Around Town

BMW Guggenheim Lab

Curator David van der Leer describes the impact the exhibition will have on the city

If you happen to visit the Bhau Daji Lad Museum this fortnight, look out for a tent-like structure in the garden. It is the BMW Guggenheim Lab, an urban think tank that doubles up as a public space. The lab’s jam-packed schedule includes film screenings, lectures, city tours, music performances and discussions woven around international cuisines. Urban researchers are also working on projects to study the impact of the lab, map public and private spaces in the city and design an urban conduit over the city’s water pipelines. Van der Leer talks to Nergish Sunavala about some of these projects, and how he dreamt up this mobile laboratory.

After New York and Berlin, why is the exhibition visiting Mumbai?
From the beginning we knew we wanted one venue early on in the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s travels to be in Asia and after careful deliberation, we selected Mumbai. A vibrant, diverse and incredibly dense city, with a fascinating and complex history, Mumbai is the most populous city in India (and the sixth-most populous city in the world). Many urban issues that one can find around the world are more intense in Mumbai and for that reason it really can function as a microcosm of sorts for urbanism.

Who thought of creating a mobile laboratory to highlight urban issues?
As curators, we came up with the idea of creating the Lab and gave shape to its structure and content. Maria [Nicanor] and myself have a strong interest in cities and see it as a responsibility (that museums cannot neglect) to address the most pressing issues in these dense metropolitan areas around the world, and to generate more awareness of the workings of cities for the people living in them.

After a decade that was driven by an urban analysis in terms of data, maps and photography, we felt the need for a project that was more about people, about experiences, and about new ideas on how to make city life in a variety of contexts better. We wanted to create a platform for the public that would require active participation. Therefore, about three years ago we wrote our dream proposal and came up with the Lab’s structure and content.

Who designed the laboratory and what will it look like?
Over the past year we have worked in New York and Berlin with the Tokyo-based architects of Atelier Bow-Wow. Together with Samir D’Monte [founder of SDM Architects] they have designed a new structure made of bamboo for Mumbai. It can be erected rather rapidly and easily transported by truck from one location to the next. For the location at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum the lab will have an L-shape (to house some exhibition elements) and for the satellite locations it will be a rectangular space.

How did the collaboration with the Bhau Daji Lad Museum come about?
The Bhau Daji Lad Museum was a natural collaborator for the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Mumbai because of their reputation for hosting both historically relevant and intellectually rigorous exhibitions. The museum is telling the story of what happened in Mumbai, and together we hope to continue this narrative by asking – what IS happening and what WILL happen to the city of Mumbai?

Who helped put together the Mumbai events programme?
The Mumbai Lab Team (of Aisha Dasgupta, Neville Mars, Trupti Amritwar Vaitla and Hector Zamora) Stephanie Kwai (curatorial assistant) and myself conducted two extensive research and development periods in Mumbai over the past year and met with countless local urban planners, architects, city officials and Mumbaikars.  It is through this combination of research, informal conversation and brainstorming that we came up with the Lab’s focus points and program of events.

These events were then further developed with Tasneem Mehta of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and a Mumbai-based team of programmers: Pooja Warier, Aaron Pereira, Naresh Fernandes, Sourav Biswas, Surabhi Sharma, Swati Sanghavi, Vikram Doctor, Alisha Sadikot and Ammar Mahimwalla.

City decision-making processes are typically limited to architects, urban planners, academics, and government officials and for this reason the lab seeks to open up this conversation to everyday people.

Can you describe a few of the projects and programmes planned?
The BMW Guggenheim Lab in Mumbai explores the growing need for public spaces that enhance everyday life for those who live in Mumbai, while aiming to inspire similar positive change in other cities worldwide. Rethinking Kala Nagar Traffic Junction, Meet in the Middle and the Pukar research study investigate these fundamental questions surrounding the value and the contested nature of public and private space.

The Rethinking Kala Nagar Traffic Junction is a global design competition, in collaboration with Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN), that seeks to use a particular intersection to activate creative urban design solutions. The competition, which is open to students and professionals, challenges applicants to restructure the junction’s traffic flow and explore ways to refit its infrastructure with new public space and pedestrian functions. I hope proposals will be both imaginative and unconventional as well as functional, addressing the junction’s specific issues and unique attributes while providing ideas that could be applied to traffic junctions throughout Mumbai.

Meet in the Middle (MIM) is a series of panels that highlights six pressing urban topics over the course of the Lab’s run. Born out of the belief that real, sustained urban change cannot happen unless we can bring all the stakeholders to the table to have an informed discussion, MIM creates a platform for exchange. Both public and private stakeholders, from grassroots activists to City officials, and community members will have the opportunity to come together and voice their concerns in an open environment.

The research project conducted with Pukar, an independent Mumbai research collective has surveyed over 800 citizens from all parts of Mumbai to prepare a fascinating and truly surprising snapshot of the complex nature of the public and private in Mumbai.

What impact will the lab have on the city?
The most important outcome is for people to begin thinking about and discussing their urban environment. For Mumbai we have some serious design proposals that we hope will get debated during the Meet in the Middle (MIM) programme. We also have good hope for the materials of the Kala Nagar Traffic Junction competition to find their way into the planning process. Additionally, the research projects [conducted by] Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (Pukar) and Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture (KRVIA) will shine a new light on some aspects of city life that will be important for many design proposals over the coming years.

Over the long run, our goal is to explore, experiment with, and ultimately inspire forward-thinking approaches to city life through the engagement and participation of the public at large, not just city leaders and bureaucrats. I hope, as a result of the Lab, people can see how their participation and ideas can have a serious impact on the processes that take place in cities over the coming decades.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab starts on Sun Dec 9. See  for the complete schedule of events.

By Nergish Sunavala on November 30 2012

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