“Have a seat,” the waiter says cheerfully, depositing me at a table next to a one-inch bullet hole that goes deep into a mirrored wall. I am in not a war zone but the financial capital of the world’s largest democracy, and I’m having lunch at Leopold Cafe, a popular watering hole that was a site of brutal terrorist attacks in 2008. Time has passed, but the symbolism is hard to miss: In this city, people live with acute juxtaposition.
With its population of 19 million and a north–south axial layout, the metro area of Mumbai, India—–whose name, to the consternation of many, was changed from Bombay in 1995—–is the fifth most populous in the world. Its denizens are a pastiche of religions, languages, classes, and political beliefs, creating a culture that is both tolerant and chaotic. The architecture follows suit.
As I walk the ancient bylanes, I see handprints of the different empires that have passed through: British, Portuguese, Islamic. The city’s architectural fabric is rich, to say the least: Victoria Terminus (aka Chhatrapati Shiraji Terminus) and Elphinstone College are high Victorian Gothic; the legendary Taj Mahal hotel is inspired by Islamic design; and Marine Drive boasts one of the largest collections of art-deco buildings in the world.
Though a galloping economy has made Mumbai the surging heart of India’s mounting dominance, part of what still eludes the city is urban and aesthetic coherence. “For the longest time, Bombay couldn’t afford good design,” says Suketu Mehta, whose 2004 book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, dissects the dense urban enclave. Mehta, who grew up in Mumbai and now teaches journalism at New York University, takes us through the notable, and sometimes notably lacking, design in one of India’s most spectacular cities.
Modern architecture is rare here, save for works by Bijoy Jain, Charles Correa, and perhaps a few others.
A big reason is that Bombay doesn’t have space to build upon. A series of antediluvian laws known as the Rent Act of 1948 froze the housing stock. But, more importantly, there just wasn’t any money for architects to come in and make interesting structures.
So how does the recent influx of new money change that?
Now, there is a new generation of Bombayites who have gone abroad and been exposed to world-class design, and for the first time, you have the two essential ingredients in place: educated clients who have a sense of what good design is all about and the money to attract the best architects in the world. There is also a realization worldwide, on the part of architects, that India is the next frontier. Just as China was, and continues to be, India is still largely an untapped market.
Money doesn’t equal good architecture or cohesive planning, though.
Urban planning is a disaster in Bombay. The main problem is that it’s not holistic; there is no central authority. Housing is one person’s job. Highways are someone else’s. Local trains are controlled by the central government. It is as if the New York City subway were to be controlled by the national highway department in Washington. The solutions to these problems are not hard to figure out. But there is a lack of political will and no strong, regional authority that has the power to coordinate the hodgepodge of government organizations that control different parts of the city.
Mumbai is also home to massive slums. Is it even appropriate to talk about flashy architecture when half the city’s inhabitants don’t have housing or clean drinking water?
Some still see architecture as an unaffordable luxury. But Bombay is far more than just slums. It’s a hellhole in many ways, but it’s also the richest city in a country that will be one of the economic superpowers of the 21st century. That part of Bombay—–the world-class financial center and the entryway to India—–is important and must be respected. If Bombay’s economic engine doesn’t keep running and the financial center goes to some other city like Bangalore or Delhi, then the poor are also going to be worse off. So Bombay needs to maintain its status as this alluring, dynamic city. A way to do that is to have really interesting architecture. It’ll happen in the next five years.
Why do you call the city “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai”?
In 1995, the Shiv Sena [a right-wing Hindu political party] changed the name to Mumbai. It was a ridiculous effort. I call the city Bombay because it is my own personal form of protest.
Of India’s modernists, Charles Correa looms largest. What’s his greatest contribution to Mumbai?
He is definitely India’s foremost architect and a visionary urban planner. His greatest contribution has been New Bombay (Navi Mumbai), a satellite city, which was meant to ease the pressure on land in the city. Unfortunately, he considered it a failure. The government was supposed to move its headquarters there, but that didn’t happen. Now it’s an educational hub, a city growing on the hinterland.
What building typifies Mumbai, either in aesthetics or urbanity?
The Lohar Chawl is in central Bombay. Chawls—–or tenements—–were originally constructed for mill families. They are nondescript buildings from the outside, with electrical shops on the ground floor. People live in a rabbit warren of rooms above. Generations of my relatives live in one, and the entire building is an extended family. I don’t love it for the architecture but for the communal arrangement.
That density must be a blessing and a curse.
True, but the local trains carry six million passengers every day in some of the world’s most cramped conditions. People hang out of doors and windows; but somehow the system works.
Where is best for people watching?
Victoria Terminus Station [Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus], which is marvelous. Incredibly crowded. But if you look closely, there is an order to the crowds. I also go to bars like Olive, located in the heart of the film industry. That’s always good for people watching, but it’s an “haute” crowd. It depends on what part of Bombay you want to see.
What’s your favorite neighborhood?
The Gujarati ghettoes of central South Bombay like Bhuleshwar and Khetwadi.
So where do you go to eat?
Swati Snacks has a cool minimalist interior designed by Rahul Mehrotra, which has nothing to do with traditional ideas of “Indian” style. Its influences are the great 20th-century modernists. It perfectly symbolizes the new Bombay: forward-looking and Western-oriented but still serving spicy vegetarian Gujarati food.