Sunday 1 October 2017

Mumbai Art Deco

Mumbai has one of the world's largest collections of art deco architecture. This includes apartment blocks, offices, cinemas and hotels built from the early 1930's until the beginning of the 1950's. The style lasted a little longer here than in many other countries. In recent years, interest in these buildings has grown, in no small part due to the excellent work of Art Deco Mumbai - an organisation devoted to documenting, promoting and where possible, protecting this part of the city's built heritage.

Fairlawn, details unknown
During the 1930's Mumbai's expanding population, particularly that of its educated middle class, created demand for new housing. One response to this pressure was the Backbay Land Reclamation Scheme, carried out between 1928 and 1942, reclaiming land from the sea and stimulating extensive building programmes.  Many of the new homes were built in the Art Deco style and clustered Marine Drive (now renamed Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose Road) and Queens Road (now Maharishi Karve Road) in Churchgate. Planning regulations of the City Improvement Trust ensured a uniformity of height and materials whilst architects expressed their creativity through incorporating classic Art Deco elements representing modernity as well  as motifs from the ancient world.

Many of the residential units were commissioned by wealthy Mumbai merchants and industrialists as well Indian princes and other aristocrats who visited the city for shopping, to attend important events or as a departure point for travel abroad. The heyday of Art Deco coincided with the first generation of Indian born architects, many of whom had trained abroad, including in London where they received accreditation from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). These young Indians were responsible for many Art Deco structures whilst others were designed by their British contemporaries working in India.

Decay but with signs of hope on Marine Drive
I recently visited Mumbai and was able to see some of these wonderful buildings. It was encouraging to see how many of them have been lovingly cared for but also worrying to see the poor condition of others. Deterioration is due to both environmental and economic issues. Marine Drive in particular is exposed to the climatic challenges of the Arabian Sea, requiring regular and robust maintenance which in a number of cases has not taken place. Many of the large apartment blocks facing the sea have also been subject to "improvement" or "modernisation". This includes replacing original windows with more robust, cheaper materials and closing off balconies, presumably to gain additional internal space and to protect the interior from the elements and noise from the street.

Another issue for the apartment blocks in particular is the existence of fixed rental agreements dating back decades. These make it very difficult if not impossible for the owners to raise sufficient capital to carry out large-scale  maintenance. However, it is not all bad news as strolling the length of Marine Drive I saw much evidence of restoration and repair. Also, some buildings have been sold to major companies or Government Departments who now use them as office accommodation. Whilst it is sad to see the loss of the original residential purpose, at least the new owners have the ability to appropriately maintain their new properties.

Court View at 126 Queens Road is one of my favourite Mumbai Art Deco buildings. Built between 1933 and 1939 it was designed by Maneckji Dalal, working for Merwanji Bana and Co. This partnership was responsible for many of the city's Art Deco riches. The facade is stunning with marble pillars at each side of the shaded entrance and a fabulous "frozen fountain" motif above. A symbol of eternal life, the frozen fountain was revived by Rene Lalique  whose designs at the 1925 Paris Exposition were partly responsible for the world wide explosion of interest in the Art Deco style. This motif was often used by Merwanji Bana and Co. I was able to sneak a look into the lobby and admire the geometric terrazzo floor which I believe has different patterns at each level, the rhythmic motifs on the balustrade and the deco details on the lift doors.

Court View, 1933-39, Maneckji Dalal
Court View, detail of balustrade
Green Fields, 1933-39, architect unknown
Green Fields, zig-zag motifs on balconies
Green Fields is another apartment block, just a few doors away from Court View at 134 Queens Road. Built between 1933 and 1939, the architect is unknown. Again, the entrance is impressive with stylised lettering and a stepped panel above the main door but the outstanding features here are the narrow balconies on the facade with their zigzag motifs.

Rajjab Mahal, 1933-39, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Rajjab Mahal - glazed stairwell
Rajjab Mahal - motifs on balustrade and windows
Rajjab Mahal - geometric sunburst motif on facade
Still on Queen's Road, Rajjab Mahal at number 144 is another stunner. Built between 1933 and 1939, it was also the work of Merwanji Bona and Co. The facade includes geometric sunburst panels echoed in the windows as well as two sets of blue and green stripes that rise from just above the entrance canopy all the way to the summit. The stripes stand at each side of the glazed stairwell which in turn features the frozen fountain motif. Fabulous. 

Next door at number 146, Shiv Shanti Bhivan makes impressive use of its corner location with a series of decorative features on the building's curve. These include green chevrons on a yellow background, semi-circular discs above the windows that also provide a little shade from the brilliant sunshine and a batwing design beneath the sills. Unfortunately these delights have been somewhat compromised by the addition of several air conditioning units just underneath the discs - although I do understand why the residents would want this facility! The block was constructed between 1934 and 1935 and is yet another example of Merwanji Bana and Co's work.

