Soft Thresholds: The Context as Generator of Practice
The Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial Lecture, New Delhi, 2017
Held in New Delhi in 2017, the second edition of the Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial Lecture, delivered by architect Rahul Mehrotra, focussed on why it is necessary to go beyond polarised binaries during the making of architectures — soft thresholds and spaces — that are visually and physically porous, plural in spirit and expression, and, most critically, encompassing of context
As a point of entry and exit, a threshold has a dual coding in society as both a physical and symbolic marker of separation and connection. Thresholds are often explicitly hard-edged or even brutal in their expression, demarcating rigid boundaries, as in the definite lines of walls, barricades, and security checkpoints in buildings, around cities, or across larger territories. Too often, thresholds also divide human activity or communities according to social, ethnic, national, or economic characteristics. Architecture and planning can unwittingly contribute to these different forms of physical separation, especially in ways made visible through their practitioners’ interpretations of culture, religion, or legislation. As the academic disciplines that inform spatial practices, architecture and planning are themselves often similarly separated by disciplinary thresholds, inhibiting porosity between fields of research. By definition, an individual discipline is necessarily organised around a self-referential center of discursive production, but this often happens at the expense of the richness found at the intersection of multiple disciplinary perspectives. Is architecture, in its compulsive drive to create the autonomous object, inherently hardening the thresholds separating it from other disciplines and, by extension, reproducing those schisms within the built environment? Can architecture and planning intentionally construct soft thresholds — lines that are easily traversed, even temporarily erased — thereby allowing for multiple perspectives across different modes of research and practice and catalysing disciplinary and social connections? What, then, is the physical expression of a soft threshold — a space that is visually and physically porous, plural in spirit, encompassing of its context, and yet rigorous in its expression? Architects working in India, as well as many other parts of the globe, confront these questions and challenges in extreme forms. Acute disparity is further compounded by rapidly transforming social, cultural and physical landscapes in a globalising world. In the process of working in such contexts, the role of the professional architect is marginalised by a conventional praxis that is often obsessed with specialisation or disciplinary boundaries. Too often, the professional does not engage with the broader landscape, rather choosing to operate within the specificity of a site or a particular problem, leading to a disconnect with the context of practice. On a global scale, architecture practice is pandering to capital in unprecedented ways and, in the process, creating the architecture and urbanism of impatient capital. It has its operating logic; capital, though sometimes assuming patient forms as in universities or foundations, is intrinsically unwilling to wait. This impatience, more often than not, creates buildings and urban forms which are whimsical, vendor-driven for ease of speed of construction, and clearly heightening the autonomy of architecture as an object in the city. Furthermore, in an attempt to understand the complexity of the contexts in which we work, architects and planners tend to organise the world through constructing binaries: local and global, formal and informal, state and private, oral and literary traditions, rich and poor, empowered and marginalised, among others. Though these categories may be useful for describing the world, are they productive for design operations? Design and design thinking are synthetic and focused on dissolving binaries — not hardening the thresholds between them. Design, or rather, spatial resolution, can play a critical role in dissolving these types of binaries, thereby softening the thresholds between them. Put another way, designers possess the potential to address complex contestations through constructing spatial arrangements.
