For many in Mumbai, Rahul Mehrotra first erupted into the city’s imagination in 1995 as the co-author with Sharada Dwivedi of Bombay: The Cities Within. The painstakingly researched, lavishly illustrated volume traced the evolution of a cluster of malarial islands in the 16th century into the teeming metropolis that came to be known as the Gateway of India.

The pioneering book played a significant part in helping Mumbaikars to develop an appreciation for their past and in persuading them to try to preserve this rich heritage for future generations.

But research and writing, as they were to learn, were only two of the many roles in which Mehrotra is engaged. As the founder principal of RMA Architects, he has designed several familiar spaces in Mumbai and beyond: the popular Swati Snacks restaurant, the Visitors’ Centre at the city’s largest museum, community toilets for the NGO SPARC, art galleries, private homes, institutional buildings and corporate offices across the country.

He has participated passionately in civic affairs, framing plans for conserving historic precincts and serving on official commissions relating to preserving urban heritage. He has shared his ideas at scores of lectures and landmark exhibitions, such as one in 2016 in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art titled “The State of Architecture”.

Mehrotra now teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he is Professor of Urban Design and Planning and the John T Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanisation. He divides his time between working in Mumbai and Boston.

His latest book, Working in Mumbai (ArchiTangle/ CEPT University Press), looks back critically at his work over the past three decades and situates it, he said, “in the broader context of architecture and urbanism in India”.

Excerpts from an interview.

How did this book come about?
Two circumstances led to this book. The first was some distance from the previous book titled Architecture in India Since 1990 (2011). In writing this previous book, I hoped to assume the role of a critic and naturally to stay objective did not include the projects of our studio. And then on completion of 30 years of practice, I felt this was good time to reflect about our own work in the same way as I had reflected about Architecture in India Since 1990 – which was also the year we established the practice.

But most importantly, the book was also a way for me to, at a more personal level, weave together a framework to understand my own multiple engagements that had motivated or propelled our work – seemingly often unconnected endeavours. These included building, conserving, advocacy, research, writing and teaching. Thus the title of this new book – Working in Mumbai – where the city, at least emblematically, became the protagonist in understanding how these different engagements intersect.

As I reflected on our practice, I realised how much Mumbai had given us. That’s why I called it Working in Mumbai. I think your context informs your values and makes you aware of the consequences of your actions – in turn that understanding informs your work. One was listening to the city, observing, understanding and articulating these thoughts without any specific agenda and I think the city gave us back in return – by engaging us in its own life. So I think that generosity of the city is something I wanted to absolutely acknowledge.

Why did you become an architect?
I think I can attribute it to two things. One was the fact that because my father was in a service job, so as a family we moved every few years and lived in a lot of homes. So we lived in Delhi, Lucknow, and Mumbai – in Mumbai, we lived in four different apartments. For me, every move was full of excitement. It offered a lot of possibilities and allowed one to reorganise one’s life in space differently.

So while for everyone in the family it was a disruption, I rather looked forward to this and recall being extremely excited about rearranging the house using the furniture we had, and how it would define space differently. And, of course, the natural conclusion was one should do interior design.

I was fortunate that two of our family friends, Ranjit Sabhiki and Satish Gujral, were architects and who mentored me to look at architecture instead as it was broader in terms of what skills I would acquire and be more expansive in terms of how one could engage with the broader built environment.

The other factor that drew me to architecture is the amount of travel we did growing up. Every summer for six weeks we travelled the country in an Ambassador car, which my father drove himself. We went all the way to Kaziranga in the east, and down to the Kanyakumari. So growing up, one actually saw a lot of the country’s natural landscapes, monuments and architecture – that depository of memories I go back to even today.

Rahul Mehrotra.

