Spectacular Speculation and Mumbai’s Unplanned Future

May 7, 2011


Presentation @ MAD Salon in Mumbai on Saturday, May 7th, 2011. Hosted by Susmita Monhanty and Sid Das.

1. Tower of Babel


This biblical story conveys many human anxieties and fears. Its monumental architecture encompasses a tale of tyranny – the domination of man over man in an attempt to bring together diverse histories under singular control, of streamlining otherness and reducing all fantasies into one. What is striking to the modern mind is the sheer scale of its ambition, of reaching out to the skies before crumbling under its own weight of over-extension and then fearing the ensuing confusion that comes with multiplicity and pluralism. The ambitions embodied in the myth seem to recur in human history – complete with the repetitive and cyclical fall.

2. Skyscraper Index


A little statistical table that circulates in the media now and then has an unsettling effect on many who encounter it. It shows correlations between ambitious building projects – specifically those that strive to the greatest heights ever – and the mysterious occurrence of economic depressions and the bursting of speculative bubbles that seem to unfailingly follow them. The table is seen to be unscientific but like the power of all great myths – has managed to plant little seeds of doubts and beliefs in the collective consciousness of those involved in realizing such ambitions. Are these grand projects crystallizations of arrogance and power till the sky literally falls on their heads? Often they become like the ruins of the tower of Babel, unfinished or surrounded by the rubble of economic despair.

3. World One


Mumbai’s very own Babel arises from its already pretty ruinous landscape with the same old tired ambition. The World One tower aims to be the highest residential tower in the world and rather like the grand but ill-fated biblical structure, wants to enclose as much as possible within its generous boundaries. It posits to be self-contained, encompassing as many needs as possible within it. It plans to tower over the rest of the city in arrogance and ambition. It turns away from the economic reality of thousands of luxury flats lying unused or unsold in its neighbourhoods and seems to be paving the way for a bubble to burst that, paradoxically people seem to be anticipating.

4. Barad Dur


The prevalence of biblical images and tales in medieval literature, of medievalism being one of the most challenging coming-of-age of moments of modern consciousness and the continued prevalence of medieval imagery and tales in modern fantasies and imaginations is explained by scholar Umberto Eco. He points out how an episodic and evolutionary presentation of history does not really mirror the diverse, complex and unpredictable way in which human lives and cultures actually unfold in space and time. Medieval concerns continue to exist deep in the human consciousness and experience. Popular culture is replete with imagery and fantasy from medieval times because modern life is punctuated by medieval moments, not withstanding the self-image we have of being modern thanks to technological changes and the scientific spirit. The Dark Tower of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings haunts us in movies, games and art, reliving old nightmares and shaping dreams and fantasies.

5. Dark Urban Age


As episodic history and transformative epic moments continue to influence our understanding of life, one powerful myth that has become prevalent is that we are now all firmly entrenched in the great Urban Age. However, it would be more accurate to say that we are in a rather Dark Urban Age. Prophets predict apocalyptic visions about this era with images of dark shadowy habitats replacing the erstwhile fears of the forest that castles and protected urban habitats had in the past. Every new architectural or urban fantasy that gets realized repeats such imagery, presenting itself as a fort surrounded by architectural wilderness full of danger and chaos. If it is not such negative imagery about their surroundings then it is about taming the wilderness and transforming it into acceptable notions of urban life – most of it still shaped by ambitions of the Babel Tower.

6. Out of the Castle


Today, when a young, well-meaning architect steps out of the castle, she is alert and on the lookout for dangers of the wilderness which she has to bravely tackle and eventually tame. The wilderness is epitomized by the category slum, encompassing all that is avoidable, dangerous and worthy of erasure. Like the proverbial adventurer of ancient tales she encounters false monsters and elusive spirits. The slum emerges as a highly unstable category, slipping through fingers the moment she thinks she has found one. In Mumbai particularly, the spectacular spectre of speculation has produced the most naive narrative on slums, where it is used in the grossest of way at one level and full of nuances at another. In Dharavi, each neighbourhood looks the other way when asked where the legendary and largest slum in Asia is supposed to be. It is always on the next street. Eventually when she finds it – it appears as a chimera, a construct and helps her realize that the dangerous forest around her is nothing like what she had been told it was.

7. Final Fantasy

The scary forest was a fantasy in the mind of castle dwellers in a way that played upon all kinds of anxieties and fears. Kings and aristocrats saw them as spaces out of control, unlike the domesticated peasants and taxed agrarian lands that were caught in their web. From the vantage of the subaltern hero, the forest was Sherwoodian, full of Robin Hoodian impulses, a social space and a world of creative freedom and economic independence. Resisting control was its biggest aim. An urbanological understanding of forests reveals a sharp questioning of what is wild, tame, and natural. Urbanology questions what is urban, rural and tribal, what is a slum and what is heroic resistance to monumental ambition. The final fantasy for an urban explorer is questioning the romantic fallacy of Babylonian ambition and revealing falsely frightening wilderness to be something else altogether – a liveable fantasy of human, creative and ecological possibilities

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