At the entrance of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai sits a steel and glass visitor centre reflecting the proud stone façade of the prestigious museum. Another façade for a corporate building in Hyderabad has a green tapestry of seasonal plants. A house in Alibaug uses three courtyards to measure privacy. The mastermind of these pieces of architecture, Rahul Mehrotra, 56, knows one thing about materials and spaces: when traditional meets contemporary, they must both understand each other and become friends. In this interview, Mehrotra, who heads the Mumbai-based firm RMA Architects, argues that architecture must move away from its elitist perceptions. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about your new book Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega-City.
Everyone’s seen photos of the Kumbh and the spectacle of it being the world’s largest gathering of believers but the Harvard team looked at governance, public health and its ephemeral urbanism. For 55 days, there are over 3 million people on the river bed, there are roads, pontoon bridges, tents, clinics and social centres, for a city as big as Bangalore, maybe. What’s amazing is how an event of this magnitude is created with minimal documents, sometimes its plan is simply drawn in the sand. It challenges the notion of building for permanence.
What shaped your design aesthetics?
I think I became an architect because my parents moved homes very often. While the rest of the family despaired at the thought, I was always excited about the new possibilities to rearrange the house, and in retrospect, my most memorable moments growing up were moving homes. We also travelled a lot, so one got exposed to different spaces and places. Naturally, this led me to consider studying to become an interior designer. It was architect Ranjit Sabhiki, a family friend, who advised me to study architecture instead. My years at architecture school (CEPT University) in Ahmedabad were a great influence too. Ahmedabad has both contemporary buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn as well as the early works of BV Doshi, Achyut Kanvinde and Charles Correa, and also fabulous traditional architecture. In those five years, simultaneously working in traditional neighbourhoods and looking at new buildings equipped one to move within these spectrums.
What made you pursue conservation after you returned from Harvard?
I came back in 1989 from the US, having spent three years studying urban design and having worked there for a year. I heard Rajiv Gandhi speak at Harvard in 1987, and that motivated me. It was his “I too have a dream” speech. They were hints about liberalisation and promises of a new India. Conservation was already happening in Bombay for over a decade, with people such as Cyrus Guzdar and Jamshed Kanga among others, but their efforts were focussed largely on listing buildings. I found it limited by nostalgia. So through a series of discussions, we shifted the debate to urban conservation; of looking at precincts and critical masses of buildings. It allowed us to address legislative questions and tweak bye-laws.
At a more personal level, besides saving buildings, I wanted to react to the system of blanket FSI (Floor Space Index) and building bye-laws, often standardised for an entire city. These rules result in an all-pervasive building pattern, regardless of whether they are single-room tenements or luxury apartments, offices, hospitals, or even schools. Such an approach obliterates any sense of cities being viewed as a group of precincts, neighbourhoods and communities. Since the heritage legislation was put into place in April 1995, Mumbai has different precincts marked as conservation zones. That’s how parts of Bandra were saved, Khotachiwadi was saved and why the Fort area doesn’t have any new high-rise buildings.
So does design have solutions for urban landscapes?
Design is not the only solution. I believe design is powerful because it is a synthetic mode. Architects, designers, and planners have the abilities to synthesise, to take various problems and turn them into spatial solutions. Unfortunately, our engagements as architects in India have become too site-specific, and we don’t collaborate enough across disciplines. What I learnt during our recent project to map the Kumbh Mela is that when you have an out-of-the-box problem, inter-disciplinary transgressions happen easily. In this project, public health, engineering, divinity and design worked together as partners. Architects have to get away from the position of arrogance. You have to understand that in collaborations, hierarchies get flattened and that the voice of a sociologist, an economist, an activist or a government official is as simultaneously valid as our own voice as designers.
Can you tell us about some instances of fruitful community participation?
I think the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) in Mumbai is doing some incredible work in Mumbai using these forms of partnerships. What PK Das has done to restore Bandra’s waterfront is a great example. Of course, the form of patronage was different with a politician getting involved. What’s happening in Nizammudin basti (with Aga Khan Foundation) is another good example. However, it is problematic when either one of these models is promoted as the ideal example or as best practice. Every practice has a different configuration, depending on the area and city. That’s the fundamental problem with the smart cities concept.
Can you explain that a bit more?
The problem with the notion of “smart cities” is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity. The only way to get people involved in the city imagination is to respond to local needs and aspirations. To be socially relevant, cities have to grow out of the roots. They cannot be transplanted so easily. Currently, the idea of a “smart city” is about blanket replication.
This will result in gated communities and a flattening of the city, driven by infrastructure and investment. They will create a form of exclusion. What the government should be saying is, “let’s have great cities. In the next 20 years, let’s make 100 cities great places for working, living and recreation”.
There is usually a divide between the one who designs and the one who implements. How do you bridge that?
This is precisely why I am interested in conservation. It informs our practice in building contemporary buildings. As architects, we create a rapport with workers and respect their skills. We value our relationship with craftspeople by getting them into the process early and getting their feedback and working with them closely. As a result, I am interested in contemporary craft. Using traditional materials such as wood, lime and stone is what we engage with in conservation projects but in our new buildings we also extend our involvement into new materials. The second important lesson we have learnt from conservation is about the life cycle of materials. Buildings have problems when materials with two different life cycles intersect. If something that lasts for 100 years is intrinsically linked with a material with a 10-year life cycle, then you will have trouble. And when you begin to think about separating material with different life cycles, then this has implications on design configurations. These are simple things, it’s common sense.
Tell us a bit about ‘The State of Architecture’, the exhibition that you have planned at NGMA, Mumbai, in January 2016.
My co-curators Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta and I have had many conversations about this and have been wanting to do this for a few years now. We feel there is a lacuna in conversations on architecture. Kaiwan edits Domus and Ranjit is an art critic, and with our different voices, we thought it would be an exciting experiment, where we have multiple curatorial hands evolve something for broader public consumption. Also, in Mumbai, urban conversations have matured and a lot wonderful things are happening at some schools of architecture. So many professionals are now engaged in the conversation about urban issues but conversations around architecture are absent. We hope the exhibition will trigger a national conversation on the state of architecture. We are not focusing on weekend homes and private residences, which, while being important crucibles for innovation, are finally a landscape of private indulgence. Instead, it is aimed as a critique and will reflect on why the profession is not engaged enough with the public realm; to ask if there is a crisis of patronage?