Thursday, September 1, 2011

A clean, well-lighted place

An extended (much longer) version of this piece has just been published in Vol. 1, Issue.2 of Domus (India) called a 'A New Crown Jewel'; with much greater coverage on the construction process, the drawings and many more photographs; including a short writeup by Rahul Mehrotra. Do get hold of the issue if you can.

Like a family that hasn’t really had a child-that-lived for quite some time now, certainly not a healthy babe, architecture in Bombay has seen the begetting of runts with such aclarity that we, mere citizens, seem to have forgotten that an alpha animal can come into existence too. So it is an occasion for a muted huzzah to see a new addition to our dry shores in the form of an insertion in the middle of our art district. The new Visitor’s Centre to (the Museum formerly known as the Prince of Wales) is a small but sensitively designed building that both replaces an earlier one that was well regarded, and does so with a program that considerably expands the scope of its predecessor.

Bombay has/is becoming bereft at a pace that will overwhelm us before we know it. In the rapidly changing urbanscape today, memories of places are the grunts that are the first to face the cannons of change; slated to die quickly, to be forgotten so the development machine can roll on inexorably. You only have to see the changing skylines around Nana Chowk and the Mills Lands to know what is being lost and what is already history. While change is inevitable, it does not take much to preserve the few markers we have with our past, our childhoods and growing up years, but it does take sensitive transformers like designers Rahul Mehrotra Associates (RMA)  to do so consciously, and gracefully.

Situated at the entrance to the Museum campus, right across the road from (the gallery formerly known as the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall) the Visitors Centre is built on the same site as the Children’s Centre that was host to several programs in the past, but mostly mono-natured, lectures and workshops on museology, aesthetics and culture. What is fondly remembered is the lecture space with its shallow-vaulted ceiling and clerestories, its three large doors and the deep porch that faced the Indo-Saracenic pile that is the museum itself. In the creation of the new Centre, RMA have, to their credit respected our memories by retaining these remembered elements but with a vocabulary that is completely of the present millennium.

If anything the porch has been made even deeper, transforming into a more inclusive social space, a place to hang out and consume bits of this and that before entering the lecture hall, or even simply gaze across a sea of green at George Wittet’s many copypaste elements from the architecture of Bijapur. The Centre is built of stainless steel and glass which, through its sheen and multiple reflections, gives an altogether lighter aspect to the open areas around the building. The porch is like the deck of a ship, with its metal elements and a deep awning held up by slim, hinged columns of chrome. You also become aware of a whimsical water metaphor because the stainless steel soffit of the deck becomes a rippling upside down pool reflecting the columns, lawn and You as you move under it.
The Visitors’ Centre derives from a modernist tradition of pavilion-building that channels the Glass Boxes of Mies and Johnson. It employs many syntactical elements- a raised plinth, deep roofs on both sides to provide shade; the overhead plane held up by slim shining supports used sparingly, a sheltered glass enclosure of indeterminate function. The architecture gains significance by not kowtowing to the visual fakery that is the bane of most buildings that come up in the vicinity of important older structures. The bonsai Gateway that is the public pissoir at Apollo Bunder, as any fule kno, will always be an example of the wretchedness of designers ignorant of visual semantics (and plain commonsense). The Visitors’ Centre, on the other hand, stands apart, but, because of its position and ephemeral visage evokes a gentle dialogue with the ponderous structure of the museum, enriching both in the process.

As frequent visitor to the Museum, I have been delighted at the changes that are taking place in the institution itself. There are new Galleries; older ones have been refurbished with better displays and audio guides in the interpretative paradigm of New Museums the world over. The Visitor’s Centre is an extension of this modernisation, and has newer functions like a souvenir shop and a (soon to come) cafeteria other than the lecture hall and ticketing. The Museum Shop, despite its infancy, has all the good standards I associate with those in the Great Galleries of Europe and I would strongly urge you to visit it and give it business. Unlike the Children’s’ Centre that it replaces, this building opens out on both sides, with a main entrance towards the road. Although this does give a separate character focussing on existing trees and the Souvenir Shop, it does cause a circulation niggle. The entrance to the Museum grounds continues to be through the older gates. A visitor sees nothing to begin with, which means that she first has to make a sharp ninety degree turn to face the ticketing.

There was an opportunity to open out the entire front of the pavilion to the public street by bringing down the wall in front of it. This could have created its own little plaza that continued smoothly from the public front of the Jehangir Art Gallery. A visitor could then have directly climbed the plinth to the ticketing and other facilities and entered the grounds through the Centre. A small gesture of good manners could in fact have helped business by making the Centre a contemporary front for the modern museum that the Prince of Wales museum seems determined to turn into. The Souvenir Shop could have been accessible directly from the street. More to the point, this could have become an exemplar for the city at large which is currently building higher boundary walls and more gates than it has ever done during its existence.

The Jehangir Art Gallery remains the best example of urban good manners. It has an unashamed and unrestricted face to the street and the Kala Ghoda plaza, wide steps for all to sit on under an inviting and architecturally arresting canopy. City Tour operators often refer to it as the Moojhum and visitors get to see the art on display for free, and don’t even realise that they have missed the building behind it. On the rear of the Gallery is the deeply loved Samovar Cafe that has weathered many storms and continued to be a place for gathering of art lovers and good food. Like the Visitors Centre, Samovar has its longer face on the lawns of the Museum. Unlike the Visitors Centre, it is separated from said lawns by an entirely unnecessary barrier of chain-link fencing. It would be a good idea, now that change is in the air, to bring down this wall too, extend the deep roof of the Cafe and open it out to the Museum garden. The integration of all these buildings and activities would make them greater than the sum of their parts.

All that is needed is a modicum of urban trust.

All photographs here by Mustansir Dalvi, Smita Dalvi (c) 2011

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