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Portrait of a city: ‘Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai’

A film on architecture, by architects, addresses the lack of discourse around urban, physical and 'interstitial' spaces of a city

A still from the film, ‘Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai’.
A still from the film, ‘Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai’.

If electorates get the leaders they deserve, then cities are arguably only as progressive as the architectural practices they employ. This is precisely the hypothesis that Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai, a new 37-minute documentary, seeks to propagate. Made by a team of Mumbai-based architects—Rajeev Thakker, Shreyank Khemalapure and Samarth Das—it explores Mumbai’s urban development by examining the role, scope and definition of architecture in the city today through a number of techniques.

First, visually. Just like any architect, the film negotiates multiple scales. Sweeping aerial views of Mumbai’s built environment are paired alongside street-level shots. Everyday urban life is thus captured from a distance and up close. Mumbai’s colonial heritage, natural history and contemporary life are acknowledged in equal measure. Images of railways, heritage districts, gaothans (urban villages), former mill areas, the coastline, mangroves, high-rises, by-lanes, street markets, skywalks, slums and low-income housing capture Mumbai’s urban complexity and multiplicity, highlighting its inherent design challenges.

This visual montage is accompanied by a vivid and differentiated soundscape. Yes, Mumbai honks, its trains trundle, it can deafen all day long. But it also hisses, scrapes and squeaks—all sounds of industrial manufacturing. The film’s audio track specifically draws attention to the grime and grit of Mumbai’s many makers, from printing presses to metalworks, that exist in the heart of the city.

The parallels between local, small-scale manufacturing and contemporary architectural practice, as urban “makers and producers", are clear. “One can look at the city as a cumulative of all (architectural) practices, so practices produce the city, and cities produce practices.... So irrespective of whether you want or not, you are getting produced by the city and you are contributing to the production of the city," says Prasad Shetty, an architect and associate professor at the School of Environment and Architecture (SEA).

The film’s biggest success is its ability to expand and define what it means to “produce". Through a series of interviews with some of the city’s most thoughtful architects, the documentary captures distinct expressions of the profession today: architecture as design, as research, as conservation, as academia and as activism. Together, they posit a new vocabulary for architectural discourse, one that aspires to shape Mumbai’s physical dimensions, in major and minor ways, by addressing existing urban challenges through a new lens.

A still from the film, ‘Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai’.

For example, the notion of “interstitial spaces" is important for architect and researcher Sameep Padora of Sameep Padora and Associates (sP+a). These are the gaothans and markets that exist between the city’s “formal constructs" and are not generally acknowledged in town planning schemes. He believes we must “start recognizing the fact that the interstitial city is as important as the formal city, and in some way can also be a precursor to ways that the city can evolve in the future".

Well-known conservation architect Vikas Dilawari wonders “whether new development can become the heritage of tomorrow". He advocates sensitive redevelopment and “adaptive reuse" to make old structures fit-for-use. Academic Aneerudha Paul urges architectural discourse as a stimulus to intellectual and creative growth, emphasizing, “You have to talk about architecture, you just can’t build. Only when we talk of architecture, the practitioner is pushed into creating new imaginations."

And finally, long-time activist-architect P.K. Das underlines that “a city is made up of civic and social capital; it’s not just about physical objects and constructions and building edifices. How can design be a (form of) social capital?"—he goes on to cite the Bandra waterfront project as an example of bottom-up, community-led effort to reclaim a public space.

Reading has visible lacuna and actors missing. Director and architect Thakker agrees that it would have helped to include “a commercial practice, an urban design institute and a spatial artist". Its other intellectual limitation is its unclear messaging. Although each architect calls for collective action, the mechanism for what that engagement could be is slightly vague.

Despite these shortcomings, it stands out as a tightly packed, sensorial and provocative attempt to interrogate who designs our city, and how. If you want to make sense of our urban mayhem, and especially if you are not an architect or urban planner, then make sure you watch it. And then talk about it.

Reading Architecture Practice Mumbai will be screened on 8 September, 7pm, at Jasma Devi Bhavan, off Queens Road, Bengaluru. It will be followed by a panel discussion.

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