Reimagining The City: Urban Thinkers And Architects On Rebuilding Mumbai

reimagining the city
Reimagining The City: Each curve, balcony and arch of buildings in an urban city has a story to tell. They hide the years of political banters, shift in power, social lives and cultural practices of individuals. They remind us of the past and let us cherish it. But as time flies and our outlook towards structures change. With growing influence from current trends and politics of individuals, our imagination of old buildings changes too. What might have been a secluded library for a lot of white people ruling India, can now be reimagined as a public space accessible to all ages and groups.

Talking about these changes in history and present, the constant need for urban planning and difficulties of carrying out restoration projects in the city of Mumbai, the Bombaywaali Summit of SheThePeople got architects, artists and authors like Abha Narain Lambah, Lubaina Bandukwala, Lara De Rooij and Arzan Khambatta to speak with the moderator and author of books like Feminist Rani, Meghna Pant.

Abha Narain Lambah is an Indian conservationist architect who is known for the restoration of India’s several UNESCO sites like Ajanta Cave, Golconda Fort, and Mumbai’s victorian buildings like Crawford market, amongst others. Lubaina Bandukwala is a writer, editor and publisher of children literature, she has recently written a book called Coral Woman. Lara De Rooij is originally from the Netherlands but has spent a long time in India as Dutch Architect and Interior Designer, she is also the founder of LMC Architects. Arzan Khambatta fondly christens scrap metals into forms of art called Scraptures and his first public sculpture was ‘The Mughal” at Worli in Mumbai.

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All four panellists come from a world of studying and understanding art in terms of architecture, buildings and installations. While Lambah, Rooij and Khambatta are actively part of the architecture world, Bandukwala constantly reimagines structures from ecological and children’s points of view. Together, they discuss how pandemics has reshaped our ideas of architecture and urban planning.

Impact Of Pandemic On Rebuilding And Reshaping Mumbai

The pandemic caused havoc. It confined people within the four walls and made them sit through video conferences and calls. For Khambatta, the pandemic was an indication to pause and think. “Every artist has been affected in terms of his work pattern, the ideas they come up with after this pandemic. Pandemic gave us a lot of time to think,” he said.

According to Khambatta it also closed the distance between individuals in terms of generating empathy. Rooij, who went back to the Netherlands during the lockdowns felt the same. She could see and feel the difference between countries close as all suffered the same predicament, only in a different number of cases, lives lost, amongst other issues.

However, for Lambah, it changed the way she decides to structure or restore a project given to her. She felt the need to include a lot more open spaces to the public, especially after the pandemic. One reason why she chose to have an acre of open area while restoring the Crawford market in Mumbai.

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“Engaging with the city, what we have leant over time especially during the pandemic is that the city needs open spaces and in each of our projects we try to work with that,” said Lambah, adding, “If every architect could steer towards this idea, we could be a much happier and easier city to live in.”

Restoring Old Buildings And Monuments

For Lambah it is an unplanned evolution over the last 25 years. She finds the city of Mumbai different from Calcutta and Delhi which were envisioned by the power as political capital. While Mumbai, an island city was built with collaboration citizens “whether it Jamshedju funding the construction of the oldest art college,” she said.

To her, the architecture of Mumbai is engaging to the citizenry. That is why when she was working at Bandra Station restoration, it was not a project in isolation. Daily commuters would approach and tell her if something looked good with pride.

“My emotions and passion for the city are shared by people who need not be conservation architects there,” she said, adding, “We feel strongly about the heritage and thankfully because as an island city we do not have a single “national” monument but we have done a pretty good job of keeping our site alive.”

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According to Lambah, the most important skill required to restore old monuments is “vision, a commitment and lots of perseverance” especially when working on the urban scale. Giving an example, Lambah said that they were appointed for the Crawford market restoration in 2007 and it took them 14 years. They redeveloped the market which can now house every vendor and includes fish market as per the old market design.

“Build no structure higher than the lower part of the old building which was approved by the heritage committee and still managed to create underground parking for 150 cars and one-acre open space,” she chalked out the detail.

