In conversation with Rahul Mehrotra on practice, theory and academia

STIR speaks exclusively with the recently appointed Chair of Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

by Devanshi Shah Published on : Oct 31, 2020

An eminent architect, urbanist  and educator, Rahul Mehrotra has long been at the vanguard of contemporary discourse on urbanism, architecture and pedagogy. In February this year, the Harvard Graduate School of Design announced his appointment as Chair of Department of Urban Planning and Design and John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization. Equipped with diverse perspectives, outlooks and experiences, we engage in an exclusive conversation with the pedagogue on research, practice and academia.

Devanshi Shah (DS): Research has always been a part of RMA Architects work culture, could you elaborate on a little bit of that history?

Rahul Mehrotra (RM): At the RMA studio, research has always been embedded in our practice. This happened partly organically, and partly by design, I will have to go back a bit in time to elaborate. The Urban Design Research Institute, which was established in 1985, was founded by Charles Correa and other trustees. It was intended as a research institute that would generate its own income by working on live projects to facilitate city improvements. It operated for a few years, before it stopped functioning for various reasons. We revived it later in 1994-95, after doing the first conference focused on the fort area and the issues of urban conservation. We realised that one needed an institutional structure to carry on this sort of research as well as advocacy. Rather than do the research under the  name of individuals, which is very attractive from a perspective for academic authorship, but in the context of India, where you are  actually using the research to advocate change, we felt the institutional structure to do this work would be more effective. So, reviving the UDRI made sense as it was an existing trust, and we had the support of all the trustees. On its revival, the UDRI was embedded in our office space and operated on a shoestring budget. So in a sense by default it brought a research dimension or at least let's say the culture of research and discussion to the office. We were organising lectures, doing research projects, and documentation, so the office got exposed to all these happenings, and it influenced the culture of the office itself. We started doing conservation work, we got much more interested in research. One realised in reflection that it was actually a very important thing for the office. It is a linked legacy, and what is ironic or perhaps fortuitous is that today we are physically a few floors below the UDRI in the same building.

UDRI workshop poster | The Fort Precinct in Bombay, 1993 | RMA Architects | STIRworld
UDRI workshop poster | The Fort Precinct in Bombay, 1993 Image: Courtesy of RMA Architects

DS: Considering this relation, what motivated the formation of the Architectural Foundation?

RM: When we were doing the State of Architecture exhibition, which originally started under the umbrella of the UDRI, we realised that the UDRI had gone a lot further into the urban space, and for good reason. The current custodians of the institution were working on and focused on policy matters etc and not so excited about the scale of architecture. On the other hand, after 30 years of practice and being a part of all sorts of urban initiatives, I personally felt the need to focus on architecture and I felt the scale was something that the firm could relate to. First it was going to be a foundation called  RMA Research, but then we thought we needed to allow it more  space with a long term view where it also facilitated wider debates of architecture too - which we felt were inadequate in the city and the schools did not seem to be engaging in these questions in a public forum either. We (Ranjit Hoskote, Kaiwan Mehta and I) were also working on the State of Architecture Exhibition, which was a national exhibition, so we chose to give it a name that could grow into its own identity in the future and not be solely linked to RMA Architects per say.

Installation view of the State of Architecture Exhibition at the NGMA, 2016 | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of the State of Architecture Exhibition at the NGMA, 2016 Image: Courtesy of Rajesh Vora

DS: What are some of the core undertakings of the foundation?

RM: The Architecture Foundation‘s central mandate is the promotion and awareness of architecture and urbanisation in India. More than ever before in postcolonial India's history, the architect’s role as a social agent must be critically delineated and accordingly, the Architecture Foundation's mission is to address questions of economic, political and cultural change through the role of the architect. To this end we are in the process of formulating a series of programmes. We very much want to discuss and address questions of the culture of practice and debate in the profession.

As part of this discussion archiving as well as documentation of India's contemporary architecture is a central question we want to address. We have donated the entire RMA archive to the foundation, so now the foundation is the custodian of the whole archive. That also creates a synergy between the two entities although they are completely separate. The Architecture Foundation has its own trustees, own advisors and one RMA principal is represented on the board. It is situated in the office and is doing its own research project, which has nothing to do with the projects being designed at the studio. At the same time, it manages and organises the archive, which is a good instrument for reflection for RMA. One of the things we have just finished doing, which is literally hot off the press, is a book called Working in Mumbai. It is a reflection on 30 years of practice, it is designed as a second volume to Architecture in India. So, one has none of our works and one has all of our work. The intention of the Architectural Foundation is to strive to evolve a precedent one could use as a way of archiving their own work.

