“As Architects, We Don’t Discover Our Identity, We Construct It”: In Conversation with Rahul Mehrotra
Rahul Mehrotra is a practicing architect based in Boston and Mumbai and he has been teaching at Harvard’s GSD 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. Born in 1959, Mehrotra grew up in Lucknow, a city in Northern India and an important cultural and artistic hub. His father was a manager at a large machine tool company. The family moved a lot following Mehrotra senior’s frequent promotions, which led to changing residences owned by his company. Besides a few years in Lucknow and Delhi, they lived in different neighborhoods within Mumbai.
Mehrotra was educated at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad (CEPT) and graduated from Harvard’s GSD in 1987. Following his apprenticeships in Boston and Mumbai, he opened his practice, RMA Architects in Mumbai in 1990, just one year before economic liberalization in India was initiated and the economy shifted from socialist to capitalist. The architect and educator famously identified architecture in this new period in India as “the landscape of impatient capital.” He stands out as a critical transitional figure in 20th-century Indian architecture—the key link between the architects of the Nehru generation and those whose careers started already after the county’s economic liberalization.
In his book, Architecture in India since 1990 (Hatje Cantz, 2011), Mehrotra identified four modes of contemporary practice in India today: global practice, regional modernism, alternative practice, and counter modernism. Yet, when I asked him to define his own focus he explained, “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.”
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Four of the architect’s realized works are included in Kenneth Frampton‘s latest 5th edition of Modern Architecture (more than by any other Indian architect): A Critical History (Thames & Hudson; 2020): 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 transcript—shortened and edited for clarity—of a Zoom interview with Rahul Mehrotra, between New York and Boston, we discussed some highlights of his education, working at the office of Charles Correa in Mumbai, milestones of India’s development, balancing on working both for-profit and self-initiated public-interest projects, how to soften building boundaries that tend to separate people, how not to make permanent solutions for temporary needs, the relevance of regionalism, and a role he played as a student in a film about the disillusionment of a young architect.
VB: You studied architecture at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad (CEPT). How was that journey?
RM: It was quite long. [Laughs.]. It took nine years for me—from 1976 to 1985. I guess I got over all the drifting one does early in my career. After three years of studying at CEPT, I worked for one year—six months in Ahmedabad and the rest in Switzerland, a job I got through my uncle’s connections. He was an international affairs professor in Geneva. Thanks to him I worked in Châtel-Saint-Denis near Vevey on Lake Geneva where Le Corbusier built his famous Villa Le Lac for his parents. The architect I worked for had just finished a house for a young couple; he negotiated a deal that allowed me to stay with this couple—he offset it against his fees! So, it was more economical for the architect to employ me. I spoke no French; the couple spoke no English. But we all learned so much from each other. These experiences teach us how to be more observant and sensitive. I also used that opportunity to travel around Europe. That was part of my education, exploring Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Italian towns, and so on. And even after I came back, it took me five more years to finish CEPT because I did so many other side projects such as taking part in a film directed by my friend from the Film Institute in Pune. I played the main part in a film about the disillusionment of a young architect. [Laughs.].
VB: And once you finished your studies in Ahmedabad you went straight to GSD as if you were on a mission.
RM: That’s right. By then I was determined. I have to say that my experience at GSD was very liberating. In India, I learned how to read and understand settlements and cities, and my education in Ahmedabad was quite solid, but it was biased on design choices and weak on theory. GSD was much more about research and trying to better understand a place and reflect on architecture. My thesis was on Mumbai and its history. That was, of course, the time when critical regionalism was beginning to be discussed and popularized by Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Tzonis, and Liane Lefaivre, among others. And I did a short course with William Curtis just when I was graduating who theorized on what he called authentic regionalism—this was very influential on me.
I graduated in 1987 and then stayed on in the U.S. for nine months working at Stull and Lee, run by David Lee, an African American architect in Boston, working mainly on community projects in neighborhoods with large minority populations. Exposure to minority communities and participating in community meetings and presentations taught me a lot about how the built environment could be understood not only through architecture. Having gone through the experience at GSD and working with David Lee influenced me twofold—feeling a need to continuously reflect on what you are doing by being self-critical and seeing people’s participation in the making of the built environment or design in action. These two aspects define my practice today.
VB: You came back to Mumbai in 1988. What happened during the time before you started your own practice in 1990?
RM: Once back, I apprenticed at Charles Correa’s office for a little more than two years where among other projects I worked on the Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan, a museum in Jaipur, and the Institute for Astrophysics. That experience was very educational for me. First, his office was very professional, with just a dozen of people, but incredibly well organized and meticulously diligent in recording every step of the building process. He was influenced a lot by the spatial imaginations of Le Corbusier and, in general, he conceived buildings volumetrically. He had the ability to be driven simultaneously by thematic ideas and the ability to imagine a narrative of perceptual experience through space; It was different from Kahn, who was much more celebrated when I was a student at CEPT, particularly for his play with geometry by organizing spaces into served and servant. And then extruding them to achieve monumentality and amazing pure volumetric moments which were dramatized with the way the light fell and brought surfaces and volumes to life! So, at Charles Correa’s practice, I got exposed to a very different way of designing buildings from my experience in Ahmedabad. I was also influenced by Correa’s very broad interests such as in low-cost housing and institutional buildings and how one building type informs the other. In general, his critical thinking was truly amazing.
VB: Could you list a few milestones of India’s development and elaborate on how you see them?
