. I will always remember leaving the Kumbh Mela site with the 40 students I had guided there. As a parting gesture, I went up to a high priest, who had facilitated our stay. She told the group: “Feel blessed that the mother Ganges let you sit in her lap for a few days.” This was moving because while we had been obsessed about mapping the physicality of this settlement, looking at the system of roads and infrastructure, her imagination of the experience was in the realm of the metaphysical.
Cities feed the rural ecosystem and vice versa. This co-dependence is evident during festivals such as Ganapati puja or the Kumbh. Is there a way the inequalities can be dissolved further?
What’s fascinating about the Kumbh is that this ecosystem goes beyond the movement of people between the rural and the urban, and a very interesting material ecosystem is also established. The material geography, in terms of incoming materials from the hinterland, creates new economies. After the culmination of the mela, the materials used in its construction, such as the plates for the roads or the pontoons for the bridges and the electricity poles, get reabsorbed in the hinterland, recycled so to speak. Such temporary events become effective vehicles to allow the movement of subaltern groups into the city and vice-versa. But this is not just a question of social mobility … [it can] address the issue of inequities, how resources are used, recycled and redistributed.
Your recent exhibition at Harvard University was on soft thresholds. What did it feature?
It featured our research projects on the city, from my early work with Sharada Dwivedi on Mumbai, to the more recent work on the Kumbh Mela. The exhibition also features five sets of projects by RMA Architects from 1990 to 2017. It is designed as a series of temporary rooms.