'We need community consensus...'

... to create a plausible conservation strategy. With the recent release of his book Architecture in India Since 1990, historian, architect and academic Rahul Mehrotra reflects on urban growth and the challenges facing Indian cities. An exclusive interview.

Published - August 13, 2011 03:36 pm IST

Rahul Mehrotra. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Rahul Mehrotra. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Which category of the four that you describe in your book do you locate yourself and your work in? Why?

Perhaps marginally in all four and substantially in the second category of the regionalist approach. In fact our practice is struggling to reconcile ourselves in some ways of engaging with the most potent aspects of all four; a struggle that will perhaps lead to schizophrenia!!

How does the balance of academia and a running practice allow you to balance your work? Any conflicts?

Teaching has been the most fulfilling experience for me as a practitioner! I can't believe I engaged for 15 years of practice before I started teaching; perhaps that's when I really felt prepared to teach, give and feel responsible as well as confident enough to nurture someone else's talents. But having started to teach it's been the best form of self-reflection; to critically look at my own work and nourish its own under pinning ideals and aspiration. Most importantly teaching forces you to articulate your position; this, in turn, tremendously informs the practices. So far from seeing these as two separate activities their intrinsically linked nature, in my mind, is what now makes them less conflicted and more integral.

Do you think we need more political will, legislation, laws for conservation? If so what are the fallouts, especially the pressure of high density living and realty costs in cities? How do we balance this in today's India?

We need more legislation and political will; but, more than that, we need community consensus. This is hard to build in a multicultural and plural society like India. So I think, instead of pitching this debate at the emotive level and using nostalgia as the basis for conservation, we must strategise and use it instead as an instrument to modulate, calibrate and influence the speed of change in our urban environments. This could become a more plausible strategy for conservation. The financial incentives to preserve and the mechanisms for other incentives will be easier to put into place within an urban planning framework. In short to be effective, conservation must be drawn closer to the broader planning process in our cities and not become a fringe activity that only involves the elite.

Cities - their sustainability and their dynamism - have been one of your favourite themes. Can you share your latest thoughts on these?

I think the biggest challenge in the coming decades for Indian cities will be the way they reconcile manmade environments (buildings), infrastructure and natural systems (which comprise the terrains they are situated on). How through design we fold these three systems efficiently and seamlessly into each other is what's going to determine how sustainable cities are going to be. Thus far it seems in our cities we imagine these three systems independently by different constituent groups and agencies in the city. This has to merge somehow into a single holistic vision.

Furthermore, it is crucial for us as a nation, to focus on our small towns and tier two cities; these will comprise a vast majority of the urban Indian population in the future. These are also places (unlike the mega cities and primary towns) that are not locked into unsustainable paradigms and where planners still have possible ways of intervening. Building capacity to address these issues across this vast scale is going to be our biggest challenge in the coming years; if our urbanism has to become sustainable and remain dynamic.

How do you suggest we assimilate what you call “adjacencies” in our built world in India; through subversion or submission?

Absolutely through subversion! How I make these adjacencies work architecturally and urbanistically is the challenge that faces architects and planners. Urban Design, I believe, has a big role to play in the process; that is close the loop on the abstraction (and non specificity to form) and the site specificity of architecture. Infrastructure and how it is deployed on the landscape is also critical in this process. In fact, infrastructure is the neutral instrument by which different parts of society relate to each other, it's a shared resource that has not been used strategically by planner; rather infrastructure has been reduced to a service, an amenity. Facilitating design reconciliation urbanistically could convert these conditions of sometimes disparate adjacencies into the strength of Indian cities where diversity is reinforced and yet made efficient; this is what would identify Indian cities and make them unique and be a true reflection of our democracy. Naturally this diversity makes for more stable societies.

Landscape of pluralism

Rahul Mehrotra's latest book explores the changing face of architecture in India.

Rahul Mehrotra, Architect and Professor of Urban Design and Planning, Harvard University, is in a unique position. Teaching at the very school he was at and continuing an architectural practice in Mumbai and Boston, he straddles the two worlds of theory and praxis. His work in spearheading the conservation movement in Mumbai, as well as his building across India, has allowed him a large canvas in the field of contemporary Indian architecture.

Mehrotra is part historian/restorer, planner/architect, professor/academic and an artiste who has honed his inner aesthetic to achieve a near poetic equilibrium in both his worlds. He is inside and outside of the field and this allows him a rare perspective in his latest book Architecture in India Since 1990; a period that collided as he says with his own practice.

The book begins with an overview of the history of Indian architecture in recent times, coming as it does from the Nehruvian Socialist dream which Le Corbusier aided and abetted in the trajectory of the modern.

The role of the PWD inherited from the colonial times and the gentle but perhaps necessary ceding of the project of building a national identity by the Indian State over the years to the private sector.

He takes us back to colonial times to the development of the Indo-Saracenic style, then to Lutyens and the wave of Art Deco, all of which were then forgotten for the building of the new India, which created a modernism inspired by the austerity of Gandhi leading to an elegance bordering on the spiritual.

