Friday, December 15, 2006

Bangkok 5 - Elevated Voyage


Khlong Suan Luang lies between the heritage area of Rattakosin and the popular shopping area of Siam. It is fed by the Klong Saen Sab, the heavily used east-west canal connecting to the suburbs, and runs almost a mile until running underground and connecting to the Khlong Chong Nonsi in Silom. It runs parallel to the busy Banthat Thong Street, built in the early 1900’s only 60 feet to the east. The western bank has perpendicular alleys roughly every 100 feet. The edges are formed with sloped concrete, leading to water which is infrequently dredged. The base of the canal is permeable soil, allowing some water to leech back into the aquifer. Ad-hoc bridges are built every 50 feet or so. The Bangkok Department of Drainage and Sewerage which oversees the canals has done an admirable job of improving water quality, but they simply don’t have the resources to keep up with a rapidly growing, industrialized city that still often dumps waste directly into the water; Khlong Suan Luang has a powerful stench and unnaturally dark water with trash floating slowly by. Notably, the shop-houses lining the khlong were built in response to the roadway, and present their backs to the water. The strip between the canal and the building is used for cleaning, storage, and trash.


Bangkok is navigated on many overlapping levels. At the lowest point, the subway snakes 50 feet below grade; canals channel water just below the streets; most roadways are laid at grade; pedestrian walkovers are often the only means of crossing intense traffic; vehicle flyovers at busy intersections rise just enough to let traffic through; the Skytrain runs at the 4th floor of many apartments beside it; and new expressways arc over 100 feet in the air. Additionally, many of the malls around the shopping areas of Silom and Siam have elevated quasi-public plazas that abut the Skytrain or parking garages. It is the built manifestation of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s City Plan of 1927.

These elevated worlds are perhaps fortuitous as the city sinks several inches every year and the nearby ocean rises, increasing the possibility that Bangkok will again be a truly water-based settlement. Some day soon the current street level might lie abandoned, good only for exploring with scuba gear. Buildings and lobbies everywhere in Bangkok would begin on floor 2, causing confusion to visitors. A modern day Atlantis, the sunken world would disappear as the new city rises in layers over the tidal waters.


I propose an elevated canal over Khlong Suan Luang, a new level of infrastructure that acts as a demonstrative cleaning project and relaxed voyage through the city. It would follow the existing air-rights of the canal through several distinct parts of the city. The new canal would be a recreational experience for tourists and citizens, tapping into the desire for quiet, leisurely urban movement, an almost unheard-of phenomenon. It would signal a renewal of the characteristics that nostalgia seeks from village life, but updated for a modernizing and growing city. There are moments that approach this ideal, up on the pedestrian walkovers and Skytrain platforms where you can get up into the city and see it removed from the volume of traffic below. But even these are shared with the massive flow of people on their way to someplace else. A new viaduct would capture these moments but extrude them into paths. Thin boats would glide quietly on a fixed path and allow for hopping on and off. It would be an infrastructure that adapts the captured flow of a theme park ride and places it in one of the great environments in the world. Riders would literally drift through the city, experiencing it from a new perspective. The viaduct itself would be a machine for cleaning the water. Taking water from the canal terminus and returning it against the drainage flow to the source, the water would be cleansed in stages that would be linked with the stations: Sedimentation, Aeration, Biofiltration, Polishing and Integration.

Thus the canal would respond both to the surrounding urban context and the specific requirements of cleansing. The cleaner water would give the original Khlong Suan Luang new life below. The elevated canal would also effect the transformation of the built fabric above by giving the upper stories access to the viaduct. Currently, the shop-houses are appropriately aligned with the canal, but turn their backs to it in seeking to draw business from the roadway. The new elevated canal would tap into these blank facades for access and advertising potential. They would become 2-way shop-houses; the ground floor would service the roadway, and the third floor would service the elevated canal. Discrete bridges would reach out to passers-by and give local residents an opportunity to take advantage of the flow of riders. These bridges would act like old Thai canal entrance pavilions, allowing the boaters to choose whether to stop or not, rather than the street stalls that force pedestrians through a gauntlet on the sidewalk. The elevated canal would bring some of the comforts of driving a car (refuge and personal space), but would fold it into a new means of moving through the city. Future networks of elevated canals could traverse other neighborhoods in the city, ultimately linking up in a quiet network of water scrubbing machines.

Bangkok 4 - Accelerated Ruins


An abandoned ghost-scraper is located along Patchaburi Street, about 5 kilometers from the river in the Ekkamai area. Patchaburi is a busy road that saw a number of new towers erected in the 1990’s. This tower was planned at 22 stories, likely as commercial space. The building got as far as hanging the ductwork before halting. At this point it has been lying fallow for nine years.

In some respects, there is little to say about the site of an abandoned skyscraper: the building and location are fairly standardized. This spot was at one time considered a good risk to locate a building, but now lacks the conditions to continue. It is obviously big, larger than the surrounding context, but also in sheer quantity of material. The 12,000 tons of reinforced concrete cannot really be recycled, and the chances of it being re-used are diminished every day due to economic and liabilty issues. Is there a way to take advantage of this mountain of stuff without taking it down?


