Local Strategies in a Global World

This past Wednesday the UMN School of Architecture had the honor of hosting Mumbai based architect Rahul Mehrotra for a lecture on his architectural work and ideas. A major theme that was expressed in the lecture was the idea of softening thresholds, particularly the threshold between local culture and the global economy.

A dilemma that faces architects of many “developing nations” is the rapid replacement of traditional skilled labor with standardized building technology, most often resulting in the homogenization of building materials, systems, and construction methods not to mention social and environmental strategies. This conflict between technology and labor, tradition and progress, the local and the global, is expressed perhaps most poignantly in Wang Shu’s Ningbo History Museum, in which the rubble of ancient Chinese villages is used to clad a modern concrete structure that houses a museum of Chinese history. While an incredibly moving and powerful statement, the writing is literally on the wall: we are witnessing the death of a material culture.

Rahul Mehrotra’s work deals with very similar issues in his projects in India. What is particularly interesting about his approach is that it is not driven by tradition alone, but by how the local and global might interact, support, or even learn from one another, or in his own words, “how to fold ancient lessons into contemporary practice.” A prime example is the KMC Corporate office in Hyderabad. Like several of his other corporate office projects, this building uses water as a primary material. In this case the glass and concrete building is passively cooled through a secondary skin comprised of an anodized aluminum trellis, hydroponic vegetation, and a mechanized misting system. The vegetation is able to cool the interior spaces through the shade it provides, the evaporation of the mist, and the transpiration of the breathing plants; a strategy that is climate specific and inspired by a humble vernacular building typology in the area. Even the anodized aluminum trellis engages the local/global threshold. While a standard spec was used for the interior glazing system, the architects worked with a local craftsman who devised a process for casting and welded the trellis by hand, creating the desired handmade aesthetic in a material typically known for its slick manufactured quality, while simultaneously contributing to the local economy and extending the skills of the local craftsmen.

Although Rahul Mehrotra admits to not having all of the answers for dealing with the complexities of practicing local architecture in a globalizing world, he does confidently warn against falling into the trap of polarized binaries, particularly in dealing with issues of cultural identity. Perhaps in contrast to Wang Shu’s history museum which can be viewed as a mausoleum for a material culture in the process of drastic transformation, Mehrotra seems to argue for a definition of identity that is in a perpetual hybrid state between the past and future; embracing the most humble and ancient of crafts while introducing new materials and methods that expand and augment established traditions; designing for the most globalized of programs while utilizing the most essential of all materials, water, in place of standard mechanical systems. If identity is something we construct, it’s not just a matter of preservation. It is also a matter of adaptive perseverance.

All images from http://www.rmaarchitects.com.

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