'Bombay Imagined': Visual accounts of a city that could have been, but never was

In a ruminative, in-depth interview with STIR, Bombay Imagined's author, Robert Stephens, discusses how the city of dreams has been dreamt up in impeccable form over the years.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jun 20, 2022

Looking at an urban settlement - a machine, far from well-oiled, but functioning near entropically - as a conglomeration of both the built and unbuilt, is a rather interesting viewpoint and lens to study it. However, a mention of the 'unbuilt' would often draw the notion of 'spaces' that aren’t formally constructed, or lack an elevation, an extrusion. 'Unbuilt', in this context, would rarely come to mean something that indeed existed within those parameters, those qualities, but only in an imagination. Something that never quite saw the light of day, but bore the aspirations of a better city or place within it. That imagination may have probably manifested in visuals, texts, or even just the musings or ramblings of an average Joe going about the city on a sunny afternoon, but it is that imagination that forms an intrinsic part of what keeps the city running. The 'unbuilt' - the architectural equivalent of hope and the untapped potential of a city in built terms - is what may be called the fuel to this city-machine. In a city as dynamic, tumultuous, fervent, festive, and perhaps as feeble as Mumbai, packed with layers of history in a sensitive ecosystem, this discussion finds a special context. Even as the amount of new constructions in the city, the rubble on the ground, and the debris in the air reach a choking high, it is only fitting that the city of dreams continues to dream itself anew every once in a while. That urban aspiration, even if spread across multiple levels of desire - personal, familial, governmental, social, and even political - is what is at the heart of Bombay Imagined.

  • Bombay Imagined, handsomely bound in a monotone jacket |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Bombay Imagined, handsomely bound in a monotone jacket Image: Courtesy of Urbs Indis
  • Author of the book and founder of Urbs Indis, Robert Stephens |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Author of the book and founder of Urbs Indis, Robert Stephens Image: Courtesy of Urbs Indis
  • One of the criteria considered by Stephens in curating the projects for his book included an interesting plan | Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    One of the criteria considered by Stephens in curating the projects for his book included an "interesting plan" Image: Courtesy of Urbs Indis

To me, the work's special and even remotely universal resonance lies in the very rickety equilibrium it proposes between the built and the unbuilt, the realised and the (only) imagined, for what is now built was also imagined at one point. Like the yin and yang, the two continually feed into each other, bound in a cause-and-effect relationship, like manifestation and aspiration, forming the very pulse of the city. Through Bombay Imagined, what the author Robert Stephens himself terms as "an illustrated history of the Unbuilt City" is brought alive through 200 unrealised projects packing decades worth of the city's temporal existence along with its jaded patinas and edifices. The unbuilt city - a Bombay that could have been - impinges upon what exists, actively shaping that sphere. This impinging character of unrealised works, bearing unique markers of a prevalent architectural character and socio-economic conditions of the city during the time they were proposed - and thus equally unique ramifications on the city of the time - is what formed the basis of my conversation on the book with Stephens, also a principal at RMA Architects, and founder of Urbs Indis.

  • Nightmarish visions of an enraged populace following the intended axing of palms led by Gerald Aungier to abandon the first urban planning experiment at Bombay |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Nightmarish visions of an enraged populace following the intended axing of palms led by Gerald Aungier to abandon the first urban planning experiment at Bombay Image: Aniket Umaria | Speculation
  • Process sketch exploring the visual |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Process sketch exploring the visual Image: Courtesy of Urbs Indis
  • A dreamy vision of South Bombay as seen through a flood of aerial taxis |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    A dreamy vision of South Bombay as seen through a flood of aerial taxis Image: Akhil Alukkaran and Fauwaz Khan | Speculation
  • Process sketch exploring the visual, with the new, centrally located Back Bay Park flanked by Malabar Hill on the right and Nariman Point on the left |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Process sketch exploring the visual, with the new, centrally located Back Bay Park flanked by Malabar Hill on the right and Nariman Point on the left Image: Courtesy of Urbs Indis
  • Coastal Road realignment, the last project proposal explored in the book, by Abraham John Architects |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Coastal Road realignment, the last project proposal explored in the book, by Abraham John Architects Image: Robert Stephens and Fauwaz Khan | Overlay

Apart from the philosophical musings (that often don't sit well with the grime of the proverbial urban condition in most Indian cities) which the book brings along: that of the parts making the whole, of the incomplete being a part of the complete, and of the non-existent but wished for influencing the extant, the book serves to be many things at the same time, perhaps specific to the reader. It is at once a look on the nature (and if at all, power) of architectural visualisations, a critique on the nature of building proposals, the bureaucracy that more often than not stands in the way of the realisation of these visions, and possibly on the very architectural notion of utopia-building and problem-solving.