DS: I would also like to get your thoughts on the current situation as well. There is a lot of discussion on cities, planning and even how architecture and urban planning could, or rather should respond. Could you elaborate your views on this?

RM: I think there are two big over reactions that have occurred. One is on climate change, and the narrative about how the pandemic has shown that nature can heal itself. I think that one is a complete illusion. The second is that cities are going to change completely, which I don’t think is true. To address climate change first, I think the quality of air improving because cars aren’t on the road, is an oversimplification. Sure, if we change our bad habits, but we can go back to that condition very easily in a year or two. What are the systemic and structural changes that we need to implement is the critical question here. In the area of climate change we cannot find anything that we are changing. We are just sitting at home right now instead of running around. Are we saying we will get rid of cars or work from home forever, I doubt it.

Publication - Ephemeral Urbanism - Does permanence matter? | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Publication - Ephemeral Urbanism - Does permanence matter? Image: Courtesy of RMA Architects

Similarly, with cities it is a little over played. I don’t think cities will fundamentally change, there have been plagues before, world wars, nuclear bombs dropped, people have rebuilt and gone back to what was. Human contact is very important. Having said that, I think that there are two big questions here. But there is  a difference, which is that the time during which this isolation has happened is a time in history with such a well-developed technology of virtual communication. The second and bigger shift I see is that of  the value of a home. The home has much more value than we give it, we have made them transient spaces, the introspection of this value is going to make us think about our cities differently. We have to be very careful, calibrated and strategic, and not have knee-jerk reactions. I have attended dozens of webinars, where the titles are all variations of reimagine cities post-pandemic and I have yet to hear one compelling idea about the impact of the pandemic on our cities. What I have heard is generally the identification of a set of issues that seem to be really urgent. Many of these issues are things we should have been addressing anyway, why do we need a pandemic for that? So in short, let’s not attribute too much to the pandemic. We were in a state of crisis before the pandemic and so why do we need a pandemic to really take those issues seriously. I think it reflects on us badly as a society and citizens of this planet!

Publication - Kumbh Mela - Mapping the Ephemeral MEGACITY | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Publication - Kumbh Mela - Mapping the Ephemeral MEGACITY Image: Courtesy of RMA Architects

DS: We have talked a lot about research, with UDRI and through RMA itself. I would like to now move to talking about the research you have undertaken while teaching at Harvard. Having taken on projects like the Kumbh Mela, is there a difference in the nature of the research?

RM: I think research is more about reflection. Whether the reflection is a self-reflection or that reflection is an outsider's view, I think this has different values. Self-reflection is like a mirror, you self-reflect or introspect often with something that's very familiar. And prospective research is like a window that allows you to look out to a whole world. I think both have value. It is about how the question is framed, I think that is what is critical about  research. Of course, there is a difference between seeing something second hand versus someone who might have their own lived experience of the subject. I think the insider-outsider question leads to the question of bias. Then how does one deal with those biases critically becomes important, because that should not muddle up the integrity of the question, or the integrity of the answers, or the integrity of the reading that one makes  in the process of the research.

DS: Some of this research is also collated and published, could you talk us through the ideology behind this?

RM: For me in the office, it is applied research, not research for the sake of research. However, it is not a narrow view, I see research done based on case studies, and that is something you have to do anyway when you do a project. Research, the way I see it, even applied research, is looking at and expanding the field to inform your projects. One has to differentiate that, research has been more exploratory, research must be a question asked in a way that you are surprised by the answers. A lot of the books we work on or even the catalogues, I call them instruments for advocacy. Advocacy is hard to do unless you have the instruments for advocacy. The  books I have worked on I think do that. These instruments then become the foundation or the tools for advocates to advocate for something. Often people who advocate do not have the ability to make tools. And people who make the tools don't have the ability to advocate, so we must see these as two different activities. We should see the value in making instruments of advocacy for young practitioners, as it can become a practice in itself. The research also has to be within this framework, especially in the profession sphere with which we engage. We are professional, we respond to problems on behalf of society. Society invests in us to help imagine better spatial possibilities that make society better. And there are many ways you can do that, you can design passively and give it to someone to build. You can design only based on a client brief, you can go out and address a larger concern, and lobby and advocate for that. That is the way you become proactive in helping society collectively imagine better spatial possibilities.

