Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice

Is architecture, in its compulsive drive to create the autonomous object, inherently hardening the thresholds separating it from other disciplines?

by Rahul MehrotraPublished on : Dec 28, 2021

As a point of entry and exit, a threshold has a dual coding in society as both a physical and symbolic marker of separation and connection. Thresholds are often explicitly hard-edged or even brutal in their expression, demarcating rigid boundaries, as in the definite lines of walls, barricades, and security checkpoints in buildings, around cities, or across larger territories. Too often, thresholds also divide human activity or communities according to social, ethnic, national, or economic characteristics. Architecture and planning can unwittingly contribute to these different forms of physical separation, especially in ways made visible through their practitioners' interpretations of culture, religion, or legislation. As the academic disciplines that inform spatial practices, architecture and planning are themselves often similarly separated by disciplinary thresholds, inhibiting porosity between fields of research. By definition, an individual discipline is necessarily organised around a self-referential center of discursive production, but this often happens at the expense of the richness found at the intersection of multiple disciplinary perspectives. Is architecture, in its compulsive drive to create the autonomous object, inherently hardening the thresholds separating it from other disciplines and, by extension, reproducing those schisms within the built environment? Can architecture and planning intentionally construct soft thresholds — lines that are easily traversed, even temporarily erased — thereby allowing for multiple perspectives across different modes of research and practice and catalysing disciplinary and social connections? What, then, is the physical expression of a soft threshold — a space that is visually and physically porous, plural in spirit, encompassing of its context, and yet rigorous in its expression? Architects working in India, as well as many other parts of the globe, confront these questions and challenges in extreme forms. Acute disparity is further compounded by rapidly transforming social, cultural and physical landscapes in a globalising world. In the process of working in such contexts, the role of the professional architect is marginalised by a conventional praxis that is often obsessed with specialisation or disciplinary boundaries. Too often, the professional does not engage with the broader landscape, rather choosing to operate within the specificity of a site or a particular problem, leading to a disconnect with the context of practice.

Visitors’ Centre and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai | Rahul Mehrotra | Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice | The Kinetic City & Other Essay | STIRworld
Visitors’ Centre and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai Image: Rajesh Vora

On a global scale, architecture practice is pandering to capital in unprecedented ways and, in the process, creating the architecture and urbanism of impatient capital. It has its operating logic; capital, though sometimes assuming patient forms as in universities or foundations, is intrinsically unwilling to wait. This impatience, more often than not, creates buildings and urban forms which are whimsical, vendor-driven for ease of speed of construction, and clearly heightening the autonomy of architecture as an object in the city. Furthermore, in an attempt to understand the complexity of the contexts in which we work, architects and planners tend to organise the world through constructing binaries: local and global, formal and informal, state and private, oral and literary traditions, rich and poor, empowered and marginalised, among others. Though these categories may be useful for describing the world, are they productive for design operations? Design and design thinking are synthetic and focused on dissolving binaries — not hardening the thresholds between them. Design, or rather, spatial resolution, can play a critical role in dissolving these types of binaries, thereby softening the thresholds between them. Put another way, designers possess the potential to address complex contestations through constructing spatial arrangements.

Library at CEPT University, Ahmedabad | Rahul Mehrotra | Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice | The Kinetic City & Other Essay | STIRworld
Library at CEPT University, Ahmedabad Image: Rajesh Vora

The “context of the context”

As architects, the idea of context is something we have traditionally understood as the broader physical environment of a given site, the comprehension of which is extended through wider parameters such as climate, culture, and embedded histories. But is this reading potent and dynamic enough for designers to understand the world in which they intervene? If not, how does an architect construct the appropriate narratives for the production of soft thresholds — and the built environment, at large? The urban geographer Neil Brenner proposes that by nestling the “context in its context” we can potentially create more nuanced and productive readings of our sites of intervention. Meta-narratives clarifying the context in which the context of our operation sits is a useful instrument to imagine a precise range of potential interventions for architects and other design professionals. This, then, is the space where design intersects with its broader social, political, economic, and cultural landscapes. Brenner describes these meta-narratives across a range of emergent conditions. One such family of narratives that fundamentally challenge our forms of engagement as designers is that of contemporary rapid geo-economic integration and uneven spatial development. Inequity will be the biggest issue we face over the next decades.

