The multifaceted portrait of Rahul Mehrotra at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

The multifaceted portrait of Rahul Mehrotra at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023
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Architect Rahul Mehrotra is no stranger to the Venice Architecture Biennale. Principal founder of Mumbai-based RMA Architects, he is known for projects of various concerns and scales, such as the Hathigaon dwelling for mahouts and elephants near the Amber Palace, Jaipur, and the various interventions on the CSMVS Mumbai campus. Over the course of each of his appearances at the Biennale (in 2008, 2016, 2018, and 2020-21), he has critiqued and theorized urban change, questioned the notion of permanence in architecture, and broken rigid hierarchies in the creation of spaces, bringing new forms. of looking at the urbanization trajectories of India.

Rahul Mehrotra Architect

Rahul Mehrotra Architect

The 18th edition of the Biennale Architettura, curated by the Ghanaian-Scottish architect and academic Lesley Lokko, has as its theme ‘The Laboratory of the Future’. Her vision is to foreground previously underrepresented places and peoples by exploring alternatives in decolonization, decarbonization, and presenting ways of making architecture that are different from the usual consumption of natural resources. In response, Mehrotra, along with cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote and designer Isabel Oyuela-Bonzani, presents Practice loops, habitability thresholds.

The exhibition uses the feedback loop as its leitmotiv to re-examine various aspects of architecture, design, research, writing, advocacy, and pedagogy that form the basis of Mehrotra’s practice. Located in the historic Arsenale in Venice, it emerges from a configuration of screens, large video presentations, displays and cabinets full of documents, providing a chiaroscuro experience very much in keeping with its Italian setting. Edited excerpts:

Practice loops, habitability thresholds

Practice loops, habitability thresholds

Lesley Lokko’s central provocation is that the practitioner is a ‘change agent’. How did you three prepare a response to this?

Hoskote: I firmly believe that the architect is well placed to be an agent of change in an unpredictable world formed around shoals and streams rather than stable centers. They must address changing patterns of politics, ecology, migration and livelihoods. He [Marathi] the holy poet Tukaram speaks of building his house in heaven. In this spirit, contemporary architects should practice as a dynamic response to constant instability, rather than moving away towards safe zones of patronage. Mehrotra’s three-decade-long practice achieved this, in a period beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall and India’s move towards liberalization, through globalization and emerging totalitarianism. My approach was to develop a multifaceted portrait of this productive hybrid practice, looking at it through multiple lenses and seeing the connections.

A set of publications that embody the various collaborations of Mehrotra.

A set of publications that embody the various collaborations of Mehrotra.

Previous exhibitions based on his practice and theories have been held here in Venice, as well as in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. How did this edition become a ‘laboratory’ to test your concerns in architecture and urbanism, especially in the Global South?

Repeat: Looking back at my participation in the Biennales since 2006, I found an intersection between the themes that previous curators had discovered and my own research trajectories. This edition became a favorable space to synthesize previous learning and think about future practice formats. Ranjit’s formulation of the last 30 years of my various engagements, into a taxonomy of research, advocacy, practice, and pedagogy, shows their simultaneous validity for architects working in the future. This proposition of a multiplicity of ways of working is valid for more than what you call the Global South and could resonate for our interconnected planetary condition.

“Mehrotra’s practice carries on the tradition of responding to the city as a macro-organism animated by irregular cycles rather than a system of carefully interlocking mechanisms.”Ranjit Hoskote

How do you unravel the complexities of a ‘multimodal and multiscalar’ work of an architect whose practice encompasses not only design but also advocacy, research and pedagogy?

Hoskote: I have drawn on three decades of friendship and conversations, and put together a survey of Mehrotra’s work as a friend, fellow traveler, and collaborator. As I see it, her practice is a model of how architects, especially in the Global South, can creatively and generatively intervene in a public situation mired in bureaucracy, ignorance and pessimism. Its trajectory has evolved rhizomatically, in response to existing problems but also in anticipation of crises to come: from policy deficits in urban planning, through discursive gaps between expert culture and emerging audiences and users, to the need to establish solidarities between theorists. and activists in the formation of resistance to bad government and legislated urban chaos.

  Curator Ranjit Hoskote

Curated by Ranjit Hoskote | Photo credit: Priyesha Nair

We translate ‘intangibles’ through meshes and screens that glow in dim light; through a set of publications that embody Mehrotra’s varied collaborations and testify to the convocations and congregations through which his practice in research, advocacy, activism, and pedagogy has been crafted. We have recycled items from her previous appearances. [that were stored at a colleague’s home in Padua] to reduce our carbon footprint. Through a documentary video, we demonstrate the spectrum of dialogues and negotiations through which this practice takes shape, in a spirit of responsiveness.

Video documentaries on Loops of Practice, Thresholds of Habitability

Video documentaries in Practice loops, habitability thresholds

Practice loops, habitability thresholds

Practice loops, habitability thresholds

You have dismantled an idea sacred to architects and planners: that of the permanence of the built form. He revisits materiality as ecology instead of construction, where the ephemeral is important to understand new urban environments. Could you expand on these topics?

Repeat: The taunt I recite to myself when starting a project, or to my students, is: are we making permanent solutions to temporary problems? Embedded in this is a call to examine material life cycles, ecological footprints, and even construction relevance. The profession of architecture today is very polarized: we talk about a moratorium on construction and we believe that construction as a state of permanence is still relevant. I think there is an in-between space of reversibility and touching the ground lightly. My attempt is to infect the debate with this middle ground.

Are there alternatives to your critique of globalization and the tyranny of images because of what you call ‘The architecture of impatient capital’?

Repeat: I believe that what the Biennial proposes and what our exhibition does is consistent with this message. The Biennale tells us that stories, the rearticulation of positions and stories, the inclusion of multiple voices, inform how we reframe our imagination of the built environment and its relationship to nature. In our installation, we question the notion that architecture is the central spectacle or even the privileged instrument for organizing the city. Instead, through pedagogy research, writing, and design, we can create a new generation of architects who will use these multiple modes that will hopefully inform how we spatially inhabit this planet.

  Taxonomy of research, advocacy, practice and pedagogy

Taxonomy of research, advocacy, practice and pedagogy

“The provocation that I do to myself when I start a project or to my students is: are we making permanent solutions for temporary problems? Embedded in this is a call to examine material life cycles, ecological footprints, and even construction relevance. ” Raúl Mehrotra

How do you see the practice of Mehrotra (living and working in Mumbai) as an extension of the genealogy of urban visionaries like Patrick Geddes and Claude Batley, whose work impacted the city?

Hoskote: Through her books co-authored with Sharada Dwivedi, her work at the Urban Design Research Institute [UDRI] and the Architecture Foundation, his curatorial engagements with State of Architecture and State of Housing, and the nomadic studies that have resulted in the Extreme Urbanism reader series, Mehrotra strongly embodies the values ​​of this tradition.

In my foreword to Mehrotra’s collection of essays, the kinetic city [ArchiTangle, 2021], I have placed him in a genealogy of visionaries who made Bombay/Mumbai their home for varying periods, including Patrick Geddes, Claude Batley, Charles Correa and Kamu Iyer. Mehrotra’s practice continues its tradition of responding to the city as a macro-organism animated by irregular cycles rather than a system of carefully interlocking mechanisms. They were mavericks and critics, pragmatic idealists who identified looming crises, proposed solutions to problems, and built platforms and institutions for debate.

The 2023 Architecture Biennale ends on November 26.

The writer is Professor of Architecture at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai.


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