Rahul Mehrotra: "For us, architecture became the project of resistance"

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Mumbai and Boston-based architect and educator Rahul Mehrotra whose buildings fulfil people’s aspirations.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Nov 29, 2022

Rahul Mehrotra stands out as an important transitional figure in 20th century Indian architecture. He is the key link between the architects of the Nehru generation and those whose careers started already after the county’s 1991 economic liberalisation. Mehrotra is a practitioner and educator, both in India and internationally, and he has been teaching in America for decades. He grew up in a family of machine tool company manager. The family lived in Delhi, Lucknow, and different neighbourhoods of Mumbai in apartments that were assigned to the company’s many facilities. These frequent moves enabled young Mehrotra to experience life in various urban settings. He told me that it was learning from the very diverse cosmopolitan lifestyles that led to his strong interest in studying architecture and urban design.

His studies at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad (CEPT) stretched over a period of nine years. During those years Mehrotra worked for one year—half the time in Ahmedabad and the other half in Châtel-Saint-Denis near Vevey on Lake Geneva, where Le Corbusier built his famous Villa Le Lac for his parents. While in Europe, he explored projects built by Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, as well as visited Italian towns. He worked on many side projects before graduating in 1985, including helping a friend from the Film Institute in Pune direct a film about the disillusionment of a young architect, in which he played the main part.

  • The CEPT University Library  in Ahmedabad | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
    The CEPT University Library in Ahmedabad Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects
  • His most distinguished  built works include the Lilavati Lalbhai Library in CEPT, Ahmedabad | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
    His most distinguished built works include the Lilavati Lalbhai Library in CEPT, Ahmedabad Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects

After CEPT Mehrotra went straight to GSD where his thesis was on Mumbai and its history. Following his graduation in 1987, he worked for nine months at Stull and Lee architects in Boston. The firm focused on designing community projects in neighbourhoods with large minority populations. Exposure to minority communities and participating in community meetings and presentations taught the young architect a lot about how the built environment could be understood through aspects that go beyond brick and mortar. Once back in India, Mehrotra apprenticed at Charles Correa's office for two years working on low-cost housing and institutional buildings.

Mehrotra opened his practice, RMA Architects in 1990, just one year before economic liberalisation in India was initiated and the economy shifted from socialist to capitalist. The firm also operates in Boston where he has been teaching at GSD and where he is currently Chair of the department of Urban Planning and Design and Director of the Master in Architecture in Urban Design Degree Program. His most distinguished built works include the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Rural Campus in Tuljapur (2004), Hathigaon in Jaipur (2010), KMC Corporate Office in Hyderabad (2012), and Lilavati Lalbhai Library in CEPT, Ahmedabad (2017). In the following interview with Rahul Mehrotra we discussed his role in Indian architecture, resisting clients' expectations of global architecture, heritage conservation, urbanism as an elastic condition, thinking of architecture as transitory moments, and the need to create softer urban systems.

  • The Rural Campus for the  Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)   located in Tuljapur | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
    The Rural Campus for the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) located in Tuljapur Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects
  • Responding to the requirement of an institution set against the locale, the campus design focused on creating a series of buildings clustered around courtyard, resonating with the traditional patterns in the region | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
    Responding to the requirement of an institution set against the locale, the campus design focused on creating a series of buildings clustered around courtyard, resonating with the traditional patterns in the region Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You identified architecture in India's post-economic liberalisation period as "the landscape of impatient capital". How has it impacted the profession? Is India still in this period of impatient capital?

Rahul Mehrotra: When I worked at Charles Correa's office, his projects were large institutions commissioned by the State. It was a socially-oriented practice driven by such protocols as the cost of materials, accountability, social purpose, and so on. And when I started my own practice a lot of that was ingrained in me as a set of values, such as being frugal and using resources responsibly. Liberalisation was, of course, discussed for several years before it actually happened, and by 1991 the process started. The state began to recede in terms of its social responsibilities. It no longer was patronising buildings; it was leaving buildings to the market. And financial capital, often global, was landing everywhere. New forms of building typologies were emerging—shopping malls, glass-clad corporate office buildings, and so on.

