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Mumbai needs an aesthetic counsellor

December 08, 2010 17:10 IST

The city needs simple solutions, which look at each problem not in isolation, but as part of a totality called a city, its people, and their needs, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Chandrashekhar Burande, a practicing architecture who agonises over the state Mumbai is in. Once the Urbs prima in Indis or the London of the East, he points out, needs some solid advice on everything -- how to plan and run the city, and how to keep at least some minimal aesthetics. But doesn't the city have a city government, with people's representative from the wards -- the smallest urban constituencies -- with budgets that could pale those of the smaller states?

It does have all that but the most critical requirement, common sense, is in serious deficit. Arguably, the city has everything, but mostly in form, not in content. There are laws and they are bent, there are funds but they are misspent, there are town planners who take sectional views and oblige harvesting only the maximum for the real estate barons, there are monitors of the spending of the huge sums but the leaks from that are a spout, not a mere occasional dribble.

Months ago, sitting in his sparse office Burande lamented about how the city has no aesthetics and has no significant iconic representation because it is a mishmash of everything under the sun. It has no one single architectural ethos and unlike other world cities, whose ranks Mumbai wishes to join by false claims, has nothing distinctive about it except for shabbiness. The "city has no distinct image". On the other hand, despite some skyscrapers and glass frontages, it is drab. Least it needs is a good coat of paint as was done with the Art Decos buildings on Marine Drive to bring some order to a fine waterfront.

The minimum Mumbai now badly needs, he suggested, is an architectural and aesthetic counsellor. He should be one who can take an overall view of the city and think through the consequences of every action before implementing them under the pretence that such steps would serve the city.

I agree with him.

And have a few complaints of my own -- illustrative, not exhaustive -- about Mumbai.

This happened because but for some parts of South Mumbai, when the colonial buildings came up, at least the main roads were broad and well laid out, the entire city was not planned but grew on its own, embracing neighbouring villages which have now become suburbs, expanding into a vast city which fights to contain the crowds. Yes, crowds everywhere, inside and outside homes, in virtually every public space are perhaps one outstanding feature of the city.

The most that is missing is aesthetics from even the most common things. Huge and expensive flats to tiny cubby holes do not have places to hang their daily laundry to dry. They mar the frontages of the buildings because the families within struggle to maximise on the minimal spaces that they have bought with a fortune, mortgaging their future earnings for the next two-three decades. Why can't the civic body, Burande argues, ensure that some extra FSI is provided free to a building to help people hang their clothes?

In some countries, hanging clothes on the front is an offence. But then, the civic body, if and when it does allow such extra FSI, be sure, would make sure it is clubbed with some saleable part of the house and the consumer charged. The clothes, because the city has no aesthetic sense, would remain on the strings on the windows.

It is a point well made, Mr Burande.

A host of things that can be pointed and here is an assortment of them:

Why should the civic body allow encroachment on the sidewalks not only by the unauthorised hawkers but also shopkeepers who have unencumbered access to space abutting their frontages?

That is why, citing lack of space to ensure safety of the pedestrians because the footpaths are illegally taken over, the skywalks are built.

Having built them, they made sure that some pass close enough to the first or second floor windows of homes, which is an enablement of invasion of people's privacy.

The skywalks may appear sleek in themselves, but as part of the street architecture, they are hideous as part of the larger cityscapes.

And once built, the sides is more likely to be taken over for advertising making one wonder if it was built to benefit the pedestrians hard-pressed for walking space or for facilitating advertisements, both legal and illegal. Imagine how the city would look like later.

Now, take the roads:

Craters are usual, more so when in monsoons, they become huge pits, risking the user's lives and limbs, as if the post-monsoon repairs are only patches but not real maintenance. Maintenance, in any parlance, is doing things so stuff does not go bad; in the civic body's lexicon, maintenance is applying band aids after the problem disrupts traffic.

Claiming that roads are not easy to maintain because of the traffic loads, the road intersections are often repaired using inter-locking paver blocks. They often are put to use at the most dangerous places where when a driver brakes a car, it can skid. A new phenomenon is filling up craters even on flyovers using paver blocks, making for continuing bumpy rides.

And wonder of wonders is that water often stagnates during rains at the midpoint of the flyover, as if no drain-off arrangement was even conceived.

And on the new flyovers between Dadar and Parel, meant to facilitate smooth and quick movement of vehicles, speed-breakers have been put in place.

Now, take the city's hygiene:

People spit but the civic body cannot prevent them. Nor does it provide spittoons.

Cooking and selling of food on the streets is allowed and the place around littered which includes water thrown after washing perhaps 100 tea cups in just a bucket of water.

There are worse things: for a city where millions are out on the streets at any point of day, a few dozen toilets are available, mostly in railway stations. They are found by not by asking for directions but by being guided by the nose. No wonder people lean against the walls where they suspect some privacy is possible.

These, apart from hurting the level of hygiene, also hurt the aesthete. That hurts the city's image.

This list can go on, ad nauseum.

The city needs simple solutions, which look at each problem not in isolation, but as part of a totality called a city, its people, and their needs. One single step forward is to look at the people as people, not statistics, at the budgets as something needing significant outcomes and not as a chest of treasure for crony contractors to loot.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar