Discovering altARQ with Tunisha Mehta | DT Interview

Tunisha Mehta

Tunisha is the founder of altARQ collaborative and is currently working with the Bihar State Government to spearhead an international collaboration of volunteers from multiple disciplines for new urban studies’ exploration and implementation.

As an architect, she had her professional training from Design Atelier – Bangalore, Junya.Ishigami+Associates – Tokyo and Mangera Yvars Architects – Barcelona. Having worked in India, Japan and Spain, she firmly believes a deep contextual understanding is key to any veritable set-up.

altARQ

altARQ collaborative is a consultancy practice rooted in architecture and urbanism for The Global South. They work with crossovers of multiple disciplines to system think and design for problem-solving with r-urban resilience, sustainability, and spatial equity as their core concepts. The practice is anchored in the r-urban development of Bihar, India.

Project Patna

A research-driven call-to-action initiative by altARQ to rethink Patna’s Urban dynamics, generating new insights for urban planning and governance. The project is in the team-building phase and is openly inviting architects, urbanists, geographers, economists, and policy analysts to join in. Tunisha believes that the germination of this project has a distant vision of adopting urban resilience and spatial justice in the existing Indian cities.

The Carbon Casbah

The project is a design exploration into Carbon Sequestration and Negative Emission Schemes as a material allegory to the Sundarbans’ Mangroves. It is designed with locally available and low embodied impact materials like bamboo, wood, soil, and biochar-concrete, that sequester carbon than with materials that emit carbon in their lifecycle. It was designed as a housing solution for the Sundarbanis, as scaling it up into social collectives- according to the needs of the populace- with careful adoption of alternate economies favouring the conservation of biodiversity should help create sustainable communities and generate resilience to climate change.   

Carbon Casbah is built with light-weight local materials that sequester carbon, they’re flood-resilient, affordable and scalable. img via altARQ

In conversation with us, Tunisha brings forth the true meaning of an unconventional practice and the need for compassionate research on civic issues. Read on to find interesting insights into her practice and projects!

DesignTerrains (DT): altARQ is a great initiative! When did you first conceive the idea of a research-based practice?

Tunisha Mehta (TM): Thanks, so is DesignTerrains! It’s so critical to foster among students and professionals empathy towards the climate.
So the distant goal is to have a larger, more meaningful impact on the planet and all its beings. The idea germinated very early on during the final year of university as “alternative architecture.” Those days, I was a huge fan of alt-rock and prog-rock music; these genres are quite distinct from mainstream and commercial music. Inspired by this and hence, altARQ does not recognise itself as only an architecture studio, it’d rather be a testbed for ideas and innovations.

The practice intends to break boundaries of mainstream architecture practice and go beyond the disciplinary silos. Gradually, I hope to shift the practice of altARQ to international development with architecture and urbanism feeding insights to it.  

DT: Surely the world needs more of such testbeds! However, is it possible to let go of conventional methods completely and adapt to full-time experimentation? Do we need to demarcate a line of distinction between the two?

TM: Well, it depends on one’s outlook with which one gets started in the professional world, in that it is definitely possible to get into full-time experimentation for impact with the onset of conscious capitalism today. But, is it pragmatic? The answer varies with people’s own perceptions and experiences. Personally, I feel the divide between research and action is something we create for ourselves. It doesn’t have to be so. For altARQ, I believe, it will always seek to strike a nice balance. Balance is essential.  

DT: That’s indeed a radical approach. How extensively do you relate your International experience to your current initiative and intellection?

TM: Working abroad has undoubtedly been a remarkable exposure, adventure and perspective broadener. But, you know that wave of nostalgia when homeland starts calling? It just made me realise the delusion of serving foreign lands is never going to be as soul-nourishing as serving my own homeland. So, altARQ got its kick start right after I came back from Europe. But to be more precise, my experience abroad touched me in two clear ways.

Firstly, it situated me contextually and made me perceive our own culture better. To practice architecture/urbanism, understanding the context becomes extremely crucial. It helps in contextualising your learnings from different places and question its felicity. Secondly, working at great offices alongside peers from Harvard and Princeton bolstered my confidence to believe in myself unmistakably. If a girl from one of the tiniest towns in India can reach there, she might as well humbly go places! The power of believing in oneself often goes under-estimated but it’s been the strongest driver for me. 