Ruins are the rarest heritage to be found in Bangkok. To see them you have to go an hour north to Ayutthaya, the seat of the Siam Empire from 1350 until 1867. It is now a quiet UNESCO heritage site of decaying temples that are fastidiously maintained to prevent the tropics from taking over. Actually, what is so remarkable about these ruins is their presence in a nation otherwise cultivating an ethos of renewal. Historic temples elseware in Thailand might be 5 or 250 years old, it is hard to tell; often they have been rebuilt numerous times. In each case, the materials and details have been altered to reflect contemporary techniques, but the overwhelming result is one of familiarity. In some ways there is more continuity with the past, since the styles are clearly living and evolving today, not codified into history or charged with post-modern baggage.

All buildings have a life-cycle and typically buildings built today are in the 50 year range, assuming regular maintenance. After this the building may be considered uninhabitable, but the ruins stand for many more years. At a certain point the building is subject to small structural failures depending on the materials and methods used to put it together; Albert Speer famously attempted to build in techniques that would last a thousand years. In contrast to Speer’s vision, most standardized reinforced concrete floors will begin to crack with the failure of the rebar. The most likely scenario is the acidification of the alkaline concrete over time by carbon in the air. Cracks and fissures caused by the freeze/thaw cycle and plant life accelerate the process by introducing air deeper into the material. The rebar corrodes and no longer resists the failure of the concrete in tension. This will happen unevenly as the structure begins to crumble. It won’t fail catastrophically, but deform in time like an eroding cliff. Like a leisurely wrecking ball, the elements distress the building until it sags into rubble.

On one end of the spectrum of forces that conspire to ruin a building are catastrophic events like implosions and earthquakes, while on the other is the much slower and more insideous neglect of abandonment. In between is a rogue’s gallery of problems from mold to pigeons that must be battled by regular upkeep. The effects of these parasites were sought out by romantic theorists like Ruskin who desired the “additional complexity” to be found in cultivated aging:

This sublimity, belonging in a parasitical manner to the building, renders it, in the usual sense of the word, ‘picturesque.’ (Ruskin)

North of Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, there is a provocative system of accelerating a building’s ruin. At the Wat Chedi Leung a system of pulleys allows visitors to water the Buddha’s relics located on the top of the wat structure. For a small donation, water can be hoisted up and overturned on the ancient crumbling structure. While the water may cleanse the relics, the by-product is that the destructive plants on top of the building are kept well nurtured.


I propose an accelerated ruins project that introduces an urban wilderness to the city. By repositioning the structure away from traditional building values and toward a vision of natural decaying matter, the project would respond to the loss of primal space that is so evident in an international metropolis, while slowly eroding (and paradoxically preserving) a legacy of late 20th century globalism. It would take several generations before the building became too dangerous to use, and in the meantime it would foster a vertical jungle for urban explorers. Like any hiking trail, it would need a certain amount of maintenance and oversight (i.e. use passes and permits), but mostly it would be left to nature. In order to accelerate the process, the floors would need to be sprayed down with a mixture of the most destructive weeds. It would be the world’s first Chia-building. A system of irrigation tubes would run from a cistern “crown” at the top of the tower. Bundled with these tubes would be LED lighting to give the ghost life at night, and allow nighttime camping and hiking for the after-work crowd.

The leftover site area would be given relief, allowing for additional FAR to be added to the site in trade-off for loss of “highest and best” value of the existing ghost tower floor plates. A visitor and interpretive center would meet the street, offering retail and restaurants the advantage of a memorable location. From here, an explorer could hike up a light superstructure to whichever floor they haven’t yet visited. This snaking circulation addition would be made of steel and recycled construction netting and cantilevered from the existing structure. Assuming a 22 story building, the height is similar to the famous Golden Mount in Bangkok, a popular destination that takes 318 steps to reach the top. It provides one of the only publicly accessible panoramas in the city and is usually filled with people taking advantage of the vista. The viewing platform at the Golden Mount is some 200 feet above grade, while the ghost tower reaches around 230 feet. The circulation structure for the ghost tower would draw out the walk at a 1:2 incline, with one side along the building and the other providing views of the city. It would be about a half mile round trip to the top. A pretty good walk, but manageable as a day hike.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bangkok 3 - Canals


Canals are perhaps the most degraded aspect of historic Bangkok, increasingly walled in and covered over by new forms of infrastructure. The city was founded on the khlong (canal) system and is even today called the “Venice of the East,” but considering its relationship to the surrounding polder agriculture, a more fair comparison would be to an unplanned version of Holland. At the fringes of the city, the morphology of rural canal land ownership is still evident, but the closer to the center and the more agglomerated the urbanization, the less obvious this history. Canals aren’t very useful to most flows of goods in modern Bangkok and the putrid miasma that surrounds them hardly makes them an amenity. At this point they are more used as convenient dumping grounds for waste; while the government has recently attempted to enforce waste water treatment, most homes and businesses still dump directly into the khlongs.

