RAHUL MEHROTRA is neither hero nor villain; he’s establishment, says a young Delhi designer not wishing to be named. The 52-year-old Mehrotra has been practising architecture in Mumbai for the last 20 years and maintains a smaller studio for ideation in Boston, where he also stints as Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University. In the last decade and more, Mehrotra has observed globalisation inject huge energies into Indian entrepreneurship and arts, but feels our built spaces have been neglected and undone in the same period. Frustrated by existing publications on contemporary Indian architecture, he set out on his own survey and has now published Architecture in India Since 1990.
Mehrotra classifies Indian buildings into four groups — Global Practice (reacting to globalisation and capital), Regional Manifestation (local assertions of modernism), Alternate Practice (sustainable and community efforts) and Counter Modernism (faith-based structures). His book is less encyclopaedic and more emblematic of these trends and is written in a lucid though occasionally dense manner. It presents its images in clean and brightened layouts. Racing through a hectic book tour, Mehrotra tells GAURAV JAIN why he dreads “impatient capital”, how Indian modernity is different from its western counterpart, and how religious buildings are often the most exciting in India. Edited excerpts:
How did you go about assembling an overview of modern Indian architecture?
I tried to look at methods of practice and engagement with the making of architecture. These processes lock you into particular outcomes, and identifying these correlations is an interesting way to discern an entire range of architecture, which otherwise we don’t know how to explain. This naturally brought to my notice a range that did not necessarily fit within the modernist aesthetic but was [yet] contemporary!
Take Akshardham [temple complex] for example — and this is true of a lot of faith-based architecture — it’s very un-modern in its aesthetic, but look at its processes: they have this anonymity so that you can’t identify who built it, they researched it extensively, used thousands of volunteers, had labourer workshops across the country, used cutting-edge technology, networked all over. So the complexity that goes into the whole operation is perhaps much more cutting-edge than the glass boxes you see all over Noida and Gurgaon. They don’t necessarily fit into the modern aesthetic but are contemporary, and moreover they have the commitment, passion and complexity that surpasses those that have modern aesthetics.
I think modernism has been reduced to a style. In India, its idealism, passion and commitment to social change have gone out of the debate.
Where is new energy being channelled? Where are people taking risks?
I think faith-based architectural production is creating the most engaging buildings. While they use un-modern and sometimes ancient aesthetics, their idealism, connection with society and explorations with technologies make them extraordinary experiments. There is a lot the profession can be inspired from here — not in terms of aesthetics but by the process, fervour and rigour!
Do you see a particularly Indian modernity in our architecture finding voice as opposed to a Western modernity? What is it?
Let’s first delink the notion of modernity with the aesthetic of modernism. Modernism in India was a disjuncture to start with — society wasn’t modern but our aesthetics were modernist. Similarly, now we haven’t embraced capitalism that completely. Indian modernity sometimes uses un-modern images to express itself — largely in the faith-based and alternate practices. Our alter modernities are being expressed architecturally in different ways, [and] this will differentiate our landscape from other parts of the world where modernity is clearly linked with a particular aesthetic of modernism.
You give several examples of the diverse architectural models in India, but aren’t these projects mostly exceptions in an impoverished landscape? Do these discrete buildings add up to something larger — at a democratic, aesthetic or emotional level?Everyone criticises the mechanised, glassy look of urban scrapers — you call it the problem of “impatient capital”. Are there lessons from other places in the world on how to imbibe aesthetics and culture while accommodating prefab and quick-assembly materials?
Not really — I don’t know of any spot where impatient capital has created a meaningful environment. Capital when manifest for singular reasons of profit is always, I think, a destructive force that creates brittle environments.
Unfortunately, they often do not add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Architecture in India has become far too site-specific and myopic in its ambition. What lacks is an adequate attention to the instruments of urban planning and design. We must use infrastructure more strategically to make sense of the emerging streams of plural expression in our mutinous democracy.
You write how only 4,000 architecture students graduate every year. Do they have broader aspirations? Are they trained in urban planning and design?
No, they don’t get trained. There is an urgent need to build capacity through education. Education needs to be modified to highlight that these different models of practices are viable. The current education trains architects for a particular kind of practice, to imagine a particular kind of client and profit, but students don’t experience multiple modes of production.
Also, we don’t produce enough architects, the architects tend to gravitate to urban centres, and urban centres have become sites for the production of global architecture — because it is your capital that is determining what needs to be done and the State has absolved itself of its responsibility. So, unfortunately the crucibles of innovation are only the big urban capitalist centres. Education has to be modified so that architects also see smaller towns as opportunities.
India doesn’t produce enough architects, and our education system trains them only to imagine a particular kind of practice, client and profit
As for the classic question of who’s going to pay — civil society has to step in here. Instead of sponsoring rock concerts in Chennai and Mumbai, they should become the new patrons of our built environment. I don’t think the opportunities exist for architects, and I think civil society, corporations and everyone who’s reaping the benefits of capital must give back in way of patronage. What we need is a new breed of patrons. As capital becomes more patient, there will be more space for creativity.
How do we get the masses interested in their architecture?
We need more professionals working as aggregate planners, working on aware ness and policy, on questions of advocacy. Secondly, creating a context makes for better architecture. Otherwise we’re all myopic workers on a site.
What is at the crux of Mumbai’s spatial problems? Is it a doomed city?
Cities grow and thrive by strategically creating serviced land — by recycling land and by opening up land on the peripheries. Mumbai subverted both possibilities, in the way it ignored the Navi Mumbai opportunity and, more recently, the nexus between the politicians and developers subverted the opportunity of recycling the mill lands to reinvent the city. Thus the high-rise buildings — built quickly and clad in glass to respond to the impatience of capital! And the informal response to this is the spectacle of the subalterns, who express their aspirations through festivals and enacted moments of cultural expression in the city. Indian urbanism is becoming not about grand visions but grand adjustments!
You suggest Mumbai should have a mayor, but does Delhi benefit from the figurehead of a chief minister?
Absolutely. Unless we have accountability within the political system, cities will continue to be milked by politicians who are not accountable to its people. Mega cities must have the mayoral system where an executive is elected and accountable directly to the people, and can work towards governing a city in ways its aspirations can be most adequately and intensely represented.
When you look at the Indian landscape today, are you filled with dread or hope?
Both! I am pessimistic of the destructive power of unregulated capital and the often mindless architecture it is creating. But in researching the book I saw hope in the robust processes that are also simultaneously emerging. The energy of another generation, if synergistically channelled, could create a wonderful landscape of pluralism. But I am afraid that urban design and planning will have to play a critical role in this process. Our greatest challenge is how we fold the infrastructure we create, and the architecture that follows, into the natural systems of our land.
Gaurav Jain is a Literary Editor with Tehelka.