For example, one of my early clients asked me to design a building for his company. He told me, “We will do glass-clad facades, we have the contract in place for it, the glass is being ordered to come from Australia, we already have a permit for it…” and so on. But once we started working on the project we came up with a completely different design—buildings around courtyards with tile roofs, and water features, and artisans and artists worked on all sorts of building elements. It was completely different from the client’s expectations. Interestingly, we just had a meeting today about retrofitting this complex that we completed 30 years ago. The client has a great attachment to the building and now we are planning to renovate it. He even asked me for original drawings to be framed and displayed in the building. So, those were the kinds of demands that clients were making. But for us, architecture became the project of resistance. We tried to convince our clients to reverse their thinking and not just accept what global capital was dictating in terms of architecture and imagery. We were dealing with the influx of aspirations that no one could quite digest and fully understand what the applications would be. Luckily, having studied at GSD, I was somewhat prepared to realise that putting glass buildings in the middle of our traditional neighbourhoods would be entirely disruptive. That led to being involved in heritage conservation, which became a part of my practice. I spent the next ten years trying to develop legislation to protect old historic areas and buildings in Mumbai. And this is how I started writing about the importance of conservation and architecture more generally. It was an interesting moment in India and many local architects seized lucrative opportunities. I, on the other hand, did not have much work in Mumbai and I began to be perceived in the city as someone who was resisting change. Even my friends who helped finance my research projects and books would go to other architects for their own projects. And I was quietly building projects in other parts of the country where globalisation was slow to come.

Shanti house in Alibag,  India employs basalt stone in a series of parallel load-bearing walls to form  the house structure | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
Shanti house in Alibag, India, employs basalt stone in a series of parallel load-bearing walls to form the house structure Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects
The Shanti house is organised around two large verandah-like spaces | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
The Shanti house is organised around two large verandah-like spaces Image: Rahul Mehrotra; Courtesy of RMA Architects

VB: I understand that liberalisation in India was not as drastic as in such places as Russia or China, which were taking place in parallel. For example, in India, private practices existed before liberalisation; in a way, there were two systems in place all along, right?

RM: Absolutely, the transition in India was much gentler. Private enterprise was in place but under the very strong control of the state. Of course, when we talk about transition, we shouldn’t think of it as instantaneous. In fact, my practice is now 32 years old and I would say that for the first 20 years it was operating in both systems simultaneously. We were transitioning out of the socialist system into the capitalist system. It wasn’t like in 1991 everything changed. For example, there were many people in power who still had the socialist mindset and were transitioning into the capitalist modes of thinking and operation. It was interesting and in the building environment, the situation was very muddled and manifested, for example, in situations where you may have high-rise buildings being built right next to slums. This muddled situation is the story of India, which is enriched by ancient and religious traditions, whereas, for example, Mao reinvented China by erasing all those memories. They had a tabula rasa effect, on which a new country could be built. In India, history never disappeared.

VB: In the Indian architectural context, would you consider yourself a transitionary figure—following the first generation of modernists such as Achyut Kanvinde, Raj Rewal, Charles Correa, and Balkrishna Doshi—and anticipating younger architects, including Bijoy Jain, Anupama Kundoo, and Sameep Padora, to name just a few of those practitioners who are more focused on reviving regional architecture?

RM: First, let’s get the generations right. The architects you named representing the first generation are correct. But there is also the second generation, which is less known. For example, Romi Khosla, AGK Menon, KT Ravindran, Madhvi and Miki Desai, Brinda Somaya, Kirtee Shah, and many others. They are 10 to 20 years older than I am. To me, it is an inspirational generation. I learned from many of them directly. What was particular about them is that they were all in the shadow of the first generation of modernists. Many of them established their practices during the Emergency period when the gaze shifted from the brave new world and modernism of the new India to the realities on the ground. They were the ones who pioneered low-cost housing, worked in remote areas, and were inspired by such visionaries as Laurie Baker. They were preoccupied with problem-solving in very unself-conscious ways. It was the generation that was largely ignored by the international press.

The architects that you named who came after me are not from a single generation. Jain and Kundoo are only half a generation—perhaps seven or eight years younger and the difference is that they are both much more focused on smaller-scale and highly crafted works. Their gamut of things is more limited to boutique projects such as private houses and specific communal formations and, in a way, they essentialise an aspect of India which is easily consumed by the Western media. There are, of course, many other architects who deal with the nitty-gritty of the ground in India such as Chitra Vishvanath, but they are not on the radar of the press internationally. Then there are architects like Kapil Gupta, Gurjit Singh, Padora, etc. who are a full generation younger than I am. This generation started their practices already in a fully liberalised India.

Personally, I did not consider myself a transitionary figure, but now that you are asking me, I would say, yes, I am. I have first-hand experience with the old India— that’s where I grew up, interacted, studied, and worked. And then I started my practice already in the new India. And I took upon myself the responsibility to make those connections. That’s what led to our exhibition, The State of Architecture at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, publishing such books as Architecture in India Since 1990, and actively organising lecture series and forums.

The Three Court House in  Alibag, India | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
The Three Court House in Alibag, India Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects
A series of similar yet varied modules that  could be constructed incrementally form the house structure, allowing the house  form to conform to and take advantage of the site’s unique shape | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
A series of similar yet varied modules that could be constructed incrementally form the house structure, allowing the house form to conform to and take advantage of the site’s unique shape Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects

VB: In your just mentioned book, Architecture in India since 1990, you identified four modes of contemporary practice in India today: global practice, regional modernism, alternative practice, and counter modernism. How would you define your own practice?

