An edited version of this piece is the first in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the June 8-21 2012 (Vol 8 Issue 21) issue of Time Out Mumbai.
Raise the Roof
There is a reason God invented flat roofs- so that his creations could loiter, contemplate the cosmos or ‘in this life full of care’ find some time to stand and stare. Terraces, ubiquitous to modern Mumbai, are for most part used to stash old furniture, residual air-conditioning equipment or to install mobile phone towers. The breath of fresh air that a rooftop offers is never breathed, and this part of the building is often relegated to: if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s bad enough that these very vital spaces are ignored in residential buildings, but in public buildings these are resolutely ‘No Man’s Land’.
In Mumbai then, it is refreshing to see elevated planes brought back into the reckoning in the public realm, as was done recently. The roofs of two of our best known buildings were opened up for public access and use. Of course, conditions applied, but the opportunity to climb up to take in a high level view of a busy street or a bird’s eye of the south Mumbai skyline is an occasion for delight in itself.
The Jehangir Art Gallery recently opened a small display space, thanks to the munificence of Kakubhai Kothari, the veteran photographer. This is significant not only because the new gallery is dedicated to photography but because it is accessed from the terrace of the building; you have to first go outdoors to go indoors. While the exhibitions are reason enough to climb the newly refurbished steel stairs, the chance to hover above the Kala Ghoda and take in at leisure the life passing below is rare joy. Looking out over the western parapet, you can enjoy the neo-Gothic details of the Elphinstone College, Army and Navy building and the David Sassoon Library at close quarters, while turning eastwards you can debate whether the Stock Exchange building, soaring high above Rhythm House, should ever have been built. Or you can, in a position slightly removed, emulate a Pi-dog, and in Arun Kolhatkar’s words, muse: "...this is the hour/ when I can call this city my own/ when I like nothing better/ than to lie down here, at the exact centre/of this traffic island..."; hoping of course that the management does not chance upon you in your state of horizontality.
The other roof that was host to a public event recently was the top of the Godrej Bhavan, that modernist glass and aluminium pile from the 1970s, on Home Street, overlooking the Bombay Gym. The Godrej-organised Friday event had Sidharth Bhatia and Sathya Saran reading from their biographies of Dev Anand and Abrar Alvi. While the authors kept the audience enraptured, it was the balmy evening spent alfresco on the manicured lawn of the roof with its signature trees, and the ‘khoya khoya chand, khula aasmaan’ over the Azad maidan made this event magical, and quite filmy. The opening up of this otherwise private corporate space to the public, even for a few hours, is a gesture that deserves kudos, but also calls for several encores.
A recent survey has found that all the maidans, parks and other recreation spaces put together in Mumbai amount to an imposing total of one square meter per person. That’s space enough to put your left leg out to do the boogie-woogie, but not enough to do the phugdi. Looking beyond ground coverage, however, you know that since the late fifties almost all the buildings in this city have flat roofs that are available for active use. Le Corbusier, the modernist architect, in the late 20s, called for the flat terrace (made possible by RCC construction) to be imagined as a roof garden for multiple uses, to replace the patch of the same size removed from the ground by the building’s footprint. What is required is a culture of inhabiting the open-to-sky. Seen this way, the city could reclaim an amount of open space equivalent to its own size for public use. Mumbai already has a culture of the pedestrian; all that is needed now is to develop the daily habit of climbing up instead of down.