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The Reactive City

Mumbai in the late nineteenth century

Mumbai in the late nineteenth century

For weeks now, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the right word to describe my perception of Mumbai and I think I’ve finally decided. It’s “reactive.”

Mumbai could actually be described as reactive in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. But the sense I’m referring to right now is the startlingly fluid and dynamic relationship between the city’s form and the life happening within it. It seems to me that Mumbai wears its story on its sleeve more than any city I’ve personally experienced. The reason for that, I think, is that the physical form Mumbai has taken over the years has been, in many cases, in reaction to what the city has become, rather than in anticipation.

This is true, in large part, because Mumbai was originally built merely as a port by the British in order to maintain their trade links with India; it was never really intended or expected to be a big city at all. Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra poignantly describe this situation and its impact in the introduction to their seminal and astoundingly comprehensive architectural history of the city, Bombay: the Cities Within:

. . . like settlements that are not expected to become large towns, Bombay was not planned. Instead, it came into being with every step of its growth being impulsive and incremental—expressing in its form the idea of the city as a field of human enterprise. This had some shortcomings, for the lack of a master plan or clear overall design resulted in a situation where the city was ill prepared for growth. This also offered some flexibility, for every addition or intervention was an opportunity to compensate for deficiencies or to reinforce positive attributes of the existing physical structure, which allowed the city to renew its physical expression in response to contemporary aspirations.

Each new development in the city thus expressed in its physical form the needs, hopes, and lifestyles of the people who created and occupied these areas. And so Bombay grew precinct by precinct, becoming a collage, not only of varying architectural styles and different urban forms, but more importantly, of the many ethnic and social groups that colonized its growing localities.

As a result, Bombay was never conceived or built in a singular image. In fact, its evolution consistently makes evident a series of dualities, a phenomenon where many worlds—many ideas and interests—influenced the city’s growth. Obviously, this caused the creation of many cities within the larger identity of Bombay… in short, multiple worlds and cities have resulted from the many forces that moulded the same geographic space—Bombay.

Understanding a city that is not your own is never simple. And while in many cases the physical form may give clues about a city’s past, it rarely gives quite so many about its present. At some point early on, most cities’ development has come under the rule of a comprehensive or master plan, and thus often have become inflexible to sudden shifts in the population’s needs. Sure, individual communities might inhabit certain areas and shape or determine the atmosphere or culture, but rarely does their influence extend to the macro structure or skeleton of the city.

In European cities, for instance, you can generally see the reactive nature of their original development within the boundaries of the old city. But once you cross into the newer part of town, decisions about form clearly become more methodical. There, the cities’ lines suddenly have much more to say about the calculations of top-down governments, traffic planners, or zoning officials than they do about the current realities of those who live there.

Likewise, Manhattan’s grid tells you a lot about the aspirations of city commissioners in 1811, but not so much about the hopes and dreams, or trials and tribulations, of its current population. Nor will it, likely, for a very long time. Though minor changes may be made, on the whole, that grid isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Of course there are small exceptions to this in all cities. Buildings come and go, former industrial waterfronts transform into boardwalks, once traffic-clogged streets become pedestrian havens, and ever-so-occasionally, swaths of buildings are razed, and a new vision of an urban center is borne.

But even the most drastic of these types of retrofits are peanuts compared to what one learns about the city and its people by following the lines of Mumbai. And once one realizes this, it becomes a lot easier to understand why the city, for its multitude of strengths and weaknesses, both looks and acts the way it does today. Or rather—it makes the roadmap to understanding that a lot easier to follow, because you realize how uniquely inextricably linked they are.

I’ve taken my time beginning to really dig into writing about Mumbai here on the blog—this bursting, bustling, and bewildering megalopolis—partially because it’s taken me a while to realize and understand this myself and, yes, figure out where to start. Then I realized that the answer was right under my feet. If you want to understand the city as a whole—its religions and cultures, economy, and social structures; its pressing issues, and its glorious feats—the physical city itself is Mumbai’s greatest syllabus.

Beyond that, you can basically start anywhere—on any street, in any neighborhood. Because that is the nature of the reactive city: there is nothing linear about it. The pieces are linked in ways so complex and constantly shifting that no matter where your finger lands on the map when you are deciding where to begin, it will inevitably lead you through the web of pieces that make the whole.

It’s much like experiencing Mumbai itself for the first time, actually: no matter where you start, you will never really end up where you expected. But if you take enough roads from one piece to another enough times, eventually you’ll find your way back, and the whole will become a whole lot clearer. Stick with me during the course of the Lab’s stay here as I follow these roads and learn what Mumbai has to teach about Mumbai, and why that matters.

. . .

Photo: via Wikipedia

  • Jayanth Iyer

    Well written, hope you have experienced traveling in the trains of Mumbai…catching a ferry [boat] to visit certain islands…..the city grows on you…

    May be then you can say “Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan” …