What form did you want to give this book?
This is not a monograph. It attempts to walk the thin line between celebrating our work over 30 years but also being reflexive – and, to the extent one can – self-critical. It’s also intended as a bit of a provocation to the profession. In the same way as I believe Architecture in India Since 1990 was a provocation to the profession, which had got very comfortable with certain kinds of “boutique commissions”.

And what the book showed was that that the biggest projects that are being built in India today, whether they are modern faith-based temples or temples for finance, are actually either being done by foreign architects or are being done without architects. So it was a provocation really, that we architects were being marginalised. That the built environment around us was being transformed rapidly while we were comfortably engaged in fetishising material cultures in boutique commissions for higher-income clients.

Working in Mumbai is deliberately designed as an accompanying volume to Architecture in India. So here, one is actually saying: given the context of what’s happening in India, here are some propositions about how we can think about nestling the context of our own work in the broader context of architecture and urbanism more broadly in India.

I think the more aware we are as architects about how the context actually produces the circumstances that produce our buildings, the more relevant we will be within that society. As Charles Correa said, architecture is not a moveable feast in the way music is. Architecture is rooted in place and very grounded.

Architects today in this globalised world tend to feel that the world is their canvas, that they can jump around from place to place. But I think that’s a mistake because architecture is very much about place and by extension the culture that place constructs. So the book is very much about actually situating and recognising the city of Mumbai as the generator of the practice.

In the book, I outline the range of work that we’ve been involved with, from conservation to software centres, corporate offices, housing and institutions to private homes, but also critically looking at each one of those typologies and asking what the appropriate way they could be spatially articulated in the context of contemporary India.

So for example the KMC corporate building with the garden that allows the gardeners to partake as an employee is a ways of what I call dissolving binaries, of creating soft threshold, of recognising that in India putting the human being at the centre of the architectural and urban imagination becomes critical because we have more people in the same amount of square kilometre than anywhere on the planet. So therefore how people are organised in space becomes very important.

Another component in the book I enjoyed doing was the chronology – which is really intended as an intersection and overlay of 30 years of work – not just as buildings but thinking about the buildings, writing about the buildings in the city as well as nationally, teaching and also a public interface in the form of exhibitions and other formats. For me, these are all legitimate and simultaneously valid forms of practice.

KMC corporate headquarters, Hyderabad. Credit: Tina Nandi

What on reflection do you think were the couple of important things you learnt looking back at 30 years of practice?
While there are many, I will focus on a couple. The first is the importance of writing and research. In retrospect I learnt the most from collaborating on research and writing projects. I have come to see books as instruments of advocacy. I think architects can contribute to advocacy not by becoming advocates themselves but by contributing to making the instruments for advocacy – which is books, and the act of documenting historic districts and our broader natural landscapes, which is beginning to understand the spatial fabric of where we exist more mindfully. The production of spatial knowledge about these aspects is critical for advocates to make their campaigns effective.

This notion of “instruments for advocacy” is also related to how we operate in a democracy, where civil society becomes a critical link between the grassroots and more powerful forces. And architects have to situate themselves in that space of civil society and create these instruments of advocacy to create the bridges between the grassroots and more powerful forces.

So architecture, urban design, planning, I believe are all bridge professions. They should not be seen or imagined as insulated or as the autonomous production of knowledge. These acts have to be very much linked to society – if we aspire to deepening democracy.

The second thing that struck me in writing the book and reflecting on the past decades was the notion of how we even imagine the client. One has to differentiate the client to understand what your fundamental relationship as an architect should be. So a client could be differentiated, for simplicity, into three broad categories.

One is a patron client, the second, an operational client and the third, a user client. If you look at this tripartite definition of the client, then whom you are building for or serving is more comprehensible. So in a single-family house or weekend house, this becomes an undifferentiated entity because the user client, the operational client and the patron client usually becomes one entity. That’s why architects love doing single family houses – often a frictionless process barring the difference sometimes between a couple involved.