Corbusier's Chandigarh was offset by Ahmedabad where the mercantile royalty set up institutions like the National Institute of Design and the Centre for Environmental Planning Technology (CEPT) with the tremendous pedagogic freedom provided by it, as it was outside the realm of Government control. This created a generation of new architects who worked on projects with a newfound energy and dynamism.

Mehrotra views the present silhouette of India's urban landscape in four categories. Each of the categories is explained in an essay in great detail with examples given of the very best of that group.

This is followed by a pictorial section that allows the reader to experience these projects. The photographs themselves beautifully laid out are as close as one can get to assimilating Mehrotra's discourse on what he calls the “landscape of pluralism”.

Global Practice

Termed also as an expression of (impatient) capital, this is the most prevalent category we see in glass clad buildings across the country from Gurgaon in the NCR to almost every town.

Malls, airports, flyovers, hospitals, high-end apartment complexes, new cities being developed by private companies, SEZ's and gated communities for commercial and private use.

These buildings are here to please a certain class of consumer: the international, the tourist, the expatriate, the NRI and the resident Non Indian! They are creating visual fissures in our landscape, as these are built completely out of the cultural context. Most have extensive air-conditioning, manicured lawns and create large unhealthy carbon footprints.

He also argues about the efficiency and legitimacy of the so-called green buildings and the ‘ LEEDS' ratings, all imported systems and of little relevance to us.

However, in this categority of glass and steel, there is still hope as he mentions a few exceptions. The Park Group of Hotels, which works with a collaborative process of local and international designers and a small handful of architects, who work on creating a balance as seen in work of the Romi Khosla Design Studio, Serie Architects and Morphogenesis in a variety of sensitively done new technology projects.

Mehrotra pleads in conclusion that this approach could “potentially establish fresh paradigms regarding how new emergent aspirations and (often impatient) capital can manifest themselves more gently (or successfully) within the Indian landscape”.

Regional Manifestation

This second category is where local architects have resituated their work with social and environmental responsibilities. Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal, Joseph Allen Stein are among the peers in this category who were all armed with Western training but found articulations of the local culture in form, volume, loci, scale, material and created buildings that defined local aspirations of the new national state. In turn, the next generation inspired and focused on the integration of the local and has created a body of work across the private and the public realm. There are many who work in the category and this is where the hope lies in their “deeply rigorous and committed struggles to also resist the juggernaut of global expression and promise a potent new architecture of the varied regions of India”.

Alternate Practice

Within the socialist paradigm of India, it was an inspiration to work with craftspeople and to curate a sustainable model of built development inspired by the likes of the Egyptian Hasan Fathy, architects like Laurie Baker inspired a generation of practitioners who now continue to build with local materials, eco-friendly techniques and, in turn, are creating models of practice that have the luxury of time and experimentation. This genre of practitioners resist and are in direct opposition to the first category of global practitioners and often having both these categories create what Mehrotra calls “adjacencies”.

Brick, mud, bamboo, weather-specific use of materials are all part of this dialogue. The roles of the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, as well as the Hunnar Shala Foundation in Bhuj are discussed. Here he also talks of the roles of architects as activists whether it is in their participation of smaller projects or their lobbying for a larger role in planning and creating new suburbs and the new metropolitans of the coming times. However, these are the people who will continue to pit themselves against the Western architectural hegemony that is coming in like a tsunami.

Counter Modernism

The final category is also a reflection of the resurfacing of the ancient and faith based architecture in the proliferation of new temples across the country. While we are an emergent economic power, we as a people are leaning more towards religiosity. Fundamentalism and the Right Wing are a part of our lives and times. Vaastu Shastra and the complete dependency that many show on this Vedic art — which was inspired by geomancy but has little or no relevance today — is hand in hand with many political underpinnings that pull in many subliminal ways through the field of vulnerable religiosities. Mehrotra talks about several faith-based buildings that are worth marvelling at from Matri Mandir in Auroville to the Vipassana Pagoda in Gorai. Also reinterpretations with new inspirations of line and concept of several mosques, temples and churches, these are a category of building design specific to India more than any other country. He also explores the way the city transforms during festivals like Ganesh Chaturti and Durga Pooja and how public spaces are created during Kumbh Melas. This dynamic of the static city and its kinetic excitement is a favourite of Mehrotra's.

As he concludes, he leaves the reader with a sense of celebration that one can partake in the feast of varied typologies and manifestations of the built world. His crisp language peppered with a sprinkling of academic phrases makes this book eminently readable. He decries the media once more in his summing up for its undue promotion of the new globalising architecture and reminds us that it is the difference that has allowed diverse aspirations to express themselves.

In this diversity, pluralism, and negation of a “homogenous national construct there is hope and this is what makes the Indian experiment extraordinary and it is from this condition that an architecture of resistance is born, an architecture of inherent pluralism, which is a true expression of Indian democracy and unique in the emerging global landscape”.

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