If I ever write a book about the crisis of the world's largest cities, this photograph from the Oct. 24 edition of the LA Times should be on the cover: A 27-story, 400,000-square-foot private home (!) built by a Mumbai billionaire Mukesh Ambani, reportedly the world's fourth-richest individual.
According to the Times story, Mr. Ambani's residence has both helipads and 168 parking spaces for a family of six. The home has prime views of both the ocean—and surrounding slums. No image could better distill the extremes of the modern mega-city than this bizarre building—looking like a Dagwood sandwich held together with enormous, diagonal toothpicks.
To my mind, this single image hints at all the issues pressing down on the world‘s mega-cities (think Beijing, Jakarta, Sao Paulo). Start with overpopulation and uncontrolled urbanism. Add to that extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty. With the extreme gap in income, the rich feel increasingly vulnerable, and house themselves in bunkers that dramatize social polarization. Then add to that an inflated real estate market and construction without regard for environment (how many tons of greenhouse gases were pumped into the atmosphere from the trucks bringing materials to and from the site of Mr. Ambani's personal residence?). Add to that the "conspicuous consumption" of sheer volume; old-fashioned pashas went in for visual richness and ornament; today‘s fatcat just wants your jaw to drop with the sheer amplitude of private Cartesian space. As for open space and pedestrian friendly streets… fuhgeddaboutit! They're too expensive, and there's no return on the rupee.
The slums, ironically, are the reverse mirror image of the Ambani residence: Granted, this has been said many times before, but the form of the modern city reflects labor economics of an industrial society—i.e. a perpetual oversupply of cheap labor, which must be fed and housed as cheaply as possibly, so that people can live on low wages. Hey, the view of these shacks is great from the top floor, from which they appear almost … picturesque (if you ignore the raw sewage running down the street, that is). None of these phenomena are new or surprising: What is remarkable here is the suddenness and the extremity that boom economies have brought to the world's densest cities.
But can the exploding cities of the global economy be made into habitable places? What set of incentives must be in place to make cities habitable in the most basic ways? And is there a tension between private enterprise and the effort to "green" the world's most populous cities? In any event, the apologists for the global economy should look at this 27-story home and ask whether superwealth is translating into a better life for people as a whole, or driving an even deeper wedge between rich and poor.