Mumbaiwale: Mumbai’s architectural styles and how to spot them

Updated on Jul 07, 2018 03:44 PM IST

South Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings are now on Unesco’s World Heritage list. How do you identify which is which? Here’s how

The Art Deco Eros cinema. Those stacked columns on the roof? That’s called a ziggurat.(HT Photo)
The Art Deco Eros cinema. Those stacked columns on the roof? That’s called a ziggurat.(HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai

Forget what Pink Floyd sang. Mumbai’s newest Unesco World Heritage site is not just another brick in the wall. It’s spread across 66 acres. It includes buildings in Fort, Churchgate and Marine Drive. And it encompasses two distinct architectural styles: Victorian Gothic and Art Deco.

But if you’ve been scratching you head to figure out what those two terms mean, here’s help.

Alisha Sadikot conducts some of the most insightful heritage walks around the city and Atul Kumar has been championing Art Deco design for years. “How to recognise a building’s style is one of the most popular questions on my walks,” says Sadikot. “People generally think of everything as ‘colonial’ or ‘British Era’.”

Take a look at the area through their eyes.


The Victorian Gothic Mount Mary Church. (HT File Photo)
The Victorian Gothic Mount Mary Church. (HT File Photo)

-They’re older buildings. Much of Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic structures were built from the mid to late 1800s.

-These are most likely to be public institutions, meant for government, business or administrative work. This means they’ll be fairly large, designed to impose, made of stone that’s either black or a warm brown-yellow. The roofs will have clay tiles.

-Often a lighter stone will be used to add decorative flourishes, like a softer white stone for arches, ornamental mouldings and pillars.

-You’ll glance at it and think it looks like a castle. There are towers, turrets, towering staircases and pointed arches.

-The big buildings will have verandahs on all sides for ventilation in a hot city. Think of a stone building being punctured.

-The buildings were designed to project the image of a big city, to make British visitors feel at home and to remind to Bombay’s citizens that this was an important British property.

CHEAT SHEET: Think of the building along the East side of Oval Maidan. The High Court, Mumbai University and the Old Secretariat. In Kala Ghoda, there’s Elphinstone College, David Sassoon Library, and the Maharashtra Police headquarters. At Churchgate is the Western Railways headquarters. Outside of the Unesco precinct, take a look at St Xavier’s College in Marine Lines, Wilson College at Chowpatty, Gloria Church in Byculla and Mount Mary Church in Bandra.


The Art Deco Empress Court. (HT FILE)
The Art Deco Empress Court. (HT FILE)

-They’re relatively newer. Mumbai’s Art Deco period runs from the 1930s onward.

-They’re more likely to be private constructions: architectural style in apartment buildings, small bungalows and movie theatres. It means they’re smaller in scale than the Gothic buildings, and made using cement and concrete.

-They’re built in groups, in planned neighbourhoods, even though different developers and architects were involved. This means buildings will be of the same height, basic template and orientation.

-The decoration will be simple. Vertical lines will give the feeling of height, the verandahs will be deep, the stone flooring will have a smattering of geometric shapes. Everything from the balcony grilles and the elevator shaft to the outdoor gate and the font on the name of the building will look cohesively designed.

-Look for unusual features. Eyebrows (what we’d locally call chajjas), along windows or balconies protect from sun and rain. Ziggurats (stacked pillars on the top or side of a building like a layer cake) create design with basic shapes. Crowns are a common feature on the terrace as they served as a viewing gallery for residents.

-If the building is on a corner it either spreads open like a book, with wings on both sides of a central entrance, or follows the curve of the street into its building design.

CHEAT SHEET: Think of the buildings along the west edge of Oval Maidan, the buildings along Marine Drive, the Cricket Club of India, Eros and Regal cinemas. Near the Gateway of India, Dhanraj Mahal has 145 eyebrows. In Marine Lines, Metro and Liberty cinemas and Taraporevala Aquarium have Art Deco design. Further north, see the buildings and bungalows in Dadar east and Matunga. You will find examples as far away as Perry Road in Bandra.


If Victorian Gothic is imposing, Art Deco is quirky. Institutional buildings will have a dramatic series of windows. Sea-facing Art Deco ones will have nautical elements like round windows to mimic portholes. If there are stone columns along Gothic balconies, Art Deco balconies will feature streamlined rounded edges, almost like an aerodynamic vintage car. If the stone buildings have arched windows and stone carvings of flowers and animals, the newer cement works have stylised fountains, palm trees and fish.

How many Art Deco elements can you identify from this rendering for an upcoming building in Kala Ghoda?

Answer: None. Which makes you wonder why they’re advertising the term on their billboard.


    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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