Alt/Urban: The rhythm of the street

Mustansir Dalvi, our commentator on all things urban, shows us another way of looking at our cities

The streets of Mumbai (Photo: Mustansir Dalvi)
The streets of Mumbai (Photo: Mustansir Dalvi)

Mustansir Dalvi

Any city, especially in its fabric and arteries, evokes more poetic connections than a singular edifice. Take Mumbai for instance, a metropolis that is the result of both planned and unplanned development. Gestures emerged over time and established the rhythms, or the prosody, if you will, of the city. We recognise these at a subconscious level, they give us comfort and provide us with a backdrop so we can be the sheroes of our own lives.

On city streets, buildings are laid out in a pattern that, along with the spaces between them, form an ‘iamb’—a prosodic element of poetry, in which an unaccented syllable is followed by an accented syllable. When stressed features (buildings) and unstressed ones (the in-between spaces) progress harmoniously, the street gets a cadence and we get a sense of relaxed urbanity and aesthetic pleasure. Each building plays its part, never overpowering the other. I have always referred to this as ‘good manners’ in architecture.

The possibility of perceiving rhyme rests on how well the buildings are arrayed, especially where streets end. Corners are particularly significant as buildings located there swing across two, sometimes three, streets. While along the rest of the street, buildings are observed frontally, these ‘bookends’ are observed diagonally. That is why corners should be handled with greater sensitivity.

Historically, corners have been the sites of public buildings that act as landmarks for that location, punctuating the page that is the neighbourhood in ways that are, if well done, both memorable and delightful.

Alt/Urban: The rhythm of the street

It requires a particular grace for a building to be both laidback and assertive. Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Battló in Barcelona comes to mind. Seen in the context of the Passeig de Gracià, it recedes into the backdrop of the buildings to left and right, but seen as a standalone, it is mind-blowing in inventiveness, one of the great Art Nouveau masterpieces. On the other hand, consider the Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague by Frank Gehry, known to all as the ‘Fred and Ginger’ building, or the Dancing House. Notice how it straddles a street corner, a fitting crescendo to the 19th century Baroque streets on either side.

Seen alone, it is a bizarre, iconic, breakaway building that seems to defy every architectural convention, but viewed in the context of its immediate surroundings, how perfectly it fits. As a corner building, its job is to jump out (da-dum!) but as part of the street, it does not stray from the metre that has been laid down. Well-mannered buildings come together like lines of well-tempered verse. Façade-lines rhyme across a road or a boulevard like couplets, harmonising into a sense of place that we start recognising as its ‘character’.

Historically, the unplanned parts of Mumbai came together slowly, and consolidated into recurring patterns that reflected the street life of their time. The densest parts of Mumbai, the erstwhile native areas of Girgaum, Bhuleshwar, Dongri or Bhat Bazar emerged out of dukaan-makaan dyads. For the man on the street, there were the shop-lines at eye level, transparent to the road outside, wide and inviting. The homes above rose up to four floors, reflecting the increasing density of the emerging metropolis. The buildings were so tightly packed together there were no spaces between them at all—the streets formed continuums and broke only where they ended. Wooden balconies and jharokhas sprang out beyond the building line like choruses serenading the passers-by below.

We tend to think of modern planning as dour and monotonous. But parts of Mumbai that came up as planned inserts in the city during the 1930s and 1940s prove otherwise. These inserts were occasioned by reclamation, street consolidation and the opening out of new areas to the north as a result of the local rail network. These urban planning schemes best illustrate how a city—despite lapses into the prosaic—can be poetic as well. These areas were subdivided, rather conventionally, grid-wise, into plots lining broad roads. Very specific building bye-laws, however, ensured that they adhered to uniform footprints, had the same ‘setbacks’, the same floor heights, and rooflines. This created very recognisable iambic metres between built and unbuilt space. Even building façades were monitored to comply with clear norms—the building entrance, a distinct canopy, a vertical stairwell counterpointing the flying horizontals of balconies, all of it culminating in a stepped statement that rose beyond the flat terrace to form a distinct shape against the sky.

While such rules might seem restricting, they were quite the opposite. Architects were free to interpret the façade in any way they chose, while still maintaining the harmonies of the street. And, of course, every corner building was special. Mumbai is known for them— Eros, Regal, Empress Court, Soona Mahal, the Indian Merchants’ Chamber, the list is endless. I think of these designs as jazz poems, with ludic rhythms and improvisations, a free-ranging and returning play like the one I find in ‘We Real Cool’, one of my favourite poems by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.

Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

Syncopated rhythms and repeated phrases are the hallmark of the Art Deco precincts of early 20th century Bombay. Jazz poetry is let loose as we see wild riffs, variations, improvisations all over the city from the stretch along the Oval Maidan and the Queen’s Necklace, Mohammed Ali Road, and Pherozeshah Mehta Road in south Bombay to Five Gardens and Parsi Colony in Matunga and the buildings lining Shivaji Park. Poetry in stone creating an endless visual delight, a fitting backdrop for urban life.

It is, however, possible to ruin a poem with a tone-deaf phrase. There is always a fragility in composition that does not accommodate the arbitrary. In the years since the 1940s, the old rulebooks have been thrown away. Street synchronicities have made way for FSI, TDR, 33/7, 33/9, and various other asynchronous numbers and letters. This is problematic in a number of ways, but nowhere more so than in changing the very precincts that once were paragons of urban order. Modern buildings neither obey traditional rhythms, nor come together to create novel ones. The only music they respond to is the jangling of the cash register.

When you see edifices puncturing the sky behind 12-foot-high walls that barricade them from the city, or when habitable floors only start after the 12th floor because parking precedes collegiality; when, in the densest of native areas, you see 200 buildings being demolished to raise twenty buildings in their stead, you know that particular part of the city has as much poetry as a grand piano falling from the top floor of one of those new sky-hoggers.

Bombay bard Nissim Ezekiel seemed to know this all along. In 1983, at around the time Mumbai was changing from an inclusive city into a real estate cash cow, he wrote these prescient lines: 'I cannot save Bombay / You cannot save it / They don’t even / want to save it.’

MUSTANSIR DALVI is a a poet and professor at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai

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