IN A MILIEU OF TRANSITION Text Rahul Mehrotra, Kaiwan Mehta
In a detailed and candid conversation with Kaiwan Mehta, architect and educator Rahul Mehrotra articulates the challenges of the profession of architecture, encapsulates the importance of understanding the context of praxis, and lends insights into his recent projects abroad
Kaiwan Mehta You have been working as an academic and researcher as well as an architect across different contexts and different places in the world, yet you are strongly working in, and commenting on, the architecture and urban scenario in India. How does this condition affect your thinking and working, as an intellectual of our times?
Rahul Mehrotra It’s interesting that you have used the word ‘‘context’’ and extended it to “different context”. I think, in today’s complex world that is simultaneously interconnected and yet often insulated, ‘engagement’ perhaps is an important criteria by which one can judge art or architecture. This includes engagement with locality, with local processes, procedures, and protocols, and more importantly in the construction of local cultures. The question, of course, is how does one do that as a practioner. How does one engage with the context to create this form of engagement? So for me context then becomes an important question. I am not really sure I am engaged in ‘‘different contexts’’ but one is continuously trying to negotiate and really comprehend the ‘‘context’’ of one’s work. Your question provokes deeper interrogations of this because you are provoking me to accept I am working in different contexts but commenting on India. For, whatever its worth, my work — even when I am situated in another context — is really about reflecting on India perhaps using the luxury of distance to see patterns that are broader. I enjoy this intersecting of views of different contexts. One context I am engaged with involves the ground and building, entrenched in forms of participation in a broader community of both professionals as well as society more generally. And then the other context is where I teach, and by the nature of my involvement am engaged with an academic community, students with whom I research and study architecture and urbanism in India – so perhaps not as ‘‘grounded’’ in terms of the nitty-gritty of what actual building involves. Naturally the struggle is how to make these spheres intersect. How can one make productive overlaps that clarify and engage in both spheres? In a discussion once with Prem Chandravarkar, he articulated something which made me think about precisely this overlap. He seemed to suggest that one of the challenges for us as practioners is how we can make our spheres of concern overlap with our sphere of influence. This is an important question because as architects, we are aware of, and concerned with, many issues that are centred around the planet and our societies. These range from poverty and public health, to urban violence and climate change. More often than not, our sphere of influence does not empower us to deal with these issues in a tangible manner beyond representing these in graphically seductive ways. The frustrations and sense of disempowerment in our attempts to engage with these problems is palpable in the profession.
KM Would you now comment specifically on how this condition affects your practice as an architect — how then do you deal with this potential schism?
RM The idea of the context is something we have traditionally understood as architects. For us this has meant the physical context extended in its understanding by wider parameters such as climate, culture and perhaps a deeper excavation of the site in reading embedded histories. But then is this reading not really broad or productive enough for designers to understand the world they intervene in?
My colleague at the GSD [Harvard Graduate School of Design], Neil Brenner, challenges us to nestle the ‘‘context in its context’’. The employing of a meta narrative to clarify the context in which the context of our operation sits, he believes, is a useful instrument to imagine a precise range of potential interventions for the Architect and perhaps all design professionals. For by setting up the understanding in this way one can perhaps see intersections with its broader social, political, and economic implications and the humanities more broadly.
Professor Brenner describes these meta narratives through a range of emergent conditions. Narratives that fundamentally challenge our forms of engagement as designers are rapid geo-economic integration and uneven spatial development. For, from this come both the urbanisation of poverty and the remaking of political identities and new claims to citizenship — a critical issue as you know — that is faced all over the world but in India in particular. Another useful meta narrative is one that another colleague at the GSD Eve Blau has shared — the notion of simultaneous transitions She has described a condition that characterises east Europe and many parts of Asia, Latin America and the developing world more generally, in which shifts in political ideologies do not happen instantaneously with changes in regimes. These transitions occur over decades with a simultaneous transition out of one set of protocols and values into new ideological systems. And often neither system is as stable as imagined. This has implications on the role of the State as well as the basic agency of planning and design intersecting with the renewed role of NGOs, civil society and so on. In short, this results in rapidly changing modes of patronage for the agency of design in the making of the built environment.
