The Many Articulations of Bombay Art Deco

An exhibition in Mumbai interprets the flamboyant architectural dreams of the city in the 1930s

Palm Court Elevation

Palm Court Elevation

‘Deco on the Oval’ is an exhibition of art deco facades of the apartment buildings on the western edge of the Oval Maidan in Bombay, documented as a series of street elevations by students of Sir JJ College of Architecture in celebration of this unique style. The present drawings draw upon an older tradition at the School of Architecture- the creation of ‘reconstructed’ elevations. Using older available material, drawings and photographs, these facades are depicted as they were when first built.

It was a confluence of several events and trends that made these apartment blocks possible. The site itself had no historical provenance. It was raised out of the sea by the Backbay Reclamations of the late 1920s, and by the turn of the decade plots were available. The buildings that would eventually come up would face-off a completely different set of edifices on the other side of the commons- the Neo-Gothic High Court, University Library, its Convocation Hall and the Secretariat. The architectural blossoming of Deco on the Oval reached a highpoint in the late 30s and would slowly transform from the 1940s onwards. The Marine Drive buildings that came later have a stripped down version of Art Deco, with few instances of surface ornament.

The architects of the new buildings, in the 1930s were of a different generation, both in terms of their education and cultural moorings. The Oval buildings were built by the first generation of Indian architects, trained in the Bombay School (the Sir JJ School of Art), exposed to international practices, having developed a global worldview and appreciative of the new materials and building technologies that were fast becoming available to them. Of these, the technology of Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) and its by-products, like cement tiles and Colourcrete were enthusiastically propagated by cement companies and their association in the journals of architecture and the media in general.

A full two decades before Indian independence, Bombay’s architects, Indian subjects of the empire, chose a style considerably different from the erstwhile buildings of the Raj. Outside the imperial gaze, they chose a style with more affinity to Miami than to London to create homes for their wealthy patrons, who in turn would rent them out to both British and Indian tenants. The style symbolised the global jet-set that no doubt, many of the clients aspired to. Unlike the revivalist proclivity of the colonial masters this was architecture of their own time, an international style brought home from American shores by cinema, magazines, and the globe-trotting patrons themselves.

A new urban language

The buildings on the Oval demonstrate, simultaneously, a collective language that creates an urban fabric while individually allowing full vent to creative expression, each competing with the other, either in flamboyance or subdued sophistication.

There are three levels at which these facades can be appreciated.

First, in terms of their larger shape, they are truly alike. As cuboidal forms articulated for living, they follow one of two symmetries, either full-frontal, facing the road or are aligned diagonally around a corner, where the building fronts two roads. This was the result of building regulations that made all the apartment block toe the same frontage, have the same height and floor lines, a prominent entrance and stairwell and a clear line of flat roofs.

The second is the architectural articulation of the facades. These, true to the jazz age that is Art Deco’s sometime muse, show variations on a theme. This theme was made possible here by the new technology of concrete. It is to the credit of the architects that, when the Style Moderne (as Art Deco was ‘tentatively’ referred to in its own time) was adopted as a Bombay phenomenon, it was also adapted to the tropical climate of the Konkan. Instead of the sloping roof and deep eaves, RCC came into its own, protecting the walls with horizontal concrete slab eyebrows (or chajjas) and courageously cantilevered deep balconies and verandahs- in all manner of shapes.

The third level is the one we associate with Art Deco the most – the surface, or visual articulation through the use of colour pattern and motif. In archival photographs, taken when these buildings were pristine in their newness, we see a shocking (for our current tastes) exuberance of bright colours and contrasts. In these drawings these palettes are recreated, and take some getting used to.

A wide variety of motifs

On these buildings, patterns and motifs, symbolic relief vary widely forming a narrative syntax that brings visual richness to the architecture- bands, curving balconies, chajjas, roof cornices, railings, window grilles and compound walls, stairwells, towers and entrances. The variety of patterns includes chevrons, zigzags, waves and stepped (ziggurat) motifs. These are not abstracts alone as they represent metaphors of speed, power, nautical symbols and travel (steam engines, air ships, aeroplanes) in the international vocabulary of Art Deco.

Another type of ornament is the iconic relief. Here too they conform to Art Deco conventions, but with a local edge- frozen fountain, flora and fauna, clouds, sea and surf, representations, even an exoticization of Bombay’s tropical locale, its presence as a port city and the proximity of the Arabian Sea.

In the past year, Mumbai, along with Delhi, has been presented as a potential site worthy of World Heritage status by UNESCO. One of the USPs put forward in this regard is the wealth of Art Deco buildings the city can boast of. Two stretches (Neo Gothic and Art Deco) on either side of the Oval Maidan are contenders for preservation. This exhibition makes a partial, but substantial case for why this is so.

With the current penchant for ‘redevelopment’, one may sound a note of caution. With significant plots of the erstwhile island city transforming from homes to exchangeable real estate, there is a clear and present danger to these buildings. Sometimes our aspirations and desires can override our sensitivity to preserving our heritage. The last thing we would want is that this documentation remains an archival remnant of a Bombay long lost.

Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at the Sir J.J. College Architecture, has curated the exhibition. The documentation, drawings and exhibition were designed by students of the college. The exhibition will begin on July 28 in the College.