A great city, but a terrible place. That is how Charles Correa, one of modern India’s most esteemed architects, described Mumbai. Correa dreamed up big plans for improving the quality of life in the Maximum City – plans which civic authorities or vested interests promptly subverted or scuttled.

New Bombay, envisioned as a commercial and administrative twin city, became a glorified suburb. Correa’s bold vision for reuse of central Mumbai’s mill lands – parks, pedestrianised spaces, and public housing – was carefully undermined by a building lobby which favored forests of glass and steel to much-needed greenspace.

Robert Stephens, an American-born architect at RMA Architects, demonstrates that Correa was not alone in having a resumé of unrealised projects in the city. For hundreds of years, Bombay citizens have dreamed up plans to resolve the city’s most pressing problems. More often than not, their plans have remained unbuilt.

Bombay Imagined chronicles 200 such projects from the 17th century until today. If they had been completed, they would have radically transformed the city as we know it. A plan from 1720, for example, envisioned slicing the island city in two with a sea channel stretching from Mahalaxmi to Mazagaon. Another unfulfilled vision, from 1945, would have chopped up Bombay into superblocks with a grid of 200-foot-wide avenues superimposed on the city’s helter-skelter road plan.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Stephens examines some of these plans and the personalities behind them. Bombay has attracted a who’s who of global architectural and planning talent: the Victorian British architect George Gilbert Scott, the Scottish sociologist and town planner Patrick Geddes, and the Swiss-French modernist Le Corbusier.

Far more fascinating, however, are the home-grown talents which Stephens has discovered. Arthur Crawford, Bombay’s controversial municipal commissioner in the late 19th century, proposed drilling holes through Malabar Hill, Cumballa Hill, and Worli Hill to create jet streams that would ventilate the disease-ridden neighborhoods of the colonial city.

In 1863, meanwhile, William Walker came up with an inventive proposal for disposal of the dead. He suggested piping the gas produced from cremations into the city’s street lighting. “Would it not create a sweetly mournful feeling in our breasts,” Walker wondered, “to see that, although our friend be dead, yet, meteor-like, as in life, he was shedding an effulgent ray to dispel the darkness?”

Bombay Imagined brings home an uncomfortable truth: that the city has, throughout history, been uniquely incapable of providing its citizens with the most basic infrastructure. Amidst the smell and stench of Love Grove in Worli, for example, are scattered the remains of numerous unfulfilled projects from the 19th and 20th centuries to tide the flow of this river of sewage.

Mumbai’s sidewalks are as hazardous as they were over a hundred years ago – there is a long civic tradition of employing “a sly government contractor with blatant disregard for drawings, who used second-rate materials, [and] cut corners”.

Stephens’s book shows how, despite a dismal track record of maximum planning and minimal execution, legions of planners and architects have continued to attempt making this great city a slightly less terrible place.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.