Hathi Gaon in Jaipur — housing for mahouts and elephants | Rahul Mehrotra | Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice | The Kinetic City & Other Essay | STIRworld
Hathi Gaon in Jaipur — housing for mahouts and elephants Image: Rajesh Vora

For evidence of this, one need not look further than the shifting demographics at the national and global scales, and particularly the upswing in refugees to Europe, which is clearly linked to inequality and presents a new host of challenges for architects and planners. From these contexts come the remaking of political identities, urbanisation of poverty, and new claims to citizenship. [I attribute these ideas to Neil Brenner, who shared these ideas in our many conversations and first challenged me to nestle the “context in its context” into my readings of the sites I engaged in my practice.] And this squarely leads us to narratives of state reconstruction under neo-liberalisation and the notion of simultaneous transitions in the city that historian Eve Blau has articulated in the context of Eastern Europe. According to Blau, these transitions occur over decades, evolving from one set of protocols and values into new ideological systems that are often not as stable as one might or expect or imagine. Extending from this discourse are questions pertaining to the role of the state and the agency of planning and design relative to new forms of democracy developing around the world. NGOs, civil society, and rapidly changing modes of patronage each have renewed roles in the making of the built environment. Blau argues, “Transition has clear implications for architecture and urban design...it is a condition that foregrounds practice and enables architecture to play an active, performative role in the formation of the city.” [Eve Blau, “City as Open Work,” in Eve Blau and Ivan Rupnik, Project Zagreb: Transition as Condition, Strategy, Practice (Barcelona, NY: Actar, 2007), pp. 8-25.]

An ancillary building at the Taj Mahal, Agra, restored as a Visitors’ Center | Rahul Mehrotra | Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice | The Kinetic City & Other Essay | STIRworld
An ancillary building at the Taj Mahal, Agra, restored as a Visitors’ Center Image: Rajesh Vora

Through this reading it is evident that the “context in its context” lies at an intersection between the sensual and the political as well as between form or design and societal culture. This is where a productive overlap between the “sphere of our concern” and the “sphere of (our direct) influence” occurs. As architects, we are aware of and concerned with many issues, from societal through planetary scales, and ranging from poverty and public health to urban violence and climate change. More often than not, our sphere of influence does not empower us to address any of these issues in a tangible manner. Across the design professions, the frustration tied to our attempts to engage these problems is palpable. Thus, by articulating narratives of site using the method of examining the “context in its context,” we discover that our sphere of concern (the context of the context) can actually be acted upon from within our sphere of influence (our more immediate context) and vice versa — each nourished and clarified by the other. Most importantly, these narratives clearly illuminate the narrow circumscription of architects’ territory of operation in the business-as-usual-model of practice. It also sheds light on ways to better understand the site as mediated through and embedded within a larger scale of economic, social and political processes. Through this broader scope, designers can potentially have a more far-reaching, progressive social impact beyond the immediate sites of our projects.

Three Court Weekend House in Alibaug | Rahul Mehrotra | Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice | The Kinetic City & Other Essay | STIRworld
Three Court Weekend House in Alibaug Image: Rajesh Vora

This is an extract from Rahul Mehrotra’s essay "Soft Thresholds: The context as generator of practice". The complete essay is available in "The Kinetic City & Other Essays". This book presents Rahul Mehrotra’s writings over the last 30 years and illustrates his long-term engagement with and analysis of urbanism in India. The publication is divided into three parts. The anchor essay, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities,” and other contributions (21 in total) make up the main section. A second book within the book is dedicated to an expansive complimentary photo essay by the photographer Rajesh Vora, illustrating the key themes of transaction, instability, spectacle, and habitation. The last section presents an illustrated bibliography of Rahul Mehrotra’s wide range of research and writings. The book is available by Architangle.

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