Nicholas Mayes

Why Bombay airport is the greatest 21st century building - and what we can learn from it

Why Bombay airport is the greatest 21st century building - and what we can learn from it
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'If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.'

So said Kenneth Clark in his unsurpassed Civilisation. I haven’t listened to any speeches by India’s or Maharashtra state’s ministers of housing, but I hope the new terminal at Bombay’s international airport is telling the truth about their country. Opened in February, it is a triumph: not just the greatest airport building in the world, but a strong contender for the greatest of all buildings of the 21st century so far.

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling in the past few months, and have been inside my share of airports. At London City – which, given the price of any flight in or out, is supposed to be a treat – I found myself asking whether it was necessary for my surroundings to consist so exclusively of flat, grey plastic and metal. The floor, the furniture, the security scanners: all of them seemed as dull as the overcast sky towards which the planes were understandably buggering off. Had the Byzantine building codes of successive governments brought us to this point, where only the most boring blueprints could get past the planners?

What an unexpected delight, then, to get to the last leg of my trip and fly off from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s Terminal 2. The last time I was in Bombay, ten years ago, the international terminal was ugly, slow, inefficient: none of this is true now.

Its columns fanning out to the roof like the tail of a peacock, the check-in hall feels like a grand pavilion from one of the last durbars. Shunning the sickly strip lights that blight so much of urban India, the departure lounges’ lanterns give off a cosy glow, while the dark wooden walls are adorned with lotuses, lattices and all sorts of nods to traditional Indian design features. In the background, the unbroken drone of tabla and sitar in a sort of hill country blues formation: building the anticipation of travel without ever needing to change key. You might almost be sheltering in the cool courtyard of some Rajput prince, if you weren’t surrounded by contemporary technology.

The place also serves as a giant museum, boasting around 7,000 works of art: classical murals, paintings and statues (some dating back to the 700s) sit beside newly commissioned works celebrating modern Mumbai in all its grime and glamour. Only one thought jars: the dishonesty of describing this as ‘public’ art, as the curators do. It’s one thing to put these wonders beyond the reach of the billion or so Indians too poor to enjoy them; quite another to pretend anyone can come and see them if they want to.

Still, for the growing middle classes at least, there is much to be proud of here. Maria Misra described Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – the Indo-Saracenic railway hub that dominates the south of the city, and one of the wonders of the Victorian world – as the apex of ‘tropical gothic’. The new airport terminal is also named after the 17th-century warrior king, and shares its ambition, its blend of orient and occident, and its aesthetic contribution to its era.

I ended my trip back in Singapore’s Changi, which is usually rated the world’s least unpleasant. As I walked through the arrivals hall, an instrumental version of Careless Whisper was playing on the PA. It’s not such a bad song, but in this context it said a lot about the city-state’s lack of cultural ambition. I might have been anywhere – but perhaps that’s how they want me to feel.

Modern Britain is cosmopolitan, but often needlessly embarrassed by its history and heritage; what might strike you or me as vernacular is pastiche to our governing classes. Other countries grasp the importance of native culture but are too parochial about it. If CSIA’s T2 is telling the truth and the country is opening up to the world while remaining proud of its traditions, then India might just have chanced upon the best of both.

Nicholas Mayes is an editor and journalist based in Singapore