gooood team interviews creative from all over the world. Your recommendations and suggestions are welcomed! gooood Interview NO.26 introduces India architect Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design in GSD (Graduate School of Design at Harvard University) and founder of RMA Architects. More: RMA Architects on gooood
出品人：向玲 Producer: Xiang Ling
特邀编辑 | 采访、撰稿：程宁馨 Interview/Text: Cheng Ningxin，编辑：李东颖 Editor: Sara Li
网站排版编辑：陈诺嘉 Website layout and editor: Chen Nuojia
The Big Data revolution is updating one industry after another, but architecture is hard to be related to data. Architecture is fundamentally rooted in humans and humans’ life. Then, how does our discipline claim its relevance in today’s age? This anxiety about the architectural career and the discipline comes from an incomplete understanding of the role of architects and the power of architecture. Responding to the confusion of the agency of architecture and architects, conversations with the unconventional architects will tell stories of the architects’ role and the life of people involved in the projects.
gooood x Rahul Mehrotra
Rahul Mehrotra是一位建筑从业者，城市设计师和教育家。他的工作室位于孟买和波士顿，在哈佛大学设计学院教学并担任城市规划设计系主任。他的工作室RMA Architects成立于1990年，迄今在印度、欧洲建成不少项目，涵盖办公楼、图书馆、保护建筑、实验楼、大学楼，以及一系列的社会倡议项目，包括社区厕所、大象村低收入住宅及象舍。RMA Architects在专注于倡议活动，在孟买自发性地提出了数个项目。Mehrotra撰写、共同撰写数册关于孟买的城市史、历史建筑、公共空间和规划过程的书籍。
Rahul Mehrotra is a practicing architect, urban designer and educator. He works in Mumbai and Boston, and teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University where he is the Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design. His practice, RMA Architects, founded in 1990, has executed a range of projects, mainly in India, and more recently in Europe: corporate office buildings, a library, conservation, a lab building, university buildings, and a series of social advocacy initiatives including community toilets and a low-income housing project for elephants and their keepers, commonly referred to as mahouts. RMA Architects has also initiated several unsolicited projects driven by the firm’s commitment to advocacy in the city of Mumbai. Mehrotra has written, co-authored and edited a vast repertoire of books on Mumbai, its urban history, historic buildings, public spaces and planning processes.
▼Rahul Mehrotra ©RMA Architects
About RMA Architects
我们的事务所起初叫Rahul Mehrotra Associates (Rahul Mehrotra事务所)，在1990年创立。事务所建立10年左右的时候，我很强烈地感觉到建筑需要合作努力。因此我不希望单单用我自己的名字给事务所命名，于是在2000年左右更名为RMA。
Our practice started as Rahul Mehrotra Associates in 1990. After about 10 years of practice, I felt strongly that architecture has to be a collaborative endeavor. Therefore, I didn’t want the studio to go by just my name, and we formed RMA Architects in roughly 2000.
We have now been in existence for 30 years. The unique aspect of our practice, even in the global context, is that we are one of the few practices, of our size, that do architectural work, and also historic preservation and conservation at a pretty substantial level. We also do research, activism and advocacy work in the city of Mumbai. It’s a practice that tries to combine these different aspects of what an architect’s role might be. Perhaps you could call it “the expanded role of the architect”.
▼RMA建筑事务所，RMA Architects Studio ©RMA Architects
We are a studio that’s about 25 people. Interestingly, half the employees are not qualified architects but model makers, drafting technicians, etc. This actually keeps the studio very stable, as young architects come and go to study and move on into their own practices. Sometimes the Studio feels like a clearing house!
We are based in Mumbai, and the practice started with small jobs – I call it “the bathroom route”. You get a bathroom to renovate, then your aunt’s kitchen to do, and then you get someone’s house interior – from there you move on to larger jobs – this is a typical pattern in most mega cities where the space to actually build does not exist or is too expensive. Then, we slowly in the first decade found our way, working at different scales.
