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UNESCO Heritage Tag for Mumbai's Architecture Is One Thing, Preserving It Is Another

The government will have to step in with strict zoning laws to maintain and preserve Mumbai's unique architecture.

Mumbai now is home to its third World Heritage Site. The ‘Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai’ join the Elephanta Caves and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus, headquarters of the Central Railway) in getting this prestigious nomination, and the city is celebrating. There has been a universal kudos for the hard work of all those who made up the team to present our case to UNESCO, including conservation architects, advocacy groups and citizens fora. This is indeed a unique case of heritage nomination, as it covers an area of around 66 hectares spread out, amoeba-like, encompassing the Fort, Churchgate and Marine Drive in south Mumbai, with the Oval Maidan as its nucleus.

The Oval Maidan in Mumbai, with the Bombay high court in the background. Credit: Ignazio Carpitella/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Oval Maidan in Mumbai, with the Bombay high court in the background. Credit: Ignazio Carpitella/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The maidan, separating the neo-Gothic and Art Deco ensembles, was originally the esplanade beyond the battlements of the old fort. In its time, it hosted early encampments of newly arrived colonialists, military parades, celebrations of Indian independence on August 15, 1947, a Papal Mass in 1964 and the development of fledgling careers of cricketers beyond count.

Sadly, the open space has remained but a name in the celebrations for the UNESCO World Heritage Site nominations. Despite this, the Oval maidan toils, unacknowledged, to provide a vital frontage to both sets of buildings and binds them, like Siamese twins, in a setting unlike anywhere else in the world.

The late-mid and late 19th century ‘Victorian’ Gothic style buildings face westwards across the Oval. As an ensemble, they once formed the urban edge of the Arabian Sea. The Art Deco apartment blocks came almost half a century later, and were built on ground raised from the sea through the extensive Backbay reclamations, and have their main facades facing east to the sun.

Both the Victorian Gothic buildings and the Art Deco buildings were products of the colonial era, but of different times and motivations. The neo-Gothic style set the stage as the primary buildings of the Empire in the period following the events of 1857 and Queen Victoria’s anointment as ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’. The Art Deco buildings were created during a period of waning imperial clout, envisaged outside the influence of imperial architectural myth-making.

Despite these differences, despite being inspired by models in Europe and the US, both adopted styles were adapted to Mumbai’s specific circumstances. Historians like Thomas Metcalfe and Christopher London have written about how neo-Gothic architecture was ‘secularised’, or stripped of overt Christian imagery, when used in India. This is best observed in the university buildings designed by British architect Gilbert Scott. The convocation hall for all purposes looks like a church, with its narthex and apsidal end, but the Christian pantheon has been replaced by the signs of the zodiac in the stained glass rose window. Likewise, thanks to the influence of John Lockwood Kipling, master of architectural ornamentation at the Sir JJ School of Art, motifs of local flora and fauna make their way into various forms of Gothic ornaments, instead of icons of kings, saints and angels. The Rajabai Tower is modelled on medieval campaniles, but has eight-foot-high statues of various costumed subjects of British India on every corner.

An archival image showing construction of Watson''s Hotel, a unique cast iron structure in Mumbai. Credit: Sharada Dwivedi, © Abha Narain Lambah Associates

An archival image showing construction of Watson”s Hotel, a unique cast iron structure in Mumbai. Credit: Sharada Dwivedi, © Abha Narain Lambah Associates

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention’s nomination has rightly endorsed the ensemble thus:

“Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco developments with their moorings in Western styles and indigenized through a collaboration of European and Indian architects, engineers and craftsmen is an example of shared heritage at its best.”

Even as the architects of these buildings were British architects and military engineers (Colonel Fuller designed the high court buildings), many of these edifices were built under the supervision of Rao Bahadur Muncherjee Marzban, possibly the only Indian architect who had a prolific career of his own during the Victorian Gothic period. We should also acknowledge the presence of British architects like George Wittet, F.W. Stevens and later Claude Batley, who worked and stayed on in India, making the city their karmabhoomi. The resources to build many of these buildings came from Indian patrons, Premchand Roychand and Cowasjee Jehangir being the most significant.

The Art Deco buildings are even more indigenous in their production. Almost all designed by the first generation of Indian architects who had been educated locally and had set up practice in Mumbai, they used the newly promoted technology of reinforced cement concrete, finished with modern materials like ColourCrete and ceramic tiles, and adapted the state-of-the-art Style Moderne that had become the rage in the US and parts of Europe to the conditions of Mumbai’s tropical hot and humid climate.

The buildings along the Oval were the first and most ornamental of Art Deco buildings in Mumbai. The later variations along Churchgate and Marine Drive had less ornamentation, but displayed the nautical streamlining that was characteristic of Art Deco buildings that came up in other port cities of the world, like Miami. This architecture and its prolific use is unique as it is not governed in any way by imperial impulses, even though India was still a colony of the British and would continue to be for the next 20 years. Interestingly, several of the buildings on the Oval were built by wealthy and influential citizens like Rajab Ali Patel as apartments to let out to British cadres.

