In summer 2015 Rahul Mehotra participated in the press tour of Finnish architecture arranged by Architecture Information Centre Finland in conjunction with the Alvar Aalto Symposium. The following article, based on an interview with Mehotra, is published in Finnish Architectural Review issue, ARK 6/2015.
Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra believes that through his work he can eliminate barriers between different groups of people. He was one of the speakers at this year’s Alvar Aalto Symposium.
“You cannot be an architect in India, unless you are also a humanist,” says architect Rahul Mehrotra (b. 1959). He established RMA Architects in Mumbai in 1990 and now the firm also has an office in Boston. In addition, Mehrotra teaches at Harvard University. In his native India he has served as a government adviser in legislation concerning urban planning and building conservation. Mehrotra’s contribution to the conservation of Mumbai’s cultural heritage and, for example, the site management plan he prepared for the Taj Mahal seems remarkable.
Mehrotra encourages architects to be flexible. Often architects have a negative attitude to the changes residents make to the buildings they have designed. Mehrotra regularly visits his buildings, without prior notice, to see what has happened and to photograph the changes. He advises architects to take changes calmly and to learn from them because they are always based on a need.
“We must accept the fact that we may not create anything permanent or everlasting. On the other hand, if you are aware of the context in which you are designing, you can try to create a context within a context and thus have an influence on what will happen to the place in the future.”
Mehrotra strives to create social spaces even when designing private houses. A good example of this approach is the house he designed for a tea plantation (2008) in Coonoor, India. The owner wanted to get rid of the tea bushes because he owns one of India’s largest machine tool companies and didn’t need the profits from the plantation. Mehrotra, however, persuaded him to preserve the tea plantation, designing the private residence on the edge of the tea field. The owner then employed the local villagers to harvest the crops.
“Design certainly does not solely refer to the appearance of buildings or to their primary purpose. It is more about having a space that can be used for different purposes. It can have many levels of use and association.”
Mehrotra’s social aspirations are also well illustrated by the KMC corporate office (2012) in Hyderabad, India. It is a glass box with the facade covered by an abundance of plants both on the inside and outside. The building has a rainwater collection and irrigation system. Based on Mehrotra’s initiative, twenty gardeners were employed to tend to the facade garden. It goes without saying that the solution also has other impacts than those related to the building’s appearance.
The idea of combining private with communal was also utilised when Mehrotra designed a weekend home for a filmmaker (2001) in the village of Alibag, India. The living room is outdoors under a sculptural awning. When the owners are in their city home during weekdays, the living room and the garden’s well are available for the locals to use. It has thus become a meeting place where the villagers celebrate birthdays and weddings and get together in the evenings. The well is of great importance to the villagers. The social activity taking place around the well or the Coonoor tea plantation shared by the local residents gives more security to the owners’ property than surveillance cameras or walls. According to Mehrotra, neither of the houses has been broken into.
“I want to be more than just an architect. I believe that my work can impact people’s actions and eliminate thresholds between different groups. This mindset has developed from the fact that I work in Mumbai as well as from my work as a researcher and teacher.”
At the Alvar Aalto Symposium, Mehrotra sensed some tendency towards elitism. “I would like to remind that the world’s architecture elite is rather small and that the group copies and celebrates each other without criticism. The problems of architecture, particularly in Asia, are something entirely different. They are about bringing people together, not separating them.”
Paula Holmila / ark