The way things are heading in today’s India, cities are going to keep on growing and stretching way beyond their limits, says Rahul Mehrotra – the urbanist, educator and founder/principal of Boston and Mumbai-based RMA Architects – and this trend will only intensify the competition for space and other precious resources. As such, he says, there is a desperate need to redress and rebalance urban landscapes, but doing things right requires a different, more inclusive approach to urban planning. It requires an approach to architecture and design that places as much importance on process as it does on outcome, and one that seeks to come up with solutions for all levels of Indian society, for today as well as the future.

Swati snacks, Mumbai; the glass facade creates a luminous interior while ensuring a certain amount of privacy within, photo: RMA architects
Swati snacks, Mumbai; the glass facade creates a luminous interior while ensuring a certain amount of privacy within, photo: RMA architects

“As an architect, I believe I have a certain responsibility to bring about better spatial possibilities in the urban context,” Mehrotra – who also chairs the department of urban planning and design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design – says. “It is only through more sensitive planning and more robust processes that we are going to get new spatial arrangements that can accommodate peoples’ future aspirations. Otherwise, we are going to get terrible environments in India that are not going to be great places for people to live in.”

Swati Snacks in Mumbai; in order to create a sense of spaciousness contrary to the typical restaurant fenestration, a facade of frosted glass was introduced with some clear glass panels placed at strategic locations to frame views of the street on the outside, photo: RMA architects
Swati Snacks in Mumbai; in order to create a sense of spaciousness contrary to the typical restaurant fenestration, a facade of frosted glass was introduced with some clear glass panels placed at strategic locations to frame views of the street on the outside, photo: RMA architects

For urban India to progress in the right direction, proper planning and design must account for all the different socio-economic groups that populate the city, Mehrotra says. Only then will cities become more equitable and inclusive places where more than just a select few can enjoy a decent quality of life.

Right now, there are scores of people in Indian cities who don’t even have access to basic requirements like proper toilet facilities, for example. Nevertheless, simply building more public amenities, however much they might be needed, would only provide an immediate, short-term solution to a much larger problem, Mehrotra says, not least because public toilets are often built by engineers without any architectural design input.

To that end, RMA Architects were tasked to develop a prototype for 300 public toilets by The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), a non-governmental organization working on slum rehabilitation and housing quarters in Mumbai. While following existing government specifications, the project relied on spatial and architectural reconfigurations to maximize the restrooms’ efficiency and also tackle issues of gender, safety and a sense of community as these aspects have a huge impact on long-term urban planning in India. The project also encompassed residential accommodation for an on-site caretaker (in India, most restroom attendants are from minorities) as well as a community space on the upper floor where children from poorer, overcrowded households would be able to study at night.

The design configuration proposes the stacking of the toilets which are veiled in a green skin and use solar power to get off the grid. The caretaker’s apartment and a community space are located on the top floor in order to break away from the strict association of this as a public toilet, photo: RMA architects
The design configuration proposes the stacking of the toilets which are veiled in a green skin and use solar power to get off the grid. The caretaker’s apartment and a community space are located on the top floor in order to break away from the strict association of this as a public toilet, photo: RMA architects

RMA Architects also raised extra funding from private investors to take the toilet off the power grid through solar panels, allowing for round-the-clock lighting to facilitate safe use by women and children.

Solar panels take the toilet off the grid and allow the space to be lit through the night, facilitating its safe use by women and children, photo: RMA architects
Solar panels take the toilet off the grid and allow the space to be lit through the night, facilitating its safe use by women and children, photo: RMA architects

Mehrotra’s projects, which include workspaces, private homes, office buildings, art institutions, and retail stores, all demonstrate the vision of a keen eye that has figured out how, in a crowded country like India, planning and design can play around with space to optimal effect; how to work with natural elements like heat and humidity; focus on sustainability and, wherever possible, build upon rather than replace older structures (Mehrotra pioneered a movement to preserve heritage buildings in Mumbai that later led to a law).

Take the KMC Corporate Building in the southern city of Hyderabad.

The gardens that envelop the building create a rich, dynamic and performative facade where the  proximity of gardeners to the interior office spaces drives a daily visual conversation of the varied participants that function in and around the building.
The gardens that envelop the building create a rich, dynamic and performative facade where the proximity of gardeners to the interior office spaces drives a daily visual conversation of the varied participants that function in and around the building, photo: Carlos Chen

The building’s double skin combines a visually dynamic façade (it is covered in different plant species that bloom at different times of the year) with a screen that humidifies the air on entering the building to cool the interior through evaporation – a technique that dates back hundreds of years and reduces the need for air conditioning. Most importantly, though, the gardeners tending the plants can access these via a system of catwalks spanning all five levels of the building, thus placing them on equal footing with the white-collar workers inside and helping to soften the socio-economic boundaries between them.

The project serves as a counter point to the nearby speculative developments of the rapidly developing city of Hyderabad and strengthens the case for an approach more consistent with the local ecology, photo: Robert Stevens
The project serves as a counter point to the nearby speculative developments of the rapidly developing city of Hyderabad and strengthens the case for an approach more consistent with the local ecology, photo: Robert Stevens

And while it is getting harder to play with space in metropolises, Mehrotra believes that the second-tier and third-tier Indian cities and hundreds of towns scattered across the country still have a chance of getting it right.

There are also “urban time bombs waiting to happen,” he says, but as yet, many of these don’t possess the necessary know-how for proper urban planning, so they are open to exploring new planning options.

In order to support this process, Mehrotra is currently developing a new taxonomy of cities where population isn’t the only defining factor.

“Every Indian city has its own character: Some are temple towns, some are market towns, some only really become cities when there is a religious event taking place,” he says.

Conceptualizing design around these factors is the best way to figure out what each individual city needs, Mehrotra says, and through proper spatial planning, these smaller cities and towns may be able to avoid the pitfalls faced by larger cities, lessen the competition for precious resources such as water and electricity, and ultimately even blur the harsh socio-economic divisions that still prevail in Indian society – and are only exacerbated by increased urbanism.

Text: Savita Iyer-Ahrestani
Header image: Robert Stephens