▼Rahul Mehrotra参加由Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote和Kaiwan Mehta举办的国家住宅展，孟买，2018
Rahul Mehrotra at State of Housing Exhibition, curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, and Kaiwan Mehta, Mumbai, 2018 ©RMA Architects
Hathi Goan project
How did Hathi Goan project start?
I was in Sri Lanka at that time for a family vacation. The last thing we did was we stopped at an elephant sanctuary. We spent a beautiful few hours at the sanctuary looking at the elephants with our kids. When we came home to Mumbai, there was a letter in the post which said that we were invited to a competition to design an elephant village! So it was an amazing experience that I almost felt I was destined to do something about.
Hathi Goan, Jaipur, ongoing since 2006 ©RMA Architects
有个国际著名的游说家，为大象谋福利的，叫Mark Shand，他是大象方面的权威人士。Mark Shand的介入让这些呼吁有了好的转机。Shand是查尔斯王子的妻子Camilla Parker Bowles的弟弟。我猜想他是通过王室的关系联系到了首席部长，并且说服了她在斋普尔给大象建造一个疗养区。于是首席部长建立了一个参谋小组，小组建议她开展一个大象村的建筑竞赛。我们事务所接到了邀请，并且赢得了竞赛。
It was a competition which also has a very interesting background story. The competition was initiated by Vasundhara Raje, the Chief Minister of the state of Rajasthan, and the city of Jaipur. Her ancestors were the kings in that region. Now, of course in the democratic age, she was elected as the chief minister, but she had a lot of royal connections. The elephants in Jaipur were serving tourists at the ramparts of the Amber Fort. Their working and living conditions were pathetic, so for the sake of their well-being, the animal activists and many NGOs in Rajasthan had been lobbying the government to create a habitat for the elephants and housing for their keepers, called mahouts.
One of the biggest lobbyists for elephants globally was a person named Mark Shand – he was an authority on elephants. Mark Shand’s intervention was the tipping point and gave traction to these requests. Shand was the brother of Camilla Parker Bowles (married to Prince Charles). I suppose through the many royal connections he managed to reach the Chief Minister and convinced her to have a sanctuary for elephants in Jaipur. Then she got some advisors who suggested to her the idea of an architecture competition. We were invited and won the competition, and that’s how we arrived at the project.
▼大象村，自2006年开始建设，Hathi Goan, Jaipur, ongoing since 2006 ©RMA Architects
Do you remember the initial brief of the competition? What was the scope of the project?
The brief of the competition was actually not very specific. It just said that this was a site with 50 acres of land, and that we have to create housing for 100 elephants and the families of the Mahouts. The Mahouts are poor – they earn about $150 a month. So, the government classified this as housing for low-income communities, or put another way it was to be low-cost housing. And thus, they specified that the house should not be more than 300 sq. ft.
The brief was quite open. What was your approach to this open brief?
It was very open. I know that a number of the other people who participated in the competition mainly looked at the elephant stables in old Royal Palaces and studied these as historic precedents to evolve what might be a contemporary form for this type of housing. They were all thinking about it in terms of typology, or rather, very architecturally.
“What we did was to say that this is not an architecture problem.”
What we did was to say that this is not an architecture problem. Rajasthan is in the desert. So unless you have water, you cannot create a habitat for elephants. We re-wrote the brief for ourselves to make a landscape project that would then generate an architectural solution as a secondary move, not the primary one. The project focused on water as a resource to regenerate the landscape. It propels and fosters a natural habitat.
At the architectural scale we employed the courtyard typology to subvert the limitation of the 300 sq. ft house. That was at no cost, but it makes a 300 sq. ft house become a 500 sq. ft house. Then we took three houses and we put them around a bigger courtyard, so the houses together with their shared spaces become a big mansion. The gamble we took was that if those three families get along very well, then they have a fantastic palace; if they don’t get along well together, they at least have their own units which are bigger than without the courtyard, which would be the usual low-income housing configuration.
▼大象村平面，plan of Hathi Goan ©RMA Architects
The families could also use the terraces because in the desert climate, the days are very hot but it becomes very cool at night. At night you can go and sleep on the terrace – so it actually serves as an open-to-sky bedroom with its own privacy since it is elevated.