The stench of the water is less distressing, however, than the larger environmental issues at stake. As the city built up over marshland, the canals provided an important runoff system for the heavy monsoon rains and replenishment for the fresh water aquifers. Fewer canals combined with less permeable surface area leads to heavy flooding that doesn’t infiltrate back into the ground. Today the city sinks at a rate of two to three inches per year due to the depletion of the aquifer. Anything built on deep pilings hovers in place while the ground slips away; ad hoc steps and ramps negotiate the difference. The government recently announced that Bangkok will be threatened by tidal flooding within 15 years unless a complex levy system similar to Holland’s is built. In the meantime, a more or less permanent arrangement of wooden planks and sandbags allow access to waterfront activities.

The original site for Bangkok was created when the existing minor canals were connected and fortified to provide a protective barrier around the new royal city in 1782. As the city grew, a third ring canal was added in the 1850’s to expand the city limits. In the second half of the 19th century, major transportation and irrigation projects were undertaken in response to the increasing international demand for sugarcane and other Thai natural resources. The canal era culminated in the 1890 Rangsit project, adding over 500,000 acres of cultivated land to the system of canals and irrigation. By 1900, however, road construction became the priority of the government. After the turn of the century, very few new canals were excavated, and none after 1915. Today, some dredging occurs on the few remaining communicating khlongs, but they are largely surviving on their own. Life has continued along the canals, but they have been supplanted as the infrastructure of choice. The emphasis on roads and transit infrastructure has allowed the canals to remain in unimproved stasis. In many cases, however, modern infrastructure trumps the canals, and they are filled in for road widening or transit improvements. In this sense they are like the old boulevards of Europe, the most likely places to put a new road without upsetting the populace.

There is a range of canal sizes depending on the need, from 70 feet wide for barges to just a few feet for slender personal boats. In most cases, houses are built on stilts out over the water, with a family pavilion that marks the interface with traffic. This pavilion is something like a water porch, with built-in seating and tables for lounging and watching the world float by. The raised houses often have partially usable space below for cooking and toilets, abandoned during flooding and reclaimed in the dry season. The house itself tends to fall into two categories: the thin, steep-roofed Ayutthaya style, and the low, wide, shallow-roofed vernacular. Often it is a combination of the two, assembled over time, compound style. Rarely is there more than one story of living space, typically an open arrangement with mutable screens and walls. They are traditionally wood, but with the scarcity of teak today are increasingly made of concrete or composite materials. With the canals acting as a lifeline, the housing is packed in tightly along the waterfront; rarely is there a break in the line of buildings. Of course, the houses can range from carefully restored antiques to slum shacks depending on the neighborhood. Roughly speaking, the closer to the heart of the city, the poorer the housing stock along the canals. Outside the city, antique teakwood houses are a sign of status, while in the center shanties occupy most of the frontage. In the fringes, the canals can handle the usage and renew themselves, but inside the city they stagnate into cesspools. Depending on their proximity to downtown, they are either desirable addresses or places to avoid.

In spite of their neglect, the image of the khlong is still strong in the myth of the city. Every tourist book outlines visits to the intact canals, mostly located on the less developed left bank in Thonburi. These tours are popular and expensive, tapping into the desire to see the living museum of historic existence. As one tourist service puts it: "Bangkok is changing fast, but if you want a close up perspective of traditional Thai life then spend some time exploring the city’s charming waterways…en route you’ll discover the remnants of an old way of life, one that leaves the modern face of Bangkok behind." (

One of the key driving concepts in tourism, of course, is the idea of a journey to explore the authentic. This drive toward authenticity, as indicated in the descriptions of the canal tours, brings up an interesting perception vis-à-vis city form. The canal might represent the authenticity that people are willing to spend their money in search of, but is also an inefficient method of building a modern city. This dilemma can best be understood in contrasting the canal with the road; each represents competing forces of rural and urban, respectively. The road is fast, modern, progress, growth, greed, and superficiality. The canal is slow, historic, regressive, moderation, and authenticity. Each is vilified or praised depending on the context; each is an obstacle or an amenity depending on the situation.

Bangkok 2 - Ghost-scrapers


In 1997 the “Asian Miracle” came to an abrupt end. Up until then, the 1990’s had been synonymous with economic growth, a period of international investment and globalization. In Bangkok, as in other Southeast Asian cities, this was most easily seen in the rapidly changing skyline; at the time of the crisis there were hundreds of buildings under construction in and around the city. However, the money to build was overextended, lent on shaky grounds. When the Thai bhat was devalued, the banking sector shut down almost overnight. Many lending institutions, including the largest in Thailand, collapsed in a short span.

The stepchildren of this crisis were hundreds of empty, partially completed tower buildings littered throughout the city: ghost-scrapers. In 1998 there were 508 total building projects lying fallow. Compounding the lack of funds to build were legal issues; clarifying liability in transferring the ownership of abandoned skyscrapers is a new field for the courts. Over the past two years, however, the story has tentatively shifted back to growth. The Finance Ministry is attempting to speed up the development of the abandoned sites, promising various incentives to recapture the potential revenue. Numerous buildings have found owners and many more are in negotiations. Citizens are investing again, albeit cautiously, and rarely for unbuilt units. Projects near amenities like the Chao Praya River or Skytrain have found the most new life, often as luxury hotels for the rapidly growing tourism economy, or condominiums for business and foreigner demographics. Today there are 281 abandoned buildings of varying heights totaling 68 million square feet, a far cry from the original numbers, but still daunting. Of these, about two dozen are towers.

