Verticals

"Verticals; an essay written by Indian-American writer, Avoorpa Tadepalli
who I met during my trip to Dharavi, Mumbai, 
together with Danish journalist bureau, TANK"

De Certeau underscored very clearly the significance to modern society, not just architecturally but psychologically, of vertical growth. To have the power to see an entire urban text being written, and to also be removed from it, is a basic, primitive voyeuristic instinct.  

The allure of the power of being able to escape the earth’s pull is as real and as old as the slightly contradictory, perhaps self-reactionary need to conpensate for this loss of earth, by releasing horizontal space in which society could, among other things, submit itself to the elements of Nature again. The “divine” power of being able to retreat from nature is inseparable from the power and need to “save” it, placing into physical locations where its experience can be contained and understood.  

The ideas of the Vertical City and urban growth boundaries as strategies for densification are variants of the idea that the “core” of the urban fabric should be contained to prevent sprawl and create affordable semi-suburban housing solutions – both of which require free horizontal space and which also overlook the fact that vertical growth comes with horizontal expansion. Particularly as neighbourhoods become less low-income friendly, residential and commercial units call for wider roads or expand to accommodate more facilities. 

Live with Nature, says the only copy of a full front page advertisement in Delhi Times for luxury apartments in Gurgaon, which are surrounded by greenery on the ground as well as from their balconies and roofs. We want to be in contact with nature, to feel protected from the cancerous growth of the city on our own terms while continuing sky-high climbs to dominate, protect, and escape. Our distance from nature is not physical as much as psychological.  

Edward Glaeser’s essay Temperate and Bounded in Ecological Urbanism says that Henry David Thoreau’s lesson for modern urbanists was that being good to the environment often means staying away from it…when we use less space, we do less environmental harm”. It rings with a fearful, uncertain ego that distantly echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s suffocated feeling in the urban fabric, his almost Wordsworthian longing for a “natural order”. Wright wanted to both iconicize the city and escape it, piling it high so that pushing oneself out of and away from it was easier.  

Ours is a crisis of lifestyle; our sense of removal from the earth is more psychological than physical. We are no more able than Wright, today, after living in messy, awkward, non-utopian, intensely human cities for hundreds of years, to absorb the built environment and elements of human-nature interaction, into the realm of our understanding of Nature. We are unable to recognise a “natural order” in ourselves, in the work that we do.  

This is why “live with nature” is said of Gurgaon’s foresty luxury skyscrapers or the Vertical City’s endless hollow parkland, and not of South Bombay’s dense, mixed-income heritage buildings, both high and low rise and made of natural materials, where recognition of the right to use property as a legitimate relationship to the land, as opposed to merely the right by ownership, make it a uniquely diverse downtown. This is why “live with nature” is not said in reference to Dharavi Koliwada’s groundwater wells and spacious courtyards under huge banyan trees, all in the heart of one of the densest, most horizontal parts of Mumbai, where people who are far less subconsciously apologetic about their home and their influence on nature, have been living in harmony with their landscape since before the city had a name.  

The more powerful our cities dream, the more confidence they exude, the more work they put into conjuring a skyline that our filmmakers and artists can boast of and fall in love with – the more uncertain they seem to become about the earth and their dizzying distance from it. The Vertical City is in its own way a utopia, the product of a society trying to protect both itself and the earth, but has separated these two so distinctly in its consciousness that it has become too anxious to do either. “Staying away from” the environment is neither desirable nor possible, and it belongs entirely to the narrative of power attached to vertical expansion. In this way, perhaps Walter Benjamin’s narrative of instability, in depicting a fascination with skyscrapers, is actually the most honest way modern society can talk about the need for, and process of, verticalism in densification. 

Benjamin’s citizen of modern society, the urban ascender, is like the construction worker; he moves “rung by rung, according as chance would offer a narrow foothold, and always like someone who scales dangerous heights and never allows himself a moment to look around, for fear of becoming dizzy (but also because he would save for the end the full force of the panorama opening out for him).” This, as one critique notes, “imagines a perilously contingent ascent by a vulnerable and explicitly embodied observer, one in whom the fear and the anticipation of high altitude comingle.” 

Space is a practiced place, said de Certeau in his distinction between spaces and places. Places create designated function; in a “place”, no two elements can be in the same location. Spaces, almost humble in their ambiguity, are created by a different, more directionally organic movement, embodying functions outside of their individual elements. Spaces are created when typologies superimpose on each other and elements of the landscape can belong to both nature and civilisation.  

The true, non-utopian city is the centre of “human nature”, in the literal sense perhaps an oxymoron – it is where this contradiction is embodied, where new relationships between humans and the earth are constantly forming and old ones are maintained. Interesting urban forms in Mumbai are often created by people working with natural elements, like the artisans of Dharavi – those whose work calls on them to access not a vantage point but the street, the earth. The only way to build the Vertical City, then, is to recognise the need for this continuity, in our minds as well as our streetscape, between the the pull we feel from both the sky and the earth – to perhaps be dizzy, frightened, and very humble, to grope our way up tentatively and single-mindedly, in a combination of ambition and exhileration.

Apoorva Tadepalli, Mumbai