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I call glass towers the Architecture of Impatient Capitalism'
Instead of the sleek, shiny, “just like in Shanghai” buildings that dot urban India these days, Rahul Mehrotra has been building environmentally sound, homegrown expressions of modernity. TOI-Crest meets the architect who does grand villas and public loos with equal panache.
There are many different ways to track the changes overtaking India. Some experts rely on teetering columns of statistics. Others quote airily from articles in the Sunday supplements. Rahul Mehrotra monitors glass - or, to be more precise, the sheets of shimmering stuff that adorn glitzy new buildings these days.
After all, Mehrotra, 52, has been an architect and urban planner for the last two decades. As he drives across Hyderabad for a meeting or dashes through Ahmedabad for a site visit he can't help but notice the rash of glass towers erupting through our startled cityscapes. Or indulge in a spot of ironic reflection.
"In the '90s when I was starting my practice, I would often be enthusiastic about trying to use materials like glass and metal, " he says, adding that he would beseech clients to splurge on special glass for larger windows or structural steel for the roof. "These were hard materials to come by and so we would spend hours trying to motivate our clients to import them as India was liberalizing its import policies. "
Today, Mehrotra faces the opposite problem - a stream of corporate clients who are determined to acquire their very own gleaming status symbol, no matter how incongruous or environmentally unsuitable it might be. "Now we spend the same amount of time convincing our clients not to import but rather to hand make the buildings with natural materials, " chuckles Mehrotra, who is clearly adept at reading the language of buildings. "Over the last decade, aggressive capitalism has become a state of mind. "
Mehrotra has devoted his professional life as much to contemplating this transition as to designing structures. For, apart from being an architect with a body of work that extends from Karachi to Coimbatore, he is also a researcher, writer and teacher. Not to mention, someone who has been persistently trying to decipher the peculiar pattern of urbanization in India.
In Mumbai, Mehrotra is best known for the series of books that he and historian Sharada Dwivedi wrote in an effort to reclaim the city's past and preserve its neglected treasures. For many years the indefatigable duo spearheaded the city's conservation movement and virtually dreamt up the idea of Mumbai's art district - today home to the hugely popular Kala Ghoda Festival.
The Kala Ghoda festival has, of course, acquired a life of its own. But, realising that the ultimate goal of conservation has gotten lost amidst the hordes and hotdog stands, Mehrotra has once again been busy. Along with art critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote and architect Kaiwan Mehta, he has launched an annual "festival of ideas" dubbed What We Call Winter.
And, as if his diary isn't already crammed and confusing enough, Mehrotra is the Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design - and so follows a six-weeks-in-Boston-two-weeks-in-Mumbai timetable. All of which makes him a tough interviewee to nab.
Nevertheless, after some back and forth in cyberspace, we finally manage to meet on a winter evening. It's Mehrotra's first day in his new studio - a vast, luminous space located in the buzzing heart of Kala Ghoda. Everywhere computers are being positioned and models unpacked. After issuing rapid-fire instruction to his team, Mehrotra settles at a corner of a massive white table - definitely bigger than the average Mumbai kitchen - and starts discussing the subject that is increasingly dear to him: the role of the architect in today's India.
"At the moment, in India, we are part of two simultaneous transitions, " Mehrotra explains. "The transition into capitalism and the transition out of socialism. This has caused a lot of chaos and disjuncture in our physical environment. We imagine a world in which we neatly move from socialism to capitalism but it doesn't happen like that. Instead, we inhabit a landscape that is bizarre and plural. A lot of my peers operate in one or the other imagined reality - in an India that is purely socialist or purely capitalist. But I feel that my role as an architect is to recognize the simultaneous existence of both worlds and to straddle the simultaneous transitions. "
Architecture, then, is not just about designing a building that won't fall down. It has a much bigger part to play - be it underlining the philosophy of sustainability;softening the threshold between rich and poor;or teaching impatient capital the virtue of patience. In short, looking beyond the ubiquitous glass towers-and-full-blast-AC designs and trying to find environmentally sound, homegrown expressions of modernity.
"I call glass towers the Architecture of Impatient Capitalism. If you look at cities that are considered models of capitalism today - for example, Singapore, Dubai or Shanghai - they are all under authoritarian regimes that can instantly prepare the ground to receive impatient capitalism. They are able to ensure that everything will be done quickly, " says Mehrotra, adding that glass cladding is one of the quickest and easiest construction options and so an obvious choice for both the hard-pressed architect and the eager client. Which is why, willy-nilly, the glass tower has become the image of "global capitalism".
As a result, architects are confronted with clients who all want sleek, shiny buildings, "just like in Shanghai" - no matter that they might shatter when a Telengana agitator tosses a stone or require expensive, imported blinds to cut the strong Bangalore sun. How does Mehrotra deal with these demands?
"The first corporate building we designed was for Lakshmi Machine Works, " recalls Mehrotra, adding that the clients knew exactly what they wanted - from the boxy design to the fact that their Australian partner would be supplying glass for the cladding. But Mehrotra and his team could not bring themselves to execute a seven-story glass tower that would reflect an uncomfortable amount of heat in the Coimbatore summer and stick out like an ungainly giant in an otherwise leafy, low-rise area.