Construction of towers in Bangkok favors cast-in-place concrete since labor is inexpensive relative to material. Sitting on deep pilings to resist the sinking Bangkok marsh, the column spacing and floor to floor heights are economical rather than extravagant. They are testament to the happy marriage of standardized methods and socially acceptable conformity. The relatively thin floor plates allow views through the structure to the sky on the other side; they appear purer and more sculptural than completed buildings that have taken on the telltale signs of human inhabitation. They stand out against the rest of the white and taupe skyline, unadulterated Maison Dom-Ino’s not yet ready to join their finished siblings. They are grey skeletons, incomplete and idle, waiting for the skin and guts that never came. In many cases they were interrupted mid-construction and sport prickly rebar bundles reaching out for the next layer of concrete. They may be structurally compromised due to years of unprotected exposure to the environment. Up closer, the structures bear the obvious markings of neglect: graffiti, tall weeds, rusting rebar, and miscellaneous construction detritus. Most ghost-scrapers have security, often a person who has set up an impromptu house on site. They live in modest shacks underneath 300,000 square feet of failed real estate.

Most Bangkokers hate the ghost-scrapers. They will tell you they are ugly, and for a population that is so universally well appointed, perhaps this is true. For one, they are covered with blemishes, warts of exposed fittings and weld plates. And considering the robust sale of skin-lightening cosmetics in Thailand, it is hard not to infer a connection to the creamy white skyline. The stained and aging concrete stands in contrast to the generally smooth off-white buildings around it. Without any residents to claim the space, they possess an aloof and sterile quality. The repetition of the bays is more evident without a human touch; the sheer bulk is more powerful. Drying laundry fluttering on balconies, uneven curtains, lights at twilight, and myriad satellite dishes...all soften the effects of scale. The ghost-scrapers are stripped bare of standard inhabitation and empty bigness is all that is left.

Most importantly to anyone who knows Bangkok, they exist as brutal and obvious reminders of a painful era. They are failures that are too tall to ignore, white elephants that remind locals of a too-recent hubris. More than visually ugly, they are mementos of hardship and fragility. As in any global city that prides itself on growth and progress, material signs of failure are like tumors that need excising. Current economic developments are still contextualized against the 1997 crisis, and the ghost towers represent the vanishing physical traces of those events. They are memories that are clearly present in the minds of locals, but are actively sought for physical erasure, or at least whitening.

Since they are ugly and painful they bring up a challenging question about heritage: how is it determined? Loosely defined, heritage is something passed down from one generation to the next, a kinship gift. If gifts are often unasked for and unappreciated, ghost-scrapers are the equivalent of fruitcake. They are monuments to hubris and reminders of folly. Maybe these are even more precious than the victories, a physical heritage to avoid repeating. After all, success has many parents, but who will care for the ghost towers? Stripped of their loaded symbolic meanings, they are strange, rude black holes in the city. While around them the world seeks growth and progress, they deteriorate quietly, readymade ruins in the city of the future.

Bangkok 1 - Introduction


Bangkok sprawls like a spider, consuming the rice paddies that lie along roads and canals. With no natural barriers to contain the city, it simply grows were the strategic land is located, following the corridors of trade and utilities. From the ground it looks ad hoc, but from above the polder structure is clearly intact and structuring the growth. In contrast to the auspiciously planned and controlled royal city center, Rattokosin, the city grows in dense commercial ribbons along the few major routes, and everything in between settles into a thick landscape of private compounds. Taken as a whole, Bangkok has a relative evenness to its density, with outer districts almost as heavily settled as the core. The real difference is seen taking a slice through one of the major avenues. Activity and density is clustered next to the road, while spacious residential compounds fill out the inner block. The rare connecting soi (side-street), inevitably jogs mid-block, and often turns into one-way traffic discouraging driving through. The combination of limited connecting roads and dense, even settlement results in one of Bangkok’s most notable features, the almost constant gridlock. At all hours of the day the streets are packed full of waiting cars. Thankfully, the Buddhist ethos means that almost no one honks; the cars just patiently move up a car length at a time, spewing more exhaust into the thick yellow haze.

The popular new Skytrain follows already established avenues, offering a substitute to the crawling traffic below. It is an efficient commerce machine, providing an air conditioned and captive audience with equal parts efficiency and marketing. Modern train cars host closed circuit televisions broadcasting music videos and advertisements until you reach one of the many shopping malls conveniently linked by a second floor pedestrian flyover directly to the station. No need to ever set foot on the street below. It is an environmentally controlled system that feeds on the ciy, an encapsulated and sanitized alternative to the hawker-filled humid streets outside. And it is filled. Clearly shopping is taken seriously, though it is a patent lawyer’s nightmare. Within sight of each other you can buy the real Louis Vuitton bag from the mall store, a grey market bag on the street, a knock-off next to that, or a Joe Louis look-alike next to that. Consumption of readily available foreign brands is tempered, however, by a striking culture of conformity and hierarchy. Fashion in Bangkok can loosely be expressed as variation on the uniform, with appearance obsessed youth giving studied personality to their communal outfits. Even the ubiquitous yellow royal insignia polo shirts (worn especially on Mondays to honor the king) are available in a variety of shapes and styles.

