Mumbai Makes Room

Event: This Will Kill That? Maximum City: A reading forum with Suketu Metha
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.15.07
Speaker: Suketu Metha — Fiction Writer, Journalist, Author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Organizer: AIANY Emerging NY Architects Committee

Suketu Metha

Suketu Metha reads from his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

Katerina Kampiti

“Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us,” writes Suketu Metha in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. With the decreasing viability of agriculture in India, and economic opportunities expanding in urban centers, cities such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are experiencing mass immigration. Facing rapid growth and economic disparities, Mumbai is a testing ground for the compatibility of largely unplanned urbanization with both modern democracy and an ancient culture.

In addition to providing utilities, housing, transportation, and open space, Mumbai faces the paradoxical challenge, as relayed to Metha by Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra: “If we make the city nice, with good roads, trains, and accommodation — if we make the city a nicer place to live — it attracts more people from the outside.” To plan for the future, Metha suggests that architects need to understand the complex and informal social networks of the city. Currently, there is “almost no dialogue” between architects and the local citizenry; most architects “simply tell the people how to live,” rather than “asking them how they want to live.”

Within the hyper-density of Mumbai, “the greatest luxury is solitude,” says Metha. Every economic, ethnic, and religious class is forced to interface. Scarcity of space in Mumbai precludes the development of gated communities, and results in rich and poor living in adjacent, if unequal, accommodations. He evokes a metaphorical cross section of Mumbai society when describing a typical high-rise tower. Wealthy residents live atop a parking garage that also houses the residents’ drivers and their families. Differing economic classes may “not like each other, but they need each other to survive.”

Metha is optimistic for Mumbai’s future, however. Indians “make space where none exists,” he states when describing crowded trains. “Come on-board, they say. We’ll adjust.”