Mumbai's architectural heritage

A unique ensemble

Print edition :

A bird’s-eye view of the Victorian Gothic buildings of Mumbai University and the city civil court in the foreground with the Oval Maidan in the centre and the Art Deco precinct on the other side. Photo: Jehangir Sorabjee

A typical Mumbai juxtaposition of new and old: the Big Ben-like Rajabai Clock Tower of the University of Mumbai and the Bombay Stock Exchange. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Victorian Gothic buildings at Kala Ghoda, a part of the Fort precinct. At the centre of this cluster of tiled-roof buildings are the Elphinstone College, the David Sassoon Library, the Army and Navy Building and the city civil court. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Eros cinema, which still stands today, is an iconic work of the Art Deco style. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

The Art Deco buildings of Marine Drive from the First World War era. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Marine Drive’s Art Deco buildings in the modern setting with the Brabourne Stadium and a strip of Victorian Gothic structures in the middle distance. Photo: Jehangir Sorabjee

Turrets, spires, finials and balustrades all come together to create a dramatic background for the marble statue of Sir Cowasjee Jehangir at the Convocation Hall of the University of Mumbai. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Indianised detailing such as this turbaned head at the university is typical of Mumbai’s Victoran Gothic buildings. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

The Convocation Hall. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed it from his office in London and it was built between 1869 and 1874. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

A classic Mumbai heritage skyline of Victorian Gothic and Indo Saracenic architecture. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Art Deco details of balconies, windows and facades of buildings opposite the Oval Maidan. Photo: Bombay Deco by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra

Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings, collectively unparalleled, make it to the World Heritage List.

MUMBAI’S glorious but crumbling architectural heritage received a boost in July when the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) inscribed the Victorian and Art Deco building ensembles in the city on the World Heritage List at the committee’s 42nd session in Manama, Bahrain. With this award, India got its 37th site in the World Heritage List.

These buildings lie in the Fort and the Marine Drive heritage precincts of South Mumbai, the historic heart of the city. Speaking of the 94 buildings that make up these ensembles, the conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah said: “The Victorian buildings are amongst the finest and most cohesive group of 19th century Victorian Gothic in the world. The 20th century Art Deco is representative of one of the largest and most homogenous Art Deco constructions anywhere in Asia and the world. While individual clusters of Victorian or Art Deco buildings may be seen across the world, collectively, this ensemble is unparalleled. No other city can boast of a more dramatic urban confrontation between the two architectural styles straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, engaging in a unique architectural dialogue. This is singular to Mumbai. Flanking the legendary cricketing ground of the Oval Maidan, the 19th century Victorian Gothic and 20th century Art Deco of the Backbay Reclamation Scheme confront each other in a theatrical architectural display that is unique to Mumbai…. The two together represent the city’s growth that transformed Bombay/Mumbai from a fortified trading outpost to the Urbs Prima in India, the first city of India.”

Although the official title of the nomination dossier is Victorian and Art Deco ensembles, the actual style of Mumbai’s heritage architecture is Victorian Gothic. The term encompasses a lot: the soaring powerful empire-style of the Victorian age and the high theatrical style and embellishments of buttresses, spires, gargoyles and pointed arches so typical of the Gothic style. There is an artistic and exuberant amalgamation of styles and materials that give it the final Anglo-Indian touch—the Minton tiles with Burma teak, the English cast iron with stones from all over the subcontinent—the style is truly unique. Art Deco was moulded in the same way and evolved to create a new form that is recognised as Indo-Deco.

Abha Narain Lambah was responsible for putting together the 1,500-page “Nomination Dossier and Management Plan” that was presented to UNESCO. Covering three volumes, it consisted of “[a] historical narrative, maps, detailed documentation drawings and inventories of each of the 94 buildings”. Recounting the intensity and complexity of the process, Abha Narain Lambah said it involved State governments, the Ministry of Culture and, finally, the Ministry of External Affairs, which sends nominations every year to UNESCO. She sent the nomination dossier for the first time in 2013 to the Maharashtra government, which forwarded it to the Ministry of Culture. In that year, the Centre said that its priority was to push for a Delhi nomination but later withdrew that. So 2013 saw the hill forts of Rajasthan win. In 2014, the award went to Rani ki Vav, the extraordinary stepwell in Gujarat; in 2015 to Nalanda; in 2016 to the architectural works of Le Corbusier; and in 2017 to Ahmedabad, India’s first heritage city.

When Abha Narain Lambah prepared the nomination document, she wanted it to be a citizen’s document. Indeed, it is the first citizen-led nomination in India to be successful. It was “supported by citizen’s groups like Urban Design Research Institute, Kala Ghoda Association, Oval Cooperage Residents Association, the OVAL Trust, the Heritage Mile Association”. Citizen groups contributed in other ways too. They bought flight tickets for the numerous trips that Abha Narain Lambah had to make to Delhi, and when the process got mired in red tape, Amitabh Bachchan and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Shaina N.C. got things moving again. It was a long wait in the wings for the Mumbai nomination, but clearly one that was worth it.

In the normal course of things, nominations are deferred for a few years, but in this case something unusual happened. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a professional association that works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage sites and also the technical advisory body to UNESCO, “recommended the nomination immediately for inscription”, said Abha Narain Lambah. It was “for the first time in a decade” it had done so, she added. Both she and Nitin Kareer, Principal Secretary, Maharashtra government, put forward a strong case for the nomination when ICOMOS sent its technical evaluation team for an on-site evaluation last September.