This uniformity can be extracted to the skyline, a generally prosaic collection of buildings that are guileless in their forms. They follow fairly straightforward aesthetic rules according to their typology (apartment tower, office, shop-house, mall, etc.), with certain elements that can be described as “flair”; gates, balconies, and signage act as ties, cufflinks and handkerchiefs. Built responses to the environment give the city a uniform scale: deep eave overhangs, ventilation block walls, pilotis, and fenestration eyebrows are lasting techniques used in contemporary construction. Over this basic urban fabric, however, is added a further accessory. Signage and advertising, supposedly temporary embellishment to the buildings, are hung like outrageous masks on the restrained facades. At busy intersections it is ordinary to see entire apartment facades shuttered with multi-story graphics; the streetscape of Bangkok is a dance of demure uniforms and crass costumes.

Contrasting with the profane world, sacred buildings exhibit a marked divergence in layout and decoration. Wats and palaces might resemble classic Ayutthaya houses in form, but they are blown up to super-human enormity and covered with dazzling ornamental gaudiness. Seemingly every architectural element reaches for the sky and glitters in the sun with some variety of precious appliqué. Not confined to serving the roads or canals, the compounds are ordered and spacious, with courtyards and ceremonial plazas allowing for generous views of the oversized spiritual architecture. The effect is one of peace and kitsch, repose and extravagance.

The primacy of Bangkok lays in its role as the royal city. It is the literal and figurative head of the nation, and the only true city. As the home of the king, it is merged with his image as a sort of timeless myth of Thailand. The adoration of Thais for their royal family and the present king, Bhumibol, is thus at least partly reflected in the inability of the national government to grow secondary cities like Chang Mai. Modeled directly on the previous Thai royal city of Ayutthaya, Krung Thep (the abbreviated version of the official 164 letter name, translated as “City of Angels”) grew out of the ashes of the former after it was sacked by the Burmese. The continuity began in finding a similar crook in the Chao Praya River, and platting a similar defensive layout. Additionally, many buildings were either transported or recreated.

The new location had strategic trading advantages that Ayutthaya never did, especially in being located closer to the sea for burgeoning international trade. Thailand shrewdly grew as a center for open trade and avoided colonization (the only nation in Southeast Asia to do so) by playing neighboring colonies of England, France and Portugal against each other. In order to further prevent dependency on Europe, the royal family decided to out-modernize the Europeans. Beginning in the 19th century they instituted a policy of progress and openness that made Bangkok one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Without a single overseas master the city took in competing foreign ideas, resulting in the collage of styles found today.

Building typology in Bangkok is linked closely to its adjacent transportation method. Older canals beget stilt houses, newer roads beget shop houses, and modern transit corridors beget towers. Each type is a layer that is laid over the previous as the city is continuously upgraded. Originally all traffic was canal based and floating houses evolved into stilt houses to avoid flooding and tropical fauna. As roads became the infrastructure of choice in the 19th century, stilt houses gave way to multiple story shophouses, with generic retail and industry at grade and apartment housing above. In the latter half of the 20th century, as roads were overlaid with thoroughfares and rapid transit, the tower block emerged from the shop-house. Towers sport parking garages as tall as the shop-houses around them and reach 20-50 stories. Since they sit back from the infrastructure around them, they are also the first typology to eschew a front and back face. All exist side by side in the metropolis, often on top of each other. It is one of the pleasures of wandering Bangkok that at these overlapping moments you are simultaneously in a 19th, 20th, and 21st century city.

This study will focus on built remnants from two divergent eras: the canals that were responsible for Bangkok’s growth, and the abandoned skyscrapers that recall the uncontrolled hubris and resulting financial collapse of 1997. Each, in their own way, presents the tension between growth and preservation. Canals are viewed as central to the historic myth of Bangkok, but appear increasingly incompatible with the growth of the city. The ghost-skyscrapers, on the other hand, are an unwelcome souvenir from a painful era, but nonetheless present issues about the role and criteria of built heritage.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bombay 3: Couryard Cricket

CINEMAS: SITE Map indicating private use (white) and civic (color)
The Regal in Colaba started the original cinema building boom and defined the Bombay typology. At the time of its opening in 1933 it was the height of modernity, and a civic jewel to match the Prince of Wales museum across Wellington Circle. Today the auditorium is rarely even half full. Like other theaters of this type it has a grand entrance and multiple story lobby reflected in the marquee detailing of the facade. Flanking the entrance, ground floor retail occupies the street, with one to two additional stories of offices and apartments depending on the side. These additional program elements wrap and protect the auditorium from the noisy streets outside and present a transitional zone to the neighboring urban fabric. There are 1200 seats in the audience chamber with one balcony, and the screen itself is set within a proscenium and small stage. The interiors have all been re-done since the original Art Deco design in a much less opulent style.
The Regal, like many of the Art-Deco cinemas, is heritage listed. Its particular listing requires the exterior of the building to remain unchanged, while the interior and program can be renovated. The tendancy is for the cinemas to be gutted and converted into upscale shopping centers, taking some marginal advantage of the large open space. But retail has no problem finding an outlet in the city; it grows like kudzu, filling in leftover, forgotten and negotiated space. Can there be a profitable solution that revisits the quasi-civic and social role that cinema once fulfilled?