Narratives that fundamentally challenge our forms of engagement as designers are rapid geo-economic integration and uneven spatial development. For, from this come both the urbanisation of poverty and the remaking of political identities and new claims to citizenship
It is precisely through readings such as these that you get an intersection between the context and the ‘context of the context’. This is also potentially an intersection between the sensual and the political as well as one between form or design and societal culture. Again, put in another way, this is where a potent intersection between the ‘‘spheres of our concern’’ with the ‘‘sphere of (our direct) influence’’ also occurs. Thus, by articulating narratives using the method of examining the ‘‘context in its context’’ we naturally discover that actually our sphere of concern (the context of the context) can be acted upon within by our sphere of influence (more immediate context) and vice versa, each nourished and clarified off the other.
However, most importantly, what the articulation of these narratives has made evident for me is the narrow circumscription of our site of operation as architects in the business as usual model of practice. And how by understanding the site as mediated through, and embedded within, a larger scale economic, social and political process can potentially give us the opportunity to have a broader as well as socially progressive impact as designers beyond the sites of our projects?
So to answer your question more precisely, for the practice and for me individually, research and writing has been a critical part of our engagement. In today’s world of diverse and colliding contestations over space, multiple modes of engagement become critical in discerning and understanding the context of practice. Publications not only become a way to engage context but also to sustain conversations, interface with issues, and build constituencies. At RMA Architects, books, catalogues, pamphlets, manuals, and other forms of research publications become important instruments of advocacy. For complex projects in the public realm, the entities of users, clients, and patrons are often clearly differentiated. Consequentially, the building of constituencies becomes crucial in engaging different stakeholders. For me, publications become a way of creating partnerships, collaborations, and friendships that serve to ignite debate on the issues, and sustain engagement throughout the process of long-term public projects. As a result, the impact of such publications often persists outside the intended realm of the project, taking on a new life, and often extending into the world and beyond.
Of course, the question of how does one make this usefully inform the actual building-design process on a daily basis is also important. The honest answer to that is perhaps indirect, in implicit terms: in ways that the broader culture of the studio is constructed through these simultaneous endeavors. In that sense, it’s an investment with no real tangible benefit but rather one that perhaps has a deep influence on people going through the studio and maybe through osmosis will one day manifest in their own interest in research or activism or a combination of the two. For me personally that has certainly happened!
KM In today’s times, from your particular experience, what is ‘internationalism’, and what is ‘regionalism’? What do these words and terms mean for us architects?
RM Architecture is very rooted to a place and as Charles Correa would often say — ‘‘Architecture is not a movable feast like music!’’ So naturally ‘regionalism’ which emerged in the discussion within the profession intensely in the 1980s, was really a reaction to ‘internationalism’ which had suggested that architecture was a moveable feast! The Middle East was a potent example of this, where types evolved in Houston and Manhattan in New York were transported, without hesitation, by American corporations to this desert landscape! Naturally architects were complicit in the tragic exploitation of oil capital in these geographies and the inappropriate architectural expression for this new wealth. In the last two decades, this internationalism is replaced with what is loosely referred to as ‘global architecture’, again the result of Asia and the Chinese economy, that have been exploited often by practices based in the west in building their cities and representing their integration, so to speak, with the global economy. Again, I believe this is a total disaster for the evolution of a sensible architecture that must be grounded in some tangible definition of a region or a locality. Observing these emerging built environments, one cannot but be convinced that architecture should not, and perhaps cannot, be so easily transferred to another locality. Of course, this is not to say all the architecture built by architects from outside a locality is bad; many potent examples also emerge in the process of this frantic building by talented architects who engage more rigorously with these regions in which they build. But most often the notion of the locality or regional response is reduced to a caricature, of alluding to existing or historical material or cultural practice in the most superficial way. This often happens because the region is understood merely as a depository of memories and resources which become the basis for inspiring or nourishing a contemporary architecture. However, if the region or locality is seen as an everevolving construct with new relationships and aspirations as also a factor that needs
In today’s world of diverse and colliding contestations over space, multiple modes of engagement become critical in discerning and understanding the context of practice
representation, a rather more complex entity emerges.
