Amber Fort outside Jaipur is a popular tourist attraction; the elephant ride up is as much a thrill as are the fort and views of the city. The mahouts and the elephants live in nearby Hathigaon, at the base of the fort. In redesigning outdated elephant stables and mahout residences, architect Rahul Mehrotra turned accidental orographer. Mehrotra chose to make the landscape rather than the architecture the focus of the project.

Using the remnants of sand quarry pits in the hills and the time drag of a government project to his advantage, Mehrotra, principal at RMA architects, designed a housing project for the mahouts and their elephants. This award winning project (it recently won the gold medal prize for sustainable architecture at the Italian University of Ferrara) has all the attributes of Mehrotra’s career—a sensitivity to the surroundings, using local resources sensibly to keep costs down, and working with the agency involved. Here it was more than the mahouts he had to keep in mind; the elephant, after all, is an unusual client.

The Hathigaon project was one among four projects exhibited last month at the Bienal de Arquitectura de Buenos Aires, and conferred on him “the international grand prix".

Artist Sheba Chhachhi’s The Water Diviner has an installation that includes a video projection (based on stills by Umeed Mistry) of an elephant swimming underwater. A mesmerizing image, she uses it to draw attention to issues of water—the pollution, the misappropriation, it’s disappearance, the memory thereof. Mehrotra brings Chhachhi’s staged images to life, as elephants are bathed by mahouts in rain-filled reservoirs.

Edited excerpts from am interview:

We talk about low-cost housing these days, mainly in the urban setting where solutions to the informal city are needed urgently. The Hathigaon project is an unusual low-cost one. Could you expand on the challenges?

A Hathigaon residence
A Hathigaon residence

For me, what’s amazing is that between a malleable house form and the easy access now to the resource of water—the mahouts at Hathigaon have easier access to these resources than the middle class in Jaipur who have to rely on tankers for water. So here, through design, perhaps an asymmetry in society has been implicitly corrected.

You have said that the landscape took precedence over the architecture.

I see them as totally transforming the house. Housing has to be malleable to be successful, to be appropriated and made ones own. However, at the moment, as the allocation process is not complete, the government that owns the space has restricted this from happening. Perhaps it’s a good thing to control till all the social equations have been settled and then a sense of community will find its expression both in terms of how the individual house is transformed as well as the common spaces in the cluster—some of this has just begun happening.

How can Hathigaon develop in the future?

Once the housing and the landscape has settled into a state of equilibrium—perhaps in a couple of years—I think for the government to develop light tourist infrastructure on the site would be a way to supplement the income for the mahouts and their families. Already tourist (largely budget tourists) are finding their way to the site and creating an interesting supplementary income for the mahouts. They come to participate in bathing the elephants and feeding them, etc.

How can modern technology mesh with village wisdom?

Refraining from fetishizing the local as an end in itself is not productive. So in this case, for us it was more important to focus on water and contemporary ways of doing things to improve the lives of the mahouts. Evoking the architectural splendour the Mughals used to house elephants in, would be a non-productive or irrelevant approach, which would not sustain. So while we built on local wisdom about how to hold water or ventilate the buildings, we were not constrained by the traditional images that went with those practices.

Were there any downsides that you would keep in mind for future projects?

In the future, I would insist on a greater clarity of the owner or client’s role. Although the government officers involved have been supportive, with changing postings of the administrators involved, you never have continuity and you have to, in a strategic way, make the project happen. Sometimes you feel you are the only one interested in making it happen. This requires immense patience.

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