Shiv Shanti Bhuvan, 1934-35, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Shiv Shanti Bhuvan - corner decorative details
Empress Court, 1937-38, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Empress Court, decorative balconies.
Empress Court at 142 Queens Road was built in 1937-38 and was the work of Gajana Baburao Mhatre. Mhatre was a significant influence in the development of modern Indian architecture. Born in 1902 into a relatively ordinary family, he studied architecture first in India under the direction of Claude Batley. This British architect was a modernist devotee sensitive to Indian architecture who introduced Mhatre to the concept of combining the two. Mhatre undertook further studies in London where he obtained RIBA accreditation before returning to India in 1931. He then began working for the Billimoria and Poonegar Company, making a major contribution to their design work. He was responsible for many residences in Mumbai including the spectacular Empress Court. A corner building, it uses its location to dramatic effect with a decorative glazed stairwell sweeping from the canopy above the main doorway to the summit, flanked by tiny almost Bauhaus style balconies at each level.

Still on Queens Road, Palm Court at number 152 is another of Mhatre's works. Currently undergoing renovation it was built between 1933 and 1939 and has an impressive entrance with semi-circular pillars, stylised lettering carrying the building name and colourful tiles in the lobby. Just above the entrance canopy, rows of chevron motifs form a concrete ventilation grill.  Two doors away at number 156, Sunshine, built at the same time as Palm Court was also designed by Mhatre. Its name is announced in both stylised lettering and by the image of the sun above the main entrance.

Palm Court, 1933-39, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Sunshine, 1933-39, Ganjanan B. Mhatre
Moving away from Queens Road and on to Marine Drive,  Framroz Court at number 205 is one of my Mumbai favourites. Built between 1936 and 1943 and designed by Merwanji Bana and Co, the exterior has seen better days, is badly stained and in need of some tender loving care. Help may be at hand as there were signs of repair going on at one side of the building. Framroz has a dramatic and decorative glazed stairwell flanked by bay windows at each level and with sea facing balconies on one side. A number of these have now been enclosed. Day dreaming that I would like to have a flat here I went online to see how much it would set me back. I found a 3000 square feet apartment being offered for rental at 4.5 lakhs per month. If I'm not mistaken that is something in the region of £5,000. Ahem. Better start buying the lottery tickets again.

Framroz Court, 1936-43, Merwanji Bana and Co.
Regal Cinema, 1933, Charles Stephens.
Like many other cities Mumbai has a number of Art Deco cinemas. There are fewer than before as some have been demolished in favour of more lucrative developments. Others have been "modernised". This usually means gutting the interior of these single screen cinemas and transforming them into multiplex establishments, sacrificing the internal details but retaining the facade. Others are covered in hoardings for various products, making it difficult to admire their beauty but at least they are still there. 

The Regal on S.P. Mukherjee Chowk ( formerly Regal Circle) was one of the city's earliest Art Deco structures. Designed by British architect Charles Stephens it opened in 1933. Stephen's cinema was the epitome of modernity, constructed entirely from reinforced concrete, was fully air conditioned, and had an underground car park and lifts to bring patrons up to cinema level. Construction work was carried out by the Indian owned company Framji Sidhwa. The interiors were spectacular with sunray motifs and extensive glazing - all the work of Czech artist Karl Schara. The first film to be screened there was Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother. A little faded looking today, the Regal still has a commanding presence on a busy junction, its vertical signage, stepped parapet and theatrical sculptures still striking despite the addition of large billboards.

Liberty Cinema, 1947-50, M.A. Ridley Abbott and John B. Fernandes.

The Liberty Cinema in New Marine Lines was built in 1947 at the very end of the Art Deco period in Mumbai. Its owner Habib Hoosein chose the name because construction coincided with Indian independence. The cinema remains in the ownership of the Hoosein family but struggles today due to competition from multiplexes and part of it is now rented out for office use. The interior has many deco details and the original wood panelling, mirrors and other features have been retained. Externally there is a magnificent corner fin, the bas relief of which resembles the keys of a piano. They really don't make them like this any more. Construction was initially under the direction of British architect M.A. Ridley Abbott who died one year into the project. Local architect John B. Fernandes took over and the work was completed according to Abbot's design. Waman M. Namjoshi designed and executed the interiors ready for the grand opening in 1950.

Several of the city's Art Deco cinemas were undergoing renovation or other works at the time of my visit. A good reason to return and see how things turned out.

A note on street names - Queens Road is now known as Maharashi Karve Road and Marine Drive has ben renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road. I have used both versions in this post but primarily the old names to reflect the heyday of Mumbai's Art Deco style.

If you want to know more about Mumbai's Art Deco heritage, try Navin Ramani's superb book - Bombay Art Deco Architecture A Visual Journey (1930-53). I have relied on it for many of the details in this post.

You can see more pictures of India here.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. Very true. The Art deckos are very much part of the culture of South Mumbai.Nice pics Adrian