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Limits on urban space force the need to build upwards, a process that is more acute in Bombay/Mumbai than in any other major Indian city. As if to emphasise this vertical imperative, the city’s colonial civic buildings, which stand over Colaba and the Fort area, reach into the air in a range of Indo-Saracenic cathedrals, whilst the chimneys of its derelict cotton mills point finger-like at a sky that is now also jagged with the outlines of multi-storey residential high rises. For visitors who have lived for any time in the northern centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, in cities such as Leeds and Bradford, these abandoned mills are a ghostly link with a personal and globally-connected history. The ancillary residential architecture for these colonial textile industries—rickety five- or six-storey chawls that housed mill workers—rise like dangerously overloaded shelving above the streets of south Bombay.
The road-transport infrastructure of the city has likewise tended to have aerial aspirations. Major expressways funnel traffic on a north-south axis, jumping over slums and soaring above reclaimed swampland. The eastern suburban and industrial sections of the city are served by the sixteen-kilometre-long Eastern Freeway and, to the west, the arc of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, completed in 2009, stands as the city’s cement and steel statement of its own titanic economic ambitions. Like a tropicalized Fritz Lang set, the city around Chembur and Wadala is also bisected on its second and third storeys by Mumbai’s futuristic monorail, whose coloured carriages can be seen sliding past the fronds of tall palm trees and heard rumbling above busy intersections.
Perhaps the most arresting expression of Mumbai’s vertical urbanism is the city’s network of elevated pedestrian walkways—the Mumbai Skywalk Project—which re-routes the flood of commuters that are disgorged minute by minute from the suburban railway stations and sends them up along sometimes surprisingly long (sometimes half a kilometre) overpasses before depositing them, seemingly at random, elsewhere in the surrounding streets. In contrast to cities like New Delhi, where it is only car-users that benefit from infrastructural ‘elevation’, Bombay’s walkways are, for those who can use them, a positive addition to a city that is already struggling with the infrastructural demands of its massively expanding population.
As the pressure on land and the cost of real-estate grows, perhaps the Mumbai residents who stream along these elevated pavements will themselves increasingly live an elevated existence. Certainly, given the immense height of the new high-end residential complexes of India’s mega-cities, architectural elevation can be said to express a kind of panoptical distancing and ambition that will transform the civic experience of life for many in India’s urban centres.