In this broader reading the idea of regionalism is a potent and extremely productive category. While it somehow implies a limited physical sphere, it can also be interpreted in a much wider and ecologically constructed definition of what a region and even its larger hinterland might imply. So the notion of regionalism is and can be read differently through the lenses of different disciplines. For example in planning, it implies this broader ecological reading on interconnected economies and societies together with an imagination of natural systems that are intrinsically intertwined. In Architecture it is read through material geographies of a place and the hinterland on which the ‘site depends’ on for it resources — material and cultural. For me what’s common about these readings or even the idea of the ‘context of the context’ is that these challenge us as architects to simultaneously grapple with two extreme scales, with the tangible and intangible and most importantly, confront, as best we can, with the broader implications of our potential material interventions and vice versa.
KM In the light of the above comments, could you speak about some of the projects you have designed or built abroad? In each of the three specific buildings we are discussing here, are they specific issues that struck a chord, or enriched your experience as an architect, as an individual?
RM This is an interesting but complex question and maybe clearest if I answered these project-wise. Let me start with the IOTL project in Oman which was really one building among six others for the same client , that is the Indian Oil Tanking Limited. This is a firm that manages the tanking of refined oil for distribution. They build large campuses of perhaps a dozen large oil tanks, and also usually have a small office building to house the command area and the administrative staff. We have been fortunate to build these for them in several locations such as Mathura, and a couple of locations in Gujarat, Chennai, and Goa. In each of these cases we have designed something rooted in the local, and these have ranged from buildings around a courtyard to buildings with large tiles roofs. So, in the same vein the building in Oman was a response to the climatic condition of the site as well as the local architectural sensibilities in terms of color, texture, and so forth. For us, this one as a collection or family of several other buildings with an almost identical programme in almost identical surroundings (a landscape of large metal oil tanks) but in different geographies was an interesting challenge of resisting the prototypes that could be repeated. Instead, creating a really small intervention in each of these sites in very different geographies would root and remind the occupants about the locality — even though what they looked at outside their windows were some generic oil tanks!
The Sydney Museum of Modern Art competition project is of course different as this is something that was not built nor did it win the competition. But I am glad and honoured that you chose to carry this in the issue of your magazine. For us, this was an important project for two reasons: the first that it was humbling to be invited in the shortlist of architects chosen to participate. And then even more humbling (and actually thrilling) to be part of the five finalists in what was a blind first stage. Naturally that makes you feel encouraged that the choices were free of the usual politics that surround large and important competitions. The second reason that the competition and its process was important to us was that it challenged us to work in a new context — that of Australia. Interestingly many aspects of our thinking about India influenced us in understanding that context. The combinations of the shared histories of colonialism coupled with ancient traditions, in this case the Aborigines, was very inspiring. This challenge of ‘‘reconciliation’’ in post-colonial societies that Australia has demonstrated was an anchor for us to, in our own perhaps subjective way, connect with the context of Australia and Sydney. The approach to create a non-building for such a large programme came from this aspiration to not only connect the earth and sky in abstract ways but also in the experience of the user. This excavation of more embedded histories and the post-colonial situation we coupled in our mind along with our understanding of contemporary Australian aspiration and their simultaneous attempts at constructing affinities with Asia and Europe. For us, the most remarkable thing about the project was to have an opportunity with what is a comparatively soft programme (of a museum) to represent the aspirations of a society and context that while we were not engaged hands on with, we felt equipped to intervene in through our experience of working in India and of negotiating and intersecting varying agendas.