▼大象村的共享庭院，The Shared Courtyard in Hathi Goan, Jaipur, ongoing since 2006 ©RMA Architects
At what moment did you decide to expand the project? How did you manage to do it?
Jaipur and Rajasthan have a desert climate. As I mentioned, I just had been to Sri Lanka before the competition for this project and I realized that elephants are really tropical beings. They need the green; they need the water. The fact that they are in a desert climate is an accident of history. They came with the Maharajas, with the kings who wanted to use them for ceremony. Realizing this we felt the first thing we should do is to create the tropical climate and environment which simulates as closely as possible their natural habitat. The second reason was, through talking to the mahouts, we understood how important water was for the elephants’ life and wellbeing.
We expanded the project into a landscape one in a subverted and strategic way. We did not expand it by telling the government we are going to make it a landscape project, because the specification of the project did not even have these terms. However, we kept bringing the landscape in as ideas. We built it into the site plan in a way that it couldn’t be avoided.
▼大象村总平面图，景观设计融入到整个项目中，Site plan of Hathi Goan, landscape brought in as ideas ©RMA Architects
How about your interaction with the mahouts? Could you share some stories? What’s its impact on the design?
Once we won the competition, the first thing we did was we went to spend more time on the site. We talked to the mahouts to understand how they perceive the problem and what they would like in terms of the requirements. In this process we realized the relationship between the mahouts and the elephant is a very complex one. Because the elephant is a big beast and not very easy to control, the mahout is actually very close to the elephant and they have a very strong bond. The proximity of their living conditions has to be respected. Therefore, we created access to the elephant from the house of the mahout. The elephant and the mahout sitting in the courtyard can see each other. The housing clusters, we designed them such that there would be big windows in the elephants’ rooms – so they can see the children when they are playing in the courtyard within – thus potentially also creating a connection between the children and the elephants while ensuring the children’s safety.
▼儿童在共享庭院中玩耍，children play in the sharing courtyard ©RMA Architects
In these discussions, one of things we discovered much later, was that the strongest ways for the mahouts and elephant to bond is to bathe together! For the elephants, of course, bathing is incredibly soothing in the hot climate. The mahouts rub them, clean them and caress them. We realized that we needed the water not only for vegetation – for the trees to grow and the place to cool down – but also for the bathing process to be facilitated.
There’s also a sociological dimension in the project and we stumbled upon this learning through procedures we had to employ in dealing with the government. When we did the water bodies, we discovered that the Public Works Department, which was the contractor, did not have a specification for lining the water body with rubber sheets so that the water could hold. They said the rubber is too expensive and did not include it. At that point, I felt very depressed because it meant that we could not hold the water, which meant the entire premise of the project would fail. When I was having tea and talking to the older mahouts, they said, “Don’t worry, the clay in the area is a very special kind. If you make the water body with one rain, the clay will become like a film. The water will not go into the ground.” This was local knowledge. We learned a lot from the mahouts in our interactions, including what trees we should plant, where we should plant the trees, where the elephants won’t damage the trees, etc.
▼人与大象的互动，interaction between people and elephants ©RMA Architects
I see from your design that you intentionally left some building elements undesigned. For example, you left some walls blank. How did you come to this decision?
“You have to resist those norms if they undermine what you think is correct, but you have to be strategic about this.”
I think there were several reasons for that. Just to be honest, one was that the project was very complicated and political, and we had a lot of energy we put into it, so we didn’t even have the luxury of time or effort to design every detail. Part of the reason was also that we did not want to be prescriptive. This was very hard. When we designed the houses, we did many drawings; we did mock-ups; we did samples for details. I’ll never forget one of the details we were very keen on was doing a gargoyle for the water. Because we wanted to celebrate the water, we had designed gargoyles in sandstone to get the water from the terrace to come down and be collected. When I went to the site, I noticed the Public Works Department engineers had just put in a plastic pipe instead. Afterward, I asked them when we went to have tea together – “Why did you do this? This is horrible! Look, we did the mock-up; we did the working drawings; we did so much…” They looked at me and in a matter-of-fact way said, “Even in our own houses, we don’t have such details. Now, you are trying to give these poor creatures more than they deserve?”
