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FE Exclusive | Harvard Professor Rahul Mehrotra talks innovative elephant village design in Jaipur, gives insights on India’s Smart Cities and social infrastructure – Infrastructure News

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Ever heard of Hathigaon village (Elephant village) in Jaipur, Rajasthan? This social housing project is for 100 elephants and their caretakers which uses recycled aluminum to create a hand-made trellis that grows vines to create a second skin. The trellis has a misting system that humidifies the facade, allowing air to move through it, and creating a climate-friendly environment.

The approach taken to integrate sustainability in this architectural wonder has intrigued many over the years, especially because in this technologically advancing day and age, it is important to learn and build a sustainable yet resilient urban infrastructure. Financial Express Online spoke to Rahul Mehrotra, the creator of this masterpiece. Mehrotra is the Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and the Founder Principal of RMA Architects. He has designed multiple projects that range from recycling urban land and master planning in Mumbai to the design of art spaces, boutiques, weekend houses, factories, social institutes, and office buildings across India. Excerpts:

Q. Your project, Hathigaon, showcases innovative design solutions for a unique purpose. How did the specific needs of the elephants and their caretakers inform the infrastructure decisions, and what lessons can be drawn from designing spaces with specific user requirements?

What was unique about this project is that it was truly a problem that needed resolution simultaneously across the needs of multiple species – the elephants, mahouts as well as the water systems, flora, and fauna that would support the lives in Jaipur’s desert climate. The design strategy first involved structuring the landscape which had been devastated by its former use as a sand quarry. The idea was to create a series of water bodies to harvest the rainwater runoff, which is the most crucial resource in Rajasthan. With the water resources in place, an extensive tree plantation program was carried out, together with seeding the site to propagate local grass species. The water body is a critical component of the design, serving not only to rejuvenate the landscape but also to facilitate the bonding between the mahout and the elephant through the process of bathing. This ritual is crucial for elephant’s health also keeping in mind their attachment to their keeper. The site plan employed a system of clusters to create a variety of shared spaces to build a sense of community among the inhabitants. Courtyards and pavilions supplement the otherwise small interiors of the government-stipulated housing footprint. Since the areas are dictated by a government policy, the alternative arrangements of spaces subtly subvert expectations tied to low-cost housing.

The challenges of working through bureaucracy in a project sponsored by the government and executed through the Public Works Department were overcome by focusing on the landscape and using the precious resource of water as the central instrument around which decisions were facilitated. The needs of the inhabitants were accounted for in the budget, with minimal investment put towards the architecture. The intent of the design was to leave room for the community to transform their own homes incrementally over time, in terms of basic spatial configurations, the appropriation of open-to-sky private spaces, and finishes.

Q. Can you discuss your approach to master planning in densely populated urban environments like Mumbai, considering the challenges and opportunities presented by existing infrastructure and the need for future growth?

What is critical when we try to grapple with planning for such a complex entity is that we must address many scales simultaneously. We must upgrade infrastructure in the city, reuse land etc. But also simultaneously address the question of the larger metropolitan area. Unfortunately, this balance has not been adequately achieved in Mumbai. In examining the evolution of the city, the fact emerges that historically in its development, outward expansion was consistently balanced with inward growth – involution. However, what becomes evident in the city’s evolution after the 1950s is the diminishing scale of interventions that were needed to propel its outward growth. Perhaps the idea of New Bombay (now Navi Mumbai) in the late 1960s was the last such systematic planning imaginable. This lack of balancing inward and outward development resulted in a situation where efforts were limited to engineering the existing fabric – a process of involution where the city took on the function of absorbing more and more people and activities on the same space rather than diversifying to more dynamic modes. Thus, the city continued to become internally more complicated and susceptible to malfunction.  

Today, with the massive shifts in demography where the urban poor form most of the population and live in the city interstitial spaces, the process of involution is more acute. Thus, to untangle this web of internal complexity, Mumbai would naturally have to aspire to evolve in the larger region simultaneously by opening up serviced accessible land for its swelling population.  In fact, given the combination of two crucial inputs – an emerging employment base and a completed rail link as well as now the Sewri link and the location of the new international airport at Ulwe- New Bombay or Navi  Mumbai once again holds the potential to become a critical big move in the evolution of the city and possibly being able to alter its relationship with the hinterland. And if mindfully orchestrated, we can create this crucial balance between the involution and evolution of the city.

Q. In the context of rapidly changing technology, how do we incorporate smart infrastructure elements in our city designs, and what role do these technologies play in enhancing the functionality and sustainability of your projects?

Smart or let’s say digital technologies can help us network all forms of infrastructure to leverage their efficiencies. For example, buses and tracking their movement and the networks between different forms of mobility systems. Such a similar network is required between other forms of infrastructure as well like water, power, food supply, and even access to health facilities. But when this does not exist adequately, what do you network? We need to build our cities and their infrastructure first and then we can talk about smartness. When over 50 % of our population is believed to live in slums, then we can’t possibly be a smart city. Dumb City is more like it!

Q. In your experience, how do social and cultural considerations influence the design of infrastructure, particularly in projects like social institutes, where community engagement is crucial?

People must be the center of our imagination about a city. When we think of infrastructure, it’s contingent on us to go beyond the physical aspect of it which then traps us in the idea of flyovers and hard infrastructure. But if we think of social and cultural infrastructure as categories, then we open our minds to other crucial needs and imaginaries of what the city should look like and contain. So, in our projects, we tend to start by questioning the program itself and deconstructing the hierarchies that are often implicit in the brief. For me personally, the client is also a highly nuanced term. For cultural and social institutional projects more particularly the building of constituencies becomes crucial to engage different stakeholders in each project. It also becomes important to read the stakeholders in every project in much more nuanced ways. That is how one breaks the otherwise singular entity ‘of the client or stakeholder’ into a composite: of patrons, operational stakeholders, and users.

Depending on the scale and nature of the project, these categories often remain separate or collapse into a singular entity. For example, they collapse in the case of a single-family house, and so the frictions and negotiations are minimized (except perhaps differences between partners if the house is for a couple) whereas in larger institutions or government projects, they become completely differentiated. In these more complex conditions, the tripartite entities that one deals with as a client have no connection to each other except through the architect, thus putting the onus of negotiations to create a condition for the common good in the project on the architect.

Q. Your portfolio includes a diverse range of projects, from art spaces to social institutes. How do you maintain a cohesive design language while accommodating such varied functions and user needs?

I think the glue or the consistent thread through these projects is not a question of aesthetics but rather the values we bring to the projects and the nature of engagement we set up. I believe today, projects must be judged by the level of engagement across the project, not just the aesthetics of a building. After all, aesthetics and ethics are two sides of the same coin.

Q. As an educator, how do you incorporate real-world infrastructure challenges into your teachings, and what advice do you give to emerging architects and urbanists in addressing the evolving needs of infrastructure development in India?

I teach my students the importance of place. Context matters. I urge them to read the context rigorously as this is critical to make or not make an intervention. As I tell them – we must be careful that through architecture and infrastructure interventions that we propose, we are not making permanent solutions for temporary problems and issues. This should be a critical mantra for the profession as we try to make our lives on this planet more sustainable.

As an educator, I also think it is contingent upon us to take these discussions to the Public. A better-informed public will make better choices as patrons of architecture. Platforms such as Conscious Collective by Godrej & Boyce are formatted to do precisely this – broaden the discussion and awareness about design more generally. My upcoming lecture ‘Architecture in a time of flux’ at the event will touch upon these different forms of engagement between designers and the public at large.

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