Rahul Mehrotra is an architect, urbanist and educator who is the Founder Principal of RMA Architects and is Professor of Urban Design and Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Rahul has designed projects that range from recycling urban land and master planning in Mumbai to the design of art spaces, boutiques, weekend houses, factories, social institutes and office buildings across India — thereby engaging diverse issues, multiple constituencies and varying scales: from interior design and architecture to urban design, conservation and planning. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Rahul’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
While I was growing up my parents moved homes often; my father worked for a company and with every new posting or promotion came a new house! No one in the family was excited about moving except for me — it meant rearranging the house and the furniture and this was exciting and full of new possibilities. I can see it clearly now, but then it was an emotional excitement in a sense and it led me to think that I should become an interior designer and decorate people’s homes. Speaking to friends of my parents who were architects, I understood that perhaps architecture would be the better profession to pursue as it was broader and would lead me to interior design if I chose to do that later. I was only 17 when I made that decision and then went to architecture school in Ahemedabad.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I took 9 years to complete my undergraduate studies, drifted and did all sorts of things along the way — looks very odd in my CV but looking back I think they were the most productive years in that they helped me focus on later. I wasn’t disillusioned, but I felt the need to travel so I worked for a while to save money and then travel. I came back, did a year or two and then worked somewhere else. My undergraduate dissertation which should have taken me six months took me four years. When I was doing research in Mumbai somebody offered me a job to build a small house- I got involved in that and so on. There were many distractions at the time and that’s why it took me 9 years to finish. I’m not saying this as a recommendation to young people to take longer to study, but in a sense that time allowed me to find my voice and my interests. Along the way there were a couple of major influences and architects in India like Charles Correa and Doshi whose writings had a great influence on thinking as they were really setting the agenda for architecture and its practice in India. As an undergraduate, I studied an architect called Claude Batley who was a British architect who worked and settled in Mumbai. He worked there from the late 1920s to mid 1950s. I was completely fascinated and inspired by the fact that he not only headed the school of architecture in Mumbai, but that he had a practice, did a lot of research and I found that combination fascinating. That had become an ideal for me. There were other architects who I admired for particular works they did, like their writing. But in Claude Batley I saw a combination of these many facets in a completely humble way. I’m saying this clearly in retrospect but at that point it was just an inspiration; it wasn’t so well articulated in my mind. I came to study and do my Masters in the US and now that I look back at the last 25 years of my own profession, I can see the influence that he had because I’m doing similar things. I’m teaching, doing research and writing, and I have a practice. I find that combination had been something that appealed to me a great deal perhaps when I was doing my dissertation as someone in his late twenties!
On specific principles he strives to adhere to
Something retrospectively that I often say to my students is that the only thing that serves you well when you start out is your intuition. Following your intuition is valuable. Our projects are very different because they’re clear responses to particular locations and climatic conditions. There are some underlying styles in the way we work with the geometry. I believe they’re very different responses because we’re concerned with responding to a place. For us architecture is not immovable and it’s something that’s very stable on the ground. A clear underlying theme in all of our projects is us striving towards finding new formation to architecture, especially in a place like India. This responds to questions of inequity, climate, local availability of materials and technology. We are not interested in the acrobatics of architecture or importing materials. What we are interested in doing is seeing what the mainstream is about and seeing how one can shift the mainstream productively so that one can create a critical mass of change.
On current projects that represent his unique approach
The project we did in Hyderabad, India is a corporate office where we built these dynamic facades that cooled the building. The project allowed the gardeners- the lowest paid employees in the company- to maintain the buildings and the facade depends on them. As a friend of mine described it, “these are truly green jobs as the lowest paid employees at the corporation are integral to the design because the image of the corporation depends on them.” That was an interesting interpretation for me because we did this very intuitively and the implications of design had positive social impacts. Similarly, we did a low-cost housing project outside of Jaipur, India for 100 elephants and their keepers. The elephant keepers are called Mahouts and they’re very poor- making less than $100 a month- but we managed to create an environment for them by capturing water and changing the ecology of the site. By focusing the design on water and not making architecture the focus. You involve people in a different way and it shows the power of design approaches that begin to balance some of these inequities.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
It’s going to be different in different parts of the world. In the west it’s going to move more towards automation, prefabrication and parametrics. Software and new technologies will create a blur between conception and construction. The other side is going to be a big challenge for more developing societies in the world. Inequities are going to result and get sharper. If that use of technology cannot serve a critical social purpose, architecture will become irrelevant. In the less developed world the starting point could be questions of inequity. I don’t think in 5 or 10 years we’ll use these technologies in the way that we use them in the west in terms of the interface with the construction process. The construction process in developing countries is highly labor-based. The question will be how can these technologies be deployed imaginatively and creatively ? The central problem in the more developing countries for architects and architecture is going to be: can architecture be used instrumentally and as an effective tool to help dissipate and address the question of inequity in our society? Of course this means a range of questions all the way from public space to housing to the way buildings are reformulated to give more access as amenities for common good.
On the firm’s evolution
The question we’re asking is why aren’t architects in India socially engaged? These two different worlds that I’m involved with have begun to collapse into one space which is the practice and the academy. The practice is going to be more engaged than it has been in the past in self-initiated projects, advocacy projects and in trying to create a greater awareness about social issues.
On advice he would give to his younger self
Everyone has a distinct pattern and their own experience. One of my Mentors once told : “in Chinese there’s a saying when you reach a crossroad, keep going.” That’s the only advice I could give you — keep going! Sometimes we go down a wrong path but it’s better to go down a wrong path and realize it than to stop at a crossroads forever. If you can hold your values and keep reminding yourself to not lose sight of them, you’ll make something out of every path. We just have to keep making sense of the patterns life presents us with.