DT: Honestly, self-assertion along with public goodwill is the way to go for bringing in positive and radical changes. Envisioned by you on the same lines is Project Patna, seeking public-private collaboration. In what ways is this project reinterpreting the current development plans and practices of the city?

TM: Patna is a prime city of Indian interest but unfortunately, its urbanity has been sidelined from debates and discourses on the web, publications, and the wider scientific community’s interests. Yes, it’s seeking a public-private collaboration. We’re trying to get on board scholars whose research in their respective fields have been based in this region. We’re also approaching the authorities to discuss their vision for the place. The project is in its very nascent stages of its journey but it should be unfolding itself in the realm between top-down and bottom-up approaches, in the fullness of time.

“A collaborative research and action towards holistic development is what we’re after through the conception of r-urban futures lab in the coming years.”

The idea is similar to many city labs that have existed in cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Singapore for long, responding to the needs of the populace and challenges of the place. But the collaboration across multiple disciplines and stakeholders is what sets our approach apart.

DT: Urban renewal strategies do need diverse expertise, stakeholders involvement, and environmental consciousness, the latter being specifically crucial for the upcoming decade. To what extent is this project going to address climate change, and yearly flood mitigation in the region?

TM: Addressing the climate and natural crises will be central to the project. For years rainfall has been treated like a nuisance- as something to quickly get rid of- and no success has been achieved in doing so. The solution actually lies in the opposite direction, cities should try to make friends with water, in saying that, act like a sponge. Our exploration should be in this direction. Project Patna is a part of altARQ rurban lab. The lab and its projects contemplate climate as its overarching theme for r-urban studies.

DT: The idea of r-urban is little vague in every context that it is being used in the industry. How would you like to define this term while working on your upcoming project ‘Agritecture’?

TM: There’s a certain disparaging colonial connotation to terms “rural” and “urban”. “r-urban” tries to do away with these colonial ties, for as long as the two are investigated as separate siloed entities, we’ll not find success in either’s wholesome development.

Project Agritecture started in order to cater to the livelihood insecurities of small farm producers. The project has a long way to go, towards digitally-intelligent and climate-smart farms connecting farmers’ produce directly to consumers in cities and villages, eliminating supply chain hassles. The future of food has to be addressed in tandem with the future of cities, and in doing that a holistic development of “r-urban” is also attempted. 

DT: Carbon Casbah is an emancipatory project for the environment as well as for local settlements of Sundarbans delta. Do you believe similar initiatives can help protect mangrove forests across India?

TM: The Carbon Casbah Project started as a design competition submission and we got into exploring the nuts and bolts of delta ecosystems. Soon we realised efforts of mangroves conservation are incomplete without ensuring the local community’s right to spatial justice and sustainable livelihoods. That led us to make design and policy recommendations to a few foundations who are researching this space like Project Tapestry.

Our recommendations emphasize on testing better set-ups of alternate economies that align with ecologies like the voluntary carbon credit markets. There is a highly successful case of Mikoko Pamoja that India and Bangladesh’s government can emulate from, contextualising the concept to suit our Sundarbans. More such initiatives from the private sector are unquestionably essential to make small contributions in however small capacity.

DT: Inviting public sector support for projects was a smart choice. What would you like to share with fellow ‘changemakers’ when it comes to dealing with nuances of turning the ideas into realistic endeavors?

TM: That’s a tough one. I am just starting to learn how things work on a large scale and there are countless complications in the process. Efforts are undoubtedly being made by larger benefit corporations and research organizations and things are treading to the positive side of the scale. So, my suggestion would be to leverage existing public systems, take small initiatives, strategise your efforts and reach out to the right people with your work. Don’t wait for someone else to approach you, own that first step. As a Chinese proverb goes “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I believe all ‘changemakers’ have made that first step themselves.
Thank you DesignTerrains for this honest conversation!

imgs via altARQ


We thank Tunisha for sharing these worth pondering thoughts and giving us a quick ride into her practice!

Follow altARQ at Instagram and Linkedin for regular updates. Visit their website to collaborate with them or find more details on each project.

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