By Aaran Patel
An interview with architect Robert Stephens whose new book, ‘Bombay Imagined’, recalls projects that were never realised.
What might one learn about a city through its unrealised projects? This question animates architect Robert Stephens’ book, Bombay Imagined, which traces 200 proposals from the city’s colonial origins through to the present day.
In the book are a range of designs from practical issues of sewerage to prescient speculations about the city’s relationship with the elements. It talks about, among other projects, a 400-acre park envisioned by municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford at Mahalakshmi, an underwater cable wall at Back Bay, and an airport at Gorai.
In addition to projects imagined by Indian architects, engineers and designers, Stephens uncovered a striking number of proposals from international experts like American transport planner Wilbur Smith and British designer Thomas Heatherwick. A closer reading of these projects reveals Mumbai’s place in the world and how it invited global contributions towards its development.
It helps that this combination of Indian and international involvement in imagining the city is augmented in the book with wonderful artworks. Where Stephens was unable to find drawings, maps or other material to accompany the text, he commissioned graphic artists to work on visuals that bring a range of unrealised projects to life.
Stephens is an architect and visual artist who is principal of RMA Architects’ Mumbai practice. He has been living in Mumbai since he completed his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Virginia Tech in 2007. From 2016, through Urbs Indis, a studio he founded, he has juxtaposed archival materials with contemporary aerial photographs of urban India to bring historical considerations and today’s challenges into conversation with each other.
During our interview about Bombay Imagined, Stephens touched upon lessons from these unrealised projects, ideas that fell by the wayside and those that have persisted and found themselves manifested in a different form. Edited excerpts:
What led to this archival study and how did you discover and unearth some of these unrealised plans?
There are two layers to this answer, the first of which is purely pragmatic. I discovered Arthur Crawford’s plan for a 400-acre park at Mahalaxmi by chance, while browsing through a mid-19th century report by Bombay’s Executive Engineer Hector Tulloch. But preceding that discovery, I had an innate curiosity about urban exploration. I can’t pinpoint this intangible drive, but it drew me to walk the streets of Mumbai every weekend for my first seven years in the city. The great thing about walking the streets was that in addition to getting to know the city, I stumbled upon many second-hand book stalls on footpaths. This accidental discovery inculcated my passion for books and urban history, and eventually led to my engaging with Arthur Crawford more than one and a half centuries after he cast his grand plan for a People’s Park in what was then the outskirts of the city. This conversation started an endless imagination and search for more plans through the city’s history.
Among the many compelling things about the book are the striking visuals that include old maps, illustrations and renderings that you’ve commissioned. Can you tell me about how you and your collaborators created these?
I’m a visual learner. I love reading, but as much as I love reading, I thrive on imagery. From my earliest childhood memories until now, I recall learning by imbibing what I see. I knew that whatever I was going to create – and now we, because there are many people involved in the book – would be highly visual. Fortunately, many of the projects I came across had existing graphic representations, including plans, sections and perspectives. But every once in a while, there was this frustration that I would read something, could see it in my mind, but there was no accompanying visual.
For two or three years, I wallowed in disappointment, wishing there were more images. Then the pandemic struck, and in the subsequent physical lockdown a new thought came to mind: why don’t we create a team of artists to create Bombay’s past futures? I described the project to Aniket Umaria, a Mumbai-based visualiser, and he said absolutely. With Akhil Alukkaran in Calicut, it was the same situation. And then Yannis Efstathiou and Lambros Papathanasiou of GRAU Visuals in Europe – in Berlin and Athens, respectively – also said they’d love to collaborate. All these positive signs from different creatives at different stages of their careers inspired me to not limit the book to just what was written, but also to offer readers the opportunity to see past imaginations for the city that never came to be.
You mentioned the 400-acre park that Arthur Crawford envisioned. Can you explain and describe a few unrealised projects that particularly stood out to you? How do you depict these and what do you think they say about the city and its citizens?
Although I feel very close to every project, here are three that really stood out. Bombay Imagined is dedicated to a man named William Walker, who first came to the city in 1820 when he was 20 and returned in 1845 and stayed for 20 years. He invested the most intense two decades of his professional life in Bombay and was frustrated with the notoriously high rents and lack of space in the Fort. He observed that large quantities of beer were being stored in the Fort itself. He must have thought that this was rather senseless. As a corrective measure, he proposed relocating the barrels of ale to Sewri to free up space in the Fort for commercial and residential needs.
I especially love this project because Walker foresaw what is happening in Mumbai now with a large market for storage spaces in Sewri, Bhiwandi and the north-eastern region of the city. One hundred and sixty years ago, Walker realised the need to rezone the city. The speculative artwork accompanying this imagination shows the names of wine and ale merchants on the barrels. Archival research revealed these to be the heavyweights of the intoxicant market in Bombay at the time, and select advertisements even specified that some drinks were “strongly recommended to invalids,” a pitch which GRAU Visuals inscribed onto the external facade of a barrel on the bottom left. Each of these minute facets of mid-19th century life in Bombay find their way into the piece. As serious as much of the content is, the intent is also to keep a very light-hearted approach to the city and its history.
Of course, there’s Le Corbusier’s proposed Air India Tower at Nariman Point. His Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad is the most dynamic space that I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. To think that Le Corbusier offered to invest his skills in the city of Bombay but was turned down… what a missed opportunity. This was clearly a story that stuck in Charles Correa’s mind because he told a journalist about it in 1986 and again in 1994, and who knows at how many dinner parties. This was imprinted in his mind because he imagined how Le Corbusier’s work could have inspired people, especially those with the resources to construct the city’s built form. I think that was really powerful.
