The (Failed) Idea That Links St. Petersburg and Mumbai

Even in cities laid out to micro-manage and shape its residents, the people who use public space can't be controlled.

Image
Reuters

Daniel Brook’s new book, A History of Future Cities, reviews the development of four "unlikely sister cities:" St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. Beginning in St. Petersburg in the early 1700s, Brook identifies the moment when each city started to become "modern" and charts its progress through the present.

What binds these seemingly dissimilar places together is the intent of their designer. Each set out to use architecture to create modern societies in regions perceived to be lagging behind the West, bringing near-compulsive attention to their design and layout.

But even in cities laid out to micro-manage and shape its residents, the people who use the space couldn't be controlled.

The cases of St. Petersburg and Mumbai are particularly illustrative.

St. Petersburg is on a plot of land that would still be a "near-arctic swamp" in Swedish territory save for Peter the Great’s single-minded mission to civilize his subjects. On an extended stay in Amsterdam, during which he traveled incognito and worked in the Dutch East India Company’s shipyards, Peter became impressed with the way the city cultivated its citizens:

[I]n Holland he began to view people themselves as machines… And as in any machine, changing the inputs would change the outcomes. He had done this to himself. By exchanging his royal scepter for a hatchet and his golden caftan for knee breeches, he had been transformed from Russian tsar to Dutch craftsman. While it had all started as a ruse, a masquerade, at some point during those months in the shipyards, the felt hat and red jacket had stopped being a costume and just became part of who he was…

In his travels around Amsterdam, Peter also realized that just like the fashions in which we clothe our bodies, the fashions in which we clothe our structures—architecture—shaped people. They too were an input that could be changed. Thus, Amsterdam was a kind of factory for creating modern people. By living in Amsterdam, walking its crowded streets, sailing its canals, meeting its mix of peoples from every faith and corner of the world, one could not help but become more cosmopolitan, more technologically savvy, more modern.

Armed with his new understanding of the impact "inputs" have on people, Peter set out to create a replica of a European city in Russia. He requested "the new and best architectural books" from the West.

The Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. (Tatiana Volgutova/Shutterstock)

Among the early projects were a university and the world’s first public museum, which also housed an Academy of Sciences. Peter imported Western architects to design these buildings and Western intellectuals to staff them. The institutions housed in these Western-style buildings combined with a campaign to make Petersburgers behave more like Europeans soon had residents adopting the styles and social mores of the continent.

The problem for Peter the Great and his successors was that once he planted the seed of Western-style modernity, he could not contain it. While Peter wished for all the cosmetic and economic benefits enjoyed by the West, he saw no place for the democratic forms of government that characterized Western societies. Upon viewing Parliamentary proceedings in London, he remarked that republican governing principles would "never fly" in Russia.

Tensions between the people of St. Petersburg and the ruling party emerged soon after the city was founded, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century, after many failed attempts, that Petersburgers made real progress. In 1905, thousands of striking workers marched toward the palace on the most visible and populated street in the city to deliver a petition to the tsar calling for the civil, social, and worker’s rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other countries. After a bloody encounter with troops at Palace Square and a few months characterized by chaos and multiplying strikes, the movement eventually resulted in the first legislative elections in Russia, correcting one of Peter the Great’s most crucial miscalculations—that republican forms of government were an "input" rather than an outcome of modern societies.

•       •       •       •       •

The primary architectural push that made Mumbai a modern city occurred only after the British colony had existed for almost two centuries. Sir Bartle Frere, the city’s mayor, conceived of the overhaul, developed the main layout of the city and oversaw the construction of several important cultural institutions. Just as St. Petersburg had moved from the universal to the specific, Mumbai inverted the typical growth and development of a city in that it "would spring whole from the mind of Sir Bartle Frere."

Much of the development of Mumbai was based on the British architecture and the Raj’s central tenet: that West and East are two utterly distinct cultures, one ascendant, the other in need of guidance. As Brook explains:

No institution embodied this perspective more fully than the University of Bombay, which Frere saw as a critical tool for British rule in India. The university “would create a new man, who looked like an Indian but thought like a Briton, and who could, in turn, Westernize all of Indian society."

Sir Gilbert Scott was tasked with building the university. A British architect who had designed buildings at Oxford and Cambridge, he imagined he had been employed to “drop a British university onto the subcontinent." He built the university in a Gothic style, cribbing buildings throughout Western Europe.

For a time, Frere’s plan seemed to be working. Educated Indians aligned themselves more with the British than with their fellow countrymen and helped to enforce the rule of the Raj. But as more Indians began using the institutions built by the British, graduating from their university and riding their trains, the British claim "that they needed to run India until their Indian apprentices had imbibed enough of their civilization to administer the subcontinent themselves." carried less and less weight.

A train station in Mumbai, built in the Victorian style. (Nickolay Stanev/Shutterstock)
This atmosphere of skepticism helped give rise to Gandhi’s nationalist movement. His argument for Indian self-rule went beyond simply putting Indians in positions of power, a course he saw leading to “English rule without the Englishman." Instead he proposed a full-scale rejection of the values presented by the British in Mumbai and a return to traditional Indian ways of life. After independence a newly autonomous Indian government gradually reduced the influence of Mumbai on Indian society and began to erase traces of British rule, at least in name: the city’s monuments and streets were renamed, many of them after Chhatrapati Shivaji, a local hero who won the region back from the Mughal Empire.
 

The irony of St. Petersburg and Mumbai is that both cities were designed to encourage the type of thinking that eventually undermined the rule of the designers. The physical features of each city conveyed and instilled the precise ideological posture the developers intended, but the resulting social upheaval was beyond anything they imagined. In both cases the flaw was failing to account for agency and growth, assuming a modern populace would question everything but the ruling class.

About the Author

  • Hallie Detrick is an Atlantic editorial fellow.