RM: Here is the story of new India in a nutshell: 1947 is the year of our independence, great optimism, Le Corbusier building a new nation, Louis Kahn bringing his vision in the 1960s and ‘70s, a brave new India being built in Nehru’s imagination, and then in the ‘70s we had a very crude wake-up call with the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed. It became clear that India was yet dealing with and had not erased caste, inequity, poverty, and injustice—three decades after founding the new state. It was not the modern state that we had fought for. Then in the 1980s, there was a struggle to find ways to solve all these problems. The new solution became the free market. So, we liberalized our economy and aspired to the lifestyle exemplified by the societies in the West. So, it is a muddle of many things.
The key idea of Nehru and other early state leaders was—let’s address social resolution or focus on social infrastructure before engaging with the making of our physical infrastructure. So, the emphasis was on institution-building to create equity such as providing opportunities for the poor and underrepresented for education. But we ignored such issues as building physical infrastructure. And up until the 1970s, no one talked about major infrastructure projects. China, of course, went in the opposite direction—it left the social resolution for a later date, while first jumping to building infrastructure. So, while their challenge now is to resolve social infrastructure, our nightmare is the resolution of physical infrastructure.
VB: Your practice is known for self-initiated projects. Any examples?
RM: They range from buildings to initiatives—sometimes not directly about the artifact per se. For example, I organized an exhibition titled The State of Architecture. It wasn’t commissioned by the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai where it was shown. It developed over some years, and we looked for opportunities to present it. Many of my books are done the same way. I call them instruments of advocacy. They are instrumental in triggering off other processes for advocates of the public more generally. You need to develop the content and find a publisher or even self-publish it. Then there are urban initiatives such as doing legislation for conservation. Once it was in place, we started organizing citizen groups to create areas for conservation. We organized festivals to raise money. Then we selected the buildings to be restored and architects for these jobs. In many of these projects, I acted as a client by serving on selection panels.
Another example would be my project that analyzed how circulation worked at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, an entirely self-initiated project. We shared our ideas with them, and only five years later the museum got back to us saying that the board raised money and the construction of some of these ideas could move forward. There are many other such projects. I run my practice in the cross-subsidy spirit where some things financially cross-subsidize other initiatives, and so on. In other words, if I work on corporate projects or a house for a wealthy client, these projects can support my interest in doing more public projects. So, instead of using every project as a profit center, I want to make sure that my studio is sustainable and that some of the profits are used in supporting projects that are interesting or important to me but need to be internally subsidized.
VB: When you talk about your projects you use such words as incrementalism, hybridity, soft thresholds, dissolving preconceptions, a sense of reversibility, and critical dialogue between old and new. What other words or short phrases would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
RM: Out of these terms I am particularly sensitive to what I refer to as ”soft thresholds.” We need to be mindful that buildings separate people. So, that’s what I want to know—How can we soften building boundaries that separate people? I call them privacy gradients. So, these transitions are not going abruptly from public to private, but they are filtered through a gradient. The English bungalow is a good example—its veranda is a semi-public area. Whenever someone comes to sell a carpet to a British owner the transaction would take place on the veranda, not in the living room inside the house. But if another officer comes, they will go to the living room. So, being mindful of these nuances as a designer enables you to instrumentally address and dissipate them when necessary. Basically, the more finely you understand a context the more equipped you are to intervene in it productively and sensitively. And incrementalism is about breaking projects into phases or let’s say increments—if we can’t afford to do something, let’s at least get going and imagine space in a temporal dimension. Our needs can also be imagined in increments and spatial imagination can help us do that. Why make permanent solutions for temporary needs?
VB: Let’s talk about your design process. Where do you derive your inspiration from? And how do you start a project?
RM: I start very slowly. We never follow the first sketch. Our projects evolve. I don’t make that magic sketch ever. I need to see the context first, and sometimes it means driving 25 miles away from the site to see what’s happening around it. Our process is verbal, schematic, and evolutionary. I infuse the design process with many questions. So, it is the opposite of starting with a sketch because once you have a sketch the project becomes image-driven. But look at our projects, they are all very different. Yet, they have some consistency in how, for example, we compose our interior spaces and openings. But, formally and materially they are very different. We always try to go beyond pragmatics, and we want to keep our projects open enough, so they can be enriched intellectually, as they get developed. And the process is very intuitive.
VB: Early modernism was not concerned with regionalism. You mentioned in one of your texts that regional obsession started in the 1990s. Could you talk about it and what would you say constitutes Indian identity in architecture in recent times?
RM: Of course, the focus on regionalism quite consciously started taking place in the 1990s, but there were signs of critical regionalism already in the work of Habib Rehman, Achyut Kanvinde, Raj Rewal, Doshi, Correa, and many other architects as early as in the 1970s. By the 90s these attitudes gained a noticeable critical mass as a reaction to globalization. In terms of what makes our identity, I would say that, in general, as architects, we don’t discover our identity, we construct it. Identities are being constructed every day. So, in the 1940s and 50s, India identified with Gandhi—the freedom movement, austerity, and non-violence. Indian identity was constructed and perceived in those terms. Then Nehru constructed our identity of becoming a modern state, and he used architecture to realize it. And we all believed in those values. So, the first generation of Indian architects was constructing the pan-Indian identity. But I would say that our identity is an incomplete project. It is in construction. It will always be.
VB: What are some of the common features that characterize younger Indian architects today?
RM: The commonalities that I see are in their use of complex geometry of forms and surfaces achieved using parametric design tools. There is a lot of obsession with the intricate tactile qualities of architecture. And then the other obsession, starting from the early 2000s, is that India has become extremely region-oriented. There is an ongoing search for regional identities. There is a lot of response to local lifestyles and needs of local communities. People are very proud of their regional features such as religious traditions, food, rituals, and so on. These realities make architects respond to these interests very sensibly. Indians are becoming confident about these differences!
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