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Photo Essay: The City Of Bombay That Could Have Been

Since its founding, Bombay's administrators sanctioned but then rejected a slew of progressive plans that included everything from humane housing and expanded parks to sanitation systems. The story of Bombay

Photo Essay: The City Of Bombay That Could Have Been
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Beginning in 1670, Bombay Imagined: An Illustrated History of the Unbuilt City tells the story of 200 unrealised urban visions—aspirations of an evolved metropolis boasting everything from humane housing and expanded parks to sanitation systems and more. Ideas that never saw the light of the day are richly illustrated with archival drawings, contemporary speculations and artistic overlays, illuminating long-lost futures from the city’s never-before-seen past. Selected excerpts from the book.

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Bombay Imagined: An Illustrated History Of The Unbuilt City; Robert Stephens; Published By Urbs Indis; Pages: 460; March 2022 Hardcover

1670 Bombay, East India Company

“It is a matter of great importance and will certainly raise discontent in the inhabitants when their trees shall be cut down and destroyed.”

Gerald Aungier, 1670

As Governor Gerald Aungier looked out over the virgin, palm-laden landscape from Bombay Castle in early 1670, he must have turned over in his mind the recently received instructions from the administrators of the East India Company: a city was to be built at Bombay. Despite its apparent worthlessness, the colonising corporation had determined that the chain of “evil-smelling malarious swamps reeking in the tropical sun” was to play host to a grand metropolis, with official correspondence including a map of London for inspiration. But Aungier could feel the pulse of the place, and sensed that the time was not right. The Island’s 10,000 residents — a mix of Portuguese half-castes, Bhandaris and Kolis — were already at odds with the British, whose first representative on the Island led a life of “self-interest, lust, and revenge”. The very thought of further enraging the nature-dependent local populace by felling hundreds of trees was enough to force an urgent rethink. Rather than expanding, Aungier would spend the next few years getting his own house in order — strengthening Bombay Castle — and so the seminal effort to raise a city at Bombay fell to a grove of palms and the nefarious conduct of a self-centred predecessor.

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1863 European General Hospital

Henry Wilkins
 
“If it be considered desirable in this country to seek out Architectural talent...then when competitors comply bona fide with the conditions specified, the prizes should not be withheld.”

Henry Wilkins, 1863

Captain Henry Wilkins described his award-winning General Hospital competition entry of 1863 as “judiciously eclectic,” an ironic descriptor given the facilities planned exclusivity to Bombay’s European community. Bearing Gothic elements from the south of Europe — considered by the military engineer and amateur architect as “well suited to the requirements of a tropical country”—  the three-storeyed structure was to be wrapped in a colourful arcade of red Coorla stone, white Porbandar stone and blue basalt. The composition’s crowning glory, the Octagon Hall, was to tower above the surrounding structure like a lantern, “giving unity of effect to the whole, and adding to the vertical ventilation of the building.” The scheme adhered brilliantly to the official brief, capturing sea breezes, ensuring walls are protected from direct sunlight, and even landing five rupees under the official budget of rupees 3,80,000. Although the design received first-merit commendation, Wilkins never saw the promised prize money — a sum of rupees 2,500. After further review, the jury disqualified all entries, claiming (baselessly) that none of the designs fit within the specified costs. Seven competitors were subsequently offered rupees 500 each for their time, including a furious Wilkins who refused to accept the mutilated premium.

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1999 Worli-Nariman Point Sea Link

Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation

“The state is of the opinion that the sea link will spoil the view of not only the proposed Shivaji statue but also the entire Marine Drive.”

Satish Gavai, 2008

Civic and environmental activists fought tooth and nail against the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation’s plan to encircle South Mumbai with an elevated highway in the Arabian Sea. Before the Bombay High Court opponents argued that the 15-kilometre-long Sea Link from Worli to Nariman Point would cause irreversible ecological damage and possibly erase Chowpatty Beach from the map, with Advocate B Desai soothsaying, “The sea-link will obliterate Mumbai’s horizon and beautiful sunsets will be a thing of the past.” The battle raged in court, on the streets and in the press for years, with proponents highlighting the explosive growth of vehicle ownership, up from 286,000 cars in 1980 to 860,000 cars in 1998 as a justification for the big-ticket scheme. The final clash sealing the Sea Link’s doomed fate would occur in 2008, as the proposed alignment between Malabar Hill and Nariman Point brought the road uncomfortably close to the up-and-coming memorial statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Back Bay. Unable to reconcile the visual tension of a cable-stayed bridge crashing the Maratha warrior-king’s stage, government officials quickly set to work on alternatives, a journey which would sink the Sea Link and give rise to Mumbai’s Coastal Road.

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2014 Mumbai City Museum

Zaha Hadid Architects and Sameep Padora & Associates

“The formal response is soft, ductile, less rigid than its historic counterpart.”

Zaha Hadid Architects, 2014

If realised, Zaha Hadid Architects’ Mumbai City Museum competition entry would have ushered a new vocabulary into the Maximum City’s architectural discourse. For beginners, the new North Wing addition was to hover over its surroundings, an amalgamation of landscape and material. Soft and ductile, smooth and sensuous, every aspect of the scheme, from the entrance gate to the top floor of the new building bore the magnetic pull of the curve. The “highly textured container for art” was to feature an in situ reinforced concrete frame supporting perimeter walls clad with traditional masonry — using local knowledge and experience to create a series of solid and perforated surfaces. A transfer slab at the first floor, blade columns on the upper levels and pre-cut polystyrene forms were a few of the technological moments critical to fabricating the futuristic form in the present. Although ZHA’s curves secured a celebrated spot among eight finalists, selected from an original pool of 104 entries, the jury’s winning nomination went off on another tangent before all was said and done.

(This appeared in the print edition as "History, Unveiled")

About the author: After completing his Bachelor of Architecture degree from in 2007, Stephens left his childhood hometown of Summerville, South Carolina, US, and moved to Mumbai where he now lives with his wife and son.

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