Instead, over a series of meetings, Mehrotra convinced his clients to consider alternate expressions of modernity. He pointed out that traditional architecture and use of local materials would better fit an organization known for its traditional values and ethics. "I basically took their initial model and laid it on its side, " says Mehrotra, who came up with a low structure, built around three verdant courtyards and cooled by waterfalls. Lotus ponds, tiled roofs and extraordinary jalis fashioned from waste scrap, all created a corporate building that was distinctive and custom-made for the Coimbatore climate.
Similarly, when a Hyderabad group approached RMA Architects, the team could never have imagined that a few years later they would be working - not amidst sterile glass but riotous greenery, fat purple blooms and delicate orange flowers.
How did Mehrotra manage this sleight of design? Bowing to the "impatient nature of capital", Mehrotra quickly provided a basic concrete-and-glass structure. Then, over the next two years, he commissioned a village workshop to make light aluminum trellises - a project that provided two years of employment to 25 villagers. The trellises were gradually installed alongside the exterior wall of the building, and served as the framework for a series of vertical gardens. Today, the creepers cut the glare and offer a sense of tranquility, while the spraying system keeps the building cool and provides the delicious feeling of floating in a cloud. Often, high-power meetings are conducted in the offices, while gardeners work on the catwalk just a few feet away. "This creates a daily visual conversation, " says Mehrotra. "I believe it softens the threshold between the rich and poor. "
Indeed, Mehrotra tries to introduce this element into as many projects as possible. When wealthy clients demand California-style villas behind high walls, Mehrotra uses his persuasive powers to whittle down the grandiose plans. "I try not to reinforce the colonial paradigm of exclusion, " he says. In one case in Alibag, Mehrotra created a large, shady porch where the family members while away languid weekends. Before returning to Mumbai, they stow away the furniture, lock up the house and leave. For the rest of the year the villagers and caretakers are able to enjoy the shady courtyard and its precious water tap.
After all, Mehrotra is constantly aware that he is operating in two parallel, but very different Indias. "One way of keeping in touch with both is through our client base, " he says, pointing out that while on one hand his team may be busy with a big, fat corporate project, on the other hand it is drawing up prototypes of public toilets for a Mumbai NGO. "At the moment, for example, we are working on a PWD project just outside Jaipur which involves designing houses for 100 mahouts and their elephants. Interacting with these people, typically Muslims who earn Rs 5, 000 a month, constantly sensitises us and influences us when we are designing weekend houses or corporate offices. "
RMA Architects bagged the Jaipur project after a competition conducted by the government. The objective was to create a colony for mahouts and their animals in Amber. Most contenders drew their inspiration from the Amber Fort and came up with ornate, mock-heritage structures. But Mehrotra and his team felt that architectural curlicues and flourishes were hardly relevant to a lowincome project in a hot and arid desert. "We approached it as a landscape project rather than a building project, " said Mehotra, who began to study Google maps of the area and spotted a few water channels. His plan revolved around digging water bodies - to be fed by these channels - that would serve as a natural place for the elephants to bathe and bond with their mahouts.
Moreover, Mehrotra clustered the living quarters of the mahouts and their animals around courtyards - a clever attempt to create a sense of spaciousness despite the government instruction that each house be only 450 sq feet.
Already the water bodies are filling fast and the dry landscape is softer and greener. Mahouts and their families have started moving in, says Mehrotra, pulling up a photograph on his laptop. This captures a magical moment during which a group of children frolic in their new courtyard while an elephant watches benignly - and instantly shows how careful designs drawn in an office hundreds of miles away can actually transform lives.
Mehrotra's projects are inevitably fuelled by his beliefs and ideals. When he designed a campus for Magic Bus, meant to give slum children a taste of outdoor activities, he was careful to pick materials familiar to the children. When Hewlett Packard approached him for a glass tower in Bangalore, he decided that half the building didn't require air-conditioning. The result is an inviting structure with wide airy corridors, a well-ventilated canteen and public areas fringed with bamboos - a much more environmentally happy option than the initial plan. "My writing, my work in conservation, my research, my teaching have forced me to work out the connections and given me a framework toconceptualise architecture, " saysMehrotra, describing the thread that runs through his work.
This explains why Mehrotra refuses to succumb to jetlag and constantly widens his scope of research and exploration. Even if it means camping in Allahabad along with five Harvard faculty members and 30 students to understand the mechanics of the Kumbh Mela and "map the ephemeral city". "Some students and especially the group from the School of Public Health will stay the entire duration of 55 days, " says Mehrotra about the interdisciplinary project that will probably come up with many insightful observations.
After all, Mehrotra is that rare individual who, when he looks at a parking lot, can peer past the Toyotas and chaos, and envisage a vibrant venue for a cultural mela. Or gaze at a dusty patch of Rajasthan and imagine ponds full of paddling elephants. And from these visions, actually create extraordinary realities.
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