But what happens when an architect has to negotiate a much more complex terrain when you’re building for society. Or take an even more extreme case of one of our projects, the Hathigaon. Here, the patron client was the chief minister of Rajasthan, the operational client was a changing entity, from the Rajasthan Tourism Development board to the Amber Fort authority to the Forest Department, while the user clients were the elephants and the mahouts.

These three entities often had little connection with one another. And sometimes an antagonistic one. Whom are you accountable to and who are you building for? And how do you then as an architect play the role of the bridge between all three and how do you bring all their collective aspirations to manifest themselves in the project? That for me has been a very big revelation as part of this process of reflection.

Hathigaon housing, Jaipur. Credit: Rajesh Vora

What are you making of decisions to rebuild many buildings along Central Vista project in New Delhi? What does this represent when you are you think about conservation?
The short response to your question is that I think the buildings along the Central Vista should have been maintained and recycled in creative ways – absolutely not demolished. But we should learn from this horrific act and understand how we can actually place the conservation discussion more effectively.

When we talk about conservation and in postcolonial conditions like in Mumbai, Delhi, or Kolkata and other colonial landscapes in India, we have to first recognise that the creators and the custodians of the environment are two different cultures: the custodians are us and creators were the British. This complicates the narratives about conservation. So how does one create or clarify these narratives such that present custodians who bring another culture to bear on the conversation can actually relate to and identify with that environment?

The more fundamental question is why do we even preserve? I think conservation is an instrument of planning that helps any society modulate the rate of change. For, at different moments in their own evolution as a society, they have different capacities to embrace change.

So in China for example through the Cultural Revolution, society was actually programmed to accept dramatic change – which even led to horrific things like burning art and books. On the other hand, in a society like Britain where this imaginary notion of an empire is still lurking in people’s minds, change is impossible to embrace.

Therefore, the most Draconian conservation laws perhaps exist in places like England, and we in India seem to embrace that. We send our young architects to study conservation in England, and we always refer to English Heritage when we’re trying to benchmark our own conservation process – which is completely ridiculous because those cultural references and even the impulses that are driving conservation there are so completely different from our own.

Of course there is learning from that too, but we need to modulate this for our conditions and cultural context.

Ours is a society where, the world “kal” means both yesterday and tomorrow. For us, this blur between the present, the past and anticipated futures is completely a different imagination. So the reason I say that conservation is an instrument of planning to modulate change is that conservation of a building cannot be isolated from the broader pressure of the city, of real estate, of changing aspirations, new mobility systems – it’s the pressure of many planning contingencies that finally bear on the importance or let’s say relevance of that piece of architecture.

I’m not suggesting that this a black-and-white set of options. But how we strike a balance between these polarities is the critical question. Therefore, what conservation distils down to are two or three things in these sorts of complicated conditions. One, it becomes conserving the illusion of the architecture because often these buildings are in any case drained of their ideological or symbolic meaning. Therefore conservation has to become less of a moral position and its practice has to take on much more of a nitty-gritty, get-my-hands-dirty approach.

If you call a conservation architect a maintenance architect, they will get upset. Right? But really, this is about sensitive and aware repairs and maintenance. Those words don’t ring so well, but I think what we have to start doing in India is actually celebrate categories like that maintenance, reuse and repair. That will propel conservation in a completely different direction and make it more embedded in society more broadly. But even more importantly it will be an effective and prudent use of existing resources in sustainable ways.

Hyderabad's Chowmahalla Palace, built in the 1750s and restored by RMA Architects in 2002. Credit: Rajesh Vora

This totally rings true in the case of the Louis Kahn buildings at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. many people believe that they have not been maintained adequately.
Here I go back to what I said about the patron client, operational client and a user client. I think they are all equally responsible for any building. I think that all these entities have to be on the same side of the table because if the buildings are used badly or maintained badly even if the patron client who might have commissioned the construction of these buildings wants to preserve them, you’ve already lost two-thirds of the battle. So how do you bring everyone on the same page and what are the narratives that allow you to do that? This, I think, becomes the critical question.