Cricket is officially more popular than Bollywood according to a recent Times of Bombay online poll: it was chosen 55% to 45% as the “new religion of India.” However questionable the methods, it is an indication of the rise of cricket. Within ten years it has gone from a gentlemen’s’ game among former colonies, to a $10 billion enterprise where cricketers rival movie stars in celebrity status. Recently the Indian national team, with Pepsi, has unveiled a new ad campaign starring mega movie star Shah Rukh Khan with the tagline “Join the blue billion,” a shocking reminder of the size of the fan base/market. However, as popularity for the sport has grown, the number of places to play has not.
In Bombay, the acceleration of population has led to a corresponding loss of open space. There is less than one square meter per person, compared with a recommended 16 sq. m/person. Most of this is found in the bundle of town greens called maidans in the old Fort area, only some of which are open to the public. Public gardens have extensive restrictions that rule out anything beyond walking and sitting. Elsewhere in the world the rise in urban population and lack of open space has meant a similar rise in urban sports. The ascendency of basketball as a world sport is only one signal of the shift from rural to urban. Thus it is not surprising to see the invention of indoor cricket, though still in its infancy, complete with a governing board and codified system of rules.

Bombay’s most widespread architectural feature is the verandah. Arguably a Hindi word in origin, verandahs were developed in the Indian subcontinent as a response to heavy monsoon rains and hot, humid summers. Indigenously they covered ground floor patio spaces but have evolved into any of the deep, semi-screened balconies that surround buildings. In the chawl multi-family housing typology it is also the means of circulation and primary socializing area. They are, in effect, like front yards. Laundry is hung, plants are put out, and little shrines are erected. Often each zone will be painted a different color to indicate ownership.
It is also where the line of cleanliness begins. In a city with little municipal cleaning, the public areas reach a neglected griminess that looks and smells of pollution, trash and sewage. But personal spaces, beginning at the verandahs, are spotless. Great care is taken in maintaining the order and aesthetics, since it is the most public aspect of the household. They are also the best place to watch street theater. The railings are just the right height to lean on and watch the crowds go by. Removed from the pressing flow, dirt and noise below, they offer a rare moment in the city where you can gain some perspicuity. Open to one side and “owned” by the other, they are simultaneously circulation, front yards, and opera boxes.

I propose a new hybrid cricket courtyard/courtyard housing typology. It would combine indoor cricket fields called pitches set in a courtyard surrounded by housing. The raked auditorium would be “terraced” into individual pitches and covered with turf and rented out by the hour. Ground floor retail would additionally be converted into pitches, allowing street views into the games. With a new glazed roof structure cricket can be played all year long, even during the four months of monsoons.
The existing housing would turn inwards for views of the light-filled courtyard, no longer at odds with isolation requirements of a movie theater. By carving up the acoustic shell around the auditorium, a new verandah would be created where there was previously an enclosed hallway. The verandah would overlook the games below; tenants would become figurative stewards of the courtyard. The residents would have access to the pitches during nighttime hours, thereby encouraging more ownership over the shared space. The existing lobby for the theater would become a cricket oriented leisure enterprise with food, drinks and a viewing area. Since it is already the public face of the building, it would retain its role in drawing people in and exhibiting the action.
1. Terrace the auditorium in coordination with the structure. Convert the terraces into rentable indoor cricket pitches with turf. The pitch can be closed during certain hours to allow residents access. It can be rented out for weddings and other events.
2. Preserve the existing facade and floor plates. Develop the lobby into cricket related leisure zone. Retain screen and projection booth for displaying games taking place inside; anyone can be a star! For important screenings of national team matches the terraces can be converted into a viewing hall.3. Punch through the auditorium shell, creating a verandah out of the existing hallway. Add stairways that act as seating for watching games.
4. Add color coded movable netting between pitches. Take advantage of Bombay’s newly relocated and modernized textile industry.
5. Replace opaque soundproof roof with transparent glazed courtyard structure. The courtyard can be used throughout the monsoon season.

