The UNESCO World Heritage tag for a group of South Mumbai buildings encompassing nearly three-fourth of a century of stylistic shifts has been a long time coming. Despite the rigorous efforts of conservation architects, activists and citizens’ groups to attain this status, the city of Mumbai had been passed over for other historical sites in the country for one reason or the other.

On Saturday, the “Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai” were finally anointed as a World Heritage Site but only after a further set of evaluative procedures and a positive nod by the ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), the technical advisory to UNESCO. Conservation experts, urbanists, historians and city-lovers alike are celebrating this very special accolade awarded to a very special corner of the city formerly known as Bombay.

Ground Zero for this precinct is the open space of the Oval Maidan, on either side of which two of the most stylistically different sets of buildings are arrayed, the neo-Gothic Victorian buildings along the east and the Art Deco apartments along the west. They have faced off since the late 1930s and, together, have given us the central mental image of the city for nearly 80 years. Not only do they have political and sociological histories, which have already been written about but also specifically different urban histories.

Mumbai's Oval Maida has impressive Gothic buildings to the east and art deco apartments to the west. Credit: HT Photo

The neo-Gothic buildings came to define the edge of the city in the mid- and late-nineteenth century. After the fort walls were brought down, as maritime threats de-escalated, these were built on the esplanade outside the fort on the edge of the Arabian Sea, facing due west. These edifices included the Secretariat, the High Court, the University Library and Clock Tower, and the Convocation Hall amongst others, and were built in the style that was in vogue in Britain – with pointed arches, open and blind arcades, stubby columns with decorated capitals, heavy masonry, slit windows, spires and croquets and steep roofs all emulating medieval Gothic characteristics from Italy and France, thanks to the persuasive advocacy of John Ruskin and the influential buildings of the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben. These were the buildings on the water edge that would be the first glimpse for seafarers coming to Bombay, and their regal and formal bearing gave the city its famous first tag, “Urbs Prima in Indis”, First City of India.

The buildings on the other side of the maidan were the result of organisation. That they even exist was possible only because one phase of the Backbay reclamation was completed by the end of the 1920s. The raising of land from the sea transformed the profile of the city’s southern edge as well as its land-use, pushing the neo-Gothic piles into an interior position and creating a layout of planned, well laid-out, almost rectangular plots on the western edge for housing and other commercial purposes.

The buildings along the Oval all came up within just a few years in the mid 1930s. But unlike their counterpoints forming the skyline across the open ground, these were built for private yet communal living, reflecting the rising cosmopolitanism of the city in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Their facades, with contemporary relief ornamentation, vertical and horizontal bands, cantilevers and eyebrows, stepped ziggurat motifs and stylized grilles and gates catch the morning sun rising behind their neo-Gothic neighbours. After the 1940s, with the completion of the Queen’s Necklace or Marine Drive, another set of buildings also mostly apartment blocks and hotels would together form a harmonious skyline on the new western edge of the city on the sea.

That the architects who designed them chose a style almost unlike anything the city had seen before, using a new material of construction that was catching on (RCC) and creating a new way of “apartment” living in an urban setting does need to be discussed in a separate piece. The architecture of housing that would retrospectively come to be known as Art Deco was fresh, had more in common with the beachfront hotels of Miami and quite removed from imperial stylistic preference. In the pages of the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects at the time, these new buildings would be classified as “Lesser Architecture of India”. Irony, of course turns a full circle today as the World Heritage Tag puts both sets of buildings on an equal footing.

Mumbai's Marine Drive is lined by art deco buildings. Credit: HT Photo

What makes this last tag different from the other two that Mumbai has already received is that this is for an ensemble of buildings. Both the Elephanta Caves and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus are singular entities, and appreciated as objects in space, a place you can go to. An ensemble, on the other hand, asks to be walked into – the objects that collectively form heritage are not separate from the spaces and activities between them and include the observer as well. This will be the immediate challenge for the city planners and conservers alike, for a substantial part of the very active southern tip of Mumbai now forms this hallowed ground.

The team, led by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah that put together the proposal leading to the declaration in Manama, Bahrain, have very correctly included not only the two sets of buildings on either side of the maidan, but have cast their net further to include the Art Deco buildings along the Marine Drive, the buildings at Churchgate, the Cricket Club of India and those in the areas now being consolidated as the Kala Ghoda Art District. Doing this allows for the inclusions of other styles : the neo-Classical, the Indo-Saracenic, the Edwardian Baroque and the unclassifiable but very lovely Watson’s Hotel.

This collection of heritage architecture also foregrounds a large part of the lived experience, including cinema theatres, museums, libraries, academic institutions, places of law and justice, homes and hotels, and all manner of commerce and shopping. By not looking at the issue of heritage only as a set of listed buildings of value but as an ensemble of various neighbourhoods, they have done the city of Mumbai a very valuable service.

For too long has the issue of heritage and implementable heritage legislation been restricted only to specific buildings. All buildings should be seen with their own settings, and groups of these have a combined worth, of being much greater that a sum of their parts. In the past, this has led to the effective conservation of Imperial buildings, but buildings that came up outside of the colonial gaze, like the Art Deco buildings, have been sidelined. Now with effective guidelines following the UNESCO tag we can hope to see city neighborhoods as having an urban value in themselves. Only then will our memories of the city sustain.

The newly installed equine statue in Mumbai's Kala Ghoda area.

This does not imply mothballing the areas in question. In fact, with the right executive and financial support from the government, the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai can be transformed without having to bow to the exigencies of real-estate speculation. Look at it this way. In the post-planning scenario that Mumbai currently finds itself in, with the city’s financial and work centers shifting north to the former mill lands and the Bandra Kurla Complex, the future of the Fort and Kala Ghoda precincts will be driven by tourism and culture. Both these imperatives work well with strong historic and urban presences, which is what areas under the World Heritage tag provide. Both the buildings and the spaces between them can be reconsidered to serve tourism, with the shadow of redevelopment no longer looming over them. Conservation now can work cheek by jowl with contemporary retrofitting, adaptive reuse, urban design and landscaping to create an environment best suited to both the users of the buildings as also to flaneurs flocking the streets and plazas.

I would go one step further and envisage a tableau that, I know, is entirely fantastic, where everything south of the Bhatia Baug opposite the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus is entirely pedestrian, and we have our own Ramblas or Champs Elysees, a Golden Mile that extends from the Capitol Cinema, moves along the Dadabhai Naoroji Road and culminates at an ungated Gateway of India.

Mustansir Dalvi is a professor at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai.