When style was substance: Mumbai in the 1930s

Urban housing these days has increasingly become a matter of “lifestyle.”

By Ashoak Upadhyay / Business Line

Builders do not erect an apartment block or two; they build cities within cities; rows upon rows of residential towers peppered with landscaped gardens, swimming pool, jogging track and clubhouse. The customer does not come home simply to four walls enclosing space; he enters arcadia.

But what about the house itself? Can the artifice of landscaped gardens and swimming pools built on the graveyards of mangrove swamps and nature’s waterways compensate for the banality of mass housing architecture? The dreariness of Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade high-rises is matched by the lifelessness uniformity of building facades or interior layouts in the newer colonies at Powai and Andheri.

Catalyst for new style

Mumbai’s building ethos wasn’t always so predictable. Leave alone the Gothic and Indo-Saracenic structures that dot south Mumbai; the gentle arc of Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive and in the Fort area or P.M Road, in the Backbay reclamation are now justly famous for their contribution to the city’s skyline and topography, exuberant monuments to heterogeneity-as-lifestyle. Equally, they are also a tribute to the first push for modernity.

From about 1930 and well into the 1950s, the Art Deco style, accommodating a rich variedness of interior styles and facades set the tone for middle class housing in a distinctive break from the past’s ornate opulence of garden bungalows or town houses of rich merchants and the drab constriction of working class chawls — one room tenements. The multi-storeyed apartment block was to alter mass housing all across the country in the years to come.

A series of new devices from the late 1920s made that transition from the grand structures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries possible; the introduction of reinforced cement concrete (RCC) and the widespread use of the electric fan and other appliances.

Debating styles

But the most important catalyst for the growth of the new style, whose shabby descendents now pierce Mumbai’s skyline, was the expansion of the architectural profession in the country, the epicentre of which was Bombay. From 1930s on, Indian architects and their firms, some with British partners, began to dominate the scene; they also wanted to define it anew. So they began to search for style that broke with the past.

The return to Indian traditional architectural styles, an Indian Revival, found ardent supporters among prominent British architects like Claude Batley and Patrick Geddes, head of the Sociology Department of Bombay University and a sprinkling of Indians. But Europe offered two rather competing Modernist styles in the mid-1930s.

The most ardent supporter of the Bauhaus school of stark geometrical lines, evident in Le Corbusier’s housing project at Passac was a Poona engineer who converted from the traditionalist view after a trip to Europe in the 1930s.

Deshpande wrote a series of pamphlets praising the functionalism and simplicity of the International Style or Bauhaus. An Indian architect, H.J. Billimoria did not, however, share Deshpande’s enthusiasm for the new aesthetics; another British architect, A.G. Shoosmith predicted the stark geometry would find few takers in India.

Another Modernist trend evident since the late 1920s finally won the day as it offered the best of both worlds, firmly rooted in the Modernist tradition that most Indian architects were searching for.

Varied designs

Art Deco combined exuberance and elegance in style thus, moving away from the bleakness of Bauhaus and functionality based on varied designs.

Even though the movement died in the 1940s in Europe, it gripped the imagination of Bombay-based architects; the birth of sound in film altered movie-making and viewing and heralded the age of the cinema halls. Not surprisingly, the first Art Deco building was the Eros theatre, followed by the Regal, then the Metro. The most abiding legacy of the movement, of course, remains the long line of residential buildings on the Marine Drive, and in the Backbay Reclamation that by the late 1940s had become the densest location of the most varied styles of facades and interiors for residential and commercial purposes.

But not all architects found favour with Art Deco; well into the World War II Claude Batley bemoaned the fondness for the Modern against the traditional Indian. But there was no going back; the city had moved away from the Victorian into the modern age and its architects, through their contesting visions, often articulated through the city-based Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects, based in the city, had helped in no small measure.

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