But let’s go beyond the IIM buildings. We are already having the same debate about many other modern buildings, in India. I think this is a very complicated question for two reasons. One is because currently politically there seems to be a scramble to disassemble the Nehruvian legacy. Nehru’s strategy was about constructing a pan Indian identity through the neutral associative values of modern architecture that was sans decoration, which means it would work across India’s pluralistic landscape.

But I think the problem was that aesthetic modernity came to India before the social modernisation process was advanced. So this deployment of modern architecture worked for that political moment. But then with deeper regional affiliations, with our politics becoming about regional coalitions, identity and aesthetics also began to dissipate – correctly so, because context matters. Context matters for materials, the impulse to adorn based on localised beliefs and aspirations. All this matters for architecture which by nature has to be highly pluralistic, especially if we accept that India is a highly pluralistic society.

So I think this modern legacy, besides the challenges to the Nehruvian legacy, which is a political question, is being challenged by questions of aesthetic preferences in this popular imagination. I think those are the kinds of macro challenges for conserving modern architecture generally.

I think in the case of IIM-A, these are significant and extremely important buildings. These buildings are also unlike anything else that Louis Kahn has done. To my mind, they not only capture the spirit of India, the local light, but also at a kind of profound level they also capture what at that moment in the 1970s India was about and what architecture and its power for identity construction meant. These were buildings that were earthy, they were handmade brick by brick. It was very labour intensive.

It is just amazing how this architecture responded to a gamut of things that made it very much part of where it was being built – this was an architect coming from Philadelphia, but he had understood the earth of India and this context is much more profound in ways than has been even discussed adequately. And that these were institutional building by patrons who were from that locality – the Sarabhais and the Lalbhais and the Ahmedabad Education Society members – it was both the tangible and well as intangible aspects that combined to create the power of this architecture.

So what is the problem for their conservation? Perhaps there are pragmatic issues, which are that IIM-A wants to house more students? Maybe the buildings need to be upgraded because aspirations have changed – postgraduate students now perhaps need better facilities such as air-conditioning, etc? There are seemingly some problems that have to do with material weathering, but that is I think easier to fix. I think the main issue here is how do the aspirations of not only the patrons but also the people who use the campus all align?

Naturally there will be trade-offs, which means it would be limiting to imagine you’re going to restore and use these buildings exactly as they were originally. But what we should aspire to do is to restore them like they were, but use them differently in keeping with new demands. So how they are repurposed and reused, keeping the illusion of the integrity of the architecture intact but finding other ways they can be formulated within is a very addressable challenge. Conservation, if you do go back to my original statement, is an instrument that helps society modulate change. The question then becomes: how much change on that scale are we willing to intelligently accept at this moment in time?

Lilavati Lalbhai Library, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Credit: Rajesh Vora

With the Central Vista, we’re dealing with quite another kind of beast. It does seem to be closer to the Cultural Revolution moment – the plans to demolish the Forbidden City, for instance. How do you read that?
I think the Central Vista reflects what happens when the patron client and operational clients become autocrats and the users (and here I mean civil society and citizens more broadly) are perhaps not even being considered. It is an autocracy, expressing its power aspirations through architecture. And of course this is coupled with the impatience to have it all complete by the “India at 75 Years” celebrations – what a powerful platform to suggest a new power legacy.

In a democracy, the process for a project like this necessarily has to be a more calibrated process. It has to be a process that’s more inclusive and accommodative of many more plural voices. Ideally, this should have been a fair and democratic competition. This should have been preceded by a structured plan that separated the designer of the framework from those that actually do the buildings. And that different architects could have done or re-adapted different buildings along the Central Vista. There are many ways one can one can imagine what this process should have been.

