On Projective Thinking and Imagination, Resistance Too


Last year, in an interview with The Hindu, a Chennai-based daily, Rahul Mehrotra, redirected what was ostensibly a publicity opportunity for his new book, Architecture in India Since 1990, to highlight some of the core problems confronting urban design. His case study was India. “I think the biggest challenge in the coming decades for Indian cities,” conjectured Mehrotra, “will be the way they reconcile manmade environments (buildings), infrastructure and natural systems (which comprise the terrains they are situated on). How through design we fold these three systems efficiently and seamlessly into each other is what’s going to determine how sustainable cities are going to be.” There is sufficient cause for concern, he suggested. “Thus far it seems in our cities we imagine these three systems independently by different constituent groups and agencies in the city. This has to merge somehow into a single holistic vision.”

Urban design, which once aspired to create the feedback loops between the different forces independently moulding the built environment, offers the potential of a practice framed by a single holistic vision. In theory. Somewhere between the late 1970s and the 1990s, says Mehrotra in his interview with Edgar Pieterse, urban designers capitulated to developers. In his capacity as an influential educator—he is chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design within the Graduate School of Design in Harvard University, the first US tertiary institution to establish official programmes in regional planning, in 1923, and later urban design—he hopes to mobilise “constituencies to resist the status quo”.

Mehrotra’s fighting language is founded on a core of optimism in what he does. Urban design, he told The Hindu, has a big role to play in closing the loop on the abstraction (and non specificity to form) and the site specificity of architecture. “Facilitating design reconciliation urbanistically,” he said, “could convert these conditions of sometimes disparate adjacencies into the strength of Indian cities where diversity is reinforced and yet made efficient; this is what would identify Indian cities and make them unique and be a true reflection of our democracy.” It is a hope that extends beyond just India and her populous cities.

Edgar Pieterse: Having taken over as chair of the oldest urban design school in the world, what do you see to be the central debates that are confronting the field at the moment?

Rahul Mehrotra: At Harvard University urban planning has oscillated between the Kennedy School of Government and the Graduate School of Design (GSD), and never been really clear whether it’s about policy or projective imaginations. Like urban design, it is faced with some central challenges about its role and relevance in the future—I’ll start with urban design, because it is simpler, as perhaps it is more a practise than a discipline. login to read full article

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