  • Arthur Crawford's proposed Bombay Park at Mahalaxmi was to be spread over 400 acres |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Arthur Crawford's proposed Bombay Park at Mahalaxmi was to be spread over 400 acres Image: Courtesy of Wellcome Collection
  • The Trombay Wet Dock was to be set amidst thousands of acres of reclaimed land between Trombay and Sewri |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    The Trombay Wet Dock was to be set amidst thousands of acres of reclaimed land between Trombay and Sewri Image: Courtesy of Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • The Dharavi Development Scheme featured new roads, a central park and a waterfront promenade, all raised eight feet above the natural ground level through extensive reclamation |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    The Dharavi Development Scheme featured new roads, a central park and a waterfront promenade, all raised eight feet above the natural ground level through extensive reclamation Image: Courtesy of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai Library | The Times of India

The 200 proposals thus include a measured diversity in projects, from residential to recreational, infrastructure, public, institutional, and even sanitation and defence. This, superimposed with a map of the Bombay of the time comes to be a thing of true beauty, as one discovers the variance in not just typologies, but also in scale, scope, form, geographical location, and a certain level of ‘completeness’ before the doors finally closed on the project. As is the nature of architectural proposals, unsurprisingly, the book is full of projects that never took off of the drawing board, many that were stopped in the tracks owing to budget or sanction issues, and some that were just ill-fated. It is, in many ways, an antithesis of any book that takes one through the built history of Bombay - a truly romantical product and a passion project by Stephens - but just as potent. The victory here is that as a reader, one carries the lament of a truly transcendent vision, unfulfilled, and the urgency and desire associated with visions one might simply term ludicrous, to the next page.

  • The Dharavi Masterplan comprised staggered residential blocks with accessible terraces broke from the monotony of business-as-usual rehabilitation buildings |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    The Dharavi Masterplan comprised staggered residential blocks with accessible terraces broke from the monotony of business-as-usual rehabilitation buildings Image: Courtesy of Narinder Sagoo/ Foster + Partners
  • Sectional profile: below-grade supply and wastewater lines were to service every dwelling and commercial facility |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Sectional profile: below-grade supply and wastewater lines were to service every dwelling and commercial facility Image: Courtesy of Narinder Sagoo/ Foster + Partners
  • A pedestrian-only spine was to connect various sectors of Contractor's Dharavi Redevelopment Project - one among five proposals for transforming Dharavi |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    A pedestrian-only spine was to connect various sectors of Contractor's Dharavi Redevelopment Project - one among five proposals for transforming Dharavi Image: Courtesy of Architect Hafeez Contractor

The narrative of the book, presented in byte-sized text blocks beside visualisations giving form to these ideas, straightforwardly presents salient features, archival descriptions, and why they finally fell apart, apart from an anecdotal quote or two on the visions that were, and the entirely transformational character they embodied. This is, notably so, without injecting any personal opinion from the author, who approached this with the heft of a massive ongoing research project, a version of which manifested itself over seven long years. However, this does not necessarily equate to the writing being removed or just entirely factual. The author's own aspirations from Bombay - something as simple as those shared by millions of working professionals in the city - of being able to commute with safety and ease, are well reflected in the curation of these projects and his fascination with these supposed solutions. Part academic enquiry, and part wish seeking fulfillment, Stephens' narrative, both visual and textual, seems a testament to and reflection of the love-hate relationship most residents have with the sticks-and-stones city, and the equally Herculean and Sisyphian tasks, as Stephens mentions in the introduction to the book, that it must undertake for its revamping and renewal. An interesting analogy that, stating the obvious resistance any cog in the machinery that is Bombay would face. The task at hand, at once massive and mythical.

  • Perkes' lift wheel in the noxious, open town-drain would have been an eccentric landmark on the otherwise desolate Flats at Mahalaxmi |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Perkes' lift wheel in the noxious, open town-drain would have been an eccentric landmark on the otherwise desolate Flats at Mahalaxmi Image: Aniket Umaria | Speculation
  • VJTI Hostel by DCOOP: presentation model illustrating façade punctures and the triple-height entrance |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    VJTI Hostel by DCOOP: presentation model illustrating façade punctures and the triple-height entrance Image: Courtesy of DCOOP

When I spoke of the universality of the book earlier, I extended the weight of most of these unfulfilled visions, and urban aspirations, to my own city: Delhi. As is the case with the two most vibrant albeit somewhat romanticised metropolis in India, such tales of the “unbuilt city” and the weight of an urban renewal forever in the works form part of any major city’s urban character anywhere around the world. However, even within that compendium, a work such as Bombay Imagined would emerge as entirely unique and special - two adjectives that fit like a glove for the city in question too. The city’s very unique spatial and infrastructural predicament, its intrinsic relationship with water, and layers of conflicted history help ground the book contextually despite its universal musings. This could also be partly attributed to its urban problems often being seen with the rose tinted lenses of cinema and outsider accounts. The rains and the choking mayhem they bring, the dilapidated chawls, the soaring skyscrapers contrasted against the tin sheds of Dharavi, and its vast shoreline are all part of the city’s lore now, inseparable as an urban identity smouldered onto the city, no matter how problematic. Case in point, around a third of the book’s proposals fall under the sanitation category, poised to solve the city’s chronic drainage problem - a testament to the scale of the problem and the time for which it has persisted. And yet still, Bombay is forced to a pit stop and floats every year. Somehow, the failure and the dismay just seem all the more profound in the case of Bombay, simply because this is a city that cannot, would not pause. And that is the magnified relevance of a Bombay imagined but not fulfilled.

  • Mumbai City Museum competition entry by Steven Holl Architects. Fluid gallery interiors were to be flush with 25 lumens of carefully calibrated natural light - watercolour exploration by Steven Holl |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    Mumbai City Museum competition entry by Steven Holl Architects. Fluid gallery interiors were to be flush with 25 lumens of carefully calibrated natural light - watercolour exploration by Steven Holl Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl
  • The jury's official media release celebrated the proposal as distinctive for its sculptural and calligraphic qualities |Bombay Imagined | Robert Stephens | STIRworld
    The jury's official media release celebrated the proposal as "distinctive for its sculptural and calligraphic qualities" Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Click on the cover video to watch the full conversation.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

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