Architect Rahul Mehrotra, a professor and chair of the department of urban design and planning at Harvard University, has been a key figure in envisioning the recycling of urban land in Mumbai, where his practice, RMA Architects, is based. His new book, Architecture in India 1990-2010, is a comprehensive history of Indian architecture after the 1990s. How did the glamour and displacement resulting from globalization affect the skylines of Indian cities? How did the socio-political environment of post-independence India influence architecture before the 1990s? What’s the future after skyscrapers and their glass facades— “projected to make India appear efficient and competent”—have become de rigueur? Mehrotra spoke to Loungeabout the tension between development and architectural aesthetic in modern India, and the future of his city, Mumbai. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Books have been written on specific trends of architecture and specific works of architects. What prompted you to write an history and overview?
In my understanding almost all the material on Indian architecture since independence has somewhat focused on our modernist tradition—this has been a limited lens. I was interested in making sense of all we see around us as well as looking at the last two decades and the period in which India’s economic policies were liberalized to embrace a global economy—these new flows of capital, ideas and images and their impact on the Indian built landscape is what motivated me to do the book. But above all, this book is for the new generation of Indian architects and is intended as an instrument for them to make sense of the pluralistic built environment in the Indian context.
You have said that architecture in today’s Indian cities is a result of “impatient capital”. Can you explain?
When the only motive of capital is profit—it tends to be impatient—in other words then “time is money”. And the architecture that results from this is necessarily something that has to be made quickly so the time for it to be put in the service of profit-making is maximized. This naturally leads to particular kinds of buildings in materials that can be assembled rapidly. That is why curtain glazing, or metal cladding, steel frames, etc., are employed more frequently as these are prefabricated dry modes of construction and less labour intensive and more predictable. On the other hand, concrete, brick, custom-made doors and windows, etc., need more time to be put into operation.
Postcards: (clockwise from top, right) Mehrotra; and the works featured in his book—the Castro Café at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort, Gujarat; and a collage at Sarabhai House, Ahmedabad. Photographs courtesy Pictor
Many Indian cities, especially a city like Mumbai, are imploding because of migration and lack of space. The only movement as far as construction is concerned will have to be vertical. How is it going to restrict architects?
There is no reason for this to happen. The sensible thing to do would be to open up more serviced land (with infrastructure) for the city’s growth. The idea of New Bombay in the 1970s was exactly a response to this scarcity of land and the diversification of the geography of the city. The myopia of our politicians subverted the idea and instead they resorted to the tactics of implosion—I use the word tactics because it was, I believe, a conscious decision to create scarcity and the implosion that you refer to. Controlling supply is what has made them all rich! So in short this scarcity you refer to is man-made and not in the city’s long-term interest.
You see four distinct trends in Indian architecture—global practice, regional manifestation, alternative practice and counter-modernism. Isn’t what you describe as global practice going to dominate our cities? What is required to achieve a balance?
It depends on what cities you are referring to. If it’s the mega cities where the impatience of capital manifests itself in extremes, the answer is yes. I think we should look to the hundreds of other cities that are emerging in India—where diverse conditions will create varied types of architecture and will necessitate professionals to engage with the practice of architecture in different ways. The four trends (I prefer to call them models of practice) are only emblematic of this variety—they represent different ways and processes of making and naturally what results from these different approaches is different kinds of architecture that represents the multiple aspirations that are expressed—this is crucial for a functioning democracy!
Manifestations of economic development like skyscrapers are inevitable. Do you agree development is ultimately tragic as, say, Marshall Berman described Robert Moses’ New York, and the “expressway world”.
This is what one view of modernity makes us believe. What’s fascinating in the world today is that alter or multiple modernities have come to flourish—these have different ways of expressing themselves. I think to understand the world around us we need to recognize and accept the aesthetics of Western modernity as being very particular. The multiple modernities that are emerging in the world today will find different forms of expression. The attempt in the book is to understand these varied aesthetics and way of constructing the built environment that we occupy.
You write that religious festivals, and not architecture, are the visual “spectacles” of modern India. Do you think that is bizarre?
No. I think it’s wonderful, sustainable and deeply profound! Temporality and its role in the form of our cities have been underestimated and most thinking about cities pays attention only to what I call the static city. There is a life world that occupies that static city that is kinetic in nature—the temporal landscape is a manifestation of that energy and dimension. I think the spectacles of the city being temporal in nature also save us from creating expensive and brittle form to codify the memory of the city—which is extremely unsustainable.
Is Gandhi’s minimalism, what you describe in architecture as “the austere and the elegant together attempting to evoke the spiritual”, seen as viable or fashionable in the world today?
I think this minimalism that I refer to cannot be achieved if the architect is conscious about this as an aesthetic decision. Today architects resort to this as a style and it’s hollow and very expensive. Gandhi’s aesthetic grew from the lack of self-consciousness about the aesthetic from the rigours of engagement and practise of the principles and values that governed his lifestyle. Similarly the Shakers in the US also achieved a very particular aesthetic not from addressing design but letting it grow out of principles of existence they believed in. And so if profit, economic growth, etc., are the only index and values in our lives then I am afraid we will be destined to live our lives in the architecture of impatient capital.
How did you develop your interest in urban planning? Did you gravitate to a certain philosophy?
I grew up in Bombay and then Mumbai! I developed an interest in architecture as my parents moved homes frequently, and moving into a new space and organizing it was very exciting. I looked forward to the moves and did not treat them as disruptive, rather (as) opportunities to reimagine the occupation of space. Of course I was not so conscious about this as I was growing up but in retrospect am sure this had a great influence in deciding my vocation. On the advice of a number of friends I went to see the School of Architecture at Ahmedabad (Center for Environmental Planning and Technology University, or Cept). Loved it, did the entrance exam—got in. This has been an absolutely fundamental experience in the way I think about architecture and cities today. Cept was perhaps one of the first private institutions of architecture in India and B.V. Doshi’s presence at the institution and his global network exposed us to multiple ways of imagining architecture. Being situated in Ahmedabad, with a rich landscape of traditional architecture as well the presence of Corbusier, Kahn and the Indian modernists, we went through our education seeing the simultaneous validity of different paradigms of architectural conception. I believe the critical contribution of Cept was that it made the pedagogical agenda an intellectual project. It did not limit itself in its curriculum to skills only—but focused on educating architects to think through encouraging research and multiple modes of engagement with the profession!
You have written a number of books on Mumbai. What is the city’s future?
Grim! In Mumbai today planning is systematically “posterior”—as a recuperative and securing action. In this post-planning condition, economics and profits are the central players. They have clearly replaced traditional ideological, social, environmental, historical and aesthetic elements as the main driving forces behind the creation and expansion of cities. In this condition then, citizens have to confront urgent questions of instability, indecision, changeability and survival, while established social and urban fabrics are continuously being deconstructed and reorganized at an alarming rate. To reverse this would take the combined effort of citizens and professionals to squarely challenge the present governance regime—in cities like Mumbai perhaps we have no choice but to shift instantly to the mayoral system where an elected official is accountable to the citizens. Mega cities can be governed successfully only with this model of direct accountability.
Architecture in India 1990-2010, Pictor Publishing, 311 pages, Rs2,700.