The site of the future second tallest skyscraper in the world is easy to miss. Cut off by railway lines from the faded Art Deco glory of Mumbai’s Marine Drive, it sits tightly where a leafy sidestreet used by cab drivers for short cuts meets a blank road of relentless traffic. Behind a makeshift corrugated iron screen, concrete has already been poured into a deep hole. ‘May I take photographs?’ I ask the security man standing in the dusty sunbeams. ‘No camera’ he says sternly. ‘What about from the street?’… ‘No, no’ he insists. ‘Is this the site of the India Tower?’ His face lights up proudly. ‘Yes yes! 130 storeys!’ (It’s actually 125, excluding basements)
The air of secrecy about the India Tower extends deeper. Not a sausage about it on the websites of its architects, Foster + Partners, or its developer, Dynamix Balwas Realty. Hyatt, who will run a hotel in the tower, let slip project details only last November. Yet Foster’s great faceted pyramid shard of glass, a visible symbol of India’s new chocks-away capitalism, will soar 720m into the Indian sky- if it’s built. In February, DB Realty’s chairman, billionaire Shahid Balwa, was arrested in connection with the scandal over dodgy 2G Spectrum auction prices which may have lost India £3 billion and shook Manmohan Singh’s government. The India Tower’s construction continues.
Mumbai ranks seventh in the world for (dollar) billionaires, and they are driving a high-rise frenzy across the city. Most of their new towers are upmarket condominiums, marketed to an exploding upwardly mobile middle class. In the case of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and chairman of Reliance Industries, his 28-storey tower is the family mansion. Mumbai, like a long-sleeping giant now stirred and in a hurry to step out in new top hat and tails, is becoming a twenty-first century city, and its changing skyline is the first obvious sign. But the rush to super-modernity raises questions- not just in the providence of some developers’ fortunes, but in the very sustainability of the city.
Mumbai is the core of a conurbation of 20 million, making it the second or third biggest in the world. It is also the business powerhouse of a rising superpower. Mumbai generates a third of all India’s tax revenue and a quarter of its industrial output, and handles 70% of its trade. Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world. Poverty may seem endemic in the shanty-towns and squatter settlements, but Mumbai is a machine that draws in millions of poor immigrants, jams them together, and starts lifting them out of poverty, just like New York a century ago. And as in New York, Mumbai’s towers first emerged at the southern end of a thin sliver of land, and have been spreading north.
The first tycoon to build a great tower was the blind cotton magnate Premrand Roychand, who named the Rajabai Clock Tower after his mother. This 85m-high High Victorian Gothic masterpiece, designed by George Gilbert Scott and finished in 1878, was Bombay’s tallest building for 92 years. It was finally overtaken by the 36-storey, 156m-high World Trade Centre Tower, an ugly white building with thin window strips to reduce overheating by solar gain. Many bland towers went up in the 1970s skyscraper boom, especially near the southern tip of Mumbai. The only elegant high-rise there is the curving Phiroze Jeejeebhoy Towers, 118m high, which houses the Bombay Stock Exchange, originally founded by Roychand. Another famous skyline icon near the tip of Mumbai is The Taj hotel, recently restored after the 26/11 terrorist attacks of 2008. Its 24-storey Tower Wing, embellished with Mogul-styled window bays, was built in 1973.
The current high-rise boom starts in the exclusive, airy neighbourhoods behind Chowpatty Beach and Malabar Hill. For a long time the only extraordinary building was the Kanchanjunga Apartments at Kemp’s Corner. It was completed in 1983 and designed by Charles Correa, the giant of Indian Modernist architecture, in practise since 1958. His ochre-coloured 84m-high Modernist icon has regular indents that create garden terraces, reviving the Indian veranda tradition and addressing issues of livability and climate.
Towers have since spread east into Tardeo, and now include India’s current tallest, the 250m-high twin apartment towers called The Imperial, designed by another veteran Mumbai architect, Hafeez Contractor. His style could not be more different from Correa’s. Contractor built his reputation for delivering brash, shiny post-modernist buildings in IT boomtowns like Bangalore. It’s easy to be sniffy about his derivative mix-n-match designs, but the British who designed Mumbai’s downtown Victorian cityscape were also masters of style mash-ups. The Imperial may look rather like the Petronas Towers stripped of un-necessary detail and rendered in white and blue, but it’s a refreshing and attractive highlight on Mumbai’s current skyline. Nearby is the fun skyscraper of Shreepati Arcade. Designed by Mumbai-based Reza Kabul and completed in 2002, this 153m-high tower may not look that special, but what is that neo-French townhouse perched on its roof? Did Kabul plan those sunflowers painted on it? It takes a zoom lens to see that this structure encloses plant machinery.
Between The Imperial and Kanchanjunga is Mumbai’s most notorious skyscraper. Antilla is Mukesh Ambani’s family home, a 173m-high stack of rectanglar floors of different depths cantilevering towards the west. Its Chicago-based architects, Perkins and Will, have given Antilla a muscular, metallic high-tech feel, quite alien in the Indian context. Okay, it also houses his 600-odd staff, and if you’re going to build a palace, why not stack it high on a tiny plot rather than spread it across countryside? Antilla is widely seen as an obscene gesture, and is said to lord it over nearby slums, but actually it rises from the exclusive, secluded Altamount Road, which feels a little like Hampstead.
