Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design: The kinetic city

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Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design: The kinetic city
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Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design: The kinetic city

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Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design: The kinetic city
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Cities are evolving, living systems. Why then do we design them as fixed and permanent? Is it time for a new theory of urbanism, better suited to the developing world, where urban space is often used in transient ways?

The episode features Rahul Mehrotra, founder principal of RMA Architects, India, and professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

The 2021 book by Rahul Mehrotra, The Kinetic City and Other Essays, presents his writings over the last thirty years and illustrates his long-term engagement with and analysis of urbanism in India.

Episode outline

00:07:55 The kinetic city in India
00:10:27 “So really, the real urban theory should be coming out of Africa, out of Asia, out of India or South Asia, because this is where the action is on the ground, and I would argue even the Middle East, right? Because these are taking new forms of urbanism in a sense, not only in terms of its architectural articulation but also how people occupy space.”
00:19:00 “So conservative estimates say that about 30 million people walked back to their villages because of the lockdown, which tells you how not very permanently they are invested in the city, right? Home was elsewhere.”
00:21:52 Urbanism in India
00:23:20 “Cities take two or three generations to form, to be appreciated, to become functioning entities… the idea of the instant city was a provocation. I don’t think it can happen.”
00:23:56 “Unfortunately in India, the paradigms have become arrière-garde action. It’s not avant-garde. We are not ahead of the curve. Planning is not anticipating growth, it’s following and reacting to growth, and this is a huge problem in India.”
00:33:30 “Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai… were autocracies (that) were becoming around the world emblems of competency. That means emblems of being able to attract capital, realise that capital very quickly, and create very efficient infrastructure that people could benefit from. And that’s why India took this sort of route in a democracy, and therefore, what resulted was very uneven development.”
00:36:29 “Now for a democracy, in deep democracy, to survive and to function, it needs civil society. And I think, unfortunately, India today, what is being stifled the most is civil society. And if we don’t have a robust civil society we’ll never have deep democracy, we’ll slip into autocracy.”
00:38:39 Soft boundaries in architecture
00:48:31 “The architect, as part of civil society in these more complex projects like Hathi Gaon, has to play the role of the bridge between these different constituent members of the client. And I think if you can get these clients, or these different aspects of the clients to come to the same table, then you get a good project. It’s often not all frictionless.”
00:52:04 Becoming Rahul

Summary

The Kinetic City is a term coined by Rahul Mehrotra to counter the prevailing view of cities as agglomerations of static and permanent objects, defined by their architecture.

He argues that a city should be perceived, read, and mapped in terms of patterns of occupation and associative values attributed to space which is in flux and contingent on time, day, season, and festival. These informal spaces and their impermanence are equally, if not more, important than the buildings that make up the city.

The transient nature of Indian urbanism came into sharp relief during COVID lockdowns when more than 30 million people walked back to villages. This was evidence, says Rahul, that settlements are more complex and dynamic than we are led to believe.

Transient space in Indian city, acting as social space
© Rajesh Vora
Transient space in Indian city, during religious festival
© Rajesh Vora

The implications of kinetic urbanism are discussed. Rahul talks of planning as an act of balancing fixed and loosely defined spaces or elements, accommodating groups and programmes that are often overlooked.

KMC Headquarters, Hyderabad (India): an office building clad in a green wall
© Tina Nandi

Rahul postulates ‘soft boundaries’ in buildings and neighbourhoods that work with the ebb and flow of people, and offer edge conditions in which different groups can interact.

KMC Headquarters, Hyderabad (India): space between inner and outer facade, an example of soft boundary
@ Tina Nandi

The pursuit of kinetic, soft-edged architecture and urbanism leads to a different view of professional practice, wherein the designer becomes a mediator of sorts, balancing the needs of one group against another.

Hathi Gaon, Jaipur (India): a home to elephants and their keepers, was a project with multiple stakeholders and clients
@ Rajesh Vora

The planning of Indian cities, says Rahul, must start by acknowledging actual conditions on the ground and the forces that shape them. This demands a new theory of urbanism for the developing world, one that embraces bottom-up emergence of the transient, alongside top-down placement of the fixed and permanent.

