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A 400-acre park at Mahalakshmi and other projects that never took off

A new book ‘Bombay Imagined’ throws light on around 200 ideas, envisaged for Mumbai since the 17th century, which couldn’t come to fruition for various reasons

Written by Benita Fernando | Mumbai |
Updated: January 24, 2022 1:05:25 pm
During his research on the book, Stephens found that most of the proposals didn’t see the light of the day mainly because of costs or the space required. (Representational)

When he took charge as the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, then Bombay, in 1865, Arthur Crawford proposed an expansive park in Mahalakshmi. The area was the city’s first landfill and Crawford’s plan was to purge it of its waste and follow it up with an afforestation programme. The 400-acre park would then be thrown open to all, with dedicated food stalls for each community. Crawford’s grand plan included a statue of a fool, with an inscription in four languages that read, “Forgive us for we know not what we did”, meant as a sly admonishment of previous governments for allowing Mahalakshmi to waste into a dumping ground.

The idea — Bombay Park — never materialised. Crawford’s ambitious plan is among the 200 “unrealised” proposals that have been documented in a new book called ‘Bombay Imagined’ by Mumbai-based American architect, Robert Stephens. The illustrated history of the city, or as it could have been, spans from the 17th century and leads right up to a coastal road realignment project in 2020. Other proposals that never took off include lift wheels by British engineer Samuel Perkes from 1858, which could have scooped sewage water from the harbour and directed it into the city’s sewers; an underwater Back Bay cable wall (1864) to protect the city from “enemy boats”; and Gorai International Airport from 1948 by Albert Mayer and NV Modak, which failed because of fears of mountainous collisions.

Stephens, 37, said, “There is a lot of learning from the work that predecessors have done. These particular ideas are very different from what we experience and what we know from history books today. I started with 50 schemes, and kept finding some interesting, some scary ones. The ones that are there are those that I found genuinely fascinating.”

Stephens moved from the USA to Mumbai when he was 22 to apprentice at RMA Architects, where he continues to work. Bombay Imagined is his personal project of seven years, stemming from an interest in rare books. Looking through the city’s bookshops, Stephen found a publication from 1869, called Professional Papers on Indian Engineering, which contained 19th century projects. Among these was Bombay Park, which Stephens notes “transcended the mundane aspirations of his contemporaries”.

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Bombay Imagined, designed by Studio Anugraha, can be pre-ordered on http://www.urbsindis.com. Most of the proposals have been re-published here for the first time. Working with a team of architects and artists, Stephens has brought in overlays, photographs, and speculative visualisations to accompany the proposals. There are original drawings, maps, and press images, too, such as that of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, which would have been an Italian Renaissance building, but for a competition where the proposal lost.

Stephens observes that competitions historically fail in Mumbai. “Ninety-nine times out of hundred, if it’s a competition, it won’t happen,” he said, citing one in 2014 which called for a Mumbai City Museum adjacent to Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

Most of these proposals didn’t see the light of day mainly because of costs or the space required. Some were too expensive, and another agency was just cheaper. In some cases, it had to do with public pressure. In 1963, the Nepean Sea Road Foreshore Layout by the civic corporation, which proposed 98 sea-facing skyscrapers and shopping centres, was brought to a halt after fierce opposition from the Save Breach Candy committee. The resistance believed that the project would “cut-off man from nature”.

Instead of this inconclusive private housing project, Breach Candy is the current site of ongoing coastal road work, which has taken off despite resistance from citizen groups. “City problems never go away on their own. The people they impact may change and they take a different form, but they persist,” Stephens said, pointing out a proposed zoo at the heart of the city, which would have been Malabar Hill back in 1888. The Chowpatty Cliff Zoo was proposed by the Bombay Natural History Society, after people complained about the “wretched arrangements” and “unhappy animals” at Victoria Gardens in Byculla, today called Jijamata Udyaan. “When you read articles about the zoo today, it’s a theme that’s continued,” Stephens said.

Bombay Imagined refrains from making personal observations or analysis of the 200 proposals. But Stephens is glad that a project such as the Elephanta Tavern and Ballroom, a proposal to turn the historic caves into a place of hedonistic pleasures, never came to be. On the other hand, American polymath Buckminster Fuller’s plan to create a state-of-the-art air terminal at Santacruz would have been a worthwhile addition to the city, he said. The proposals—many of them by people who were not professional architects—often indicate the pulse of the city from that moment in history. In the mid-1800s, there were several reclamation schemes across the city, indicating a common aspiration.

In the course of his research, Stephens had to reach out to more than 50 archives and libraries, such as the British Library and the Maharashtra State Archives, to put together pieces of each proposal. About going through each proposal, he said, “It gave me hope that even if the scheme wasn’t chosen, there are always people who have put the city’s interests first. Not all the projects do that but by and large, that’s the sense I have got.”

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