Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 13, Jun. 22 - Jul. 5, 2002
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Mumbai, past in present

The Mumbai Heritage Committee fights to retain the city's distinctive historical, aesthetic and architectural identity.

in Mumbai

MUMBAI'S arc-hitectural heritage is unrivalled in India. The city has one of the largest representations of the grand neo-Gothic style of architecture and also numerous ones of Indo-Saracenic architecture, a unique style developed by the British. The city also boasts of the second largest number of Art Deco buildings, the largest number being in Miami in the United States.

Buckley Court used to be a beautiful example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. In an attempt to save it, the facade of the old structure was retained and the new structure built behind it. The result has been described as 'ugly beautification'.

However, steadily increasing requirements for commercial and residential space are threatening Mumbai's distinctive historical, aesthetic and architectural identity.

To preserve Mumbai's architectural treasures, a Heritage Committee was constituted and Heritage Regulations were formalised in 1995, thanks to the persistent efforts of historians, architects and concerned citizens. Mumbai was India's first city to notify and regularise heritage regulations. The regulations give the designated structures legislative protection and the Heritage Committee the legal sanction to formulate special area regulations and by-laws to assist in the conservation of the city's heritage.

The results have been steady and encouraging. Two cases typify the 'before' and 'after' stages of heritage legislation. Prior to the legislation there were some notable monstrosities that grew out of the city's desperate need for more built space. Bucklay Court, formerly known as Hotel Bucklay Court, used to be a beautiful example of the Indo-Saracenic style. The building could not be preserved totally because work on it had begun before the Heritage Regulations were notified. However, a compromise was struck and it was decided that the original facade would be maintained and the new structure built behind it. The outcome was what city historian and author Sharada Dwivedi succinctly describes as "ugly beautification". Positive change is exemplified by the Heritage Mile, along Dadabhai Naoroji Road. The grandeur of buildings along this road in the city's business district is marred by a rash of hoardings. Under the Heritage Regulations some businesses have been persuaded to erect hoardings in such a way that they do not disturb the facades of these buildings.

A heritage grading system lists the structures. Buildings and precincts of national importance that embody excellence in architectural style fall under Heritage Grade I. These buildings are usually landmarks.

The Heritage Mile, Dadabhai Naoroji Road, thick with buildings that date back to the 18th century. Commercial buildings are now beginning to conform to the Heritage line and are modifying the positioning of hoardings so that facades are not disturbed.

Grade II is divided into sections A and B. This grade includes buildings that have regional or local importance though they are lower in scale of importance than buildings classified under Grade I. Grade III comprises buildings and precincts considered to be of importance to the townscape. Though they are lesser in importance than Grade II buildings, they nonetheless evoke architectural and sociological interest. They are seen as determinants of the character of a locality.

THE fixing of each grade is guided by certain objectives. According to the Heritage grading system, a Grade I structure "richly deserves careful preservation", a Grade II structure "deserves intelligent conservation" and a Grade III structure "deserves protection of its unique features and attributes".

The Regulations also prescribe the scope for any change. Nothing can be done to alter the exteriors or interiors of Grade I buildings unless it is in the interest of the building and even then any change made should be minimal and in tune with the original. In Grade IIA buildings, internal changes for adaptive re-use are generally permitted but external changes are subject to scrutiny. Grade IIB gets a little more leeway. Construction of additional buildings in the compound of a Grade II B building is permissible provided that they do not disturb the harmony of the Heritage structure. For a Grade III structure, external and internal changes are allowed provided these do not detract from the existing heritage building. Reconstruction is permitted if the building is structurally unsafe or is affected by a calamity. Reconstruction is permissible also if there is unutilised potential under Floor Space Index (FSI) norms and the only way to utilise this is by means of reconstruction.

Unfortunately, because Mumbai is an island city, conservation concerns are not a priority when it comes to making a choice between preservation and creation of residential or commercial space. Conservation efforts are often outweighed by compulsions to resort to demolition, repairs and reconstruction, and this situation has led to a large number of buildings losing their original character. Incentive FSIs, tenantable repairs, and plans to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) regulations are factors that threaten the city's architectural identity.

