Ballard Estate wrap up

When the Indira Dockyard (then Alexandra Docks) was excavated, the Port Trust used the mud and stone to reclaim a square kilometer of land next to it, ending in 1918 CE. This was developed into the Ballard Estate, then a swank new business district named after Col. J.A. Ballard, who’d founded the Port Trust. The land is still owned by the Port Trust, but the properties on it are privately owned, a state of affairs that leads to endless litigation.

Neville House was one of the earliest structures to come up here. It belonged to the Wadias, whose scion Lovji Nusserwanji Wadia secured a contract for shipbuilding from the British East India Company in 1736 and transplanted himself from Surat to Mumbai. Famously, Francis Scott Key was on a ship built by the Wadias, the H.M.S. Minden, when he wrote Star Spangled Banner, a song which would go on to become the national anthem of the US. The building is named for Neville Ness Wadia, who was a child at the time of its construction, and would later take over the Wadia businesses. Note the Renaissance revival style of architecture, made of glowing Malad stone, in harmony with a large part of this district. I find the trees quite as important as the houses in this area.

You can tell that the Neville House stands at the edge of the plot reclaimed by the Port Trust by a simple comparison of the architecture across the street. Right opposite Neville House, at the corner of Adi Murzban Path and R. Kamani Road stands this grand old Gothic revival structure, Kamani Chambers. Made of rusticated blocks of Byculla granite, the turrets, pointed arches, and decorative ironwork (see the featured photo) in this building mark it out as one of the extreme outposts of the old Fort business district.

Walking past Neville House, on J.N.Heredia Road I came across these paired buildings standing across from each other. Built of yellow Malad stone in harmony with the architectural styles of the buildings around it, one was called Dubash House. Decorative ironwork doors were being fitted into its archways. I began to wonder how much of the frontage and detailing of these buildings had been reworked in the last century.

This photo shows one of the windows of Dubash House. The carved stone frieze is a neoclassical detail, and could well belong to the Renaissance revival style that the structure adopts. The style of the window also does not set the building apart from its neighbours. So my guess is that many of the details are original. The ground floor doors may be the first new detail to be added.

At the corner of J.N.Heredia Road and S.S.Ram Gulam Marg was another building which caught my eye. It was slightly out of stylistic sync with other buildings around it, with its upper floor terraces and balconies with cast iron railings. Right at the top, just below the roof, the walls were faced with interesting glazed tiles. I walked around it to see an interesting door. This seemed fairly in harmony with the ironwork just above it, so perhaps it is a century old.

At the northern end of S.S.Ram Gulam Marg is the heritage structure called the Grand Hotel. The rules of inscription on the list means that the facade now looks as it did when it was inaugurated. The dark Byculla granite can be stodgy and dull, but the white trimmings and blue dome make it look quite cheerful. The placement of the windows below the dome makes it look like there should be a spiral stairway there. I should go in and take a look some time. With workers busy doing up the place, I guess there are expectations of a return to normalcy.

I walked around to the block behind the hotel. Scindia House takes up the whole block. This rival to British India Shipping constructed its headquarters in a style that seems like early Art Deco. The clean verticals, the chevrons, the stylized architecture, all indicate a construction in the Art Deco style. It must have seemed like a storm of modernity when the rest of the area was still stodging along with George Wittet recycling Renaissance architecture.

Walking on, I hit S.S.Ram Gulam Marg again, and saw Hague House in front of me. Another Renaissance revival structure, the tree in front of it had long ago been strangled to death by the ropy lines of the strangler fig. I couldn’t remember for a moment what was interesting about the history of this building. Then the inscription across the top reminded me. Paris-Bombay. This was the headquarters of Pathe Films in Asia just after World War I. Pathe’s cockerel has now been appropriated by the eatery down the road, Brittania And Company, whose menu cards sport what they call Robin the Rooster. I wonder whether it started as a gesture to attract employees of Pathe for lunch. I stopped at their take away counter to buy a couple of caramel custards.

New Customs House

I was back at the buildings that anchor this area. The New Customs House was designed and built by George Wittet, in 1918 the Consulting Architect for Bombay. This was a decidedly Renaissance revival structure: the symmetry of the frontage, the square plan, windows with Roman arches grouped within Roman arches, an abundance of columns, the ground floor distinguished visually from the upper floors. I could spot a little bit of Vandal revival in the New New Customs Tower Block tucked away behind it.