But the big skyscraper action is to the north of Tardeo’s icons and inland from the nouveau-riche seaside at Worli and the new Sealink bridge. The Mill Lands are a vast territory that stretches from Mahalaxmi towards the celebrated slum of Dharavi. This was Mumbai’s old textile industry heartland, once the centre of the city’s powerful trade union movement, before the mills started closing in the 1970s and a Communist strike in 1982 delivered the fatal blow to its survival. Charles Correa recognised the disenfranchised population as stakeholders in his Mill Lands masterplan, which would have created new housing, open spaces and transport-orientated nodes. But in 2006, after 15 years of battle between environmentalists and developers, India’s High Court made a ruling that allowed redevelopment of previously vacant land, and let rip the whims of the new titans of real estate.
Open spaces and housing are now spreading in Mill Lands, but the spaces are private and the housing luxury. New condo towers vie for air with swanky go-go glass office blocks, such as at the gated office estate of the IndiaBulls Centre. There, once through the almost airport-like security, you are in an environment of immaculate mini-plazas, glass atria and marble lobbies. Power-dressed executives drop into a private branch of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf café. The mid-rise office blocks look out across a vista of new towers as far as the eye can see.
IndiaBulls, founded by India’s youngest self-made billionaire Sameer Gehlaut, Saurabh Mittal and Rajiv Rattan, will soon own towers that dwarf all of them. IndiaBull’s Sky Forest is already under construction. Elphinstone Mills is a 60-storey high angular mixed-use block with outdoor terraces (like Kamchanjunga) and Jupiter Mills is a 75-store residential block cantilevering apartments randomly from its concrete core. Both are designed by Chicago’s Adrian Smith, architect of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Pei Cobb Freed, another American practice, has designed a 117-storey 442-metre high tower called World One for the site of Srinivas Mills in Worli, which will be the tallest all-residential tower anywhere after Dubai’s Pentominium. Its developers, politician Mangal Prabhat Lodha’s Lodha Group, were investigated by tax inspectors in January, but are already marketing the tower. Flats will cost from $1.5 million to over $11 million, and the air, cleaner and 4.7C cooler at the top, is a sales point. Other 100+ storey towers are in the pipeline.
Mumbai’s high-rise building bonanza seems not unlike Dubai’s until the 2009 Credit Crunch slowed it. The new and planned Mill Lands towers may be spaced further apart than those around Dubai Marina, but they are already becoming as mind-numbing, and the glitz and ambition are the same. The tallest towers are often the harbingers of property crashes. Maybe Mumbai’s property bubble might be about to burst. Even if it doesn’t, can the city infrastructure cope?
If the India Tower is finished, how will its lakhs (that is, tens of thousands) of occupants ever reach it? The adjacent Western Railway into Churchgate has long been so surrealistically packed that commuters hang to the outside of its open-door trains. Access is a question for all new towers. Cars, cabs and the florid Indian trucks emblazoned with ‘GOODS CARRIER’ already saturate Mumbai’s roads, virtually vanquishing India’s ubiquitous cows. The city itself seems oblivious to ideas like reclaiming public realm, pedestrianisation, bike highways, shared space or congestion charging. Mumbai has built a lot of pedestrian skywalks near stations, called ‘foot-over-bridges’, but they merely shift a minority of pedestrians from the street and don’t address traffic. A third of a billion dollars was spent on an impressive 5.6 km eight-lane toll motorway bridge called the Bandra-Worli Sealink to unclog north-south traffic by diverting it across a bay, but the city is also still cutting through dense urban fabric with yet more express flyovers, which will inevitably fill up. The airport still has no rail-link.
Yes, a suburban light rail metro and an inner-city monorail are under construction, but there are still no funds for the multi-billion dollar underground Metro Line 3 that would go from downtown Colaba, under the financial district and Victoria/CST, the main railway terminus, pass near the India Tower and link into suburban lines at Mahalaxmi. This line would be 20km long, a twentieth of Shanghai’s Metro network. Some Indians claim it’s too expensive and won’t attract riders. More likely, the city’s long-term viability for business hangs on it and trains would be rammed within a week of opening. Mumbai needs to bite the bullet, and start digging tomorrow… and begin planning another mass transit line under Thane Creek to the millions in the overspill metropolis of Navi Mumbai.
The transport crisis is just one sustainability issue. There are others, such as slums and affordable housing. It doesn’t mean destroying what works, or sweeping the poor under the rug. Correa understood the rights of locals in his abandoned Mill Lands masterplan. More recently, Adrian Smith has masterplanned dense housing and commercial high-rise for Mumbai’s most celebrated slum, Dharavi. Smith is a brilliant, thoughtful architect and an evangelist for sustainability. What’s evaded him here is that Dharavi is a hive of enterprise and industrious activity- a lesson in how to settle a million people with high employment and minimal carbon footprint. The new middle class may aspire to better environments than chawls (old tenements) and slums, but that’s where another class, just as entrepreneurial, makes the best of things. Himal, a local guide, told me flatly that Dharavi is already ‘middle class’. It deserves better than to be swept away for swank new malls and high-rise. How about giving the people there robust utilities, building materials, and transport links? Or must established Mumbai slums like Dharavi go the way of Beijing’s hutongs, and with it, a part of the city’s soul?
If the India Tower, World One and others are built, they will be exciting, dazzling structures that Mumbai should rightly celebrate on its upward climb. Mumbai has the trade links, capital and business can-do (not to mention its film industry) to compete with Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai or Dubai. World City status is around the corner. Correa told me that ‘the cities are changing the way Indians think and act, they force the change’. Lets hope that applies to politicians and planners, and even the tycoons. Mumbai needs to look not just upwards, but to the situation on the ground… and under it.
All photos © Herbert Wright 2011
except ‘Mumbai: New skyscrapers, old slums’, photo by Marcin ‘Jedras’ Jedrzejewski
Do have a look at more of my Mumbai photos