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Meet the archivist of urban heritage

Architect Robert Stephens juxtaposes aerial photographs of urban spaces in India with snippets from rare books, old maps and material

Robert Stephens at the opening of Mumbai Articles at ARTISANS', Kala Ghoda, in 2014.

On Robert Stephens’ Instagram page (@urbsindis) the past and the present come together seamlessly. He juxtaposes exquisite black-and-white aerial photographs of Indian cities—all captured on commercial flights—with mentions from rare books written by cartographers, urban planners and architects between the 18th and the 20th centuries to trace the evolution of urban spaces. One of the images, ‘Bombay Heights’, which he shot in February 2016, and posted only last year, shows tall skyscrapers breaking through the haze. There is a dream-like quality to this image, as if someone has just chanced upon the magnificent minarets from Arabian Nights on a voyage of discovery. The Mumbai-based architect pairs this image, with a quote by James Forbes, a British artist and writer. “The island of Bombay should now no longer be considered as a settlement, or separate colony, but as the metropolis (surrounded indeed by a large moat) of an extensive domain,” wrote Forbes in Oriental Memoirs, VOL 11, 1783.

There is another image, titled ‘Urban Kabir (May 2013), which shows an aerial view of traffic in the city. The caption mentions a snippet from the Development Plan for Greater Bombay, Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, 1964 and One Hundred Years of Bombay, 1937. “The wide roads of Bombay are no more wide in comparison with the enormous traffic that they have to carry now. Registration of vehicles indicates that its growth is increasing at an even faster rate than the growth of its population and industries. Private cars have increased by over 75 per cent. And all registered cars, tricks and taxis more than 100 per cent,” it states.

'Urban Kabir', the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, one of Mumbai's most photogenic landmarks, weaves its way in and out of the city landmass. Completed in 2010, the link first appeared in the Arabian Sea in the city's 1964 Development Plan.
'Urban Kabir', the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, one of Mumbai's most photogenic landmarks, weaves its way in and out of the city landmass. Completed in 2010, the link first appeared in the Arabian Sea in the city's 1964 Development Plan.

There is a certain grainy quality to his images, which lends them this otherworldliness. However, the reason for that is the rising pollution levels in the cities. “The higher the pollution on a given day, the grainier the picture,” mentioned Stephens in a 2014 Scroll article. Today, his images come with RSPM, SO2 and NOx levels mentioned in the captions as well.

From 2007, ever since he arrived in India, after having graduated from Virginia Tech, USA, Stephens has been creating an observational archive of Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad. His love for aerial photography is combined with an equal passion for collecting rare archival books on urban planning and architecture such as the 1909 Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island. “I am passionate about urban history. An archive is like a collection of puzzle pieces, which have been lost and scattered to the wind,” he says, during a video call from Mumbai. “For urban history, there is no consolidated archive in India recounting past narratives that have contributed to our present built form.” So, he has been picking up fragments from institutes and personal collections.

Mohammed Fayazuddin's Greater Hyderabad Masterplan of 1947 formed the backdrop to Robert Stephen's Reading Room installation at the Krishnakriti Festival in 2019
Mohammed Fayazuddin's Greater Hyderabad Masterplan of 1947 formed the backdrop to Robert Stephen's Reading Room installation at the Krishnakriti Festival in 2019

One of his biggest sources for rare books is the line of booksellers around the heritage area of Flora Fountain in Mumbai. Usually after a house or an estate in the area goes into redevelopment, the discarded books, manuscripts and archival materials show up at these stalls. “I now have a great working relationship with the booksellers. For instance, just a few weeks ago, I came across a magazine titled ‘Our Bombay', published by the Municipal Corporation in 1954. Featuring beautiful illustrations, it was produced by government agencies with the intent of communicating basic facts about the city—how the drainage system works, details of public health services, challenges faced by children in the city, etc,” elaborates Stephens. “It shows how Bombay grew up.”

As of now he has over 300 such books, with additions from travels all across the world. He has picked up some unique correspondence as well, such as that between Governor H.B. Frere and Queen Victoria’s principal secretary from the 1850s, when 20 per cent of deaths in Bombay were attributed to poor drainage. “The necessity for an early disposal of this question will be obvious, when it is considered that the rate of mortality in the town is greatly increased by the total absence of efficient drainage,” he wrote. Stephens has also posted about a 1917 sewage map of Colaba by CC James in this context.

Stephens, today, also has the largest collections of books in India by Patrick Geddes, “one of his personal heroes, the Scottish polymath and pioneering urban planner, who had written exhaustive town planning reports on a number of Indian cities, including Mumbai and Ahmedabad,” mentioned a 2018-article in The Indian Express. He started building this collection 2014 onwards. And when he did an exhibition of his aerial photographs of Ahmedabad’s old city walls in 2018 at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, Stephens paired those with Geddes’ notes on the city and the need to preserve these heritage structures. “My interest is in creating people-centric narratives. I am not a trained urban planner or an urbanist. I thrive on personal histories—stories of how cities and people’s lives intertwine. As part of the ‘Ahmedabad Walls’ exhibition, I recount narratives of the lived environment through Patrick Geddes’ eyes,” says Stephens.

He even created a Patrick Geddes Reading Room as part of the Hyderabad Literary Festival, at Hyderabad Public School in January 2019. Stephens focused on the polymath’s work in the princely state in April 1915, when he saw a lot of hope in the forests. “He even, at one point in his life, proposed starting an insurance company based on afforestation. Little wonder the site he selected for Osmania University in Hyderabad had lovely patches of forests. They remain today enjoyed by goats galore,” mentioned Stephens at the exhibition.

Stephens pieced together Geddes’ work at the Osmania University through fragments scattered all over the world, such as his Osmania report spanning 28 pages of which only three-fourth have survived, and showed how he selected a 2000-acre site for the Nizam’s University, of which 1000 acres were to be dedicated to performative agriculture. It was a perfect opportunity to learn to live responsibly, something which would have come in handy with the changing urban and climatic conditions today. However, performative agriculture was dropped from the curriculum and much of the arable land of the campus is devoid of use today. “When Patrick Geddes made the first master plan, he walked around the campus and identified typologies. Where he saw depressions, he came up with great plans for water bodies. Today, the same depressions have become dumping ground for nearby settlements,” says Stephens. “What I have learnt while putting together these archives and through aerial photography is that a lot of core challenges don’t go away with time. They slumber, but never go away. People spend entire lifetimes trying to solve certain problems without any understanding of previous attempts and experiences.”

Another urban planner that he discovered in the process was Mohammed Fayazuddin, who realised dozens of schemes for cities, towns and villages in the pre-partition Hyderabad state. “The joy of discovering archival plans for low cost housing by Hyderabad’s invisible hero, Mohd Fayazuddin,” read his caption for the exhibition, Hyderabad Biophilia, in 2019. “The more I learn about the past, it helps me as an architect to contribute more magnificently to the future,” says Stephens.

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