MUMBAI, India — A group of young Indian designers wind down a quiet alleyway in one of Mumbai’s former fishing villages. They arrive at a 19th century building that has withstood the pressures of development, and climb a steep, narrow stairwell.
At the top, they find a modern, chic apartment complete with a study, library, walk-in closet, kitchen, bath, bedroom and flat-screen TV mounted on the wall — all within 160-square feet.
By creating the apartment, the young architects from the environmental design studio the Busride showed that Mumbai’s severe housing constraints — real estate in this overcrowded city is among the costliest in the world — need not limit one’s dreams for luxury living.
And by placing the apartment in Ranwar village, they reflect a growing movement among many of Mumbai’s designers and architects to use their work to preserve and honor a piece of the city’s rich history.
Busride co-founder Zameer Basrai walks over to the apartment’s study where a desk sits opposite a wall decorated with design posters and an old magazine photograph of Pamela Anderson and her cleavage. (A young bachelor — Zameer’s brother and fellow Busride co-founder, Ayaz Basrai — lives in the apartment.)
Basrai slides a moveable wall to the left, and the space suddenly converts into a walk-in closet with shelves and hanging rods built into the walls. He slides another wall, and the space becomes a library.
“I think it’s the definition of uber cool at the moment,” said Busride designer Farzin Adenwalla as she stood near the apartment’s bed that transforms into a two-piece sofa. “You could pretty much put this in any major city in the world, and it would fit. Someone in New York could live here, somebody in Tokyo.”
Ranwar Village is one of the 25 fishing villages that used to exist in Bandra, a northern suburb of Mumbai. Due to expensive upkeep and the lure of deep-pocketed developers, most of Bandra’s charming bungalows that made up these villages have been demolished and replaced by high rises and trendy new bars and restaurants.
In an effort to preserve Ranwar, which Basrai called “a living heritage,” the designers placed their chic, somewhat luxury apartment in the village. An apartment like this could enable the landlord to rent out the space for possibly a third more than the current 17,000-rupee ($400) price tag, the designers said, thereby helping homes in Ranwar Village become economically sustainable.
As Mumbai grows and in many ways becomes glitzier and glitzier, some designers and architects here are using their projects to preserve structures in the city that have deep historic significance.
And by aligning themselves with conservation practices, young offices are now getting involved in an area of design that has been dominated by government agencies and patronized by older, mature audiences, Basrai told GlobalPost.
Studios like the Busride as well as non-governmental organizations and research institutes that are trying to cultivate a sense of culture in Mumbai with their design are multiplying, but they are still rare, according to Mumbai-based architect Kapil Gupta.
Overall, Gupta said, the architectural design world has not flourished in India like other types of design such as textiles and handicrafts. Since the country liberalized in the 1990s, there has been less of an interest in researching and engaging society around the idea of an architectural culture, and more of a focus on growth led by the private sector.
“What you’re seeing in booming India is a real estate boom, not an architecture boom,” Gupta said. “We see the complete impoverishment of design as a tool to enhance our experience of cities and our quality of life in them.”
Amidst this environment, there are what Gupta calls “points of resistance” to the mainstream attitude towards development. These points of resistance, like the Busride’s Ranwar project, aim to engage the city and specific communities with their design ambitions.
Other examples, Gupta said, include projects designed by his firm, Serie Architects, such as Tote restaurant and Blue Frog, a live music performance club, both of which aim to preserve parts of Mumbai’s heritage while using modern design concepts.
Tote is located at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course, where architects have converted colonial buildings into modern restaurants and entertainment options. Blue Frog, located in an old mills compound, was formerly a large warehouse.
Another example is Le Mill, a modern concept store built in an old rice mill in Wadi Bunder, an area architect Ashiesh Shah described as “the meat packing district of Bombay.”
“The surroundings make you design in a particular way,” said Shah. “That makes a space like Le Mill very trendy.”
What Mumbai needs now, some architects say, is for these so-called points of resistance to grow and become a mass movement that provokes dialogue and discussion in Mumbai on how the city should be designed.
The city’s residents, artists and policy makers need to come together and decide what they want to preserve, what they value, and as Gupta puts it, “What makes Bombay Bombay.”
Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India