RM: I would like to think that my work crosses all these boundaries. I believe all these practices are simultaneously valid and we must be able to work in all these modes. If we are designing a small school in a remote village we should go there, live there for a while, meet all the local stakeholders involved, engage with craftspeople, and so on. And if we need to work with a CEO of a major corporation who deals with impatience of capital, we need to try to make that capital patient. For example, when we were asked to do a building for KMC Corporate Office in Cyber City, Hyderabad, that’s what our client demanded—a sturdy office box with glass facades, all completed in 14 months. And we agreed to that with our own request—to give us additional two years to design special façades while the building would be already occupied. They agreed to that. So, architects can create commitments to what happens on the ground, not merely serve their clients.

VB: What would you say your architecture is about?

RM: The key driver of my practice is the context. It is my aspiration to complicate context. We explore the climate, analyse what materials are available in the proximity of the site when possible, and we excavate the history of the site to better inform our understanding of the context. And I always ask this question—What is the context of the context? For me, architecture is about complicating the reading of the context. A building should become a part of its place and fulfil the aspirations of the people for whom it is built.  

  • The KMC Corporate Office project | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
    The KMC Corporate Office project Image: Tina Nandi; Courtesy of RMA Architects
  • The project was all about the idea of  cooling by plants, the idea of hydroponics came from a concern for water  conservation and a desire to use misting for cooling | Rahul Mehrotra | STIRworld
    The project was all about the idea of cooling by plants, the idea of hydroponics came from a concern for water conservation and a desire to use misting for cooling Image: Carlos Chen; Courtesy of RMA Architects

VB: What was the key concept of your KMC Corporate Office and where did the initial idea come from?

RM: That’s a good example to talk about our design process. Of course, I am aware of all the precedents of green facades, but we consciously don’t look at precedents. In our office, it is almost banned to open an issue of an architectural magazine and look at what was already published. We do that but only after the project is evolved. In the case of the KMC building, the client’s idea was to do something that would bring them to notice, which they understood as a glass box, as I mentioned earlier. But for me, it was important to start a conversation. It began around the idea of a performative façade to respond to the climate effectively. We discussed passive cooling and so on. So, instead of being driven by an image, the project was all about the idea of cooling by plants. The idea of hydroponics came from our concern for water conservation and our desire to use misting for cooling. It was a slow boil in terms of both visual and intellectual resolutions.   

VB: I want you to elaborate on a few of your phrases. You have said, “Urbanism is an elastic condition.”

RM: It refers to the fact that a city gets stretched beyond expected margins, which means that unimaginable things can happen there that the planners could not perceive. The elastic idea comes from the notion of temporality. Whether cities are used for festivals, markets, weddings, or refuge, they can extend their generosity for a particular time period and then retract to an imagined or perceived state of normalcy. I use these examples of temporal changes as instruments to imagine how my buildings can change and adjust over time.  

  • A housing project in Hathigaon (elephant village) situated  at the foothill of the Amber Palace and Fort, near Jaipur | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
    A housing project in Hathigaon (elephant village) situated at the foothill of the Amber Palace and Fort, near Jaipur Image: Rajesh Vora; Courtesy of RMA Architects
  • Conceived for mahouts (care-takers) and their  elephants, water body was a critical component of the design to facilitate  bonding between the care-taker and elephant through the ritual of bathing | Rahul  Mehrotra | STIRworld
    Conceived for mahouts (care-takers) and their elephants, water body was a critical component of the design to facilitate bonding between the care-taker and elephant through the ritual of bathingImage: Rahul Mehrotra; Courtesy of RMA Architects

VB: Another one, “We need to make a shift in our imagination about cities.”

RM: I like the idea that cities can be imagined to be built incrementally. It is important not to make absolute solutions. I want to think of architecture in cities as transitory moments. Designing transitions is important. Architecture that assumes it can solve issues for the next two hundred years is very arrogant. So often we are making permanent solutions for temporary problems.

VB: “Can we create softer urban systems?”

RM: It is, of course, a provocation, meaning, why do we need to build in such disruptive and hard ways in terms of how new construction relates to the city around it? That’s why I advocate for dissolving such binaries as public-private, formal-informal, open-closed, hard-soft, and so on. My interest is in deconstructing them, so we can begin to create a synthesis. I like the dissolution and blurring of all binaries. 

VB: And finally, “Impermanence is bigger than permanence.”

RM: It is a wicked provocation, of course. [Laughs.]

What do you think?

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