I was naturally startled at the response and then I realized that there was also a problematic social hierarchy. Am I going to change that? No. Am I going to fight for that? Maybe. But I’ll make it worse if I fight too much. I thought, then these guys (the Public Works Department) might not even give them electricity. I had to make these choices by understanding social dynamics. There were many reasons that we left the design open-ended. We could not over design something which is out-of-sync with the social hierarchies and perhaps cultural norms in a society. You have to resist those norms if they undermine what you think is correct, but you have to be strategic about this.
“Housing can never be sustained in the pristine conditions we as architects imagine. for low-income communities, housing is incremental.”
Also, life and society corrode housing. You know housing can never be sustained in the pristine conditions we as architects imagine. The interiors of housing, we accept, will corrode, because people will personalize in different ways. But in this kind of condition, even the exterior of the housing corrodes. I think in housing for low-income communities, housing is, by default, incremental. As people’s incomes grow, they add things to it. This is very good.
The project overcame many obstacles. It was because of your persistent effort that the project kept going on for more than a decade. Would you mind sharing some stories of this process? What’s the learning?
The 10 years of the project involved different political parties. At every stage, the project would stop when a new political party took power because they wanted to disassociate themselves from the projects of the previous party. Our role in the relationship we developed with the mahouts and elephants was to keep the project alive, to excite the different groups and the political parties with different components of the project that might be attractive to them. As a result, we managed to keep the project going over the last 10 years. At the end of the 10 years, the original party that had appointed us came back to power and the Chief Minister was motivated to finish as much of the project in the one year as possible before the next election. So she invested a lot of money and extended unprecedented patronage. We got most components of the project finished. Now, what’s left for the project is one more water body and more housing. Hopefully, the political party that has now come to power again in a few months might come around to finish the project. We have to start trying to convince them soon.
“We don’t have enough training on how to deal with time.”
So, what is the learning from this? The learning is twofold. One is the importance of the temporal scale. We often forget that as architects. Because we like to have a timeline and we have a project budget and we want to meet those targets. We don’t have enough training on how to deal with time. We get frustrated; we lose track of what we are doing, etc. I think the only way you can deal with time is if you understand the complexity of the project. In this case, we understood the complexity of the project because of the politics involved. And that clearly had time implications in terms of how transitions are made in decision making and what stops and what goes on. The implications of the temporal scale are also on the landscape because the landscape doesn’t happen overnight. As the landscape was transforming, we see how the different constituencies in the project were engaging with the project in different ways. The mahouts felt the trees would make the elephants and themselves happier. The government felt this could be a branding opportunity and thus it was a great project. But all this took time to realize.
▼大象村景观得变化（上：建设前，下：建设后），improvement of landscape in Hathi Goan (up: before construction, below: after construction) ©RMA Architects
“Over a long temporal scale, the role of the architect becomes different because you become the only consistent agent in the project.”
The second learning was, often in a project like this that gets stretched over a long temporal scale, the role of the architect becomes different because you become the only consistent agent in the project. The Chief Minister role changes because of the election and as a result the entire bureaucracy in the government is re-configured. The officers in the implementing agency: some get promoted and some get fired, some retire. All sorts of reformulations occur. The users and the architect are the only consistent agencies in the project. Therefore, for us to build rapport with the users was very important.
In a project like this, who do you think as the client?
The meaning of the client is more complex than we accept or are taught. We always see “the client” as a thing, an entity. But in a project like this, and in many other projects like university campuses, or planning projects, etc., the client is never one thing or one entity. What you have then is the patron – in this case the Chief Minister, the operational client – the tourism department, the Public Works Department, the people who implement the project from the side of the government, the users as the client – in this case, the elephants and the mahouts.