In 2016 there was an exhibition on Charles Correa’s unbuilt work at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Kala Ghoda. His daughter, the architect and educator Nondita Correa Mehrotra, had curated a large collection of Correa’s never realised projects, with a strong focus on the interconnected, underlying ideas grounding each proposal. This included many projects in Bombay which are, to a large extent (at least for my generation), basically unknown. As I started to put Correa’s unbuilt work in the chronological context of unrealised schemes by others, what emerged is this incredible sense of how deeply embedded Correa was in the city. He was always at the forefront of the debate on how Bombay’s built form should be transformed, ready with an innovative alternative to the often mediocre, status quo proposals being put forth by others.
For example, he produced design alternatives to three hotspots: a municipal plan for a multistorey parking lot at Horniman Circle in the early 1960s, the BEST’s underground subway between Churchgate and Flora Fountain in 1965, and a municipal plan for Back Bay in 1973. He invested a lot of time and resources in producing plans and visions in a bid to raise our collective expectation of what the city could be. So I think placing Correa in the context of what was happening around him is really meaningful and adds immense value to the already rich work.
Land reclamation is a consistent theme across the chronology of the book and the history of the city. You cover a number of these reclamation projects. Given this has contemporary bearings, how did you see thinking evolve about this issue and how did ideas stay the same?
The earliest large-scale proposals are by private companies and individuals. Reclamation began predominantly as a money-making venture when people wanted to extract what they could out of the city. If you look at one of the earliest Back Bay Reclamation plans in 1863, the map that accompanies the proposal is interesting because it colour-codes who’s doing the reclamation across the city. The green, which is the largest, is by private parties. You see this very independent mindset and then there’s the government doing little bits of reclamation here and there.
One of the fascinating things is that especially in the late 19th century, there was this dilemma about whether to reclaim in the south or in the north. Multiple people who put forth plans for reclaiming land at Trombay, Matunga and other northern regions of the city eventually lost out. There was so much focus and existing infrastructure in the south that it was clear that that was where the money was to be made. It was not until the early 20th century that the government began proposing large-scale reclamation schemes. Even then, they were trying to make money. This is perhaps why so many people are suspicious of the reclamation-heavy Mumbai Coastal Road that is under construction.
When we look at some of the main barriers to these projects being realised, are there trends that emerge? And are there lessons that citizens and planners today can learn from?
My own sense is that the majority of unrealised plans for Bombay were just too big. From the late 17th to the early 21st century, there were many large schemes that came with a hefty price tag. Then there was the social scale of projects that had worked against many. The more people you impact, the more potential backlash there would be. The very first project in the book, Bombay itself in 1670, falls under this category, where social resistance stalled its realisation. Some schemes were also never that serious. They involved people thinking outside the realm of reality, and I think that is really important. They are meant to inspire us to not limit ourselves to the purely practical.
Were there civic engagement dimensions to some of these projects not seeing the light of day?
Many. You look at the Pedder Road Flyover proposal of 2001, which was stopped by citizen activists, including the recently deceased Lata Mangeshkar. The 1963 proposal for Nepean Sea Road Foreshore Layout was stopped by citizens. The plan for this project is exceptional because it basically follows the footprint of the 21st century Mumbai Coastal Road layout, but with municipal plans for new buildings including 54 seaside skyscrapers on reclaimed land. Several projects show this kind of civic engagement being fruitful.
Turning to a contemporary issue, around the world and indeed in India, over the course of the last two years, as people have been locked in, public space has been so much more important as an outlet for exercise, mental health, building social bonds and recreation. What are some of the visions for public space in the city and might some of these be realised today?
In the late 1940s, New York City-based urban planner Albert Mayer made multiple trips to Bombay, and with NV Modak, he worked on the city’s first master plan. Part of their transformative vision for Bombay involved taking the oldest parts of the city around Bellasis Road, razing it to the ground, creating a 200-acre public park, and then relocating displaced residents in public housing on the grounds of the Mahalaxmi Race Course and Willingdon Sports Club. This was a very radical proposal, but they argued that every great city in the world had a central park. Much like what Arthur Crawford envisioned in the 1860s, they saw this as a fundamental requirement of the city. Of course, this didn’t happen.
Mayer and Modak also made a proposal to create linear parks along the Eastern and Western Express Highways, which is much like Abraham John Architects’ proposal of a Bombay Greenway today. There are these consistent ideas that the north-south axis defines the city so let’s make the most of it and evolve it in such a way that it benefits the maximum number of people. This also fell through. For me, the design proposals in the era immediately post-independence are special because they were prepared by government officials. NV Modak was a city engineer. But the forces on the land were just too intense that even the best intentions came to naught.
On the note of the city’s relationship with nature, you write about how the Neat Town Reservoir proposal appeared to defy nature. Bombay in its very conception has been defiant. What do you think about the city’s relationship with nature in an era of climate change? How might planning allow us to situate ourselves within an urban ecology?
If you bend the book edge, colour tabs for each unrealised plan provide a visual sense of the quantum of projects in a particular category through 350 years. What I love about the green tab – identifying recreation, parks and garden-related projects – is that when you see the city in the first couple of hundred years, there is a relatively small proportion of proposals for parks because the city was already ensconced in greenery, in open space. I find it inspiring that from the 20th century onwards, there are a vast number of proposals for parks. Even in the midst of failure, people from various walks of life have identified an essential need for more open space.
I’ve been reading a lot about imagination after finishing the writing for this book and I am seeing how important imagination is to us as humans. Children are very good at imagining and role playing, and this is a very healthy part of development. As we get older, we are tuned to become less imaginative and live more in the present. I think that can be counterproductive. Going forward, I think a sprinkling of imaginative futures that inform the present will be essential to situate ourselves in a way that we can thrive as individuals and an urban community.
Aaran Patel is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Architecture & Urban Issues Writings for 2021.