Business Standard

Urban issues in a lab

After New York and Berlin, the BMW Guggenheim Lab opens in Mumbai to explore and experiment radical ideas to deal with the chaotic life in megacities

Confrontation between the comforts of an individual and that of a community has always been historically true around the world,” says Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, New York. “One of the indicators of becoming an advanced civilisation is having that (individual and community comforts) in balance,” he says while elaborating the theme “ME=WE” of the that opened in this week.

Called “part urban think tank, community centre and public gathering space”, this mobile laboratory will, for the next six weeks, address challenges and opportunities in balancing individual versus collective comfort related to public space in Mumbai.

The Lab, supported by the BMW Group, was launched in last year before making its halt in August this year. Unlike the previous two cities, the Lab in Mumbai is presented in collaboration with an existing cultural institution, the in Byculla. Secondly, the Mumbai Lab, apart from its central site at the backyard of the museum, is designed like an Indian wedding/festival mandap using local materials like bamboo, and has five off-sites from where a travelling satellite Lab will engage with the public.

The Lab projects include both design and research with local organisations. A research project with Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research seeks to understand how community perceives privacy. There is an international design competition asking students and professionals to re-imagine the Kala Nagar traffic junction in Bandra, one of the busiest traffic spots in Mumbai, with new public space and pedestrian functions. The Land Link design project, developed by Neville Mars, a Dutch architect and one of the four-member Mumbai Lab team, is about exploring ways to refit some of Mumbai’s old water pipe infrastructure, like the 120-year-old, 75-km Tansa pipeline, for public good. It is believed that within the foreseeable future, these pipelines will lose functionality, while their actual infrastructure probably will remain in place. In his pilot project, for the specific stretch of pipes that run between Dharavi and Bandra, Mars designs three distinct layers placed on top of the pipes, creating an auto rickshaw highway and a pedestrian connection between different neighbourhoods, and at the same time providing a large public space at the heart of the city.

According to Mumbai Lab curator David van der Leer, the programmes include design projects, participatory studies, tours, talks, workshops, film screenings and cultural activities that reflect the unique conditions and challenges of Mumbai. “Everyone who lives in Mumbai has a stake in its future, and, therefore, the lab is designed to bring everyone together to address issues related to urban life in Mumbai,” says Leer.

Naming the initiative as a ‘lab’, according to Armstrong, was “deliberate”. “We wanted to make it semi-scientific. We wanted real people and results, too.”

Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, thinks the Lab is about “thinking through” issues related to urban life. “It is about ideas, and the world of tomorrow is about ideas,” says Mehta, who is inviting city’s crucial decision-makers like the director of Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and urban planners from the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

While the Lab is an exploration of ideas and offers to create forward-looking vision for urban life, implementing some of those radical ideas may take years.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is scheduled to travel to nine cities worldwide in a period of six years; three down and six more to go in the exploration of public space and urban life.

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