The project in Basel for Novartis to design a Lab for the Future (as they titled the project) was a completely different challenge. The Novartis campus is a very special place and in some ways, could be anywhere. The campus sits
While it (regionalism) somehow implies a limited physical sphere it can also be interpreted in a much wider and ecologically constructed definition of what a region and even its larger hinterland might imply.
partly in France and partly in Switzerland but is a gated community of sorts where cutting edge research takes place involving scientist from across the globe. So in some ways this is a global compound! The company’s interest in patronising architecture has led to them inviting architects from around the world to build within a rather strictly designated urban design scheme. Novartis’ brief to us was to design a ‘Lab of the Future’, and so this lab building is designed on the principle that buildings of the future will hopefully embody the few constants we know, and hence strive to be human-centric and connect as seamlessly as possible with the site’s environment. Virchow 16 is a multi-centre and disaggregated in its organisation, allowing people to engage in configuring and reconfiguring space as needs evolve. Thus, the building armature, while being robust and modular, must simultaneously be porous and synergistically aligned to foster interaction and collaboration. Besides these abstract or let’s say more aspirational agendas we also attempted to root the building through art and material. We decided to collaborate with Pipilotti Rist, a local artist, who created with light a video installation that at times switches on and gently caresses the interior surfaces of the lab walls, bringing a softness to the environment that the scientists are working within. These enigmatic images resonate both the images that the scientist is discerning through their microscopes and also the natural patterns that surround them in the building through the foliage. In the details, we chose to let the materials speak — as in the natural colour of the material — be it the stone, the wood, the metal. Thus, the eucalyptus wood does not have a stain, but just the ‘smoked’ colour, or the process we select. Similarly, for other surfaces, if we needed to add a pigment, it is of the colour inherent in the material. The concrete too has a limestone aggregate from the local quarries near Liesberg, and therefore a yellowish hue. The colour then is focused on the foliage within and without the building – bringing an awareness to the seasonal changes of the vegetation around. Connecting to the vegetation and the site’s environment is in keeping with the design intent, and part of the client’s brief — to design a Lab of the Future. Working on the House in Karachi, Pakistan, was perhaps the most challenging of the four projects we have been involved with abroad. Besides the logistics of visiting Pakistan in terms of visas etc., the sense of complete cultural affinity and understanding and simultaneously an extreme sense of political alienation was a hard duality to reconcile. Naturally we chose to ignore the political circumstances that have separated people and instead find common ground among some culturally contiguous societies. So, after we came over this hurdle it was really like building in India — say in northern Gujarat! In fact, I could converse with the contractors and craftspeople almost as easily as I would on site in India. I would actually forget I was in Pakistan often till someone in conversation referred to Kashmir as “azad Kashmir”. This was all unnerving in its own way. But the hospitality of the community of architects in Pakistan was overwhelmingly warm and welcoming. Besides being included in numerous social events, I was invited to deliver a lecture and participate in conferences and exposed to a lot of what architects were dealing with in that country. This was very touching as well as deeply educative at a personal level. Given the physical and historic proximity, I was stunned at how little our generation in India knows about Pakistan.
Publications not only become a way to engage context but also to sustain conversations, interface with issues, and build constituencies
House at Clifton Karachi, Pakistan Completion Date: 2009
Located in the Clifton area of Karachi, Pakistan, this house is designed around a courtyard, thereby creating a sense of introverted space, offering privacy to the family and their lifestyle in the otherwise conservative landscape of the city. Arranged as three linear ‘bars,’ two are parallel to each other framing the courtyard, while the third runs perpendicular at the upper level to bridge the lower two. This interlocking massing diagram helps to organise the zoning of the house to create public and private areas. Another feature of the house is a lap pool which acts as a threshold between the main living spaces and the courtyard. It is covered by a structure of wooden slats that offers shade to the swimming pool as well as a veil of privacy to the otherwise public zones. This spread: the house at Clifton, Karachi, is designed around a courtyard and features a lap pool that doubles as a threshold between the central living area and the courtyard Opposite page, far left: images of the various models of the house
Office for Indian Oil Tanking Limited Sohar, Oman Completion Date: 2009
An administrative office for Indian Oil Tanking Limited, the project is located in the port city of Sohar, Oman. The building is organised around a central corridor bound by office spaces on both sides, and is modulated by open-to-sky courtyards and double-height spaces along the length of the building. The detailing of the building is a balance of modern technologies and local colours and textures. Outdoor courtyards veiled by teak wood slats add a visual rhythm to the external façade, and at the same time provide shaded zones within the building interior spaces.
Competition entry for Sydney Modern September 2015
RMA Architects was one of five finalists in a blind invited competition of 12 international architects to design the Sydney Modern Gallery in Australia. The two stages of the competition were held between October 2014 and May 2015. Our proposal is about the connection between Earth and Sky. On this beautiful site, in the midst of the Royal Botanic Garden and close to the water’s edge, is an opportunity to make a cultural centre that is anchored in the deepest beliefs of Australian society.
In invoking the Art Gallery NSW’s place as a 21st century global art museum, Sydney Modern addresses two crucial issues. Its aspirations — to represent a modern society necessitates bridging the East-West dialectic that is emblematic of Australia’s particular position — of her ability to straddle the geopolitically disparate worlds of Europe and Asia. The AGNSW and Sydney Modern address the duality by being both European – with a Neoclassical building, as well as Asian – with a more subtle attitude to the land and the paradigm of a building embedded in the earth. The building unfolds as a sequence of spaces deeply linked to Australia’s landscape; with the indigenous art becoming a distinctive and core element of the AGNSW. Connecting to an Ancient Geography: The indigenous culture of Australia is based on spiritual ties that connects it inevitably to the land itself — to be born of the spirit which inhabits the land, and on dying, return to the earth to be reborn. The Void is at the centre of the building, with a gallery for Aboriginal Art surrounding it. It is a place for contemplation, solitude, gathering, performance, and cutting-edge installations. The Void is the central gesture, the central covenant that connects this earth building to the sky. This primordial relationship has deep resonance both in terms of Australia’s past and future – as through abstraction it is simultaneously ancient and modern.
Conceptual ideas for the project:
– Building is an armature for Art. A museum should not be a singular image and overpower the artifacts; rather the site allows a plural dispensation of architectural strategies and form (or non-form, or earth-building). – Circulation that allows for respite, pause, contemplation and orientation. The circulation around the Void orients the visitor – coming out of the galleries, from any of the radial points, the Void is a place for respite, and a potential site for art installations.
– The plurality of the collection is reflected in the building, and this translates into a collection of gallery spaces, that are individual yet work as an assemblage to create a whole. Straddling different landscapes; a historic building, expressway deck (land bridge with negligible load), industrial oil tank (recycling). Multiple associations for the multiple terrains, with multiple entrances – create a porous building that engages, and also negotiates, these landscapes.
Context and Accessibility are addressed by the ease by which the visitor can walk through and around the building, making it a part of the context. The landscape mediates the spatial language of the formal Neoclassical building, the colonial English-
style botanic garden, and the low heathlands native to the coastal basin. The plaza is sited under the canopy of a high-branching grove of indigenous evergreen trees.
The ‘Museum of the Future’ would have the opportunity to deploy digital technology on several fronts — for interpretation, guidance and orientation to name a few. Through digital technology, would the public have greater access to Art? Perhaps yes, as everything from holograms to replicating objects with a 3D print leads to the public having more access and a better understanding of the collection. And so a porous, pluralistic building benefits from this adaptability to different mediums. A museum that exerts the minimum physical presence, blurs its edge, and therefore implicitly expands into the Cultural Plaza, the Domain, and the city of Sydney at large.
Design Team: RMA Architects with AKT II, Atelier Ten, Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten, ARUP, Verner Johnson, and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer.
This page, top: images of projections of artist Pipilotti Rist’s work ‘Gravity, Be My Friend’, a large-scale audiovisual installation, a part of the project proposal; left and below: various views of the proposed design of the Sydney Modern Gallery, hinged on the idea of the relationship between the earth and the sky
Opposite page, from top: an aerial view of the Sydney Modern Gallery and its surroundings; images of the models of the space; a drawing depicting the circulation around the Void, orienting the visitors coming out of the galleries, from any of the radial points