Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Strange Case of Mumbai's VT

Mumbai, January 22, 2013

Most major urban train stations at the end of the line have a precise organizational scheme, with trains at one end and people at the other.  It's a straightforward linear scheme, really hard to improve upon.  If you think of the great European or American train stations of the 19th century, this layout also had a rather distinctive two-sided architecture: grand but utilitarian steel-structure sheds on the rail side and monumental stone or brick façades on the city side.

Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus--it opened as Victoria Terminus in 1887, the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee--certainly brought the model of the monumental urban facade to new heights.  It's an enormous four-story building with a forecourt, a central dome and two protruding side wings, each with its own arcade, pediment and flanking turrets.  All of this in a rather bizarre Neo-Gothic Italianate with elements of Indian traditional architecture.  As the final scene of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" illustrates, Mumbai's main train station also has its share of grand steel-structure naves at the end of the train line.

But the interesting peculiarity of VT (as everybody calls it here in Mumbai) is that the trains arrive not from the back but from the side.  So the actual station is really the left wing of the building.  Now, why would you do something like that?  Actually, it's a rather difficult thing to do, but there is a good reason: you're trying to reconcile the rail lines coming from the north with an urban situation demanding a west-facing building.  Together with the even more monumental building of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, Victoria Terminus defined a major public space at the north end of Bombay's Esplanade (the city's major open space at the time) commensurable with the importance of these new colonial functions.

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