It’s about time, I think, that we stopped referring to a particular type of building in Mumbai as ‘Art Deco’. This appellation only trivialises our city’s urban fabric and some of its most loved icons, and could, in fact be the cause of its ultimate ruination. We should, simply and correctly, refer to these structures and precincts as ‘Bombay’s architecture from the 30s and 40s’. Even the name- Art Deco, is anachronistic. It came into common parlance retrospectively, in the 1960s.
We tend to look at the buildings like the ones along the Oval Maidan or Marine Drive, especially at their external ornament, colour and fancy grille-work, and call this the Art Deco Style. It was hardly surprising when; very recently, a former member of the heritage committee and a senior architect made light of the Marine Drive buildings and their purported style by saying that even a coffin can be made in the Art Deco style. Such a view is superficial; it is as if Art Deco can be applied to any building, like an ointment. This implies that buildings occupied for several generations can be demolished and rebuilt, provided they are then overlaid with the selfsame external ornament, colour and fancy grille-work.
In an earlier column, I had talked about how some places in our city are well mannered. The best examples of urban etiquette in Mumbai come from the two decades leading to Indian independence. This was the time of reclamation (first the Backbay, then the Marine Drive) and the laying out of plotted precincts that led to a building boom. This resulted in a lot of architecture, not only at the Oval or the Marine Drive, but also at Mohammed Ali Road, Phirozeshah Mehta Road and the Dadar/ Matunga/ Five-Garden areas. This was a time when office buildings like the United Insurance or New India Assurance, cinema houses like the Regal, Eros and Metro, and the many new-fangled apartment blocks from Napean Sea Road to Chembur were designed as both foci and fabric. With bursts of streamlined concrete, they defined the optimism of metropolitan life, tempered with the ‘zara hatke, zara bachke’ nature of Bombay meri jaan. These harmonious ground plus three buildings lining our streets form our image of the city even today. To see them isolated of their context and re-imagined only as wallpaper is to do them a profound disservice.
What is Art Deco after all? The Oval Maidan buildings form Bombay’s most famous stretch. These twenty or so apartments (with Eros as full-stop) were all built in just three years, from 1935 to 1938. They are the most ornate, with motifs of chevrons, ziggurats and frozen fountains, painted in bright pastels. Other buildings from the 1940s are far less ‘jazzy’ but are relevant nevertheless as icons of that era. Many office buildings are formal stone piles, while cinema houses are specially designed with striking verticals and ocean-liner horizontals, punctuated with spaces for the marquee. These buildings are numerous and varied, but the one constant is not their style (whatever you want to call it) but their urban placement, the manner in which they line the streets and circles that connect the city like a neural network. In most cases these buildings abut the road directly with no setbacks or gated edges. They belong to everybody.
There was a time when several of these buildings were protected as heritage. Now, under new dispensations, individual rights completely overshadow collective responsibility, so any of these buildings may be demolished and rebuilt with all benefits accrued, should the occupants desire so. Who can stop a multi-storey building emerging out of the seventy year old harmonies of the Marine Drive? That would be depriving its inhabitants of the benefits of FSI, TDR, and other fungibles and, in any case, we can take a forty storey building and Art Decofy it, no?
That is the problem with labels and names; they tend to obscure context and relevance by offering mental shortcuts to take the place of critical thought. Give a dog a bad name and hang him. An Art Deco building is no longer inviolate. By extension, neither are any of the buildings from the 30s and 40s. Full page adverts front our newspapers every day, pushing new building proposals in the Spanish Hacienda style or the Swiss Chalet style, or the all purpose Classical style, so Art Deco is just another surface solution to assuage fears of wanton urban destruction. I would not be surprised to see proposals of skyscraper sized Art Deco coffins in tomorrow’s dailies. After all, the tallest building in the world for several decades- the Empire State Building was an Art Deco building too.