‘It is motion that defines a city’, says architect Rahul Mehrotra
The city is a twitching organism, not a static being. It is defined by that the image of the enormous Ganesha idol being immersed in the sea. “Architecture is not the spectacle, it is motion that defines the city,” said architect and urban planner Rahul Mehrotra, speaking at the Godrej Culture Lab on Friday. “That begs the question, can we design a place of blur?”
Mehrotra delivered a special lecture / masterclass titled Architecture in Context: Design Challenges in Contemporary India, which also addressed the lack of context to planning and development in Mumbai.
In a city like Mumbai, one must go beyond polarised binaries and be influenced by pluralism. Measurements handed over in a briefcase to an architect are just one part of it, he told a packed auditorium. “You must then stack that in its context, and that’s the service an architect provides,” he said.
Mehrotra, who is director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, is perhaps best known for the book he co-authored with the late city historian Sharada Dwivedi, Mumbai: Cities Within.
He is also executive director of the Mumbai thinktank, Urban Design Research Institute.
In a place like Mumbai, he said at his talk, land use must become elastic, enabling public spaces to be appropriated, reappropriated, deappropriated. “When you design a place of blur, the idea of reversibility becomes important.”
He cited the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum, for which his firm, Rahul Mehrotra Architects (RMA), recently designed two additions — a visitor’s centre and the children’s museum.
“The visitor’s centre is bolted together with prefabricated, interlocking metal sheets that can be dismantled in 48 hours,” he said. The Children’s Museum blurs into the landscape, leaving the view of the heritage building intact.
Mehrotra also cited the Prayag Kumbh Mela in Allahabad where, every 12 years, millions live in a transitory setting for five days, and millions more visit.
By studying the many influencing aspects of this transitory landscape, including business, religion, technology, health and governance, Mehrotra says he discovered that on the watery landscape of the Triveni Sangam, a deliberate, ephemeral megacity was built, laid out on a perfect grid, with even a temporary and transitionary system of governance.
“So, are we then making permanent solutions for temporary problems?” he asked.
“Rahul’s visionary approach to design thinking is essential to Indian architecture – softness, impermanence and intent to touch the earth lightly. But most importantly, what resonated with me was Rahul’s clarion call for more empathy in how we build,” said Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab. “Meaningful social connections come from good architecture – and that can only come from a deep understanding of people and how they inhabit, enjoy and interact with their space.”
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