Much damage to the city's heritage buildings was done during Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party rule in Maharashtra (1995-99). The coalition government not only indulged its penchant for renaming roads and historical buildings but also permitted owners of Grade III cessed buildings (pre-1940 tenanted buildings) to demolish their structures and build new ones with an FSI value of 4 or 5, which Sharada Dwivedi says is "as good as unlimited". The consequences have been disastrous.

Cessed buildings are integral to Mumbai's architecture - almost 80 per cent of the city's buildings fall in this category though not all of them have been listed by the Heritage Committee. The non-listed buildings are the most vulnerable. Located in prime areas, they will, almost inevitably, be demolished gradually to make way for skyscrapers.

One of the incentives that is being offered to owners of heritage structures is transfer of development rights (TDR). This involves a change of user status in which owners of residential structures are granted permission to use them as commercial space. The incentive is expected to prove a success since the needs of the landlord as well as those of conservation are fulfilled.

Another incentive that is being offered to owners of heritage buildings is the Heritage TDR. Under this, builders who cannot utilise the entire FSI potential because of Heritage Regulations are given the option to use the shortfall elsewhere. However, not many owners have opted for this because of the CRZ regulations. Many of the properties are in south Mumbai, which constitutes a strip of land so narrow that in some places the eastern and western shorelines are less than 800 metres apart.

Under the CRZ regulations, construction within 500 metres of the high tide line is banned. This leaves a very narrow strip for any construction activity. The proposed amendment of the CRZ regulations would be a bonus for the real estate business but would mean a setback for conservation efforts.

Art Deco, an architectural style that originated in the 1930s, has been unappreciated and undervalued as heritage. Mumbai's Art Deco buildings have suffered great losses in the course of repair work. The effect of the vertical lines of this building was effaced by the addition of two floors.

The implications of any amendment to the CRZ regulations are worrisome for southern Mumbai. No doubt the amendment will benefit the cessed buildings (both listed and unlisted ones) that currently have a cap on their FSI. These buildings have fallen into disrepair because of the effects of the Rent Control Act as neither the landlords nor the tenants are inclined to maintain them. The new CRZ regulations will permit higher FSI utilisation. There are close to 18,000 cessed properties in Mumbai, of which about 35 per cent will benefit from the amended CRZ regulations. Non-CRZ cessed structures already have this benefit because the Shiv Sena-BJP government bypassed Heritage Regulations and allowed them a higher FSI. Architects and town planners say that the city's civic infrastructure is incapable of handling a development onslaught of this magnitude.

Apart from Heritage buildings, the Heritage Committee safeguards Heritage precincts, which are usually small village complexes within the city. Two of Mumbai's best-known ones are Khotachi Wadi and Mahatar Pakadi. Both face the pressures of change. Fortunately, the formation of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region's Heritage Conservation Society has given these heritage precincts a new lease of life. Its secretary G.S. Pantbalekundri was involved in the framing of the Heritage Regulations. The society primarily concerns itself with studying Heritage precincts, prescribing pro-formas for preservation and adding buildings to the Heritage List. It gives grants for reconstruction and area improvement.

Special development control regulations are being formulated. These will involve restrictions on FSI, thereby preserving to some extent the integral character of some of the precincts.

The society hopes to form and implement soon what will be a path-breaking policy under which natural scenic heritage will also be eligible for conservation.

The existence of the Heritage Regulations proves one point - concerned citizens and sensitive bureaucrats can make for affirmative action. Cooperative efforts in conservation are no longer uncommon. Brinda Gaitonde, architect and founder of Heritage Walks, an organisation that conducts guided walks, says that while the minarets and two statues of the Bombay High Court building were being restored, Public Works Department (PWD) engineers expressed interest in learning about specific methods of stone conservation.

The steeple of the St. Thomas's Cathedral, once one of the tallest structures in south Mumbai, with the Bombay Stock Exchange building and other buildings in the background.

However, a huge knowledge gap persists between masons and conservation architects. "The same masons used for civil work are used for conservation, although the skills required are quite different," said Gaitonde.

