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September 27th, 2011 Rrishi Raote

Looking at downtown Mumbai on Wikimapia.org one can identify many of the tall buildings by their shadows. In the middle of a sea of lower, old-fashioned chawl-style dwellings and narrow streets, they loom unpleasantly, putting their homelier neighbours in the shade. They are not long shadows, this being a city in the subtropics, and the buildings not quite as tall nor as closely spaced as those in places like Chicago and New York. So one has to look carefully.

From sea level the towers show up rather better. From the Nariman Point end of the Queen’s Necklace, what used to be a soothing vista of a parade of genteel old apartment blocks has become a scene from a horror movie. Behind the line of old blocks, marching in from the distance — the backwoods of Breach Candy, Girgaon, Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar, and so on — is coming a horde of ugly, warty monsters.

That is, the towers. There’s not enough of them yet to give them anonymity, so each one still stands out in its total awfulness. The contrast in scale and appearance between the old and the new is so dire that the head spins. And the monsters ruin the view.

Even Malabar Hill, never really a pretty prospect from this side of Back Bay, has grown carbuncled, with ridiculously narrow and tall pigeoncotes of apartment blocks rising far out of its crown, some of them crowding around what used to be the beautiful Banganga Tank.

Now, one can’t be too strongly opposed to tall buildings in a city where land is so valuable. The trouble is that the neighbourhoods where the builders are putting up these monsters are plainly not scaled to handle this kind of pressure. It’s possible that fewer humans live in a tall apartment complex than lived in the chawl that it replaced. Even so, those chawls housed not just homes but also dozens of businesses and services; and it’s likely that more of their residents worked not too far away. In contrast, people living in the new apartment towers almost certainly work, study and play at some distance, and they are more likely to travel by car. Have you seen the streets hereabouts?

Much could be forgiven the builders if they at least made goodlooking buildings. A few of the towers have the minimum dignity of a form that follows function — that is, they are unadorned slabs of stacked flats. Others, like The Imperial in Tardeo, said to be India’s tallest buildings at a quarter-kilometre high, alarmingly combine weak references to the Chrysler Building in New York with the dreadnought profile of a Star Wars space battleship. Such a building looks no nicer in silhouette at dusk than it does in full daylight. And the less said about Planet Godrej, the colossal slab of flats overlooking Jijamata Udyan in Byculla, the better.

Perhaps one should be grateful for one thing. At least the builders are building towers where people live. If they built instead massive commercial blocks like those in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, in old downtown Mumbai, that would be an irreversible gutting. Already parts of core Mumbai are becoming unrecognisable nowhere-places; how much worse would it be if those places were also emptied of humans at nights and two days a week?

(Correction: Tried to put in links to all the relevant views on Wikimapia.org, but for some reason those links are failing. Sorry, had to remove them.)

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