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Our Home
in the World

Conversation with Rahul Mehrotra

How could the coronavirus crisis question the current form of neoliberal globalisation and how might this impact architecture?

The biggest impact of the pandemic, whether we are architects or ordinary citizens, is how we imagine the relationship between the home and the world. The home and the very act of dwelling, has become incredibly valuable as well as precious for all of us. By home I mean the house, and by extension the backyard, the street, the neighbourhood, and even the city. All these spaces that had become very transient in our lives, suddenly have become the most stable places for us. And, in a strange way, the world, which had become the ‘space’ that was central and, in some ways, stable in our imagination through the hyper interconnectivity of globalization and its operations, suddenly has become the transient space. We often speak about the home and the wold, or the local and the global, and many of these binaries to understand the relationship between the specificity of a site and the abstraction of the larger place we occupy on the planet. I think the right terminology to use in the current situation is the home and the world, because the value of the home, and the way we see it in the world, has actually been altered very much.

I think that the two things that I hope will be re-calibrated by this situation will be the patronage of architecture and the agency of the architect in its broader sense.

Let’s speak about patronage first. What has become very evident in the way structural problems have surfaced during a crisis like the covid-19 pandemic, is that the state has to play a bigger role in our lives, because the state, and not through neoliberal policies, is how we come together as a collective. In fact, the inequities that have been created and surfaced in the world over the last decades have made evident that neoliberal policies separate us. I think the role of the state in the formation of community will become very important, whether for urban planning, healthcare, education, and several other domains. I think in Europe the state continues to play a big role, whereas in the USA it doesn’t. In fact, community can only be formed through a common platform through which we relate to each other, and this is infrastructure – in its broader sense. And public infrastructure – both physical, social and cultural. These include schools, health facilities, public space, water supply, sewage systems, roads, bridges, information technology, etc. It is through the notion of infrastructure that we relate to each other as a community, because it becomes a shared asset, it is an extension of the idea of the commons. Causes around which we are seeing protest in the USA do not form this basis of the commons or community formations. Those are more ephemeral and are not common platforms in our daily lived experiences. They are important, and in fact critical, but they don’t serve the purpose of community formation in any tangible way. But infrastructure is what sustains, and what we have to sustain, if we want to exists as communities and societies. Neoliberalism has been driven by what I call the “impatience of capital”, and thus I call the form of the built environment it generates “the architecture of impatient capital”. This is essentially brittle architecture and urban form that is generated from the sole purpose of realizing the value of capital and not in service of society’s broader needs. So, perhaps we have to look for different forms of patronage from which other, perhaps more relevant, paradigms of architecture and planning will emerge which will facilitate more robust and resilient community and society formations.

Community can only be formed through a common platform through which we relate to each other, and this is infrastructure – in its broader sense

And therefore, the question becomes – what is the agency of architecture in this situation? I think it would be imagining ourselves much more as a bridge practise, as a part of civil society. Understanding civil society as that part of society that has the ability to connect to the grassroots but also has the ability, through its privilege of education, of being able to negotiate with forces that are more powerful such as governments, corporations and international funding agencies. Civil society actors are NGOs, trade unions, welfare associations, neighbourhood community groups, and this should be the place or platform for architects and planners. What those groups essentially do is that they connect grassroots and their aspirations, to more powerful forces that can make decisions unchecked. We must very much imagine ourselves as that bridge, where society has invested in us tremendously, to trust us to imagine spatial possibilities in which we can collectively spend our lives. I think this becomes the expanded role of the architect. A caution: we celebrate many practices around the world for engaging in social projects or acupuncture urbanism, etc. But I think it is dangerous to construct that rubric, because all architecture must place the social questions and society at the centre of its agenda. I think what we need to clarify is our agency as architects, which is that we are an integral part of civil society with a very clear role of making these bridges and cross overs – and it is for this purpose that we must seek out or construct new forms of patronage.

Do you think the pandemic would raise awareness on the importance of the climate crisis? How might this impact the evolution of architectural discourses and practices in relationship with nature?

The pandemic has been the best brand ambassador that climate change would have hoped for. Everyone feels that the air we breathe is cleaner, in many parts of the world animals are out on the street, in Venice people have seen dolphins and swans in the canals, in many Indian towns new view corridors are opening up vistas they never imagined existed. But, I think we have to be careful. The animals are in the street in many parts of Asia and India because the humans have retreated and because the animals are hungry, they are looking for waste which has receded. If you ask Venetians they will tell you that dolphins and swans always existed in the canals, it’s just that the tourists did not notice them! The pollution has reduced because we are sitting at home, but, are we going to continue sitting at home? Climate change is not something that recalibrates its dynamics in five months, it’s not forgiving if we go back to our toxic practices. There is most importantly a large temporal dimension in understanding climate change. It’s a structural problem, it’s a problem of culture, of lifestyle, unchecked consumption and extraction among many other things. The pause is just a visual illusion, so we have to be very careful and critical when we discern and celebrate these conditions.

Architectural discourse can play a constructive role by engaging with reconfigured conditions and relationships with objectivity in a scientific way and trying to create new narratives

So, in this condition of the pandemic, architectural discourse can play a negative role, by fuelling these simplistic and superficial emergent conditions and by romanticizing them. Or it can play a constructive role by engaging with reconfigured conditions and relationships with objectivity, in a scientific way, and trying to create new narratives. The profession could use the pandemic as a moment in which it can expand other spatial imaginations and possibilities on how humans can organize ourselves in settlements, how we can live, how we can relate to each other, what is our relationship with nature and the built environment, etc. It is a good moment to imagine, to speculate about spatial possibilities, keeping in mind an expansive temporal scale. And by how a glimpse of a few months – which is a second in the context of our lifetimes. This moment has shown us new possibilities. I think we should use the year of the pandemic to be inspired by the notion of how the planet can be inhabited differently. It’s like in a flash being shown how the world could be. This doesn’t mean that it’s going to become like that, but it will be up to us to build the world in a new way. It’s the beginning of the challenge, and not the end, and it’s because of that, that we need to be very vigilant and precisely calibrated in our speculation of the post pandemic world as a community of professionals.

How will the confinement and the sudden acceleration of the virtual in all private and public spheres impact our relationship with space and the way of envisioning housing and collective spaces?

The question of space is complicated because what we are experiencing now is not a given, this will change to a hybrid configuration on how we work in the virtual and in real time and occupy space. I think the experience of confinement and the sudden acceleration of expending more time in the virtual will lead to our minds being more open to imagining and engaging with more hybrid conditions across the world in adaptations in our own life styles. And, I think this will become accelerated in the question of housing design. The obvious challenge is how to imagine typologies where working and living can happen together, perhaps like it was in the past, when you could have a shop on the ground floor. So, what is the new form of that in the information technology age? The other question may be configurations of co-housing and new typologies. In many parts of the world, migrant labour is going to rethink about their relationship with the city completely differently. In a country like India, were thirty million people were migrating back to villages as a result of the pandemic, maybe we should be imagining better forms of rental housing or shared housing configurations.

What the pandemic has done is to question the very stability of our relationship with cities, with the countryside, with the binary of the urban and rural. It has surfaced that these are not very clear binaries in terms of how we relate to our space, to our home, to our city or for that matter the world. In places like India, the pandemic has accelerated, in our understanding of what I call the “notion of flux”. By “flux” I mean the dissipation of the binary between the urban and rural. I would argue that India is almost 40% urban for six months of the year, and 60% urban for the other six months of the year. So, it means that 15% to 20% of the population is transient. In a population of over one billion people, it means that there are 150 to 200 hundred million people who go back and forth between the village and the town. So, India is in a state of flux! During the pandemic, what happens usually throughout the year, happened in one or two weeks, when cities were locked down and reverse migration to the villages was estimated to approximately 30 million people! The “notion of flux” that the pandemic brought to the surface will be one of the biggest challenges that we will have to design for in many parts of the world in the coming decades. And this has a massive impact in the form of the cities and in housing typologies. Maybe the rental market has to be much bigger and coexist with other forms of co-housing, maybe typologies like youth hostels become a legitimate typology for many migrant workers going back and forth. And maybe, this will be a condition of flux that will cease in a few decades resulting from some other life altering event on the planet!

I would say that the pandemic has surfaced the importance of dealing with flux – rapid changes that force us to reimagine the business as usual scenarios in our cities

In short, I would say that the pandemic has surfaced the importance of dealing with flux – rapid changes that force us to reimagine the business as usual scenarios in our cities. We have to get away from the singular zoning notion, which we already began to challenge, and I don’t just mean this is land use, but a kind of elasticity of our imagination of the built environment. I think we have to recognize that often architecture and urban design are not the solution, but sometimes architecture and urban design become the problem. I believe if we get to a point as a profession where we can begin to recognize the instrumentality, or the lack of instrumentality, of architecture and urban design. I think these will be the positive traces that the pandemic may leave on our profession and practices for the future.

Do you think that this health crisis will influence new ways of understanding the city and the definition of new urban paradigms of the XXI century?

Absolutely! From my point of view, the pandemic has made clearer than before the value of nestled scales, and how we can think across scales to imagine the city. I think what we have to realize is that different urban design and planning issues have to be addressed at different scales. Let’s say for simplicity that there is the small, the medium and the large scale. The small scale will be the object of architecture, or a cluster of houses, and maybe by extension the street, the middle scale would be the city itself, or a large part of the city, and the large scale may be a kind of territorial scale. If you address for instance the issue of food, it is not effective at the small scale, sometimes at the medium scale, but you might look at it at the territorial scale in order to be effective. And if you look at architecture per se trying to imagine an appropriate a housing typology, you look at it at the small scale but you’re thinking may be nourished or informed by the other two scales. We have to bring the consciousness of the simultaneous validity of all these scales as being instrumental to our operation, because even the small scale can be nourished by the big one and vice a versa. So, if you understand the territorial dimension better, if you understand the state of flux I was describing earlier. So, this interconnectedness which is ecological in spirit, and which we already know it exist, has been, I believe, become starkly vivid in the time of the pandemic.