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:05:31 “…his famous speech which, you know, resonated Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”…”
Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety” | NPR
00:07:55 “…a critic of the modernist industrial paradigm…”
Competing Models” | Britannica
00:08:01 “…the phrase that is most associated with you is the kinetic city…”
Excerpt from The Kinetic City & Other Essays: The Permanent and Ephemeral by Rahul Mehrotra” | Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD)
00:15:34 “…in America, for example, now there are over 2000 shopping malls in the suburbs that are abandoned…”
Inside America’s eerie abandoned malls” | CNN Style
00:17:47 “…we call it energy transitions because you have to go into other modes that make the disruptions very minimal…”
What is the Energy Transition and why does it matter?” | Spectra
00:19:00 “…30 million people walked back to their villages because of the lockdown…”
In India, the world’s biggest lockdown has forced migrants to walk hundreds of miles home” | The Washington Post
00:22:17 “…models of Indian urbanism…”
A Conversation With: Urban Planner Rahul Mehrotra” | The New York Times
00:22:28 “…the critiques of Chandigarh were immense as a city…”
Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh: an Indian city unlike any other” | Financial Times
00:25:48 “…too close to fully critique right now is the Smart Cities mission…”
About Smart Cities Mission” | Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Urban Development
00:28:49 “…the liberalization of the Indian economy in the nineties…”
Twenty Years of India’s Liberalization: Experiences and Lessons” | United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
00:35:45 “…coined the term ‘deep democracy‘…”
Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics” | UCL (University College London)
00:37:05 “…fantastic model of how the state, civil society, the academy…”
Social Urbanism: From the Medellín Model to a New Global Movement” | ArchDaily
00:41:51 “…a really excellent example of soft thresholds…”
Soft Thresholds: Projects of RMA Architects, Mumbai” | Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD)
00:44:24 “…he said “you’ve created true green jobs”…”
Green jobs: good for you, for the environment and for the economy” | Iberdrola
00:49:20 “…the green building movement who’s become a new kind of civil society…”
Moving the Goalposts: The History of Green Building and Performance” | GRESB
00:49:53 “…at least the LEED certificate…”
LEED rating system” | USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council)
00:50:50 “…so it creates passive cooling…”
What are Passive Design Strategies?” | Rethinking The Future
00:51:13 “…now with GRIHA…”
GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment)
00:03:48 “…to CEPT in Ahmedabad…”
CEPT University
00:04:38 “…you met Rajiv Gandhi…”
Rajiv Gandhi” | Britannica
00:06:11 “…before you set up RMA…”
RMA Architects
00:07:06 “…your role at the Harvard GSD…”
Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD)
00:17:27 “…when Manmohan Singh was our prime minister…”
Manmohan Singh” | Britannica
00:25:24 “…which was the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, the JNURM…”
Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM)” | Jaipur Municipal Corporation (JMC)
00:29:31 “…with our Prime Minister Narasimha Rao…”
P.V. Narasimha Rao” | Britannica
00:35:34 “…the famous anthropologist Arjun Appadurai…”
Bio” | Arjun Appadurai
00:44:10 “…Sanjay Prakash, who is a well-known energy expert and architect and in India…”
Ar. Sanjay Prakash Studio For Habitat Futures (SHiFt)” | MGS Architecture (Modern Green Structure Architecture)
00:45:28 “…Mahouts are people who look after elephants…”
Mahout” | Britannica
00:02:16 “…largely in the city of Mumbai…”
Mumbai” (Maharashtra, India) | Britannica
00:02:19 “…I was born in Delhi…”
Delhi” (Delhi, India) | Britannica
00:02:21 “…in the city of Lucknow…”
Lucknow” (Uttar Pradesh, India) | Britannica
00:03:43 “…at the age of 17 to Ahmedabad…”
Ahmedabad” (Gujarat, India) | Britannica
00:05:06 “…visited Boston and he spoke at Memorial Hall…”
Boston” (Massachusetts, United States) | Britannica
00:09:33 “…In the classic Singapore shophouse…”
Singapore” | Britannica
00:13:52 “…is how the maidans…”
Maidan” | Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
00:22:08 “…has it changed much since Chandigarh…”
Chandigarh” (Chandigarh, India) | Britannica
00:26:44 “…money on biking path in Bhubaneshwar…”
Bhubaneshwar” (Odisha, India) | Britannica
00:32:40 “…politicians use cities like Dubai…”
Dubai” (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) | Britannica
00:32:40 “…politicians use cities like […] Shanghai…”
Shanghai” (Shanghai, China) | Britannica
00:37:02 “…Medellín in Colombia…”
Medellín” (Antioquia, Colombia) | Britannica
00:37:52 “…Whether it’s Rio…”
Rio de Janeiro” (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) | Britannica
00:37:54 “…the highlands have the favelas…”
Favela” | Britannica
00:41:48 “…The KMC corporate office is a really excellent example…”
KMC Corporate Office” | RMA Architects
00:45:07 “…take the example of Hathi Gaon…”
Hathi Gaon” | RMA Architects
00:45:47 “…in a desert climate of Rajasthan…”
Rajasthan” (India) | Britannica
00:45:47 “…in a desert climate […] outside Jaipur…”
Jaipur” (Rajasthan, India) | Britannica
00:42:07 “…double-skin facade that has…”
How Do Double-Skin Façades Work?” | ArchDaily
00:42:08 “…that has a vegetated external screen…”
Green Facades” | Urban Green-Blue Grids

There are no products and technologies mentioned in this episode.

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Editorial assistants
Amulya Dhulipala
Ann Mathew

Sound technician & Editor
Kelvin Brown  |  Phlogiston

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