This is an unusual book. First, it contains not one single project of its architect/author’s. Second, in its measured way, it addresses some of the most burning issues of our time.
Rahul Mehrotra’s Architecture in India since 1990 opens with 1990 because this is when his generation, which was just coming into its own, witnessed the devolution of the last remnants of responsibility for planning from government agencies dating from the post-independence Nehru Era to speculative profit-driven private interests, in other words to an unfettered, globalised free market, what he calls “impatient capital.”
As the book amply illustrates, the effect of the post-1990s liberalized economy has been disastrous for India. Antilla, the most expensive home in the world commissioned by India’s richest man, is just the most extreme case in point. Designed by Perkins + Will for Mukesh Ambani, it is 27 stories high, cost $1 billion, employs a staff of 600, and is equipped with a ballroom lit with chandeliers of solid gold, a 50-seat theater, nine cocktail lounges, three helicopter pads, and six underground floors of parking. To quote Mehrotra, it is “symbolic of the rising capitalism gripping cities like Mumbai through such disruptive interventions within the existing fabric. Out of scale, out of proportion, this single-family house epitomizes the crassness of capital expressing itself on the landscape, unmindful of the context.” Indeed, Antilla also provides a commanding view of Mumbai’s slums, home to 60 percent of the city’s population, and has been universally vilified as the ultimate monument to inequality.
The main complaint of the book is that India has become a landscape of “global ‘storm troopers’ in a laissez-faire formation,” whose purpose as architects is limited to representing “the power of capital and its universalizing symbolism, serving as iconic beacons for investments in new terrains, reassuring external investment and capital that it is safe to ‘land’ here.” The book takes on the resulting “global follies” in the form of countless shopping malls, IT parks, gated employment enclaves, gated communities, and luxury hotels by local and foreign architects alike. It decries among many others, Zaha Hadid’s“parametric” IT park in Mumbay for its inefficient responses to the real parameters of climate, light, and airflows, as well as for its “dogmatic use of energy-unfriendly materials like metal and glass cladding, which make it uneconomical and unsustainable.” Of Robert Stern’s and HOK’s gated New Urbanism suburban developments he points out that they have densities too low to imagine in the urban context so typical of India and that they necessarily form entities that “secede from the city and no longer rely on the formal or informal urban systems for services.” Meanwhile, most incomprehensibly of all perhaps, agricultural land, once protected, has been deregulated, bulldozed and turned over for disastrous Indian developer-driven projects.
The first part of the book is counterbalanced by a series of buildings that Mehrotra sees as the alternative. In a nutshell, they are critical regionalist. What makes them so is that they “do not reject modernism but rather the new form of internationalism perpetuated by the corporate practices.” In fact, critical regionalism means seeing the importance of modernism as a mechanism for viewing tradition afresh. Its mandate agenda and aspirations are regional. He proceeds to give a history of India’s great regionalist tradition, starting with Antonin Raymond’s Golconda Ashram, and extending to the masterpieces of Charles Correa, Joseph Stein, Laurie Baker, Balkrishmna Doshi, Raj Rewal, and Christopher Benninger. He then presents the heirs of this tradition, the current generation, which in his view has deftly managed to turn the flow of global capital to India’s advantage, such as Studio Mumbai, Sameep Pador & Associates, Mahew and Ghosh, Vinu Daniel, and Anagram Architects. Of particular interest is the South Asian Human Rights Center by Anagram with its sustainable, exposed brickwork lattice-pattern. The book’s most eye-popping surprise is a selection of multi-cultural contemporary mosques, temples, ashrams, stupas, religious architecture, like the amazing temporary walkways floating on pneumatic pontoons zigzagging cross the Ganges for the feast of Kumbh Mela.
Architectural practice and education needs to be rethought, away from the tendencies in evidence since the 1990s that have helped to cause dire economic, social, and environmental damage on a global scale. With this book, Rahul Mehrotra, the Chair of Harvard GSD’s Urban Planning and Design department, has set up a platform for one of the key debates of our time. Can individual architectural interventions make up for a lack of planning? Can the devolution of planning to private interests be anything but ecologically, socially, and economically deleterious? Is there anything to be learned from a comparative approach, bringing in examples of successful planning today? These are pressing issues that are pertinent to a critical regionalist approach not only to India, but to the entire world, including North America.