Redefining The Syntax Of Architecture

Rooij is from the Netherlands but has been in Mumbai for a long time. In her systematic approach to architecture, she first visits the given location and figures out its unique aspects as well as what it means to the larger user. “The people who work in it, one can look at the same space from different lenses, be it children or the hour in which we look at the locations. They bring out the emotions which any design or space has. When designing for an interior space or outside like architecture, it is important to consider all the users and in different times of the day as well as seasons,” she said.

In terms of change in materials, Rooij feels a lot of foreign designs have come into India. However much the country tried to push it back. The positive of that change is people getting exposed to parts of design like furniture, lights, kitchen and materials from abroad. “However I do fear that somehow or the other that the exquisite local craftsman that exists in India might lose its value,” she said.


According to Khambatta, we love to walk through the cities in Europe, the UK and the US. There the sculptures have become a part of the environment and “people recognise a place through the sculptures.” “For example, in a grid-like city of New York, there is a Pablo Picasso and Clader statue which keeps popping up in the corner. When you are walking and seeing at eye level, on-ground everything looks the same. Then you look up and notice that the buildings are shaped differently. But when you are walking in right angle lanes and bylanes, suddenly a sculpture with colours and curves gives you respite and breathing space,” he said.

Similarly, a sculpture in the street corner can become a reference to the street like the Dolphin juncture in Mumbai. Khambatta installed the dolphins in Worli and it got the name. “It is important to dot a landscape with structures. It is important that people are exposed to this kind of art. Our public is not used to going to art galleries as they are given the idea that it is very elitist and can only be entered if you can buy the artwork there, it is not so. If the public cannot go to the art, let’s get art to the public,” he said.

Khambatta said that local bodies and corporations need to recognise spaces and put up sculptures pertaining to the space so that they become breathing space “in between the large concrete jungle that we stay in.”

Children In The Reimagining Process

Like Rooij said architecture should be considerate to all its users like children, amongst others, Bandukwala feels that it needs to involve more children. She even suggests that they interact with Lambah and other architectures, get involved in the process which brings them closer to ecology, history and urban planning.

They can step out in open spaces and shift indoor activities there. Storytelling sessions can be outdoors. They can get closer to the sea and increase interaction with it.

“I speak to children, that is my job and for the coral woman tells you that pearls are actually thermometers that tell you the health of the ocean and the ocean is telling us that it is not well. I want children to start thinking about the fact that the development that we are engaging in on Mumbai’s coast- are we viewing it through an outdated lens?” Bandukwala said.

The children need to be brought closer to the sea and engage with it, in order for them to develop emotions for it. “Coral woman seels to get children to do that, fo explores the sea. Once you develop a relationship with it, you will want to save it and everything in it,” she said.

However, Rooij feels that there have been few changes in terms of that. She has seen a cruise terminal come up and Mumbaikars used piers in Manwar. “In a way, there is more connection. New Coastal roads which is the fastest construction that ever came up in entire Mumbai due to pandemics, gives a window for creating more connection with the sea and explore the beautiful coastline,” said Rooij.

In Dire Need Of Restoration

In the Parsi colony in Mumbai where Khambatta used to stay, the flats were 1000 to 1100 square foot and the rent collected was Rs 140 per flat and Rs 10 for parking. This amount is way less for the landlord to shell out money for restoration or repairs.

The rent problem was made by Lambah, who feels with the kind of income made by the landlords, the entire onus of maintenance on his head does not work. “There are more than 20,000 buildings in Mumbai which need to be restored but are under rent control and cannot increase rentals,” she said.

According to Khambatta, the mills can be changed into contemporary art museums, where its grungy look is taken and transformed into an eating and music place as well as an art museum featuring works of artists. 

For Rooij, it is Watson Hotel and one of the oldest structures in Mumbai still standing which is Rhythm House. While Bandukwala does not name buildings to be restored but she mentions certain public places like reading rooms and libraries to become accessible to the public.