Outstanding Universal Value is one of the criteria that have to be satisfied to be on the UNESCO list. While ICOMOS accepted the justifications in the nomination dossier as “valid arguments”, it also said it was “of the view that the overall narrative and rationale of the nomination is lacking coherence and in need of reformulating…”. On February 13, the Indian team provided additional information that proved to be the clincher, and it is best reproduced in whole from ICOMOS’ document: “ICOMOS considers the additional information submitted by the State Party on 13 February 2018 offers a convincing rationale by emphasising the territorial aspect of the nominated property, each with its distinctive architectural style: ‘Together these two developments represent the developments in urban planning that led to the expansion of a city along its western seaface, first through the demolition of its fort walls and creation of a Victorian enclave by filling the moat and then through land reclamation from the sea to create an Art Deco development. Together, this urban ensemble creates a distinct entity—of an urban response to the growth of a trading colonial city by the sea—wholly unique in its dramatic juxtaposition of the two distinct architectural groupings facing each other across the historic maidan.’

“ICOMOS considers that the proposed Outstanding Universal Value is better expressed by focussing the justification to emphasise the territorial aspect of the nominated property as an ensemble created by two waves of urban expansion that are manifested by two distinctive architectural styles, namely Victorian Neo-Gothic and Art Deco styles and by renaming the property accordingly. This would justify the grouping of the two developments built in two different styles, while excluding excellent examples from these two styles which are located outside the boundaries of these two developments as well as the exclusion of other buildings of other styles that are important in the narrative of the historic development of Mumbai.”

Abha Narain Lambah and Kareer had fielded questions on the site’s management and heritage policies and finally convinced ICOMOS, which wrote: “ICOMOS considers that both the Victorian Gothic and the Art Deco ensembles exhibit an important exchange of European and Indian human values over a span of time. ICOMOS considers that the criteria are justified.... ICOMOS recommends that the Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai, India, be inscribed on the World Heritage List on the basis of criteria (ii) and (iv).” Criteria (ii) says: “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.” Criteria (iv) says: “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.”

At a 2014 UNESCO Conference on Modern Architecture in Chandigarh, Abha Narain Lambah expressed concern that there was a lack of representation of 19th and 20th century heritage on the UNESCO list. She said that the UNESCO list “focusses on ancient and medieval sites with no acknowledgement of more recent heritage. Among the 36 sites in India that had been awarded the heritage status most are monument-centric.” Furthermore, she said, the Mumbai nomination was interesting because it was for an urban development work. “The AMASAR [Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation)] Act [2010] eligibility criterion is that a structure has to be 100 years old. This is colonial heritage, urban heritage and it forms a heritage precinct.”

Speaking of the uniqueness of the nomination, Abha Narain Lambah said: “In contrast to Calcutta and New Delhi, political capitals built through imperial funding, Mumbai’s architecture was realised through public subscription and philanthropy. Land auction to private entrepreneurs funded this urban scheme, and many of the public institutions were funded by Parsi, Hindu, Jain and Jewish philanthropists…. This was among the earliest examples of public-private partnership in colonial India, laying the foundations for this multicultural financial capital.” Pointing out another unusual aspect, Kareer said: “Victorian or Art Deco buildings may be seen across the world, collectively, this ensemble is unique. No other city can boast of a more dramatic urban confrontation between the two architectural styles straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, engaging in a unique architectural dialogue.”

There are obvious advantages of being on the UNESCO heritage list. This award gives Maharashtra its fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, making it the State with the largest number of them. Apart from the national and international recognition and status, the award translates into tourism. “There is a huge World Heritage tourism business, and these are all responsible tourists,” said Abha Narain Lambah, pointing out that the tourism revenue from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO heritage site, actually has an effect on that country’s gross domestic product. The award also repositions Mumbai as a cultural destination and puts Maharashtra on top of the heritage destinations heap in India because of its four other UNESCO sites: the Ajanta caves, the Ellora caves, the Elephanta Island’s caves, and Victoria Terminus, now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Abha Narain Lambah feels that with the additional glory of Mumbai being added to the list “Maharashtra could actually rebrand itself” for tourism purposes. Crucially, the sheer prestige of the award could also persuade potential funders to be involved in anything to do with the designated buildings.

For urban conservationists and citizens groups, the award has been a welcome recognition of their long, uphill work to conserve and save the city’s heritage. But while it is a cause for cheer, it also highlights the thousands of structures that have no status and are disappearing at a rapid rate. For example, the iconic Esplanade Mansion, or the old Watson’s Hotel, which on July 7, 1896, became the location of the first ever screening on the subcontinent of a film by the Lumiere Brothers. Esplanade Mansion is a five-storeyed structure with a cast iron frame. In 2005, it was nominated by the World Monuments Fund as a building of architectural and cultural importance. The Fund’s website says: “After the hotel closed in the 1960s, a private owner subdivided the building into residences and commercial spaces. More recently, tenancy laws have made it difficult for the owner to collect rents sufficient to maintain the building. After years of neglect, inappropriate additions, and minimum repairs, the cast iron structure is now failing; a portion of the building collapsed shortly after watch listing.” On July 15, yet another section of the building collapsed. While there were no casualties, there is already talk of allowing the owner to tear down the structure, something that would delight the owner since the building is in the heart of the old financial district.

Such examples are common all over Mumbai. The destruction of such buildings is the nemesis of Mumbai’s architectural heritage. Therefore, awards like the UNESCO one bring a degree of cheer and encouragement to urban conservationists and citizens groups who are working hard to conserve and save the city’s architectural gems. And, hopefully it will make citizens and the government more conscious of their heritage.

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