10 Key Takeaways from our Masterclass with Architect Rahul Mehrotra

Team Culture Lab

5 September 2019

Masterclass with Rahul Mehrotra

On 9 August we had the honour of hosting a Masterclass by Starchitect Rahul Mehrotra. His lecture commented on the nature of architecture today, about communities, contexts, pedagogy and the need to build with empathy. Mehrotra lovingly calls Mumbai a ‘kinetic city’ and makes a case for building for flux and transition by focusing on synthesis and not absolute solutions. To young architects, urban planners and designers, here’s Mehrotra’s perspective on how architecture can be used to affect change. 

Below are the top 10 takeaways from the discussion:

1. On Architecture of ‘Impatient’ Capitalism

The transition from socialism to capitalism is played out most acutely in the built environment. How instead, can we design for transition? Because our contemporary architecture seems to indicate that we always think in terms of absolute solutions.

Values begin to shrink and architecture becomes an autonomous object. This becomes the architecture of impatient capitalism- architecture that has to be realized very quickly because capital is inherently impatient. This impatience determines the materials and determines the way buildings are made. The human being is not at the centre of this imagination. These are the landscapes of impatient capital.

2. On Absolute Solutions

We are stuck with absolute solutions. If we do not learn from examples like the Kumbh Mela, we are going to build redundant urban form which are going to lock us into permanent solutions. Are we making permanent solutions for temporary problems? This is a very important question for architects to ask. You have to think for transition- you have to think about reversibility.

A lot of our problems arise from thinking in absolute terms. We have to break away from that. As designers we are equipped to look at spatial possibilities and I think we can do it. So we need to think of transition before transformation. 

3. On Mumbai- The ‘Kinetic City’

I call it the ‘kinetic city’, it is a twitching organism, it is not a city defined by its architecture- squatting is in the DNA of our city. Flux is the most important aspect of the city. I call it the kinetic city because the binaries of the formal city and the informal city completely blurred. The formal city and the informal city coexist and they need each other for their identification and their referencing.

4. On Impermanent Spaces and Ephemerality in Public Spaces

During the festival of Ganpati, a street becomes a community hall, but in a matter of 10 days, it is reversed and the street goes back to anonymity. This notion of reversibility is very much part of the way that public space is articulated. Space becomes elastic. It is reversible. It is appropriated, re-appropriated and de-appropriated. There is an ephemeral quality to it and this reversibility becomes very important.

5. On the Spectacle of Mumbai City

Every city needs a spectacle. Architecture is not even the spectacle of the ‘kinetic city’. Our spaces are made by the spectacle of the festival. Interestingly, architecture does not even comprise a single dominant image of the city. In contrast, it is the festivals of the city that make up the spectacle. There are no static or permanent mechanisms to encode the spectacle. The memory of the city is an enacted process- a temporal moment as opposed to buildings that contain the public memory of static images of this permanent entity. The kinetic city in a sense recycles the idea of the static city to create new spectacles. This is exactly the opposite of the landscape of impatient capital which are highly brittle forms.

6. On How We Understand Urban and Rural India

How do you extend this to create an even broader understanding of context? What is urban? How do we look at the urban in India? 

We are getting completely wrong readings of what is urban India. The tyranny of images has driven the narrative of urban form in India. We look at the megacities and we try to make those cities in that policy - not being mindful of population density and that we should be designed for a rural urban landscape. And therefore, the policies of Mumbai get replicated in every town. This is the tyranny of images. Whereas we need a fully different imagination if we have to look at the urban rural landscape. We need to understand the basics of what the towns need. 

The urban timebomb is the 27000 cities that are not even being imagined as cities. There will be a public health nightmare if something explodes and it is going to. 

7. Our Spheres of Concern and our Spheres of Influence

We are very passionate about all of this (inequalities amongst us). We get up in the morning frustrated because actually our sphere of influence is pretty small. This imbalance between our spheres of concern as citizens and our spheres of influence is something we need to calibrate, we need to interrogate, we need to discuss and we need to collectively bring together. Otherwise it becomes another binary. However good we might feel for a few hours in a day, all our training is going to go to waste. For me this intersection is very critical…the aesthetic makes us create absolute solutions. We have to challenge this, if we have to make our spheres of concern and spheres of influence intersect.

8. On the Client in Architecture  

We take the client as one entity. Actually the client is a complex entity we have to unpack- we have a patron, the operational client and the user. The patron is the person who commissions it, who has a vision - it might be chief minister of a state, the chairman of a corporation, someone who has a vision of what they want you to represent. The operational client is the college building committee or the in-house engineer in a corporation and the users are the users.

If you differentiate these, you begin to understand what you are doing. The context in which each one of these of each one of these parts of the client, when you unpack them in your imagination, have completely different aspirations. The task becomes difficult but the end result becomes richer.

9. On the Context of Architecture and the Architecture of Context

We often think about the practice of architecture but what is the architecture of practice? What is the model by which your practice is organized? Whether you communicate directly with your craftsmen, whether you’re a corporate kind of model — all of these become critical because the protocols and the processes change completely. 

The bulk of built environments is the mainstream- institutional, corporate developers, government and faith based.If you want to make a change in this country- do all the other things, but try to change the mainstream. If you can change the mainstream I think we can have a big impact on our environment.

10. On Learning From Failure and Having Empathy in How We Build 

In these times of wicked problems that is really the key- how as a community and society of architects we can keep learning from failures and create cumulative knowledge. How do we create instruments for advocacy? What I have learnt from my failures, I will capture and share so that the many young people here have a starting point and they don't make the same mistakes. We don't have that sharing in our community and institutionally we have broken down. I think we need to go back to that. 

Quoting Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Mehrotra said- ‘The more inequality there is, the harder it is to imagine what is like to be in someone else’s shoes.’

In these times these become moral questions for many of us: How are we transgressing into this space? Are we really understanding communities and do we have true empathy for those who we are trying to serve? It is a challenge we have to address, and therefore we have to be prepared for failure. It is worth embracing ourselves for that.