The Art Deco buildings are also symbolic of a metropolis on the rise, in the years between the wars, when Bombay became home to a growing, educated and English-speaking middle class. In the nominated ensemble, the Art Deco buildings include a wide variety of typologies – housing, cinema houses, office buildings, academic institutions and even the Cricket Club of India. And yet these building display a remarkable consistency of style and have over the last 80 years or so, to a large extent, been well preserved. “It is argued,” says the UNESCO nominations Statement of Integrity “that it retains its integrity as a planned urban development in an Asian colonial city.”

This retention of integrity can be attributed to several causes, not necessarily visionary but more the product of the city’s history. The Art Deco buildings are almost all built in planned precincts, the result of the Backbay Reclamations of the 1920s and ’30s. All laid out on well-defined, geometrical plots, they are indicative of the need for planned development in an otherwise iteratively developing organic city. The City Improvement Trust set up in the wake of the plague outbreaks in the 1890s gets the credit for these planned areas, which go much beyond the south of Mumbai to the Dadar-Matunga areas, where Art Deco buildings came up in prolific numbers. This nomination should be the excuse for the city to finally accept this homegrown architecture as equal to the imperial monuments, and a case for listing and preservation across the board should be made.

Marine Drive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Marine Drive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another reason for the buildings remaining in their current state is attributable to the Rent Control Act of 1947, which effectively stymied the ambitions of landlords to think about a future for their buildings, while allowing tenants to continue living in rented accommodation for more than half a century. The neo-Gothic buildings are mostly public building of various types and have retained their integrity through simple bureaucratic routine. Whatever the case, this has allowed the city to agglomerate an important part of its historical core for long-term preservation.

After the celebrations, we should also be prepared for the backlash. The World Heritage tag will have to pass through the gauntlet of a vacuum formed by the lack of an equitable distribution of resources, implementable heritage legislation and a more sensitive appreciation of urban planning.

The buildings in question have a variety of ownerships and tenure. Like several parts of old Bombay, tenancy is as significant as ownership. Despite a couple of generations of normalisation, the effects of the Rent Control Act still remain, where landlords and tenants together will have to deal with the fact that the potential bonanza of redevelopment will no longer be applicable to them. The legitimate grouse of ‘Why should we suffer because of this tag?’ will have to be addressed with humility and transparency by the government. We have been very fortunate that one of the driving forces advocating for the heritage status has been the group of homeowners of the Oval buildings, but this is not necessarily the case with the owners and residents of buildings along the Marine Drive, Churchgate and the Kala Ghoda area.

There is also the nature of change, wrought over the passage of time. The youngest buildings on the ensemble list are around 80 years old and have been in constant use. They have been added and altered over a period of time. Most of the Art Deco buildings have had a floor added and in doing so have altered their façade to a lesser or greater extent. Empress Court, for example, has a frontage that is quite different from its original conception. If all the buildings in the ensemble have to be treated at least as equivalent to Grade I heritage legislation, what direction will the conservation of these buildings take? Lived experience and heritage imperatives will conflict with each other from time to time, and have to be reconciled.

An aerial view of the Kala Ghoda streetscape. Credit: Jehangir Sorabjee, © Abha Narain Lambah Associates

An aerial view of the Kala Ghoda streetscape. Credit: Jehangir Sorabjee, © Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Any site designated World Heritage Site has to, mandatorily, establish a buffer around it, and buildings within such areas will also face the restrictions of development, particularly of height. This is done so that buildings surrounding a heritage-designated property do not jut out or loom over them, destroying the skyline that made them heritage-worthy ensembles in the first place. We have already seen this as a threat to the other World Heritage building on the mainland – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. In the case of the newly designated buildings, this issue will multiply exponentially. The skyline around Flora Fountain is already seeing new buildings rising over the neo-classical facades that line it. The two sets of Art Deco buildings on the Oval and the Marine Drive form an architectural delight today because of the urban harmonies they form with each other, having similar footprints, floor heights and roof lines, even if each building is different. But what of the next set of buildings behind them? Even one, redeveloped like a rising mutant fang with an enhanced floor space index and added transferable development area can destroy the effect of the ensemble and perhaps even threaten the World Heritage tag.

The nomination should be seen in balance. It is blessing in disguise, no doubt, but also a velvet glove concealing a steel fist telling us nicely that it is time we paid attention to our urban spaces and historical legacy rather than chase the elusive lucre of real estate development. A World Heritage tag is not an absolute. It will need careful nurturing from all of us.

Mustansir Dalvi is professor of architecture at Sir JJ College of Architecture. In his doctoral research completed at the IIT-Bombay (IDC), he has charted a semiotic of Bombay’s Art Deco Architecture.