The “context of the context”
As architects, the idea of context is something we have traditionally understood as the broader physical environment of a given site, the comprehension of which is extended through wider parameters such as climate, culture, and embedded histories. But is this reading potent and dynamic enough for designers to understand the world in which they intervene? If not, how does an architect
construct the appropriate narratives for the production of soft thresholds — and the built environment, at large? The urban geographer Neil Brenner proposes that by nestling the “context in its context” we can potentially create more nuanced and productive readings of our sites of intervention. Meta-narratives clarifying the context in which the context of our operation sits is a useful instrument to imagine a precise range of potential interventions for architects and other design professionals. This, then, is the space where design intersects with its broader social, political, economic, and cultural landscapes. Brenner describes these meta-narratives across a range of emergent conditions. One such family of narratives that fundamentally challenge our forms of engagement as designers is that of contemporary rapid geo-economic integration and uneven spatial development. Inequity will be the biggest issue we face over the next decades. For evidence of this, one need not look further than the shifting demographics at the national and global scales, and particularly the upswing in refugees to Europe, which is clearly linked to inequality and presents a new host of challenges for architects and planners. From these contexts come the remaking of political identities, urbanisation of poverty, and new claims to citizenship. 1 And this squarely leads us to narratives of state reconstruction under neoliberalisation and the notion of simultaneous transitions in the city that historian Eve Blau has articulated in the context of Eastern Europe. According to Blau, these transitions occur over decades, evolving from one set of protocols and values into new ideological systems that are often not as stable as one might or expect or imagine. Extending from this discourse are questions pertaining to the role of the state and the agency of planning and design relative to new forms of democracy developing around the world. NGOs, civil society, and rapidly changing modes of patronage each have renewed roles in the making of the built environment. Blau argues, “Transition has clear implications for architecture and urban design...it is a condition that foregrounds practice and enables architecture to play an active, performative role in the formation of the city.” 2 Through this reading it is evident that the “context in its context” lies at an intersection between the sensual and the political as well as between form or design and societal culture. This is where a productive overlap between the “sphere of our concern” and the “sphere of (our direct) influence” occurs. As architects, we are aware of and concerned with many issues, from societal through planetary scales, and ranging from poverty and public health to urban violence and climate change. More often than not, our sphere of influence does not empower us to address any of these issues in a tangible manner. Across the design professions, the frustration tied to our attempts to engage these problems is palpable. Thus, by articulating narratives of site using the
method of examining the “context in its context,” we discover that our sphere of concern (the context of the context) can actually be acted upon from within our sphere of influence(our more immediate context) and vice versa — each nourished and clarified by the other. Most importantly, these narratives clearly illuminate the narrow circumscription of architects’ territory of operation in the business-as-usual-model of practice. It also sheds light on ways to better understand the site as mediated through and embedded within a larger scale of economic, social and political processes. Through this broader scope, designers can potentially have a more far-reaching, progressive social impact beyond the immediate sites of our projects.
Working in Mumbai
Our approach to working in Mumbai, where our practice is based, has been to use the city as a generator of practice, continuously considering its urban context in relation to the evolving democratic landscape of India. In this way, our aim, as designers, is not only to contribute to the larger national discussion, but also to hone an approach that responds at once to the dynamic urban context of Mumbai and the broader (and ever-shifting) context in which the city is nestled. In order to do this e ffectively, the city of Mumbai has served as a laboratory that has enabled our involvement with a wide range of activities and provided invaluable learning experiences. In turn, these lessons have been consistently woven into our design approach and have enabled us to evolve an architectural vocabulary that connects spatial and architectural elements from the past with a contemporary approach to building in an urban environment — the context of a majority of our commissions. At RMA Architects, viewing the city of Mumbai and surrounding region as a generator of practice has also enabled us to develop a methodology that draws from a more elastic definitionof the design professions by accepting multiple disciplines as simultaneously valid modes of inquiry and engagement, particularly in the kinetic urban landscapes of Indian cities and their peri-urban regions. A recognition of the complementary