As politicians hotly debate the issue of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail and its impact on the Indian economy, ordinary Indians struggle with the consequences of faster economic growth every day in their rapidly expanding and deteriorating cities. Like elsewhere in Asia, Indian cities are at once public and private in nature, consisting of spaces that overlap uneasily between the elite and the disenfranchised. Can the twain be made to meet in mutually beneficial ways?
Finding answers to that question is the intention behind a unique set of free public programmes organised by the BMW Guggenheim Lab. Grouped under the broad theme of ME=WE (to highlight the concept of the public-private intersect) the Lab, curated by the 75-year-old Guggenheim Museum of New York in partnership with the German car-maker, will open tomorrow in Mumbai and runs till January 20.
The physical aspect of the Lab is an L-shaped bamboo structure designed by the trendy Tokyo firm Atelier Bow Wow and Mumbai architect Samir D’Monte and located near the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, formerly Victoria and Albert Museum. Smaller lab programmes will also be offered in five other locations on specific dates: Horniman Circle (December 13-17), Sambhaji Park (December 20-24), Priyadrashini Park (December 27-30), Batliboy Compound (January 3-7) and Mahim Beach (January 10-13).
All these locations have been chosen for a reason; they are typically areas that attract large crowds on a daily basis (the Museum, for instance, is not far from the Byculla zoo), the better to enhance the concept of the Lab.
The Lab, as the website describes it, is “Part urban think tank, community center, and public gathering space”. Open to the general public, it is meant to facilitate a free (literally, there is no entry fee) exchange of ideas on the challenges of urbanisation and their solutions. For instance, the inaugural discussion on December 9 is “Split City Mumbai: Time Scarcity, Space Scarcity, involving participants from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.
“The purpose of the BMW Guggenheim Lab is to explore urban life in the streets, and through the eyes of the people who live in cities,” said Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. He makes the point that the conversations could involve a range of people from urban architects to “somebody’s grandmother”.
Talking shops will be one aspect of the Lab’s activities. The other is a series of projects in collaboration with local organisations on city-wide studies and projects to look at ways to make public spaces more effective and efficient. One of the showcase initiatives, for instance, is called “Rethinking Kala Nagar Traffic Junction,” a competition open to everyone to suggest ways of solving the spectacular daily traffic snarls on the edge of Bandra (East). Another initiative is the Landlink Design Prototype to turn the soon-to-be defunct 75 km Tansa pipeline into an auto-rickshaw highway and pedestrian connection.
Mumbai is the first Asian city and the third city globally to host a Lab after New York and Berlin and probably the biggest in terms of population. It is expected to be the starting point for similar initiatives elsewhere in Asia that will focus on cities with populations of over 10 million.
Given that the New York Lab attracted 55,000 people to the site, a 25x100 foot space in the East Village, over a six-week period and 430,000 people online, the organisers are hoping to attract comparable numbers in Mumbai. More than the numbers, though, the Lab can consider itself a success even if it manages to start a meaningful public conversation across and between income groups on the enormous challenges before this Maximum City.