Lessons for life
Will future generations of architecture and heritage students and enthusiasts have much to learn from the city's buildings of the 21st century?
When we were free-as-a-bird collegians, there was a trail that a friend and I had invented that we would set out on each time we wished to bunk a lecture, or simply "chill". Since our college was located in leafy, happy Matunga that was surrounded by Parsi Colony and Hindu Colony, the game involved having to look for interesting motifs or crests on building facades or the year in which it was established, and later, compare notes. We'd give each other an hour and head out in different directions before returning to the same spot where our hunt had begun. It ended up being an educational project that we had unwittingly created.
For, not only did these trails offer tremendous insight into the colonies and its inhabitants, but it also led us to respect such structures that displayed elements from the Art Deco style of architecture as well as traces of vernacular designs. We also learnt about the Parsi and Maharashtrian communities, as they lent character to the two neighbourhoods. They were largely middle-class, and looked after their homes with pride. From green-top balconies, to aesthetically decorated frontages, and in some cases, spacious verandahs, we'd look forward to spotting these sights. It was in many ways, an initiation for us that grew to a near-obsession about the city's heritage and the factors that breathed life into it. She went off to study the subject in detail in a foreign land where she pursues it as an academician, while my research as a journalist and author gave this curiosity wings to fly.
So recently, when she returned to the city after a decade, it was natural to do a repeat trail in her favourite part of Bombay, only that this time, we did it together. There was one detail that I refrained from telling her lest she lose interest — that the landscape had changed. With some amount of trepidation, we made plans to recount our steps. Powered with chai and bun maska at Café Colony (thank goodness they are still around!), we set out, and soon enough, the eyesores of Hindu Colony began to greet us, one by one. Some skyscrapers were already standing tall while others were on the way towards redevelopment. The friend's jaw had dropped by now. "Where have they all gone? And why such ghastly structures in their place?" she asked. I offered reasons like space crunch, real estate sharks, and weak laws to protect/conserve such structures. Luckily, the mood had upped considerably when we crossed Dr Ambedkar Road, and made our way towards Parsi Colony. Here, despite the odd high-rise, the community had somehow been able to fight the real estate lobby from causing further damage. Yet, a general sense of decadence was evident. We walked past gorgeous tree-lined lanes without uttering a word, soaking in the sights and sounds.
And then, the friend broke the silence, "Tell me something… 20 years down the line, what will architecture students in Bombay be taught about modern styles prevalent in the city in the decades starting from 2000? About glass-concrete monstrosities created in assembly-line-like succession? Or the hideous décor elements, and 'inspiration and art' borrowed from Gothic and Romanesque designs? These eyesores are all across the city and its suburbs in its new structures — be it public or private. Will we ever see a salute to authentic design or vernacular elements make a comeback?" And, that thought stuck in our head long after we had enjoyed a warm kheema pao brunch at Koolar & Sons and said our goodbyes for the day.
What lessons will tomorrow's architecture students, scholars and researchers have at their disposal about the city's structures that were built in the 2000s? Will it be resigned to what we had witnessed in small detail during those walks in Matunga? How many of these invaluable pages of urban history will be left behind as living lessons for them? Or just like how this generation refers to grainy images and maps to gauge the original Fort walls or the city's other forts, will they have to resort to photographs and digital prints to relive these glorious chapters of building design in the city? It's a very realistic possibility, we imagine, as we type out this column. But, there is hope, and we must use it as a trampoline to ensure what is still around, stays. The standing masterpieces in and around Fort, Colaba and Kala Ghoda that have survived centuries, should remind us to conserve layers of our city's origins that are under threat. Hope must float and voices need be heard. After all, Bombay cannot become Mum-bai.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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