nature of seemingly disparate disciplines has made available a spectrum of operations through which we engage with an otherwise complex landscape. Today, the evocations of local specificity(fetishising the local, whether its craft or tradition) are a simplistic way to critique the homogenising effects of globalisation. This results in “the fetish of local specificity”as a way of resisting the global trajectory. It is a superficialand perhaps symbolic gesture at best. In fact, the notion that globalisation amounts to homogeneity and should be resisted, is perhaps an overused and unproductive approach for architects. This is because differences are not just about local specificit. In today’s world, the potency for design lies in the way differences are made relevant and then networked, globally. Therefore, in using the city as a generator of our practice, the understanding of metanarratives are critical in situating the practice in a broader landscape — the “context of the context.” Some meta-narratives that are used to better understand this question of context range from the disjuncture that the modernisation project brought to bear on a traditional society like India, where the aesthetic of modernity preceded social modernisation. The scholar Sibel Bozdogan argues this point, citing conditions where aesthetic modernity in architecture — and, by extension, the city and modernist architecture — arrived before an independent bourgeois, industrialisation, capital markets, and the usually-accepted characteristics of modernisation. Naturally, this reversal raises many questions about the pre-conceived aesthetics often applied universally in architectural practice. On the other end of the spectrum is the political transition in countries like India which, over the last three decades, has been opening its economy and transitioning away from socialism to-wards a more neoliberal paradigm. Urban India began to liberalise its economy in the1990s and has been characterised by physical and visual contradictions that coalesce in a landscape of incredible pluralism that is charged with polarities. With globalisation and the emergence of a post-industrial, servicebased economy, urban space in Indian cities has been fragmented and polarised, with the rich and poor jostling for access to amenities. Today, private capital chooses to build environments that are insulated from their context. They are created without the burdens of a social contract that facilitates citizenship or even acknowledges the multifaceted complexity of a modern city. These gated communities take the form of vertical towers in the inner city and sprawling suburban compounds on the peripheries. In fact, in the state-controlled economy, the physical relationship between different classes was often orchestrated according to a master plan founded upon the notion that housing was an entitlement and that proximity to employment was necessary for all. In the new economy, the fragmen-tation of service and production locations has resulted in a new, “bazaar-like” urbanism that weaves its presence through the entire urban fabric. Thus, working in Mumbai is about negotiating global flows so as not to erase and remake landscapes but, rather, to occupy local fissures to create fascinating hybrid conditions and startling adjacencies. The design challenge in this condition depends on how to make these disparate worlds blur — can the thresholds between them be spatially softened? As a practitioner, social access and its clear relationship to the articulation of spatial arrangements becomes a critical aspect of
design. This is not about the city of the rich and poor, or the regular models of the formal and informal, or other such binaries often used to explain cities in South and Central America, Asia and Africa. Rather, it is about the “kinetic space,” where these descriptive concepts collapse into singular entities and where meanings are ever shifting and blurred. The question for architects, conservationists, urban designers and planners then becomes: can we design for this ambiguous space? Can we design with a divided mind? And, more importantly, how might we be inspired by the design intelligence of the kinetic city to act and intervene as designers and activists in our own localities? Can we use design to construct soft thresholds that facilitate porosity both socially and spatially? It is as Martha Chen advocates, in the context of economy: “What is needed, most fundamentally, is a new economic paradigm: a model of a hybrid economy that embraces the traditional and the modern, the small scale and the big scale, the informal and the formal. What is needed is an economic model that allows the smallest units and the least powerful workers to operate alongside the largest units and most powerful economic players.” 5
Pluralism and coexistence
