Deco Dekho – Bombay Deco and its Elements

Art Deco arrived in Bombay in the 1930’s, at a time when the movement was gaining international popularity, especially as an Architectural style. The 1930’s also marked an unprecedented building boom in the city brought about by a high demand for housing. Buildings across neighbourhoods were built in the popular Art Deco style, making Bombay host to one of the largest collections of Deco buildings in the world. While apartment buildings form a majority of the city’s Deco, the style also found expression in cinema theatres, bungalows, schools, hospitals, clubs, hotels and commercial buildings. Many of these buildings survive today, hiding in plain sight among modern high-rises that now dominate the urban landscape.

The Art Deco style is expressed through various characteristics – through building form, its elements, and ornamental features. In addition to internationally identifiable Deco characteristics, Bombay’s Art Deco draws heavily from the city’s identity as a tropical port city, with nautical and tropical imagery often incorporated in architectural elements and ornamentation. Climate responsive elements like balconies, eyebrows and grilles are also quintessential to Bombay’s Deco aesthetic. 

Here is a primer to help you identify Art Deco in the city based on Form, Elements and Features.

FORM

1.1 - Stepped Profile / Ziggurat

Ziggurats are stepped pyramids with receding storeys, similar to a tiered cake and were originally built in ancient Mesopotamia. Influence of this stepped form of ziggurats is visible in the massing and/or facade profile of buildings. It can also be noticed on ornamentation details such as bas reliefs, wall cladding and grillework.

Stepped massing - Eros Cinema, Oval Maidan
Stepped facade profile - New India Assurance building, Fort

1.2 - Streamlining 

Elongated forms, curved contours and stripes known as “speed lines” on symmetrical building facades reflect the Deco era’s infatuation with speed. These were inspired by aerodynamic innovations in locomotive design, especially that of aeroplanes, automobiles and ocean liners. 

Streamlined facade of Lalchand Mansion, Colaba
Streamlined street corner facade - Soona Mahal, Marine Drive

ELEMENTS

2.1 - Balconies

Balconies are semi-open spaces in apartments where one can enjoy cool breeze & city views over a cup of tea. They may be projecting or recessed from the facade of the building and appear in a variety of shapes and forms, curvilinear, rectilinear or mimicking the design of streamlined locomotives.  They are often designed with metal or concrete grilles or ship-deck style railings.

Recessed balcony with metal grille and handrail in wood - Ravindra Mansion, Churchgate
Locomotive balconies with wooden ship-deck railings - Commonwealth, Churchgate
Curvilinear projecting balcony - Sanghrajka house, Matunga

2.2 Eyebrows 

Eyebrows are cantilevered projections above windows and balconies that act as weather shades. These projections, colloquially known as ‘chajjas,’ vary in shape and may be rectilinear, curved, or angular, or may be continuous eyebrows that extend continuously along the building line, emphasising horizontality in the building’s design. They are often painted in a dark contrasting colour along their edges.

Shiv Shanti Bhuvan, Oval Maidan
Silver Foil, Cumbala Hill

2.3 Compound walls 

A compound wall demarcates a building’s property line. Typically, they are low-height walls with metal or concrete grilles, a quality that allows light and air to ground floor apartments.

Compound wall with metal grille - Divadkar building, Matunga
Compound wall with concrete styling - Sonawala building, Marine Drive
Compound wall with concrete grilles - Juvekar House, Chembur

2.4 Grilles

Ornate grillework with geometric or tropical inspired designs is often visible on balconies, windows, stairwells, gates & outdoor lamps, typically made of metal, concrete or wood.

Window with metal grille - Anil Kunj, Matunga
Porch with concrete grille - Jagdish, Matunga

2.5 Architectural Lettering

Building nameplates are expressed in a riot of artistic fonts embodying the streamlined, flamboyant and geometric characteristics evident in Art Deco buildings. They are often seen on flooring or facades around the entrance of buildings. They are commonly made of stucco, wood, metal or stone.