The interesting thing is that, as an architect, you are the only connection between them all. The Chief Minister never talks to the mahouts. The Chief Minister talks a little bit to the implementing agency. The operational client, or the implementing agency, is respectful but afraid of questioning the Chief Minister, but they treat the elephants and the mahouts like subordinates. For them, it’s a hassle that they are making housing for poor people and animals and have to deal with low budgets. They have an antagonistic relationship with the users. Therefore, actually there’s no flow of information or communication between the different constituent groups that collectively form the rubric of the ‘client’.
“In a project like Hathi Goan, the role of the architect becomes more complex as then you become the agent to connect and facilitate the flows of information through these constituent groups that form the client!”
In a project like Hathi Goan, the role of the architect becomes more complex as then you become the agent to connect and facilitate the flows of information through these constituent groups that form the client! It becomes about advocacy – because you are advocating for each one’s interest. The Chief Minister wants to make it a project that everyone will talk about and merit her government. The mahouts and elephants just want a place where they can live adequately. The implementation agency worries about budgets and time frames. Understanding each of their aspirations allows you as an architect to negotiate through the differences strategically and leveraging the individual aspirations in the interest of moving the project along.
In this situation the only thing that becomes your guiding force are those values. Otherwise, you will keep hearing very conflicting aspirations. Your values become the lens through which you can filter some of these aspirations to see what’s legitimate and what’s in the larger common interest. That’s the most important thing.
What is your definition of “value”?
I think the understanding of the values and what “value” might mean is different in different projects. In the case of the Hathi Goan project, for us, our value was the equity of representation and to create the negotiations between very powerful forces, in this case, the chief minister, and the under-represented groups.
The second set of values we brought to it was, how could you create a sense of community, how could you create a healthy environment for the children to grow up and for the animals and human beings to live in.
▼大象村从沙漠变成了绿洲（上：建设前，下：建设后），Hathi Goan transformed from desert to oasis (up: before construction, below: after construction) ©RMA Architects
“Because of the trees and water, the birds are now making this place their habitat, which is an unanticipated consequence of design.”
Then the third set of values we brought to it was, how, in the longer term, in the ecological sense, could one create an environment where there are more trees, more birds, more life that could come and inhabit the project. It was a surprise to me when I visited maybe two years ago when most of the project was completed – we had planted thousands of trees and the water was being collected in the large ponds. The place was now transforming into a fantastic habitat. We left the houses very raw because people paint their buildings beautifully in Rajasthan. When I went there, I thought I would find all of the houses painted with elephants, but what I was surprised to see was that the walls of the houses had paintings with birds – I had never seen this in Rajasthan before! Then I talked to the mahouts and asked them, “Why are you painting birds? Not elephants?” They said, “The birds we are seeing here are what we’ve never seen before.” Because of the trees and the water, the birds are now making this their habitat. That is an unanticipated consequence of design decisions we had made. We felt we’ve made a habitat that attracts other kinds of life beyond what we had expected.
▼大象村建筑墙面上的鸟类壁画，painting of birds on the walls of the buildings in Hathi Goan
There’s another interesting unintended consequence: we learned from the mahouts that elephants cannot be isolated for a long time. For a few hours every day, they have to be put together with their friends to socialize. Otherwise, if you keep them in a room alone, they get feisty. So, we created very simple pavilions just in bamboo, where eight elephants could be tied together so that they could interact. These were open pavilions. That’s what we were advised by the mahouts and we did precisely this. The consequence was unexpected. The teenage kids of the mahouts saw it as an economic opportunity to get the tourists to come as there’ll be eight elephants together. So, they started an online company called “Elephantastic” – like “fantastic”, but “eleph-antastic”. You can book a time to visit, and they give you grass to feed the elephants for 100 Rupees. If you want to have a bath with the elephants, they charge you 500 Rupees. Now they have a whole economy that comes out of this (design of the pavilion). We did not plan, but unintentionally we created the framework.
“Your values allow you to make decisions to design frameworks that allow other things to happen.”