I could now walk on to the Mackinnon Machenzie building at one end of the road, or the Port Trust Building at the other. I decided to stay and take a photo of the Ballard Bunder gate. A maritime museum inside it was closed, either lunch, or because it was a weekend. It is quite amazing to think that a century ago you could get off a ship from England here, and immediately board the Frontier Mail and go off to Peshawar and the Afghan Frontier. In the circle in front of it is the column of the Port Trust War Memorial, which commemorates those fallen in World War I. The building next to it, now called Darabshaw House currently has the offices of Conde Nast publishers. Historically it was the Ajam Building, and housed Regent Hotel, a rival of Grand Hotel at the other end of the avenue. Then a short walk to look at Hamilton Studio, and I was ready to go home.

Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

The last picture show

When I finally liberated myself from film, fifteen years ago, I started carrying my new digital camera in my pocket everywhere, having told myself that I would continuously take photos of everyday life. The two years when I did this gave me a bunch of photos which are very interesting to look back at. The pandemic seems to be another blow to movie halls. In the late 1980s the easy availability of video killed off a whole bunch of movie halls. Some came back this century as multiplexes. Now the post-pandemic streaming services are another blow. I wonder when, if, movie halls will make a come back now.

The intimacy of movie halls makes them ideal sites for superspreading. That’s something we always knew; remember the times when it seemed like everyone in the hall was coughing? The post movie crush in the lobby and roads outside are another place where distancing is impossible. What will masking, distancing, evolve into five years from now? I don’t think five years will be sufficient for vaccines to reach everyone in the world, not if the rich nations (the US, EU, Canada) continue to oppose a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rights on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

A door to the world

Walking about South Mumbai on Sunday, I came to a taxi rank. These are slow days for taxis, and Sundays must be even slower. One of the drivers had left his taxi to lie down in the closed doorway of the Bank of Baroda. He looked quite relaxed as he read something on his mobile. Sitting in a car seat for hours must be quite tiring, and he looked content to be where he was.

While framing the man, I realized that the building whose steps he was lying on was rather well known. This is the Lakshmi Insurance building, which was constructed in 1938 for a company of that name. The company was owned by Lala Lajpatrai (a famous freedom fighter), Motilal Nehru (the father of India’s first prime minister) and Pandit Shantaram (a famous actor and film producer). It is an iconic Mumbai Art Deco structure, designed by the Bombay architectural firm of Master, Sathe, and Butha, with an 18 foot bronze statue of Lakshmi on top of what once was a clock tower. I decided to include the Art Deco gate into the photo.

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

Treaty Port Hankou

When I walk down the streets of China an old song comes to my mind “And you of tender years, can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.” During the time that the Taiping revolution had weakened the Qing dynasty, European powers forced China to open up the heartland of the Yangtze to foreign powers. One result was the establishment of treaty ports, like the one whose remnants I walked through in the Hankou district of Wuhan. The customs house, which you see in the featured photo, is now the backdrop for wedding shoots.

I crossed Yanjiang Avenue through the zebra on which you can see the couple and walked along it to take photos of a few of the old buildings here. Construction of the neoclassical HSBC building started in 1914, and as held up for many years because of the First World War before it was completed in 1920. The most recent renovation was in 1999. I was quite impressed by the ten two-storey tall Ionic columns of the facade. Another striking neoclassical structure on the road is the old Citibank building. I couldn’t find much information about it. Neoclassical was mixed in with neo-Georgian here, as you can see in the third photo above. I have no information at all about this building.

I walked back to the pedestrian area which starts from the customs house and noticed a lovely old Art Deco building. There was no information about it. A few local photographers were standing around taking photos of various buildings here. This is clear evidence that an awareness of the architectural heritage of this part of the city is growing. I discover interesting things which I hadn’t noticed earlier each time I walk in this area. I will be back again for another walk, I promised myself as I took a metro from the Jianghan Road station.

Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.

The Baron of Bombay in Shanghai

Charmed by Guangzhou, we landed again in Shanghai. In some ways this remains our favourite Chinese city. We’d taken a hotel on Nanjing Road for the night since The Family wanted to stroll again on the Bund. Unknown to most Chinese, Shanghai bears a close connection with India, especially in the 70 years between the American Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. This was a time when Indian merchants traded extensively with India. The word bund, is of course, a Hindi word meaning a flood control wall. That’s exactly what Shanghai’s Bund was built to be. Another connection is with Mumbai, through Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, who in the 1920s and 30s invested several millions of US dollars (of that time) in Shanghai, created a real estate boom, and is said to have owned 1800 separate properties in downtown Shanghai. The Baronet was different from other traders. His family had sunk money into the development of Bombay in previous generations. Now he put his wealth to work at the development of Shanghai.