The pandemic has made clearer than before the value of nestled scales, and how we can think across scales to imagine the city

Another way I would describe this, is to say that we all have a sphere of concern. But then our sphere of influence is very small, and that’s what frustrates architects and planners and makes them cynical! We can talk about all these issues in this interview, but when I come back to the office, I’m designing a house or a kitchen detail, so how do I even connect my thinking across scales and concerns? I hope the biggest impact that the pandemic has is to push architects and planners to make this intersection between our spheres of concern, which must keep growing and become more ambitious but we also make our influence more ambitious. And our influence can become more ambitious in two ways. One is by imagining our agency as civil society in relationship to patronage, and how can we sometimes challenge it. The second way is to continuously nestle scales, and the different operations we can do at every scale. We have to be able to recognize that when we are training professionals that we are preparing them to realize what issues are best addressed at what scales, and therefore what is the instrumentality you need at that particular scale. At some scales you need some understanding of urbanism, at some scales you need just the understanding of tectonics, at the territorial scale you also need the understating of politics and governmental agencies. I think urban planners should be made aware of the tectonics of architecture, and architects about what urban planners do. I think disciplinary silos are actually coming in the way.

As the Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard GSD, what do you think will be the impact of this situation in the way of envisioning urban planning pedagogy?

Following the previous argument, I would say that it will be an attempt to create bridges or dissolve to the extent possible the disciplinary divisions caused by the ‘silo‘ effect. Or put another way perhaps facilitate a sense of cultural empathy and understanding between the disciplines, so we realize that there has to be synergies in order to simultaneously work across the different scales. I think in any crisis, structural cracks become more visible, because society gets challenged, and I think we have to use this moment to recognize and address all the inherent and systemic faults in society. In the USA for instance, African Americans and minority communities have been affected much more by the pandemic, and the inequities already present have been accelerated. How do we get more architects from minority communities to engage with the profession? What is then the criteria for licencing an architect in this context? Of course, it has to do with benchmarking quality and competency etc., but does this also become exclusionary in terms of privilege – and that is a structural question. This become a moment to actually recognize these shortcomings. I think what we have to do is to go deeper looking at the structural problems that the pandemic has surfaced and begin to address them through pedagogy.

Lastly, when I see the students responding here in the USA to questions of race, and attacking icons like Fredrick Olmsted or Philipp Johnson – I absolutely agree with the students. But, as a pedagogue or as a teacher, my reading of the situation is that a generation is demanding, and we owe it to them, that through education, we provide multiple lenses to see the world, not a singular lens. The students are not saying we don’t want to look at Olmsted or Johnson’s work, but instead are asking to see all the aspects of the person so they are equipped to make a sound and well-articulated judgement. It is the same for the removal of statues and responses to monuments of the civil war or slavery. Don’t let one single narrative be celebrated because the other narratives have equal validity. Just as a conclusion, I would say that the impact of the pandemic and everything that gets surfaced because of it, would equip students to see the world in multiple ways, and therefore be able to see things more critically. I think the more critically you see things, the more effectively and with more confidence you can intervene to make change. Then of course, the challenge is how you move from the critical to propositional – and this I suppose is the central mission that motivates us as teachers?


Interview with Rahul Mehrotra realized by TRANSFER editor Isabel Concheiro on July 21, 2020

17.Sep.2020 2413 views
Rahul Mehrotra Rahul Mehrotra

Rahul Mehrotra (1959) is an architect, urbanist and educator. He is Chair and Professor of Urban Design and Planning, and Director of the Urban Design Program at the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard GSD. He studied at the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad, and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Urban Design with distinction at Harvard GSD (1987). He is the Founder Principal of the Mumbai + Boston based firm RMA Architects, that has designed projects that range from interior design and architecture to urban design, conservation and planning. Mehrotra has long been actively involved in civic and urban affairs in Mumbai, having served on commissions for the conservation of historic buildings and environmental issues with various NGOs and Civic groups, and from 1994 to 2004, as Executive Director of the Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai. He has written and lectured extensively on issues to do with architecture, conservation, and urban planning and design in India. His writings include, among other, coauthoring Bombay: The Cities Within (2001), The Fort Precinct in Bombay: Conserving an Image Center (1995), and Architecture in India – Since 1990 (2011). His most recent book is on 30 years of reflecting as a practitioner in India and is titled – Working in Mumbai – the works of RMA Architects (2020).

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

TRANSFER NEXT aims to invite shared reflections on the new scene that coronavirus will probably usher in.

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