Pluralism of form and its coexistence are inevitable in a democracy, as are collisions between differing forms of urbanism in close adjacencies. Thus, dissipating these polarities and softening thresholds between these disparate forms of urbanism are the essential design challenge. Facilitating the connections and networks between diverse forms is one way to promote these synergetic dependencies. Can borders be deconstructed and softened, and can boundaries be dissipated spatially? Could this become the basis for a rational discussion about co-existence? Or is the resulting urbanism inherently paradoxical? Is the coexistence of these differing forms of urbanism and their respective states of physical utopia and dystopia inevitable? Can the spatial configuation of how this simultaneity occurs be formally imagined? Or is it inevitable that cities will be molded in a singular image — where architecture is the remarkable spectacle of the city? It was in this duality-charged environment, where “many times” co-exist simultaneously and are compressed, layered and juxtaposed with each other, that the beginning of our practice can be found. In the early years of the practice, research became the predominant activity; it was the mechanism to understand the city. We looked at architecture and urban history, and documented historic areas as well as contemporary urban centers and buildings. We worked with conservation legislation, interacted with local historical groups, developed policies for recycling land, and engaged an entire gamut of activities that familiarised us with the problems of the city. Through these engagements we were exposed to the different worlds that existed in the city and the different “times” that created
these varied worlds. Cutting across these differences while respecting their integrity and aspirations became somewhat of an obsession. How do we as architects engage the complexity of the city? Do we respond simultaneously to the past, present, and future? And, if so, how do we do this when all these “times” exist concurrently, in the same space? In addition to these questions associated with the future, the idea of tradition must also be addressed. Through our research on the city, we were made conscious of the fact that modernism perpetuated the tabula rasa — the mind-set found in the preceding generation of architects that believes, “I have seen the future, and it works!” In response to this, our practice is also committed to addressing the issues of the contemporary urban landscape and identifying aspects of our history that have relevance in India’s emerging postcolonial urbanism. The practice has thus engaged actively with urban conservation projects in Mumbai, with an aim at facilitating the gentle transition of our historic cities into the emerging urban milieu. Beyond urban conservation, RMA Architects is also involved with building conservation projects in Mumbai and other parts of India. The emphasis we place on this area of work is that of “creative conservation.” It is the idea that a critical dialogue is created between the old and new. Our interest lies in the recycling of buildings and spaces where the revitalisation occurs after observing patterns of contemporary use. These use patterns are seen as the generator of the conservation process. As designers, we are equipped to see the opportunities that exist in the reorganisation of spaces, and thus, new potentials for historic buildings. As a practice, we have learned a great deal about design from conservation, which informs our work tremendously. We believe that the design of a good, modern building and the conservation of a historic building are not really different practices.
Building in the tropics
While addressing these wider questions involving the context of our context, we are acutely aware of the physical challenges found in issues related to building in the tropics. Naturally, the most direct and perhaps relevant issue was that of the interrelationship of climate and lifestyle — namely, how people in particular cultures and climates use buildings. Activities can shift within a building, depending on the time of day or the month of the year. This idea extends into the city, where the streets, arcades and other open spaces are epicenters of social and cultural life. The looseness with which activities are imagined and organised impacts the form of the building. Spaces that can be inscribed upon, that are neutral enough for multiple uses at different times, become the ones with a greater premium. They are the ambiguous, in-between spaces that are at times animated in far richer ways than spaces confinedto a strict function, or those that use conventional delineations extending from western paradigms. Technology and its application is critical and often linked to cultural aspirations. For instance, the “curtain glass” style of building, often symbolising corporate power, is a classic example; the hermetically-sealed box pumped with airconditioning becomes the symbol of corporate aspiration. Similarly, elements from luxury hotels percolate down to home interiors, and so on. New materials, air-conditioning, and new building technologies have all moved architecture in the tropics towards a global response, both in terms of architectural form as well as aspirations. This obsession with foreign technologies and a misalignment between local cultural practices and perceptions of modern efficiencyis embodied in this new form of architecture. In the tropics, buildings were traditionally heterogeneous in their composition, consisting of many parts each responding to different aspects of the
