Soft Thresholds: The Context as Generator of Practice

- Text by Rahul Mehrotra

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 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: < 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.

 ??  ?? This page: KMC Corporate Office, Hyderabad Opposite page: Visitors’ Centre and the Chhatrapat­i Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahala­ya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai
This page: KMC Corporate Office, Hyderabad Opposite page: Visitors’ Centre and the Chhatrapat­i Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahala­ya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai
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This page: Library at CEPT University, Ahmedabad
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This page: Hathi Gaon in Jaipur — housing for mahouts and elephants Opposite page, top: An ancillary building at the Taj Mahal, Agra, was restored for a Visitors’ Center; bottom: Three Court Weekend House in Alibaug
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 ??  ?? This page: The restoratio­n of the Chowmahall­a Palace Complex in Hyderabad, completed in 2007 Opposite page: An image of the cover of Domus India 67 (November 2017) featuring a collage bringing references from a façade of the Virchow 16 building designed by RMA Architects, and the work of artist Seher Shah and her ‘Capitol Complex’ series referencin­g Le Corbusier’s façade designs for key buildings in Chandigarh
This page: The restoratio­n of the Chowmahall­a Palace Complex in Hyderabad, completed in 2007 Opposite page: An image of the cover of Domus India 67 (November 2017) featuring a collage bringing references from a façade of the Virchow 16 building designed by RMA Architects, and the work of artist Seher Shah and her ‘Capitol Complex’ series referencin­g Le Corbusier’s façade designs for key buildings in Chandigarh
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