There are many unintended consequences in this project. What we did right is we placed value on creating an armature, a physical armature, in which life could sustain and thrive. Then, all these unintended consequences occur because, I suppose, the armature is robust and generous. Your values sometimes are quite abstract and broad, but they allow you to make decisions when you are designing at the level of the site plans, or the level of a building. Then, that creates frameworks that allow other things to happen. It includes possibilities and not excludes them. You cannot be too objective about it; some of it is intuitive and some of it is subjective. But, I think, informed by your values.
The social role of architects
At any given time in history, of course, the issues change completely. I think what characterizes the time we are in now are two emerging themes. One is our interconnectedness because of globalization, which has manifested clearly in the last decade or two. Also, because of the ecological crisis of our planet, we have all begun to realize our interconnectedness.
The second theme is that, for the first time in history, the future has become very firm, and the past has become very fluid. When the UN declared that we have 10 more years before the climate changes by 2 degrees, the crisis is firmly defined for us. Meanwhile, the past has become very fluid. Every leader is re-interpreting the past according to what he or she wants. We are, as a society, challenging the reading of history and our politics is being informed by this. We are challenging what is the position of indigenous people; who really is the nation, who belongs to a nation and so on. Very important and relevant but fluid and shifting ground.
“For the architects, he idea of being isolated within a professional sphere becomes totally irrelevant.”
If you accept that the future crisis has become very clear, and the fact that our interconnected existence is the reality of the time, then what do the disciplines mean? How do we create interrelationships between the disciplines? What is the meaning of collaboration? What is the understanding of interdisciplinarity? All that becomes a challenge. Therefore, for the architects, the idea of being isolated within a professional sphere becomes totally irrelevant. Unless the architect can become part of a much broader ecology of professionals as teams that solve problems together, we have no agency as a profession.
Now, how does that happen? I think that happens by how we define the questions. We often end up defining the questions very narrowly; and therefore, we become very comfortable in our space as architects. Just to go back to Hathi Goan for a moment, the questions were so complex that I don’t think I was an architect or an urban designer, or a planner, or a landscape designer. I had been, or at least engaged with, all those practitioners simultaneously.
“We need to have the ability to move across scales and urban design education naturally prepares us for that movement.”
The other question that becomes evident when we think of this interconnectedness and this ecological dimension, is the question of scales. There are some problems that can be solved on a small scale. Some problems have to be addressed at the medium scales or on a large scale. So, we also need to have the ability to move across scales. That’s why I think urban design education naturally prepares us for that movement through different scales. In the future, in terms of pedagogy, the re-invention of professional pedagogy will have to be about equipping students and young architects to be able to move across scales, and also across these disciplines. That robust traversing of the professional landscape is what keeps our agency as architects in the future. Otherwise, we will become redundant and we will be limited to small scale problems, and there is only a very small range of problems that you can address at small scales.
If you look at the questions of scales, design thinking, and architectural training, they are about how to think in iterative ways. You think of a plan, then you get to an elevation, and then you zoom out to see how the mass sits in the street, and then you zoom in to the windows and how you subdivide the window in resonance with the scale of the building as well as the street, and how it may be perceived from the interior looking out through the aperture, and so on. Then you zoom back and see the way you subdivide the windows changes the way you might mass it, etc. It’s an iterative process, right? If you imagine that iterative process or loop being applied, as an urbanist, to imagining the broader landscape and the city, then the feedback loops get richer. You would pick up more information from the context which feeds into imagining the building. If you become an urbanist, then you might also realize that, for example, doing the two-bedroom apartments in this building is ridiculous because the demand is for studio apartments. And it might help you even inform the requirements of the building for the owner or client and its inherent programmatic composition.
“The more feedback loops you created for that object of the architecture, potentially you could make the design more robust.”
The wider the iterations go, both as an architect, as an urbanist and a landscape designer, the more feedback loops you create for that object of the architecture, potentially making the design more robust. If you look at the design process in very isolated terms, then it is very limited because the feedback loops get very limited or compressed. In pedagogy, I think places like the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) are very well-positioned for this because they have all the disciplines in the same room. How do you create these feedback loops across the disciplines? Just through exposure – it’s not to make architects experts in the landscape, or vice versa, but to be able to understand, speak the language, understand the culture enough so that the feedback from those disciplinary lenses also informs what you are doing. That really is the critical question for the future.