Likewise with contractors who use cement mortar instead of lime mortar while restoring old buildings. While lime mortar 'moves' with the stone and allows it to breathe, cement holds it in a vice-like grip that does not accommodate the needs of stone.

Art Deco buildings have suffered so much during repair and reconstruction efforts that Dwivedi believes that Mumbai's position as the city with the second largest concentration of Art Deco buildings is under challenge. Art Deco, a style that originated in the 1930s, is characterised by angular forms that often have a stepped-back facade. Decorative elements are commonly used. In Mumbai, these elements range from palm trees to waves to industrial signs and are expressed in stucco, bas relief, etched glass or metal work on balustrades. Not as startlingly grand as the neo-Gothic or the Indo-Saracenic style, Art Deco is undervalued and has suffered great losses during the course of repair work. The Repair Board is to a large extent responsible for the insensitive repairs and faulty reconstruction of the city's old buildings. Though the Board only has access to Grade III listed structures since these comprise about 80 per cent of the island city's buildings, its effects are visible everywhere. Gaitonde says that it is essential that the Repair Board is "educated on heritage". It is common knowledge that old buildings are often identified for repair or demolition based on the amount of teak wood that they contain. Either way everyone is believed to benefit: residents supposedly get a safer building (a highly debatable theory as many old buildings have stood for over a century, a feat that the new structures are not likely to replicate); the landlord has a new structure that invariably accommodates more people because of the increased FSI; and the contractor makes a small fortune from the teak wood. The silent and irreplaceable loss of history and architectural creativity is seen as inconsequential.

There are certain ambiguities in the Heritage Regulations. Precincts are always listed under Grade III. This is self-defeating since this grading permits almost total reconstruction. Obviously, if buildings within a precinct are restructured and rebuilt, the precinct will lose its character. Perfect examples of vanishing precincts are Khotachi Wadi and Mahatar Pakadi. It is argued that preventing the natural expansion required by the growth of families would be unfair to the landlord. While this may be a reasonable argument, there is no such parallel when changes are made in heritage areas for reasons of so-called development. A case in point is the road-widening in Bandra village. The widening plans impinge on people's homes. Narrow, winding lanes are treated as main thoroughfares, resulting in rickshaws belching smoke into living rooms. "How has this development helped residents? It is for outside users," says Gaitonde.

SOME of the grading decisions of the Committee are inexplicable. For instance, while Bandra railway station, a quaint structure, is deservedly listed as Grade I, the buildings of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the Bombay High Court, both grand structures, are not. This discrepancy stems from the need to accommodate new extensions as and when the need arises.

In some cases buildings that come under the Grade IIB category are also vulnerable and can be demolished despite their being on the list. For instance, five cantonment-style bungalows owned by the armed forces in Colaba were listed under Grade IIB. Had the Regulations been followed, the bungalows would have still existed. About a decade ago three of them were demolished to make way for high-rise residential apartments for the Navy. Likewise, a small marble fountain that was listed under the Grade IIB category further down the same road has been removed. The Heritage Committee is essentially toothless. Its recommendations can be overturned by the Municipal Commissioner.

While it does all that it can to save structures, it is bound by numerous factors. One of the most unfortunate of these is probably that the Regulations do not have the full support of the city's architects.

Conservation crusader Shyam Chainani, in an article on heritage legislation, wrote: "The architects by and large opposed the heritage list and the heritage regulations." Chainani also wryly commented on the attitude of "people who gave objections and suggestions (for the framework for the Regulations) and said that heritage was a great idea - but that their buildings should be excluded from the Heritage List." The greatest hurdle that heritage conservation faces will also inevitably change the face of historical Mumbai. It is the need for space and it is so crushing that it is only a matter of time before Grade III structures are torn down to accommodate more people. Dwivedi says that one way of arresting the destruction is to ban all further construction in the island city, but she also realises the futility of this proposition in the face of the city's powerful builders' lobby. It is hoped that if the administration is not moved by concerns of heritage conservation, it will at least respond to the fact that the existing civic infrastructure cannot handle any more structural addition.

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