climate: keeping the rain out, trapping the breeze, and shading usable spaces, to list a few. Deterioration was impeded through the incorporation of elements that restricted direct exposure to rainwater, often creating an extremely rich, pluralistic vocabulary of textures and modulation of form. Modernism reversed this by abstracting form to the extent of minimal modulation. The modernists believed that the use of larger areas of a single material tended to prolong the life of buildings. Besides changing the very form of the structure, this approach also detached craftsmanship from the building process, as the level of articulation of the different building elements was minimised with changing attitudes towards aesthetics. In fact, modernism in tropical cities set up a classic duality, with one part of the landscape consisting of “modern” buildings and the other comprising the collective wisdom of many generations’ building practices. For instance, the urban poor, forced to be inventive and resilient given their squalid conditions, built shelters using minimal means. This gave rise to a situation where two worlds existed in the same space, each coexisting yet using their shared space differently: one, a permanent world, monumental in its presence and built of solid materials; the other, more ephemeral — built of temporary materials, low-key in its presence, but created intuitively in response to the basic human need for shelter. This representation of classes through the built environment forms a physical distinction and results in an acute form of polarisation in cities. By default, architecture plays a crucial role in the construction of this polarity. The subsequent question then for designers becomes: how can this polarity be diffused and the thresholds between different classes in the city be softened? In cities in India, the centrifugal force of urbanism has created unprecedented densities where the presence of humans in urban space is overwhelming. This is a challenging condition for anyone dealing with spatial arrangements, thresholds, and adjacencies between people. As a practitioner, the question of social access and its clear relationship to the ways in which spatial arrangements are articulated becomes a question to which we should be highly sensitised. People are an important component of the urban and architectural landscape; a scenery in which architects are actively engaged in arranging and rearranging spaces and forms. Across our projects, the aspiration has been to place our work in the context of a democracy and the specificitiesof our site of oper-ation: India. We have attempted to interpret spatial arrangements as well as building elements to meet a contemporary sensibility as well as building vocabulary. The attempt is to combine resources while juxtaposing conventional craftsmanship with industrial materials, and traditional architectural arrangements with contemporary spatial planning — in short, to give expression to the multiple worlds, pluralism and dualities that so vividly characterise the Indian as well as the South Asian landscape.
As the world, and South Asia in particular, become increasingly global, we have to be cautious about accepting the idea that things are growing more alike because they begin to look more alike. When we engage with a deeper excavation of the site on which we operate — an understanding that draws on both the objective reality as well as subjective perception of the site — the differences emerge more strikingly than before, when things looked different. Thus, architects will have to find more rigorous ways of definingthe complex emerging cultural fabric of multiple aspirations in the landscape of India’s mutinous democracy — and, more importantly, to see this cultural fabric as an ever-evolving landscape. The highly pluralistic environment of the Indian landscape requires planning, attitudes, and design mechanisms that continually negotiate between the differences in architecture as the sole instrument for placemaking and the temporality that creates the conditions for habitation and celebration. It must include the state and the market, the empowered and the poor, rather than allow one entity to prevail and remake the city in its image. This is what makes working in the landscape of India unique and challenging. Here, extreme differences exist in very close proximity — “in-your-face” — and not as distant or abstract notions. A pluralistic society is one that not only accepts difference but also goes beyond to understand and even be influencedby it in productive ways. That is to see the simultaneous co-existence of difference. For once, the architect and planner see these various differences as being simultaneously valid. Now, the challenge is how to go beyond polarised binaries through the making of architectures — soft thresholds and spaces — that are visually and physically porous, plural in spirit and expression, and, most critically, encompassing of context. This is truly the aspiration of both our architecture and practice — to engage nature and society more meaningfully.
1. I attribute these ideas to Neil Brenner, who shared these ideas in our many conversations and first challenged me to nestle the “context in its context” into my readings of the sites I engaged in my practice. 2. Eve Blau, “City as Open Work,” in Eve Blau and Ivan Rupnik, Project Zagreb: Transition as Condition, Strategy, Practice (Barcelona, NY: Actar, 2007), pp. 8-25. 3. I attribute the articulation of this observation to Prem Chandavarkar who pointed out the growing sense of disempowerment in the profession occurs because the idealisation of the problem results in a greater inability for action on the ground. 4. Bozdogan Sibel, Modernism and Nation Building – Turkish Architecture in the Early Republic, Washington University Press, 2001. 5. Martha Alter Chen, “The Informal Economy: Definitions, Theories and Policies”. WIEGO Working Papers nº 1 (August, 2012). Available at: <http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/ files/publications/files/Chen_WIEGO_WP1.pdf> Accessed on February 7, 2016. The second edition of the Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial Lecture was delivered by Rahul Mehrotra on 19 November 2017 at the India International Centre, New Delhi.