Breaking Ground

November-December 2013 – Architectural Digest India

“My clients are getting younger as I’m getting older, which is nice,” says Rahul Mehrotra, his perfectly round glasses propped above his forehead. He smiles warmly through his neatly trimmed gray beard, shrugs and laughs: “As my beard got whiter, people started listening to me more easily.”

We’re making our way through the nondescript sprawl of Hyderabad’s Cyber City, and Mehrotra’s elliptical manner of speech – as clear and circular as those glasses – draws theoretical threads and practical lessons effortlessly through the various projects and preoccupations that have constituted his career. To our left, silvering under gray monsoon clouds, a soft-edged green mass sits – or rather, grows – between the hard blue glass cubes that dominate the landscape. Rahul interrupts himself to point out the building.

Commissioned as a corporate headquarters by the three young brothers who run the logistics company KMC, it consists, essentially, of a glass core structure surrounded by a trellis of hand-welded steel. Planted on this trellis are flowering vines, irrigated through an elaborate system built into the trellis itself. The vines bloom in blocks of color designed to wittily imitate the odd color-blocked geometries of the glass- and aluminum-plated buildings nearby. During the hot summer months, misters combine with the plants to naturally cool the air flowing through the building; from the outside, the mist transforms the building into a cloud. Inside, catwalks between the exterior trellising and the glass walls of the core structure bring the building’s staff of 20 gardeners within easy reach of the plants and into the perceptual world of the office, where they work quite literally alongside CEO’s and high-level management. “The idea of softening thresholds, of dissolving binaries – architecture can play an important role in that,” Mehrotra says.

“In India now, the most exciting

how can you make shifts in the mainstream?” Rahul nods to the KMC building, completed last year, offering it as one possible answer to that question: “Take on people who are newly rich, who are young, who have ambitions, but then you design for them differently.”

*            *            *

Mehrotra has built a career of doing things differently. He has worked on restorations of some of India’s most flamboyant buildings (Goa’s 16th-century churches, Hyderabad’s florid Chowmahallah Palace), and yet his own architectural idiom relies primarily on rectilinear forms and the delicate geometries of positive and negative space, on the subtle play of simple materials and their interactions with their surroundings. He builds straight lines while seeing the world through round glasses; his two-decade career has been one long story of fitting square pegs into round holes.

After earning his MA in Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he currently serves as Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, Rahul returned to India to establish his practice, Rahul Mehrotra Architects. By the mid-1990s, Rahul’s writing on Bombay’s heritage structures, and advocacy work through the Bombay Collaborative, had generated sufficient momentum to see Fort officially declared India’s first heritage district. Since, Rahul’s urban design work has resulted in the founding of the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), the renewal of Kala Ghoda as Mumbai’s gallery district and the refurbishment of Horniman Circle.

New commissions grew through the 90’s from interiors to private homes, corporate offices, major institutional campuses and community projects for non-profit organizations. “We might be one of the few practices in India that does private commissions, government commissions, works with NGOs, does self-initiated work, conservation,” Rahul says. “It’s more interesting and exciting, in the Indian context, to work with the entire fabric.”

In 2003, Mehrotra began teaching at the University of Michigan, shifting in 2007 to MIT and in 2010 to Harvard, though he came to academia “quite accidentally,” he says. “When I was doing the UDRI, I used to organize lectures, do research projects, take on young people and mentor them to become researchers,” he recalls. “Without being at all conscious about my interest in teaching, I had been by default doing stuff that prepared me really well for teaching.”

Throughout his career, Rahul has gravitated toward the exciting ideas generated by young people. “A lot of people at a certain stage in their careers tend to have very strong opinions and do not want to open them,” says Abha Narain Lambah. A frequent collaborator, Lambah began her own prestigious conservation architecture firm, ANL Associates, 15 years ago from a single desk in Rahul’s offices. “He has stopped himself very consciously from that by completely engaging with younger professionals.”

Mehrotra’s studio, in an unassuming building near the Kala Ghoda Synagogue, occupies a single rectangular room under a grid of cane curtains that, when raised or lowered, can reconfigure the room at will; it is an exercise in elegant geometry and structural transparency, hallmarks of Mehrotra’s aesthetic. The staff here is almost entirely under the age of 40, with several employees fresh out of college.

Robert Stephens, the senior-most architect at the firm (aside from Rahul himself), came on in 2007 directly after completing his architecture degree. “Sometimes when you give people a certain amount of trust regardless of age or experience […] a lot of surprises can be found there,” he says. “It’s not a traditional way of working, it’s simply: what can you do at this moment?

In 2008, Rahul changed the name of his firm from Rahul Mehrotra Architects to RMA Associates to better reflect the collaborative spirit of the firm, and yet on his trips to India – which, he says, come roughly every six weeks – he travels constantly to inspect ongoing projects and new sites. “I’m not a micromanager in any way,” he says, “but I am very, very, very, very hands-on.”

I see this first hand at the Chowmahallah Palace, where Mehrotra is performing a basic inspection to determine what work needs to be done in a second proposed round of restoration work. No detail here is so small that it escapes his notice. He relates stories of the restoration project, which lasted from 2000 to 2007, with a collegiate glee, and proudly points out his own prized accomplishments in the space: not the glorious Durbar Hall, but rather the signage, hand-painted on simple gray stone. He stops for some minutes to show the caretaker better ways to highlight the hand-carved stone curbs that neatly divide the gravel paths and green lawns, even borrowing a small spade from one of the gardeners to demonstrate how to highlight the geometry of the pathways with minimal labour.

These elements are typical of Mehrotra, simultaneously vernacular and modern. “The binaries we have set up in our narrative in the discourse on India – whether it’s the poor/rich binary, the traditional/modern binary, the global/local binary, whether it’s mechanized versus handcrafted – I think life will be better if we can dissolve this,” Rahul says, “architecture will be better if we dissolve this.”

*            *            *

It is perhaps peculiar for an architect to be so excited by the idea of dissolution. And yet dissolution – or rather, its instigator: time – is the clearest unifying thread in Mehrotra’s career.

The two major projects currently on Rahul’s mind (aside, of course, from the several private homes and restorations currently underway at RMA Associates) are a traveling exhibition based on his book Architecture in India Since 1990 that he hopes to launch within the year, and the Kumbh Mela Project, which earlier this year brought faculty and students from five Harvard graduate programs to Allahabad to study the world’s largest temporary city. Rahul sees this project, a high-profile experiment within the Harvard community, as an opportunity to begin forging new and productive links between elite academic institutions in the United States and institutions here in India.

“He’s dealing with issues of motion and time and temporality [in architecture],” says Felipe Vera Benitez, one of the MA candidates who traveled with Rahul to Allahabad. “At first, you might not say that that is related to kinetic cities” – a term coined by Rahul to describe dynamic urban spaces not defined by permanent architecture – “but when you put everything under the label of temporality, then you really understand that what he’s looking at is the space in which urban fabric changes.”

This same notion of change in urban fabric is precisely what connects all of Rahul’s built work. Conservation, after all, is the response to a building’s change over time, both in terms of structure and significance. Even Rahul’s contemporary structures are designed such that they can appear complete at any number of stages along the way, allowing greater flexibility to accomplish a desired aesthetic end over time.  “It’s about how you break the constituent parts of the design down and let it stretch over time,” he says.

“Time is important,” he adds. “Life can corrode architecture.” It’s hard to imagine any other architect saying that with a smile.

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