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Celebrating Bombay’s Art Deco: Rahul Mehrotra in Conversation

rahul_mehrotra Rahul Mehrotra, an architect, conservator and an urban planner has been at the forefront of his generation in several important conservation projects such as in the Mumbai Kala Ghoda area as well as the Chowmalla palace complex at Hyderabad amongst o thers. His practice conceives/conceptualises projects from urban housing, commercial spaces and unusual projects like elephant stables and mahout residences for the Rajasthan Government. Mehrotra also designs spaces for activist groups in rural and urban India. Recently in Chennai tolaunch “Bombay Deco” in collaboration with Sharada Diwedi, Mehrotra speaks on his works, conservation and his teaching practice at MIT in the US.

Can you tell me the different reactions you have had to your latest collaborative book “Bombay Deco”?

The most interesting reactions have been from people in the city who are in their 60s and 70s – the generation that grew up in this environment of the art deco buildings in Mumbai! They are not only nostalgic about what they see in the book but also very appreciative of the interpretations and historic perspective on what they took for granted as the landscape they grew up with. For others in the city, they seem to appreciate that fact that so much they don’t notice in their everyday comings and goings has been pointed out

What motivates you to write on the architectural nuggets of Mumbai?

My biggest motivation to document aspects of the city is the bizarre rate of change that I have experienced. But more importantly I think the books, as archival records of the architecture and urbanism of the city, are intended to motivate others to engage in the protection of these environments. I think the most critical role that conservation has to play in cities is to act as a modulator of the rate of change.

And how did your teaming up with Sharada Dwivedi work

Sharada and I teamed up as early as 1992 and have since written over 10 books together! We came from such different experiences (hers in history and library science and mine in architecture and urban design) that it’ was a complimentary partnership. We work totally in tandem and compliment each other’s perceptions about the city extremely effectively. We first conceptualise the book together and structure it in several working sessions. Then we just pass the text on back and forth till the point we are both happy with it. In this process of working over each other’s text individual styles and singular perceptions blur to create a truly collaborate work.

As a practising architect whose style vocabulary is decidedly post-modern or modern how do you reconcile your academic work in the field of conservation and also your praxis of that in heritage work?

I think each piece of work (whether it’s a contemporary building, a conservation project, teaching or writing in the form of a book project, it has to be dealt with on its own terms. This acceptance of the simultaneous validity of the inherent cultures of working (accepted set of rules, limits and shared perceptions) within different disciplines allows one to go beyond being bogged down by questions of style and actually engage with the work in its fundamental form. And then what makes this all really interesting and worthwhile, are the crossovers. Old buildings teach us how to deal with weathering and the lifecycle of materials in new buildings, the research and teaching makes us sensitive to the broader context in which we operate as architects,

What is your take on India’s views on heritage? Is it an elitist view reserved for the rich few who can afford it?

Unfortunately that’s how it’s evolving. We need to rethink this notion of conservation for the Indian context given our very particular evolving landscape. Conservation has to be more meaningful and inclusive and must be folded into the planning debate. Historic environments are resources and not just landscapes of nostalgia – the question is how we go beyond the question of memory. I think once we can do that and create an objective basis for the management of our built heritage then the idea of preserving our heritage will be a shared experience across many strata of society.

With sky-high property prices how can one reconcile or even engage in a dialogue on conservation in the urban scenario in our Metros?

Historic environments’ if recycled, reused and conserved can be far more economically viable than one can imagine. This idea that high land prices makes conservation of our historic environments unfeasible is incorrect. Appropriately recycled historic environments can fetch values in proportion to land prices in a particular area.

Where do you think cities will go in the coming years? How will peri-urban areas assimilate into megapolises and what will be the result?

The urban time bomb that India is sitting on are the approx 300 plus 100, 00 people towns that are scattered across India. (Panjim, Panipat, Erode, etc…) these cities as they grow will house a majority of our urban population. These are unfortunately the places where our attention as planners has not turned and ironically they are the cities where we can intervene and actually do something. Of course the mega cities will grow but they have the internal skills and resources and must be made accountable to them selves rather that depend and rely on the centre for continuous assistance. I believe as a nation we should focus on the smaller town and rural areas India’s urban futures lie in that landscape.

What are the alternatives to unplanned urban growth? Any examples or best practices elsewhere.

What is really missing in our cities and their management is accountability. It is the question of governance that needs to be desperately addressed. How we make administrators accountable. In a democracy that’s the only way cities can be designed and evolved.

Tell us a bit about your teaching career at MIT and some of the projects there.

I have been teaching at MIT for two years now and teach both studio/ design courses as well as seminars that look at emergent architecture and urbanism in Asia. I am also involved with MIT’s urblab India. This is lab that has been set up at the school of architecture and planning at MIT to study urbanization in India. We started off by looking at the smaller towns I spoke about earlier and focused the first lab in Erode in Tamil Nadu. This was supported by IFMR. We are also as part of this lab looking at the port lands on the eastern waterfront in Mumbai and studying the urban ecology of the greater Mumbai metropolitan region, and more specifically examining what the recycling of the docklands in Mumbai might be able to do for the connectivity between old and Navi Mumbai

The future? Books, projects, plans?

I am currently working on a research project and a book that is looking at the architecture in India after 1990 – the effects of the liberalization of our economy on the built environment. its interesting how in India people celebrate the success of architecture and cities by citing Dubai and Shanghai . But these are our autocracies and I am amazed that we don’t recognize that in our debates. In Indian democracy there is a pluralism inherent in the built environment and we have to find ways of working with this.

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