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

India aside: Chawls


During the middle of the 19th century Bombay experienced an economic boom when it took up the slack in the textile industry left by the American Civil War. Coupled with the completion of the Suez Canal, Bombay assumed a primary role in manufacturing and processing cotton and other textiles. The mills were built on the then edge of the city, in the suburbs that originally held the elite’s bungalows. Around the factories, the chawl typology of multi-unit housing arose. Originally intended as single room occupancy units for the men working the shifts, they quickly filled with entire families moving from the uncertain life of the countryside. Chawls comprise several floors of single room units connected by a shared verandah and bathroom. The units are often as little as ten feet wide and fifteen feet deep. The buildings are mostly structural brick covered with decorative concrete, and each unit has a wooden door and window that will be ornamented and painted by the tenant. Bathrooms represent the biggest challenge to living in chawls, since they were intended for a smaller group of male only users. Naturally families and children strain the limited facilities and often as not they are broken in some fashion. Aside from the plumbing, however, the rooms themselves present a better alternative to the unreliable shacks on the street and are often inhabited by city municipal employees. They are seen as the stepping stone to an apartment with bathroom en suite, the gold standard for Bombayites.

There are some who point to chawls as a relatively successful solution to housing the millions of slum dwellers in Bombay (an estimated 60% of the population of 18 million live in shacks with little or no access to sanitation or drinking water). But two major planning obstacles exist that hinder low cost housing supply: the limit on floor-area-ratio (FAR) and rent control. Even while developing into the second densest city in the world, the allowable FAR of two has made it difficult for builders to make cost effective high density housing. Cities with similar populations and densities such as Seoul and Hong Kong allow an FAR of fifteen. Furthermore, after construction is complete, strict rent control laws discourage maintenance and improvements. Most landlords will simply wait until a building is deemed structurally unsafe, and then re-build as something more profitable. These hurdles each represent a different era that has passed. The FAR limit remains from the genteel colonial time, when uniformly low apartment buildings in leafy streets were punctuated by civic gothic towers at the intersections. The hierarchy was admirable, but hardly justifies the conditions of millions of slum dwellers. And rent control is a voter palliative, originally installed for the working poor moving to the city and preyed upon by slumlords. No politician wants to risk making rent control their crusade. These restrictions are exacerbated by corruption that consistently ranks among the worst in the world. The capricious nature of rules enforcement means that smaller, less profitable, and more challenging projects have a lesser chance of completion than blockbuster deals that generate money for the city coffers (and officials’ pockets). Real estate already hemmed in by natural boundaries has the additional burden of laws that make if very difficult to re-create the chawl typology in the current environment. The chawl might be the answer to housing the poor, but there are several political steps that need to be taken before it can do so.

India aside: Strip villages


There is a pure and ubiquitous form of strip mall that springs up along northern India’s village highways, particularly the roads built prior to the year 2000. These roadways are two-lane affairs, littered with potholes and filled with traffic of all sorts; camels pulling carts, impossibly laden rickshaws, intercity buses, brightly painted trucks and white Ambassadors all negotiate the little usable asphalt. The combination of lack of surface and abundance of transport means that nobody gets anywhere in a hurry. Even speedy new cars can only average about 30 m.p.h. on the major roads. The staple architectural result of this pace is the standardized concrete garage strips that gather in bundles where a highway passes near a town. They are mostly single story with hopeful fingers of rebar sticking up at the roof or terrace level, waiting for enough money to move to the second story. Every now and again a unit will have added a second floor that resembles a snaggle-tooth in the gums of the village. How old and/or prosperous a village is can be determined by how many second floor units there are.

The buildings are set back about fifty feet from the road to allow for parking, temporary stalls and display. Each unit measures about twenty feet deep by fifteen feet wide, and will often snake in collections of four to six. They all face the street, like monastery cells with garage doors flanking a courtyard of traffic. Every third unit or so, a thin shared staircase will lead to the roof/terrace, where storage and drying away from the dirt occurs. The less frequent second floor additions will usually have a balcony, also facing the street. Surfaces are painted and festooned with signage; advertisements are the only decoration, at least which can be seen from 30 m.p.h. These strips will continue for as much as a kilometer or two, depending on the size of the town. Between the strips traffic moves slowly as people, animals and carts shuffle among the shops, rendering it akin to driving through a pedestrian mall.