Installation view of the State of Architecture Exhibition at the NGMA, 2016 | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of the State of Architecture Exhibition at the NGMA, 2016 Image: Courtesy of Rajesh Vora

DS: Coming to your recent appointment as Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, what are some of the ideas you hope to implement now? 

RM: For me as Chair and a pedagogue, the most critical thing is how one can equip students in the world today, and to see a multiplicity of views on the state of our being. Often narratives are built around canonical works, or canonical practices and that gives you a limited view. It is about giving students the facility to think critically about something. It is why the studios I take are called Extreme Urbanism and they are about taking very extreme problems and grappling with them. It is not about coming up with the best solution or the most resolved solution, but rather to get one to think critically about picking up problems that sometimes even one discipline is not equipped to respond to. In the current climate in the US, because of conversations about racism a lot of cannons have been challenged. The question is do you throw them all out and start from scratch or do you equip students to look at them critically as some of those decisions may have been rooted in politically unsound or problematic perspectives. A student should be able to peel those apart and then make a judgement. Reactions to these extremes is what will lead us to creating other extremes that can be new canonical works. For me critical thinking is the most important facet of what we as educators can provide students. Especially this generation that is presently dealing with a very complex and confusing state of the world.

Installation view of the Venice Biennial, 2018 | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of the Venice Biennial, 2018 Image: Courtesy of Laurian Ghinitoiu

DS: You have been teaching for about 16 years now, what would be one larger project you worked on with the university?

RM: One very important project that I have been engaged with at the university has been the Kumbh Mela project, which involved six different schools at the university coming together. When we formulated the project, which I did with Diana Eck, a teacher in the School of Religion, we did it because of our own interest. She teaches Hinduism and Pluralism and I was interested in this notion of the kinetic city and the idea of ephemeral urbanism, so the initial collaboration was like a dream come true. In retrospect, the reason we all got a lot out of the project was that it is a completely out of box phenomenon where a mega city is built for use for only 55 days! When we started, we didn't frame it like that, but once we arrived at the venue and started our study, we realised students from religion studies, the arts and sciences, design, engineering, business, and public health - were all flummoxed. And nobody knew how to understand, map and capture this urban system. They had to collaborate - depend on the different disciplines and work together. So, we actually transgressed each other’s space, because we needed to do that in order to productively comprehend what this ephemeral mega city was all about! So those are the kind of questions we should be asking, and I think climate change is another situation which would benefit from this approach. Public health is another issue that should not be in the domain of a single discipline or profession. I think with the contemporary complexities we are grappling with, and the shifts of the demography that we are experiencing, in the future, collaborative thinking is going to be critical. And  defining the problem becomes a critical starting point - the research question becomes crucial. 

Installation view of the Venice Biennial, 2018 | RMA Architects | STIRworld
Installation view of the Venice Biennial, 2018 Image: Courtesy of Laurian Ghinitoiu

DS: As we conclude our conversation, any parting thoughts on the confluence of theory, research and practice, as an educator and now as Chair of the department?

RM: Why is theory important, why do people not actually relate to theory very much and a lot of practitioners have no patience with theory? Theory is about reflecting on what is happening on the ground right now. In India, even America, what a lot of schools are doing is that they are teaching urban theory that comes out of reflecting on what was happening in the industrialising west in the last century! Right now, theory should be coming out of India, China Brazil. It is one of the reasons why I was motivated  to write something like Kinetic City, or being inspired to map the ephemeral megacity like Kumbh Mela. These are happening on the ground now and would provide us better feedback loops in creating a theoretical framework from which we can look at our problems. Theory is a framework by which we can look at problems on the ground, theory is meant for practitioners. Theory is not meant just to be in rarefied environments in academia. Good relevant theory is what guides practitioners and it comes out of reflecting on what is happening on the ground. Theory like identity and culture is an evolving category, it is not a found category. This should be the critical role of the academic, when we are training practitioners - exposing them to theoretical frameworks that allow them to reflect on problems on the ground. For me, in reflection, whether it was the UDRI and now the AF, the greatest gain and advantage of these being so closely related to the practice was, it made me personally and I hope people in the studio , continuously reflect on the principles we choose to work with. What one chooses to engage with, the way we deal with solving a problem and the way we situated ourselves in the world of practice, stems from this synergy.

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