About Architecture Industry
“Society expects us– architects, urban designers, planners, professions that engage with imagining spatial possibilities for society – to also identify what those spatial possibilities could be.”
I was researching on your experience and saw you founded some research groups in the process of doing projects. What’s the role of research groups in architectural practice? How do you interpret collaboration?
I personally believe strongly that if we don’t engage with this spectrum of issues, we don’t have agency as professionals. I think the era where the architect sat in the office and waited for the clients to knock on their door for projects is over. Society expects us– architects, urban designers, planners, professions that engage with imagining spatial possibilities for society– to also identify what those spatial possibilities could be. I think it’s contingent on us to push the conversation to examine the ways that we, as humanity, can have more appropriate and sustainable arrangements for life to exist meaningfully. That’s why research and advocacy are also very critical, I believe, for any practice– it’s the way you nourish yourself, and more importantly, the way to have a pulse on societal challenges as well as aspirations.
▼各行业合作完成的泰姬陵游客中心，cooperation between different disciplines, Taj Mahal Visitor Center. Agra, India, 2012 ©RMA Architects
One of the things we learned in the process of trying to do collaborative work is that we have to make strategic partnerships depending on the projects. The example I would give you is the Taj Mahal. When we were appointed to prepare a conservation management plan for the Taj Mahal, I was anxious to approach this as an individual – this was, after all, the world’s heritage. So we created a separate collaborative group which we registered as a separate company called the “Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative”. It brought in experts from material sciences, historians, archivists, conservation architects, landscape designers, etc. Nobody’s name was privileged, but it became a collaborative. This lasted for ten years over the duration of the project. Once the project was over, it dissolved as an entity. Similarly, we formed a “Goa 2100” group for the sustainability competition for the city of Panjim.
GOA 2100 Competition – Landcover Plan ©RMA Architects
“Training as an urban designer has equipped me to bring very disparate issues and strategies together, which makes the studio truly have a collaborative spirit.”
This is strategic also as a model of practice: the practice has different groups that are connected to it, which form and dissolve when that project is over. We have a very small core group of people in the Studio, but the Studio expands strategically depending on the nature of the projects.
In retrospect, I think the fact that we were audacious enough to embrace things beyond architecture – we do advocacy, research, and historical preservations – even though my training is, strictly speaking, not in any of areas. However, I think my training as an urban designer has equipped me to bring very disparate questions, issues and strategies together. I think the Studio truly has a collaborative spirit.
You are not asking for the benefit of our discipline; you are looking at a broader scale and seeing what we can bring. What makes you think in this scale?
“The way you define the problem is the values you bring to those issues and the people affected by those questions.”
That’s what’s related to values. The way you define the problem is the values you bring to those issues and the people affected by those questions. It’s a value judgment and also needs to be calibrated carefully. The projects are merely instruments that address some of these issues. If we privilege the project too much, we get completely obsessed about authorship. So how do you not do that without compromising the integrity of the artifact of the building? I think that’s really is a big challenge for the future. A shift has to happen in the culture of the professions. Collaboration and interdisciplinarity will not happen unless we change this cultural obsession of singularity and authorship. Art is powerful because it presents a different lens through which you see the world. Architecture also serves a similar purpose but comes with the burden of its implications hitting the ground. And, so in some ways it’s a much bigger responsibility to be an architect. We have to remind ourselves about this and act to educate another generation that takes this responsibility more seriously; otherwise architecture and planning will have diminished relevance and agency in the future.
How did you vision your architectural career? What’s your suggestion to the young architects?
“You have to keep reminding yourself about the values and aspirations you believe in, whether it’s for yourself, for society, or to merely deal with daily life.”
I’m often told by friends that it’s fantastic how I thought so clearly about my trajectory as an architect. I think actually that’s not true at all. If you asked me 20 years ago what my trajectory would be I would have probably predicted it completely incorrectly. They say that “life is what happens while you’re making plans.” What happens in life and what happens in your projections of life can often be very different things.
