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Building Green in Mumbai (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Anne Rademacher. 2018.
Building Green: Environmental Architects and the Struggle for Sustainability in Mumbai
Oakland, CA: University of California Press
ISBN 9780520296008

The current preoccupation with sustainable architecture in the Global South has contributed to a renewed interest in building ‘green’ architecture. But what is ‘green’ architecture? Instead of assuming it as a natural or self-evident fact, the book of Anne Rademacher, Building Green: Environmental Architects and the Struggle for Sustainability in Mumbai explores this topic within the geographical and historical setting of contemporary Mumbai, when the South Asian metapolis is riddled with seemingly obstinate environmental and social problems, yet also lifted by vigorous economic growth, as a series of colonial and postcolonial sociocultural and political constructions.

Analysis of the title of the book provides a preliminary insight into the scope and aims of the research effort. Building Green is intended to convey the breadth versus the particularity of the book. Positioned at the crossroads of architectural, anthropological, social and economic histories, the book seeks to take a macro generic view of the teaching of environmental architecture in Mumbai, rather than examining the architectural objects and urban spaces themselves.

The work is arranged focusing on the two key areas of research, namely: the agents of construction, primarily the architects operational in the time and place of this study; and the epistemological resources in evidence at the Rachana Sansad's Institute of Environmental Architecture (RSIEA). Chapters 1 and 8, serve as the Introduction and Conclusion respectively. The research content spans Chapters 2 to 7 and is broadly divisible into four constituent parts. It commences with an attempt to capture the essence of the geographical, governmental and technological changes taking place in Mumbai’s urban environment (Chapter 3). Following on from this context is an elucidation of the traditional construction environment and the change in circumstances necessitating the recruitment of RSIEA trained students (Chapter 4). The ensuing block of information opens with the phenomenon of the rise of the architectural professions and moves on to elaborating the concurrently emerging opportunities for education, training and recruitment of those architects who were to be found operating in Mumbai as former students from RSIEA (Chapters 6 to 7).

However, the author’s intention to show in the book ‘how environmental architects forged sustainability concepts and practices and sought to make them meaningful through engaged architectural practice’[1] was only partially fulfilled. The main reason I found for this was that the author’s almost exclusive interlocutors were the teachers, students, graduates, etc. from and education institution of Mumbai, the RSIEA. Rademacher almost solely connects places, events, agents and material culture that deals with the school of architecture RSIEA. The case underscored by the author shows the social life and temporality of contemporary urban sustainability as it is lived in RSIEA and in its day to day surroundings as school of architecture, that involved constant and irrefutable negotiation. However, at this end, the intention was to connote the winding down of an epoch rather than any abrupt severance or alteration in the rhythm of architectural design and building activity of Mumbai towards an environmental sustainable practice.

Rademacher choice of city was bold. Mumbai’s context carried with it important place-specific political risks, even as the clear delineations of the contemporary political economy of urban development in Mumbai were not discussed and analysed in the context of RSIEA scholarship. We conclude that RSIEA students, nested global, national, and regional circumstances set the stage for an inevitable rise of the environmental architect, however dormant or constrained they may be in the immediate present.

Both Environmental Architecture as a discipline and the sustainability of Mumbai as a case invite for a broader and in-depth analysis invoking a ‘historical turn’[2] of architectural discourse and architectural practice engaging with new theoretical fields, such as environmental studies or postcolonial studies, giving rise to a continued production of theoretical approaches to the large subject of building ‘green’. Drawing on the interdisciplinary scholarships on environmental history, science studies, and postcolonial studies green architecture in Mumbai is inextricably entangled with the sociocultural constructions of tropical nature, and the politics of colonial governance and postcolonial development in the British colonial and postcolonial networks.

Throughout the book, Rademacher traced how an idiosyncratic sociality – framed as an environmental architecture – was shaped by severely constrained environmental architects’ attempts to practice good design with Mumbai urban agenda and regulations. The author presents a wide array of research that speaks to global concerns through the local and specific, with topics that include green-space planning (Chapter 3), the distinction between private and public nature (Chapter 4), the ecological diversity (Chapter 5), and the historical and cultural significance of hybrid spaces architecturally designed. The book will make us think in a different way about how we study cities, as well as how we live in them.

The treatment of the subject matter of the book was characterized by the dual constituencies it seeks to address: that of professional concerns of the environmental sector, juxtaposed against the realm of autonomous knowledge. Growing awareness of environmental issues has exposed the severe lack of appropriate usable knowledge in the public domain. It is from this perceived lacuna that the book derives its impetus, and hence seeks to address the professional and doctrinal concerns of operatives in the sustainable architecture. Concurrently, the book strives to embrace the social conditions, technology and economics associated with the building world of Mumbai of the early 21st century, thereby seeking to augment knowledge of human civilization.

The significance of the book’s endeavour is twofold. It enjoys the difference of being the first effort to undertake a wide-ranging examination into the construction history of the most important city in the Indian subcontinent. Concomitantly, the author endeavours to recommend a methodological approach for comparable forthcoming studies in India and elsewhere, especially considering that the discipline of environmental architecture is as yet at an emerging stage and such studies are only expected to multiply in number and scope in the coming years.

 


[1] Rademacher 2018.
[2] Lavin 1999; Moravánszky 2007; Ockman 1993.

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