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Reviewed by:
  • SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary
  • Barry Lehrman (bio)
SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. 2009. New Delhi: Rupa, 216 pages, including front/back piece, note from the Director of NGMA, foreword by Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge, preface, epilogue, glossary, image lexicon, and notes. Color and black and white illustrations and photographs. $195, hardcover. ISBN 978-8-129114-80-1

SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha is a beguiling book that advances the leadership of landscape architecture in redefining our cities. Moving between serious scholarship about the cartographic history of India, to creating an alternative mapping of Mumbai using sections and photographs, and concluding with proposing twelve design ‘initiations’ (8) that reintroduce the ability of the landscape to soak up the monsoon rains, the book expands our understanding of place-making. The tension of applying scholarship to the design process is a reoccurring theme in their previous works, Mississippi Floods (2001) and Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006), and their practice as landscape architects and educators. With Soak, Mathur and da Cunha’s inquiry into iterative drawing has fully matured and engages in a larger cultural dialog (though perhaps a smaller terrain) then their previous works.

The publication emerged from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi developed in response to the 2005 monsoon floods in Mumbai caused by almost a meter of precipitation falling in just one day. The book’s thesis is that artificial delineation of land from water is impossible to maintain in the territory of the monsoon and [End Page 315] requires a new approach to place-making that enables permeable boundaries between land and sea.

“An estuary demands gradients not walls, fluid occupations not defined by land use, negotiated moments not hard edges. In short it demands the accommodation of the sea not the war against it . . .”


Soak is an appreciation of an aqueous terrain. It encourages designs that hold monsoon waters rather than channel them out to sea; that work with gradient of an estuary; that accommodate uncertainty through resilience, not overcome it with prediction.”


Historically, rainwater from the monsoon was captured on and in all available surfaces for use during the dry season. In contrast, the engineered 20th century system of storm drains and sea walls attempts to move precipitation out to sea as quickly as possible and prevent the tides from washing over former mudflats. After the engineered system failed to handle the deluge of 2005, Mathur and da Cunha were invited to propose alternative landscape solutions that became the exhibition and the book.

Mathur and da Cunha provide detailed scholarship into how the process of mapping Mumbai and the sub-continent’s coast over three centuries of European colonialism set the stage for flooding by arbitrarily demarcating an edge between the land and the estuary. This arbitrary “fair weather” (70) delineation was a Western construct driven by the desire to catalog, divide, and sell territory to feed the British (and Dutch or Portuguese) Empire’s mercantile ambitions. While the book focuses on the defining Mumbai through the craft of mapping this cartographic scholarship process can be applied to many, if not most, modern coastal places and landscapes from New York to London, St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires. Traditional cartography (either oceanographic charts or land surveys) exists exclusively in planimetric views, where there is a need to distinguish between different conditions no matter how diffuse the edge; Mathur and da Cunha’s opus strives to bring the section back into the cartographic realm.

Flooding in Mumbai is a modern issue and resulted from the development of the myriad pans, tanks, and mudflats that used to accommodate the deluge. With the emergence of the modern city, the natural hydrology and culture of infiltration was forgotten. Mathur and da Cuhna sleuth out the forgotten waterways, tidal mud flats, and shorelines of Mumbai—an archeology that many other cities have undertaken that seems inspired by their former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Ann Winston Spirn and her restoration of Mill Creek. The spirit of Ian McHarg is also present beyond the...


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pp. 315-317
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