I guess it’s too late now and I think it also reflects badly on us as a community of architects and the broader collective culture that we have not adequately invested in. Perhaps let’s say this a failure of civil society? If architects saw themselves as part of that civil society and amplified a collective voice, there could have been another conversation. Part of the problem is the conversations are very fractured. Some architects have written extremely brilliant pieces analysing the problem, provoking a discussion, attempting to even make propositions for how the present facilities could be just reused. But clearly it all seems to very quickly melt into air.

You often speak about Mumbai’s sharp inequalities. What do you mean by the thresholds constructed in society where architecture plays an important role?
Architecture is very critical instrument in how we either bring societies and people together or separate them. At the level of planning, it happens through zoning, where we attribute single-use zones or separate communities of different economic status. On the other hand, let’s say the arcades on Dadabhai Naoroji Road in Mumbai or Connaught Place in Delhi, create a porosity and a threshold – it’s a transitions zone that allows you to mediate space or to transgress into other spaces more easily. There’s a porosity and there are transitionary spaces and activities.

You could also imagine this as a privacy gradient through a greyscale. This allows different parts of society to at least participate along that privacy gradient in some way or the other, even if through just visual transgression. We tried to translate this observation in the KMC corporate office with a green facade which allows gardeners to walk on catwalks and look into the conference room and make eye contact with the bosses while they’re tending the garden.

That’s a soft threshold because those gardeners otherwise would not come in contact with their employers because they would be working in the garden on their haunches as the boss would drive by in Mercedes Benz with tinted glass and not even make eye contact.

But here, the kind of empathy that gets created with just the presence of people in space through these soft thresholds is remarkable. This is a very important challenge we have to take on as architects, especially in places like India where these disparities play out in extreme forms spatially.

Community toilets for SPARC, Mumbai. Credit: Robert Stephens

Early in the book, you sort of posed a question: how do architects engage with the complex landscapes of Indian democracy? Three decades down the line, what are the conclusions you’ve drawn?
One is, where do we situate ourselves in society, and how do we imagine our place in that broader social landscape within a framework of democracy? I feel very strongly that architects have to see themselves as part of civil society rather than as more powerful agents talking down to society. They have the responsibility of blowing the whistle on the more powerful folks and not just aligning with them.

So if you’re asked to design a corporate building for a wealthy industrialist, the question is, how can you also make it a project of resistance? How do you also root their investments as well as aspirations in the context of the locality?

Through these kinds of engagement, making the building more porous for society, but also formulations that are more responsible for society, whether it’s in terms of how they consume energy, or how they don’t close off their office complexes as a gated community. We must realise that society invests in us and in our education to help society imagine better spatial possibilities in which we live our lives. This is our central mission.

But the most important thing I have learned within the landscape of Indian democracy is that one has to be very pluralistic in one’s imagination. Even the dogma of aesthetics has to be very carefully calibrated. Consistency is one of the big attributes that we use to benchmark ourselves as peers – this idea that you can identify an architect by the aesthetic and a consistency in how that is deployed. But I would argue that what is that more important is the consistency of values and how one negotiates with the context one is building in. The aesthetic comes out of how those values land in a particular context.

Why do you continue to live in Mumbai? It’s a great city but a terrible place.
I suppose home is always home. And what you are always compelled to do is strive towards improving your home – is that not a basic human instinct? The city yet gives me a lot of nourishment both emotional as well as intellectual. It anchors me emotionally because of family, friends, and associations with people whom one works with – and these collaborations gives me intellectual nourishment.

Mumbai challenges me in the way it poses problems for its citizens in very extreme conditions, in ways that it inspires us to rethink paradigms. Whether it’s the challenges of building, or navigating and understanding the city and how it functions.

I am absolutely amazed at how Mumbai keeps going in spite of all the odds weighed against it – clearly it’s the spirit of the people and the place that makes it this great city, and I live in the hope that we can all collectively make it a better place.

Working in Mumbai, Rahul Mehrotra, (ArchiTangle/ CEPT University Press).