Building name in Devanagari lettering - Nalini Kunj, Matunga
Bold, geometric lettering on the facade of Ferreira Mansion, Mahim

FEATURES

3.1 - Symbolic Features

Features like porthole windows, frozen fountains, sunburst rays, sea waves and tropical trees can easily be noticed as symbolic decorations on Art Deco buildings. These ornate details draw inspiration from nature in the tropics and Mumbai’s identity as a port city to add a local flavour and identity.

3.1.a) Nautical features: Luxurious ocean liners of the Deco era inspired the architectural design of buildings, complementing Bombay’s identity as a port city. Features such as porthole windows, ship deck railings and observatory towers are common nautical features that can be spotted.

Porthole window - Sonawala building, Marine Drive
Observatory turret - Suleman Chambers, Colaba

3.1.b) Tropical imagery: Drawing inspiration from Bombay’s tropical vegetation and proximity to the sea, tropical imagery is commonly found in the facade ornamentation of Deco buildings in the city. Stylised imagery of sea waves, sunburst rays, clouds, the moon, tropical flora and fauna appear in bas reliefs, grilles, railings and glass panels.

Sunburst rays in plaster relief crown the entrance at Prakash, Dadar
Imagery of birds, clouds, waves and steamship chimneys - Haroon House, Fort

3.1.c) Frozen Fountain: The frozen fountain, a historical symbol of eternal life, was re-popularized in the early 20th century by the French glass designer René Lalique. The motif is prevalent as a decorative feature in building facades, metal grilles, concrete grilles and glass panels.

Frozen fountain on the facade of Court View, Oval Maidan
Symmetrical concrete grilles at Belvedere Court, Oval Maidan
Frozen fountain glass panels within cedar wood doors at Liberty Cinema, Marine Lines

3.2 - Geometric Patterns

Impressions in the form of bands, chevrons, stripes, zig-zags, square and oblong shapes transform these simply constructed buildings into flamboyant edifices. These bands and patterns, mostly painted in contrasting colours transform buildings into works of art.

3.2.a) Bands/Banding: Building facades display horizontal or vertical bands painted in contrasting colours, accentuating height or horizontality. Bands may be incised into the facade or have moulded geometric frieze patterns.

Vertical blue bands - Fairlawn, Oval Maidan
Horizontal red bands define the edges of balconies - Nalini Kunj, Matunga

3.2.b) Chevrons: The repetitive V-shaped pattern often makes an appearance as ornamentation on the facades of Deco buildings, or in metal grille designs, emphasizing directionality. The pictures below show you how the pattern has been used in interiors and exteriors in wood, stone, and concrete tiling.

Inverted chevron on wooden post of a staircase - Govind Kunj, Matunga
Chevrons set in stone relief work - PNB House, Fort
Window mullions form a chevron pattern - Shera Villa, Dadar
Yellow and grey terrazzo tiles set in chevron pattern on floor - Yusuf Chambers, Byculla

3.2.c) Zigzags: Zigzags are patterns of jagged lines and appear as decorative motifs on building facades, in the form of bas reliefs and deco banding.

Bottle green and blue zigzag on the facade of Rajjab Mahal, Oval maidan
Zigzag patterned relief work - Rawji Sojpal building, Dadar West

3.3 Figurative Ornaments

Relief work depicting emotions and occupations such as tragedy, comedy, farmers, labourers, and filmmakers are visible on numerous Art Deco buildings open to the public. These carved decorations use stone or plaster and are angular in design. They reflect cultural practices of the region.

Copper statue of Goddess Lakshmi atop Lakshmi Insurance Building, Fort
Native activity set in relief work - Cotton Exchange Building, Kalbadevi
Depiction of film-making in bas-relief plasterwork - Eros Cinema interior, Oval Maidan; Photo credit: Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Bombay Deco: Page 68-69

(Originally published in June 2017. Revised May 2020)

References
All photographs are by Art Deco Mumbai Trust except where attributed otherwise.
Research / Mumbai`s Art Deco / Architecture