Next Stop: Bangkok

Bombay 2: Cinema


Going to the cinema was historically one of the strongest collective links in a diverse and segmented nation. Families eagerly anticipated Fridays when the latest Bollywood offerings would be released. The notoriously rowdy cheaper seats were up front, while more genteel patrons could pay more for the balcony seats. Audiences would often watch their favorite films dozens of times, singing along and providing commentary during the screenings. Films that were really big might play continuously at a single screen theater for years. The cinemas fulfilled a quasi-civic role, providing a community escape that was simultaneously anonymous and unifying. In a nation and city comprised of so many disparate cultures and their attendant communalist (in the Indian usage of the word, “sectarian”) conflicts, it is rare to find this common ground.
The classic era of cinema design was the 1930’s. During this decade, Art Deco imported from Continental Europe and the United States was the preferred style. Theaters embraced this decorative modernism, becoming subtle symbols of a modern, independent India. On one end of Marine Drive the Regal was showing the great Indian myth-building epics of early Hindi cinema, while on the other end Gandhi was finalizing his self-rule and resistance doctrines. A succession of ever more sexy theaters opened from 1933 to 1938 in the most opulent period of building: The Regal, The Plaza, The Central, The New Empire, The Broadway, and culminating in the 2000 seat Eros across from Churchgate Railway Station. Each featured car parking, elevator lifts, air conditioning, and the latest audio-visual equipment. They were technological marvels covered in streamlined wrappers. Additionally, ground floor retail and housing above would provide supplemental income for the owners, while matching the scale of the neighboring buildings. Openings were not just to watch the movie, they were events with elephants and lights and glamour. Single screen construction continued through the 1960’s, incorporating contemporary fashions in their aesthetics, though tempered by India’s “self-reliance” policies. These later theaters combine a sort of space-age bachelor pad look with the local brand of socialist-realist construction. Notably, the Bombay typology of combining apartments and retail with the theater also continued.
Bombay was the natural backdrop for many films, especially in the post independence era. If the script called for new or modern, they shot Marine Drive; elegance was done at the Taj Motel; lushness was captured in the Oval Maidan; seediness in the backstreets of the cabbies. Films became a sort of propaganda for lifestyle and location, notably the burgeoning metropolis of Bombay. Of course the films were based on and shot in the city, but run through the fantasy factory of filmaking. The city was projected on screens across the nation; it is at least partially responsible for migrants relocating to the mythical city, especially the young runaway boys. Bollywood was a central player in selling the story of a progressive India, and often it took the shape of Bombay.
Bollywood productions are increasingly commodified, no longer reliant on “real” Bombay as a setting. Now most shooting is done abroad or on tightly controlled sets in the north of the city. Also evident is a shift in focus from the dream of a modern India to the dream of an affluent one. The new target audience is the 20 million NRI (Non Resident Indians) living abroad, particularly in London and New York where ticket prices can be ten times that in India and there is more disposable income for associated products. NRI revenue now accounts for 65% of the returns. Marine Drive in Bombay used to be the iconic location of emerging India; argueably it is now any given swanky London night club.
Today single screen theatres are obsolete and closing at an alarming rate. Since 1983, over one third of the 160 or so single screen theaters have shuttered. Multi-screen theaters are increasingly bigger and more diverse to lure patrons that might otherwise watch videos; alternative leisure activities are a requirement to justify the night out: restaurants, stores, bars, cafes, etc. Thus the mall is a more ideal economic location for the theater, where the hermetic environment can capture more revenue than any single activity. Often the movie itself is only a fraction of the overall revenue. Additional tax breaks by the state government compound the trend, as multi-screen cinemas are exempt the otherwise very high entertainment taxes (around 50% of the ticket price). Single screen theaters simply don’t make enough money to thrive, much less renovate. Some have enough nostalgic value (Eros, Liberty) to gain a reprieve, but how long can it last? Unless the theater is full most of the time, it cannot keep up. Thus they tend to play blue chip movies without venturing into more experimental or independent territory. Lacking revenue to renew and refurbish the theater the quality erodes. It might slink into B-movie action/sex films, or just fade into the fabric with shops or squatters taking over the lobby, as in the Strand.

Map of Bombay indicating railway lines and cinema locations

Viewed simply as objects, the theaters are unique in the city for two important reasons: location and shape. First, they occupy a privileged lot in each neighborhood, often associated with a railway station. A typical theater will be located on or near one of the corners of the city’s chowks (major intersections), along with municipal buildings and train stations. Second, they present a large volume of space inside a recognizable landmark. Most theaters have prominent towers above the marquee corner entrance, with shops and apartments that turn the corner and provide a smooth transition to the neighboring fabric. They are simultaneously sensitive and narcissistic. Inside, the auditoriums hold from 800 to 2000 seats with large open spans and typically one balcony; they are wombs away from the teeming streets outside. Today there are often insensitive additions in order to make up for the lost revenue: apartments, offices, and other unidentified boxes that help offset the cost of the movies.

Plans of various cinemas indicating theater (yellow) and apartments (white)


Next stop: Courtyard Cricket

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bombay 1: Introduction

Bombay is choking on its own success, straining under the mass of 18 million inhabitants that could grow to be the largest city in the world. The streets are overloaded, the sewers overworked, the trains overfilled, and the rents overpriced; it is a city of crushing superlatives. Massive slums in the colors of tarpaulin blue and corrugated rust squeeze between million rupee high rises. After Dhaka, it is the densest city in the world, at 76,000 people per square mile. Daravi, near the airports and the largest slum in Asia, and packs in about a million people in little over a square mile.

It is also a relatively new city, or at least what you see is. Little more than an outpost until the 18th century, most of the fabric is comprised of concrete flats punctuated by massive neo-gothic colonial reminders. Because of the humidity, most buildings sprout a layer of mildew. It is simple to see how posh a place is: those who can afford it will repaint regularly to stave off the spreading green and black stains.
Originally named Bom Bahem (“Good Bay”) by the Portuguese, the present day peninsula was comprised of seven distinct islands. The British East India Company grew the settlement when they established their headquarters on the bay. Today the original island colony is unrecognizable, submerged and surrounded by fill. Distinct fortifications that used to protect the various islands are now found only in the naming of the districts like Fort, Bandra, and Malabar Hill.

