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Can a city be comfortable?


Modelled on the 'mandapa', Atelier Bow-Wow has designed a structure suited to the densely populated environment of Mumbai.

On December 9, the much-anticipated BMW Guggenheim Lab will roll into Mumbai. A joint initiative of the two titular bigwigs - the German auto company and the iconic art institution - the mobile laboratory seeks to investigate urban life as it unfolds in select cities across the world. It started in NYC in August last year, moved to Berlin earlier this year, and will soon be in Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the Lab structure will be stationed at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla, but its activities are expected resonate down the length of the vertical city.

In an email interaction, curator David van der Leer gives us the lowdown on the Lab.

Please elaborate on the genesis of the Lab. How do you select destinations? You chose Mumbai over Delhi;was it a close call?

The first three cities visited by the BMW Guggenheim Lab have been on three different continents, enabling us to learn together with local participants about a range of pressing urban issues. We looked for three cities with different scales and densities, so that each could give us a completely different take on urbanism. Mumbai is one of the largest and most rapidly growing cities in the world and we felt it would be very important to explore these fascinating urban conditions as part of the project.

What happens after the project leaves the city? Are you planning 'afterimages' of some sort?

Ultimately, the BMW Guggenheim Lab strives to create something of lasting benefit for our cities. In New York, the Lab built a vast network of more than 150 academic and governmental collaborators and rejuvenated an NYC Parks property that had been unused for more than 50 years and adapted it for ongoing community use. Earlier this week, we published a glossary of terms that emerged from the Berlin Lab and represents the hundred most-talked-about trends and ideas in urban thinking today. We will continue to add to the glossary as we learn from Mumbai and New York. We hope that the ideas, investigations and experiments of the Mumbai Lab will help us rethink how the effective use or reuse of personal and public space can positively impact our cities.

You have invited Atelier Bow-Wow of Tokyo to create The Lab in Mumbai. The structure is unlike those found in NYC and Berlin. Did you ever consider inviting local architecture firms to submit their proposals?

For the first three cities, we decided to work with one architecture firm, Atelier Bow-Wow, to achieve a certain consistency in the spatial experience. However, it is equally important for each Lab to benefit from local participation - as can be demonstrated by the many local speakers, thinkers and practitioners who have contributed to the Lab programs. Furthermore, in Mumbai Atelier Bow-Wow is collaborating with the wonderful Mumbaibased architect Samir DeMonte.

By extension, can you tell us a bit about the thought processes that have led to the

common thematic-Confronting Comfort-that binds cities as disparate as New York, Berlin and Mumbai? Are there several overlaps in the programming? As in, do certain components get repeated across different cities?

The ideas we have been exploring since the New York Lab are about comfort and personal interaction with the urban environment. We are all looking for a sense of comfort in our lives, but somehow in the conversations about cities around the world this has often been a taboo word. We wonder what constitutes an urban living environment that is pleasant to live in for all. Our work in Mumbai follows that theme but is adapted to the realities of the city, based on feedback from, and consultation with, many local collaborators.

You've encountered troubles with the sites in Berlin and Mumbai. In Berlin, the project was nearly cancelled because of protests in Kreuzberg and eventually shifted to Pfefferberg complex in Prenzlauerberg. While the Berlin protesters were left-wing

groups, in Mumbai the traditionalist Sir JJ School of Arts refused to host the Lab on its premises for a wholly different set of conservative reasons. Were you already alert to such possibilities? What are your thoughts on such local disapproval?

As part of our planning for the Mumbai Lab, we had conversations with many city organisations and institutions and heard a variety of perspectives. The Lab is designed to encourage dialogue about the critical issues facing our cities, and we welcome the viewpoints of the JJ School of Arts and all others. We are thrilled to be collaborating with the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum at our central Lab site and to be presenting our programme at several satellite locations, and we look forward to receiving the invaluable input of Mumbaikars throughout the city.

Thus far, very little information has been revealed about the actual programming. Could you elaborate on some of the content that will be generated through the Lab?

We will announce details of the programming in the coming weeks, but the programme has been specifically designed for Mumbaikars. In particular, the Mumbai Lab will focus on the challenges and opportunities related to public space and the choices Mumbaikars make to balance individual and community needs. The programme will include design projects, participatory studies, tours, talks, workshops, film screenings and other cultural activities.

Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is next to the zoo, and is, more often than not, frequented by lay persons. Is your programming targetted at them, as well?

Yes. The programme series that we will launch in just a few weeks will cater to audiences of different ages and backgrounds. In Mumbai, we are not only running programmes at the main Lab site, but from the second week onwards, we are also running programmes on a daily basis in distinct locations throughout the city, from the northern suburbs to the south of island city, which we hope will stimulate a range of diverse opinions and ideas.

The Lab is looking at covering nine cities in six years. What's next after New York, Berlin and Mumbai?

We will announce future plans for the project in the coming months.

BMW precedes Guggenheim in the title of the project. Would it be correct then to read that the car company gets top billing in the Lab? How deep is their involvement in the decision-making process?

The order of the name was discussed between the Guggenheim and BMW for some time. While the other way around would have worked just as well, everyone involved favoured the symmetry of the three letters before (BMW) and after (Lab) the word Guggenheim. The final order is a reflection of preference rather than priority. The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a co-initiation by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the BMW Group that grew out of conversations over several years. BMW is not involved in the curatorial direction of the project, which is overseen by the Guggenheim, but offers its know-how and global network to the benefit of the Lab. Examples include access to BMW's international network of leaders in design and architecture and its relationships with cultural organizations worldwide as a result of its more than 40-year history of cultural commitment.

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