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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

‘You have to imagine the city as your client and not just the developer’

In Mumbai for the exhibition, Rahul Mehrotra spoke with Benita Fernando about his evolution as an architect, Mumbai’s challenges and the importance of looking at scales.

Written by Benita Fernando | Mumbai |
Updated: November 1, 2021 10:41:16 am
Rahul Mehrotra, Mehrotra, Rahul, Mumbai, Mumbai news, Boston, Art, Architect, ArchitectureArchitect Rahul Mehrotra, whose practice is the focus of an ongoing exhibition, currently splits his time between Mumbai and Boston.

Architect Rahul Mehrotra, whose practice is the focus of an ongoing exhibition, currently splits his time between Mumbai and Boston. He is chair of the department of Urban Planning and Design and the John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. In Mumbai for the exhibition, Mehrotra spoke with Benita Fernando about his evolution as an architect, Mumbai’s challenges and the importance of looking at scales. Excerpts:

It was Bombay when you started, and now it’s Mumbai. Thirty years later, what else is different about the city?

Patronage, for the form and the architecture of the city. There are new formations that are occurring in terms of patronage, and architects have to be a part of that conversation because that is what will transform the city. Patronage doesn’t mean it is just the elite. In the last decade or two, the greatest patronage has come from civil society — foundations, community groups, citizen’s groups, institutions.

The other thing I have learned is that we have to see the client in a more nuanced way. You do a building, but you have to also imagine the city as your client and not just the developer, who is paying for it. As architects we have to take the onus of responding to the broader responsibility.

Have Mumbai’s current infrastructure issues changed how you relate to it?

The issues have changed but one continues to work here — my practice is based here, our projects are based here, I live in Mumbai. Often the subject of what I teach in Harvard are investigations in Mumbai. So, if you see the studio books on the shelves [of the exhibition], they are looking at Dongri or Backbay, because for me, my thinking is related to Mumbai. When I was younger, I was also an activist on the ground and now I feel, with my role as an academic but also as one gets older, I create what I call are “instruments of advocacy”— through teaching, publications, writings, and exhibitions like this.

You often speak about elastic spaces and multifunctional spaces. How do you see this materialising in Mumbai?

Concepts about elasticity and ephemeral temporality — I learned those from Mumbai. By default, what happens on the maidans — there are weddings. These are not the poor; these are the rich doing it. That’s much better than building a big wedding hall, a ghastly building. This is all happening by default. What people are themselves doing is much more intelligent than what planners are doing. We have to formalise this within mainstream planning. So, my whole argument is how do we formalise this?

Architects premise too much of their thinking on permanence as a default condition. We have to make more place in our cities for things that can change, that operate on temporal scales. The question I ask is: Are we making permanent solutions for temporary problems? Permanence as a default condition is dangerous, especially in today’s world with climate change, with the kind of flux we are experiencing, and the surprises every year gives us. So, we have to keep elasticity where cities can have open-ended decisions that can be made.

Some of your early books focused on specific buildings, institutions and places in Mumbai, such as the High Court or Banganga. If you were to look at a particular aspect of Mumbai now, what would it be?

I am more interested now in macro issues. I am looking at the metropolitan region because I think the problems or the solutions to the problem in Dharavi don’t lie in Dharavi. They lie in how we imagine New Bombay (Navi Mumbai), how we imagine infrastructure that can make affordable housing possible.

The holy trinity of the health of a city is its dwelling, which is housing; it’s livelihoods — where you work and how you earn; it’s mobility between these two. If you get the trinity right, you have a functioning city.

What I have come to learn is that we have to be interested at all scales — architecture, the middle scale of neighbourhoods, and the larger scale of the city. They are all nestled, they are all interconnected. You can’t make a decision about architecture if you don’t have an imagination of the neighbourhood. You can’t think about the neighbourhood if you can’t imagine the city. It is becoming very important now to nestle these scales.

Do you believe Mumbai is prepared to face the challenges of the climate emergency?

So, there are two ways you can respond to this. One, you can buffer yourself, with barriers like in New York and Manhattan. The other is phased retreat. You get on higher ground. That’s the reason we have to think on all scales. You can’t retreat in panic. You have to retreat over decades. Therefore, we should invest in how the metropolitan region is developed today so that slowly we create amenities there, the next generation starts moving there, and maybe what is susceptible to climate change gets depopulated, gets safer. We have to bring the imagination of time into planning. The temporal scale is very important.

So, tetrapods aren’t going to cut it?

No, tetrapods aren’t going to cut it at all. Tetrapods would save you for a decade maybe, and save you from quick destruction. There are always quick disasters, like tsunamis or earthquakes, and slow disasters, like climate change. With climate change, you have to work with its sense of time, not our sense of time.

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