In retrospect, my advice to young people would be: you can’t make plans very accurately because life has other things waiting for you. But you have to keep reminding yourself about the values and aspirations you believe in, whether it’s for yourself, for society, or to merely deal with daily life. Those values are your consistent guides through life. Because you can’t predict what projects you’ll get; you can’t predict how the economy of a place will be; you can’t predict political situations. You can’t predict how life and time will unfold. What you can hold on to and remind yourself of are your own values. I think that’s what guides you through the practice of architecture and space-making and urban design in a much more powerful way than anything else.
About architecture criticism
“[To create a public discourse of architecture,] we teach architects to make research, writing, and the production of things, which add knowledge to society, as part of the practice.”
Does India have a mature system for architecture criticism?
Actually, India does not have a culture of architecture discussion at all. In India, we often have a very small peer group of a few friends, 10 or 12 architects, who might admire each other’s work and form feedback loops for each other. The larger discussion with the public is completely absent. It’s absent for a couple of reasons. One is that the media does not exist, which means there are not so many magazines or digital platforms. The second reason, which I think is even more problematic, is that architects generally are responding to 10% of the population of the planet and by extension in India to the Nation. This is true for many parts of the world. I call it “the architecture of indulgence”. It’s the architecture of museums, the architecture of hotels and resorts, private single-family homes, and weekend homes. If you look at the media around the world, most of the projects that get celebrated fall in that spectrum. I’m not saying that museums are bad. You need them as cultural institutions. But why aren’t we spending the same amount of energy designing hospitals or schools? Because these are more complex problems, architects feel that we have very little creativity left to expend in these sorts of projects. Things like museums have a softer program and you can make a spectacle out of it. I think it’s partly a problem of the profession that we haven’t created enough serious forums for more discussion. It’s partly the problem or the mistakes of the academy, as the academy hasn’t created platforms to do it as schools of architecture. You can partly blame the media. Because the media follow profit, where it gets advertising and so has catered the coverage largely of the architecture of indulgence.
In India, we are in crisis as far as the discussion of architecture goes, I think this reflects in the built environment and in the way the profession has lost its agency in the country and the broader debate about nation building and the construction of its identity.
What can we do to improve the situation? How to promote an extensive discussion among the public about architecture?
One way to correct this, and our practice has been doing this to the extent possible, is to teach architects to make research, writing, and the production of things, which add knowledge to society, as part of the practice. We have to imagine this as part of the practice, and not as something that is a marginalized, or a hobby, or you only do it if you are in the academy. We’ve done a lot of books in the practice, and I explain these books as instruments of advocacy. My argument is that not everyone has the temperament to be an advocate. Architects can’t always be advocating for change because you have to earn your living, but what architects can do easily is to make instruments for advocacy. The books from the studio might help NGOs in Mumbai because they use these ideas to lobby for change. Sometimes the advocates can be non-architects and ordinary citizens. But if they don’t have the instruments for advocacy, they can’t go very far. And I think architects are very equipped to make these instruments for advocacy. Therefore, it becomes a bit of responsibility on us that, as we learn, as we produce knowledge for ourselves or for our practice, we should find mechanisms to capture that knowledge, whether it’s through social media, through digital media, or through hard media. And that’s how you create a public discourse of architecture. It can’t be a very simple binary if you have magazines, digital media on architecture and citizens would engage with it. Citizens engage with things around problems. So, if you define those problems, and then provide the instruments which can help people imagine how they can correct those problems, you’ll have a much broader constituency engaging with the discussion.
Therefore, by doing something like interview which are about the complicated problems, it then inspires other people to say “oh, we could deal with problems.” Otherwise, we take things and celebrate them out of proportion, and then people say, “How am I ever going to build something like that or engage with a complex problem?”. So in short, we need to urgently demystify the architect as the genius who has all the solutions!
▼Rahul Mehrotra出版的书籍Ephemeral Urbanism
Ephemeral Urbanism, Book, 2018 ©RMA Architects