The most famous of his properties is the one originally called the Cathay Hotel, and now the Fairmont Peace Hotel (featured photo). Sometimes called the Sassoon House, this first high rise structure in Shanghai was completed in 1929. The Art Deco building has a granite face, and a pyramidal roof on the Bund-facing side. The hotel’s guests included Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward (who wrote his play Private Lives while he was here). During the Cultural Revolution the Gang of Four stayed here. When I told The Family about its once-famous Jazz Bar, she wondered whether we should go in for a drink. As we discussed this, she turned and found that we were standing in front of an obviously Art Nouveau structure. This is the southern half of the Peace Hotel, and was called the Palace hotel when it was completed in 1908.

We pushed through the revolving doors into the lobby and took a few photos as a bemused guard looked on. This hotel once had Sun Yat Sen as a guest, and was later commandeered by the occupying Japanese Army. I wondered whether the elevators here run in their original channels. This building, after all, had the first elevators in Shanghai. The mechanism would have been replaced long back, but it is unlikely that the lift shaft would have been reconstructed. We gawped, and then slipped away to the Bund.

Fairlawn: part Deco

The elegant facade of Fairlawn is fairly well-maintained by the standards of the Backbay Art Deco district. There are buildings which are better maintained, and those which are much worse. But the thing that caught my eye last week was the totally inappropriate retouching of a second floor flat. As you can see in the featured photo, the windows and the balcony have been replaced by ones which clash with everything else.

All other details are wonderful Streamline Art Deco. As you can see in the photo of the balconies above, the clean lines are duplicated in the uniform unadorned rectangles on all the frontages on the road. The Art Deco banding at the bottom of the balconies is a lovely touch. The facade is a little plainer than the other buildings in this row. I couldn’t find who the architects were, but the building was clearly built in the mid to late 1930s, as the others.

I took a closer look at the windows. The plain rectangle was decorated with beautiful wrought iron grilles. The spiral pattern is repeated in other windows that I could see, and also in the ironwork grille atop the low boundary wall (see the photo below). The boundary walls along this row are an uniform height, but the individual buildings are distinguished by the different patterns of railings. What a wide variety of forms the Art Deco style allows!

A stairwell runs up from the central lobby. The semi-circular portico at the entrance to the lobby is also repeated in several of the buildings along this row. Behind it I found that the lobby is more plain than in some of Fairlawn’s neighbours: no stone or coloured cement. The grille atop the entrance has a different pattern than the railings, which made me think that it may have been installed later.

As you can see in the photo above, the change in the balcony in the first floor flat jars with the understated elegance of the building. The dark wood certainly is not in harmony with the white painted wood of the remaining flats, and the rest of the buildings along the row. I guess there is no effective way of ensuring a stylistic unity against the wishes of individual owners.

Court View, Mumbai

The elegantly curved first-floor balcony with an eye-catching stucco decoration on it (see the featured photo) always catches my eye when I’m hurrying past the Oval Maidan. I stopped to take photographs a week ago. This is the Court View house, appropriately named since it faces the Gothic-revival facade of the High Court across the open space.

The Art Deco style is clear not only from the elegant shape of the balcony, but also the styling of the facade. The wonderful verticals enclosing the central stairwell are typical of the style as practiced by the three firms which collaborated on this building: Gajanan Mhatre, Maneckji Dalal and Merwanji, Bana and Co. The building probably dates from the mid to late 1930s, when this space was reclaimed from the sea.

The curves of the balconies are repeated in the ironwork of the gate (photo above) and the railing around (photo below) the property. The boundary wall was less interesting than in some of the neighbouring buildings. As you can see from the photos here, the wall and the gate posts are plain, rectangular and unornamented. Since they do not agree with the colour scheme of the building, I wonder whether they were reconstructed later.

The entrance and the lobby are much more spectacular than the facade. The intricate geometric design around the door is typically Style Moderne. Stone and “colourcrete” are mixed in this. Coloured cement was very much a “modern” element of that time, and the architects used it liberally in this building. You see only a little bit of it near the dozing guard in the lobby.

I didn’t walk into the building, so I didn’t get a first-hand view of the stairwell. An article in Livemint contains a wonderful photo down the stairwell. The architects seem to have gone bonkers with their coloured cement inside, in a very pleasant way.

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