The Emergent Practices fall series videos, which are now available on a YouTube channel.
What is the role and space for architecture in South Asia today? “The State of Architecture in South Asia” explores those fundamental questions. This multi-year series brings together young practitioners who are deeply engaged in the making of architecture, landscape, and interventions. We speak with project conveners Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and an LMSAI Steering Committee member, and Pranav Thole, an urban design graduate student at the GSD and co-chair of the South Asia GSD student group, about young architects in South Asia and the way they are transforming both form and practice across the region.
Mittal Institute: Thank you both for speaking with us about this new project. What led you to conceptualize this project and corresponding lecture series?
Rahul Mehrotra: There were a couple of factors that led us to conceptualize this project and the related lecture series. The first was really the gap that we saw in terms of a discussion across South Asia for architecture and urbanism more broadly. This also became very clear when MoMA had a show on South Asian architecture which really covered the early modernist period – post independence. It became amply clear that the 1980s onwards there is very little documentation in the context of South Asia. Also, on a more personal note about seven years ago with two other colleagues one had mounted an exhibition on the state of architecture in India which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Mumbai. The last event for the exhibition was one that was focused on South Asia and we invited architects from all the countries in the region including Afghanistan and Bhutan, and it was a wonderful two day exposition of work from these different countries in South Asian.. The commonality of issues, struggles, and emergent conditions became more than evident, and we were motivated at that point to try to extend this project. Interestingly the LMSAI was one of the supporters for this conference and so it is rather appropriate that we are now extending these conversations in the form of this project.
The project has three components. The first, a lecture series on young architects under 40 in the region. We felt starting the project with the focus on architects under 40 would give us a very good pulse on the emergent conditions and issues as well as challenges that young professionals are dealing with in the region. This will be followed by a conference which will gather practitioners from the region who have more established practices and are really displaying new models of practice as well as works that the younger generation now uses as a precedent.
The project will end, hopefully, with a travelling exhibition that will start in the region and as it gathers information and as it expands it will then travel back to the US for the audience here. Essentially this project is about creating a conversation between architects in the South Asian region as well as a platform where young architects can be inspired and look at practices in the entire region.
Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design
Pranav Thole, an urban design graduate student at the GSD and co-chair of the South Asia GSD student group.
Pranav Thole: For me, as the co-chair of the South Asia student group, this project presented an excellent opportunity to create a space for discussions revolving around architecture in South Asia. As a student body, we have been striving to develop a platform where we can convene to share our thoughts on the socio-cultural issues in the region that greatly influence the practice of architecture. There are hardly any forums present even within South Asia where architects from the region can speak to each other. Since all the countries in South Asia face similar and yet very distinct socio-cultural and political issues, it would be very insightful to share work and learn from one another’s experiences.
On a personal note, as a graduating architect looking to set up my own practice, this lecture series provided a great platform to explore what practicing architecture looks like for young architects in the region. I was curious to know what are new models of practice being explored and experimented with. What is the agency of architecture in the context of rapid transitions? What are the different forms of patronage, and how does one go about starting a practice?
Mittal Institute: The project and lecture series are now in their second semester. What were some successes from the inaugural semester and what did you learn about the State of Architecture in South Asia?
Rahul Mehrotra: The most interesting learning from the first part of this lecture series which covered 12 practitioners was that there is an entire range of ways of engaging with the built environment that is emerging in South Asia. Essentially it became clear that there was no one model or universal definition of the role of the architect as given the diversity, plurality as well as uneven development in the region. The demand was for architects to respond in dramatically different ways to the problems they choose to engage with. It was absolutely heartening and incredibly motivating to see such a range of types of practices, experimentation with form and material, and, most importantly, the intense empathy that these practitioners seemed to bring to their craft.
It was absolutely heartening and incredibly motivating to see such a range of types of practices, experimentation with form and material, and, most importantly, the intense empathy that these practitioners seemed to bring to their craft.
Pranav Thole: To add to that, it was inspiring to see many practitioners move beyond conventional modes of architectural practice. The mode of engagement in the public realm seems to have evolved for this generation of architects – where we have seen architects go above and beyond to pursue self-initiated projects with tangible outcomes in the public realm. In many cases, we saw architects take on the role of advocacy, operating between the realm of architecture and social work, expanding the scope of conventional practice.
We also noticed that there is an ongoing exchange of knowledge within the region, with students migrating to neighboring countries for education and returning to their home countries for practice.
The Emergent Practices talks—including the one above with Mehreen Mustafa and MAD(E) IN MUMBAI—are hosted virtually, Visit our YouTube playlist to watch past lectures.
Mittal Institute: Your lectures feature a wide range of emerging architectures from countries across South Asia. How do you choose your speaker list, and what do you hope these talks bring to the community?
Rahul Mehrotra: The choice of speakers was based firstly on the fact that they were under 40 because we really wanted to focus on the new generation. More importantly the intent was to create a platform where they could speak to each other but also create networks that might be productive in the future. We also then tried to balance representation from different countries and naturally India given its size dominates the number of speakers. But we have been lucky that we could identify talent in all the countries and they have all been represented in the conversations. Lastly, we had we have tried hard to create a gender balance because one of the questions the project is asking is what the role of women and what might be the ways which they engage with building in a largely male dominated profession.
Pranav Thole: Additionally, we wanted to shift the focus away from architectural work done in the private sector to projects in the public realm, and understand the challenges faced while engaging with the public domain. We were interested in discovering how architects in the first decade of their practice employed the agency of architecture at different scales and meaningfully used design to improve public infrastructure and enact change.
We wanted to shift the focus away from architectural work done in the private sector to projects in the public realm, and understand the challenges faced while engaging with the public domain.
Mittal Institute: What are you most looking forward to for the spring’s line-up? Is there anything you’ll be doing differently?
Rahul Mehrotra: In the spring lineup we really have a diverse set of speakers and more representation from smaller countries like Bhutan Nepal which were not as represented in the first round of this series. We are hoping that in the second round the conversations will warm up differently as many of the speakers are now referring to the first round of lectures and therefore feeling more confident. We imagine they will refine the presentations even more than what we saw in the first round. The first part of the series set a good precedent which we hope we will build on in terms of the sophistication of the conversation and the articulations of issues and lessons which will be very useful for the community of younger architects.
Pranav Thole: Through the lecture series, it has been heartening to see the beginning of a community of students, and practitioners – young and more established attending these sessions consistently. Since we have finished eight sessions now, we also have some of the past speakers returning to attend the new lectures and enriching the conversations.
Mittal Institute: What’s next for the State of Architecture in South Asia Project?
Rahul Mehrotra: Thenext stage for the state of architecture in South Asia project is working towards compiling the lectures that we’ve had for the young practitioners in the form of a book but adding 15 or 20 other practices that we couldn’t accommodate in the lecture series. Following that in September 2023 we plan an in person conference where we will bring in more established practitioners from the South Asian region who would who have a substantial body of built work and we will examine what lessons these hold for the future. The format we are envisaging is also bringing in a group of academics and theoreticians who work on the South Asian region and we are hoping to set up a productive conversation between the theoreticians and the practitioners. This is something that doesn’t happen very much in the region and so we thought it could serve both as a precedent for conferences such as this but also create productive feedback loop for the practitioners as well as give the academics and exposure to what is happening on the ground.
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