The public streets are remarkably similar no matter which area: a riot of taxis, touts, pedestrians, buses, rickshaws, and the odd cow. Even the richest Malabar Hill residents have to step over sleeping families if they want to get a photocopy from the shack built in front of their exclusive gated condominium; of course it is more likely that a wallah would do it for them.
Because the original city is laid out along a thin north-south peninsula, the flows are limited to a few major arteries that can become intensely gridlocked. Think Manhattan without bridges or tunnels. New intersection flyovers, a pet project of the local government, sprout around the city and have had a marginal impact on relieving congestion. Several large scale projects have been in the works for years, but most locals roll their eyes when told of them. That said, traffic is relatively efficient considering the lack of municipal presence. Huge numbers of people manage to flow through the streets, and once you get the hang of system, it becomes tolerable. Vehicles fight it out in the middle, often overtaking in the oncoming lane, while the colonnaded sidewalks fill with informal retail. The strip between parked and moving vehicles becomes the pedestrian and bike zone. If you wish to walk somewhere quickly you use this area, otherwise you are forced to browse the bootleg DVDs and jewelry.

The common myth of Bombay as cosmopolitan melting pot has been shaken by a decade of riots and terrorism; during this time thousands have died in bombings and immolations. Yet outside these infrequent explosions, the city is quite safe on a day to day basis. Popular belief points to the 24 hour desire to make money that unites an otherwise disparate collection of people. The myriad religions and languages are more evident here than in New York or London: Hindu, Jain, Moslem, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Hindi, Tamil, Maratha, Parsi, Urdu, English, or often some hybrid of the above. The mix of languages and beliefs is strong and most Bombayites know the signifiers of each. Whether you say namaste or salaam (or something else) can be tricky for an outsider, but locals are well attuned to the differences.
Bombay has no shortage of thinkers and ideas. There are internationally recognized art and fiction scenes, and a healthy backbone of activism and academic involvement. Unfortunately, they are largely ignored when building projects are parceled out - as evidenced in the recently rebuilt textile mills area. Located in a factory belt in the heart of Bombay, the mills replaced the original suburban bungalows with industrial might in the 19th century. The first great wave of growth in Bombay can be largely attributed to the mills, with colonies of workers housed in chawls (single room flats with communal balconies and toilets) filling in the spaces around the factories. After World War Two, the mills went into a prolonged, state subsidized decline and have been mostly silent since the early 1980’s. The estimated $5 billion worth of property was originally slated for redevelopment with socially responsible open space and housing requirements, but in fact turned into a land grab by private developers. An environmental non-profit organization won a stay of building in 2005, but in April of 2006 the state’s highest court allowed the developers to proceed as before. Most of the old mill buildings have been torn down and replaced with luxury condominiums and expensive retail. Strangely the smokestacks have been preserved, like lonely middle fingers. Reuters, Deutsche Bank, Lord and Taylor, and McDonalds are the new tenants. At least for now, the small cadre of developers and their political allies carried the day. Lately, this cozy relationship has come under fire and more restrictions are being put into place, albeit too late for the mills.

The documented built heritage in Bombay overwhelmingly relates to the great 19th century colonial neo-gothic structures that dominate the old city skyline. Victoria Terminus, Bombay University, the High Court, and the Prince of Wales Museum all presented a relatively uniform stylistic framework that allowed for a flourish of Indo-Sarcenic details. They are unmistakably British, but have enough Indian interpretation to give off a sort of local pride. This genteel Bombay is often at odds with the hungry Bombay that is eager to take advantage of the post-1991 relaxing of international tariffs to push the city into the global limelight. This is the Bombay more in tune with the crush of street touts; it is the city that openly worships the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who represents money and success. After all, you aren’t poor in Bombay, you just aren’t rich yet. However, the least obvious but perhaps the most lasting legacy of the genteel Bombay is the floor area ratio (FAR) restrictions. While cities of comparable size and density like Hong Kong and Seoul have an allowable FAR of 15, Bombay is limited to 2. This only increases the pressure on real estate.

Ultimately, Bombay is a city of dreams. It is choking because people come here in droves: it is freedom from the constrictions of village and caste life; it is the stock exchange and financial capital of one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing economies; and it is the location of one of the most prolific entertainment centers on the planet, the Hindi film industry known as Bollywood. Coinciding with Bollywood, and playing an important role in the city are the theaters in which the product is consumed. This study will focus on the classic cinemas of Bombay and their socially unifying role. The original star of Bollywood was the city itself and lavish cinemas were the primary means of carrying the message. They were wrapped up in a feedback loop of living the city and generating the myth of the city; each informed the other and the cinemas thrived. Today these older palaces of spectacle are anomalies that scrape by on nostalgia, while multiple screen complexes dominate box office sales and define the new Bombay landscape. 

Next stop: Cinema