Art Deco Mumbai’s documentation initiative catalogues Art Deco buildings spread across the city’s neighbourhoods. Here’s an insight into the process.
As of 18 November 2022:
With the objective of creating the first and only archive of Mumbai’s modern living heritage, Art Deco Mumbai (ADM) has been identifying and mapping Art Deco structures across the city, since its inception in May 2016. This is a staggering volume of work, made possible through ADM’s systematic documentation initiative.
This initiative draws from the organisation’s deep-rooted conviction that documentation is an important and essential first step towards conservation. Without a physical assessment of the built form, one has little information to draw further inferences from. Through this initiative, ADM has been able to bring unprotected and underappreciated buildings into focus, and in turn, has empowered its stakeholders to make informed decisions related to their built heritage.
To execute this programme, ADM has had the opportunity to work with numerous individuals – professionals and students alike – from diverse backgrounds such as architecture, conservation, design, history, and visual communication. While working with the organisation, they have contributed to ADM’s efforts to bring Art Deco buildings into the mainstream dialogue on Mumbai’s heritage. These campaigns have been carried out across socio-culturally diverse neighbourhoods in the city, bringing to light the varied expression of Deco present within Mumbai, especially in terms of aesthetics and use of materials.
Apart from creating an archive of the city’s modern heritage, this initiative has also unravelled interesting and significant threads of urban histories, spatiality and typologies. For instance, it has helped establish that the geographical spread of Art Deco is not limited to one area in the city, challenging the notion that one has to visit South Mumbai to appreciate the city’s modern architecture.
The initiative has also helped discover various building typologies within the Art Deco landscape, including schools and churches, and the colour palette that one may commonly see in various Deco buildings. This rich material has provided a strong foundation for pursuing wide-ranging, one-of-a-kind research interests that often go beyond architecture as a field of study.
A comprehensive inventory of the number of Art Deco buildings in Mumbai has also lent legitimacy to the city’s position in the global Deco map. After Miami, Mumbai has the second-largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, and it is through such documentation processes that this information can be brought to the public domain.
The process for these campaigns involves detailed surveys of neighbourhoods, with systematic photo documentation of every building within a defined neighbourhood. The following sections provide a step-by-step brief of these campaigns. Each campaign can be divided into two main elements, one involving fieldwork, and the other involving processing and cataloguing of the material acquired from the field:
In The Field
There are several things one must cover in the field to ensure an accurate and detailed analysis. The following steps form the core of the campaign’s fieldwork:
Step 1: Recce
The documentation begins with a recce of the neighbourhood, to assess the potential of discovering Art Deco buildings in the area, and their density. The thrust of this exercise is not simply from the point of view of locating Art Deco built forms, but also to understand the formations of communities and the sociocultural context in which these neighbourhoods have emerged. The recce, therefore, helps analyse the urban form, landmarks, history and cultural identity associated with a given neighbourhood. They are established with the help of long-time residents of the area, who have an intimate familiarity with these characteristics. Their oral histories become crucial to the understanding of the neighbourhood.
Step 2: Create a Base Map with a Zone Boundary
After the recce, a zone boundary is mapped out for photo documentation, as pictured below for a neighbourhood in Matunga. The zone boundary delineates the outer limit within which all the buildings to be photo-documented are located. This is the base map on which several layers of information are added as the campaign progresses, eventually creating a detailed map for each zone.
Step 3: Dividing the Zone into Blocks
The volume of work in each zone can be quite large. A map of a single zone in Matunga, as pictured above, has as many as 273 buildings! To streamline the process further, each zone is broken up into blocks, with the neighbourhood’s streets separating individual blocks. Each block is assigned a name, and every building within the block is numbered. This helps identify each building with a unique reference number. The block map is essential for ensuring the field survey is carried out in an orderly, sequenced and verifiable manner. As shown below, at the end of the campaign, a more detailed block map is created, with the Art Deco buildings marked and identified in a different colour.
Step 4: Photo Documentation
A survey form is created before the process of photo documentation begins. This is a checklist that comprises commonly identifiable Deco elements, to ensure consistency and standardisation. Any of the listed Deco elements, if spotted, are captured in the photographs. This is an essential step for maintaining the integrity of the process, and also makes it more systematic. For example, in the images below, the survey form has helped ensure that no unique Deco element is missed out while in the field, be it minute details in the grille design or the lettering used for the building name.
Back on the Desk
Once work on the field has been completed, the second, equally important aspect of the campaign is to assess the work done and catalogue it. This is not only important for ADM, but also for making this material intelligible for the larger public.
Step 5: Processing of Photographs
Just a single neighbourhood can generate upwards of 1500 photographs, which are then organised into their respective folders and catalogued with care. The process of sorting the photographs involves reviewing them, segregating the usable ones from the rejections, then curating the final images.
The photographs are organised into folders according to their unique reference number. ADM has spent time on designing a naming convention, which is the standard followed for all documentation campaigns. This standardisation ensures all documentation is based on a common convention, no matter who is conducting it or when it is being carried out. The naming convention has been designed to capture the reference number and the name of the building, the format for which is: ZONE NUMBER_BLOCK NAME_BUILDING NUMBER_BUILDING NAME. For example, a building called ‘Noor Mahal’ in Matunga’s Zone Number ‘3A’ and under Block Name ‘MC’, can easily be identified as 3A_MC_05_NOOR MAHAL.
While naming the images correctly is one facet of cataloguing, it must be done alongside accurate metadata entries. This is a necessary step that allows photographs to be located based on keyword searches. They can also be filtered by elements, features, location, etc. The tags in the metadata of each image captures information like the building’s name, the neighbourhood, various Deco features, and elements seen in the photograph. Besides the keywords, the metadata also includes the name of the photographer, the date the image was taken, and the GPS coordinates of the building.
Step 6: Creating Documentation Panels
Following the field survey, documentation panels are created for every Art Deco building identified in the zone. The panel captures important details about the building, including its year of construction, architect, use, address, GPS coordinates, and how it resides in the zone, through a ‘Key Plan’ and ‘Location Plan’. It also includes a brief architectural description to holistically define the building’s identity. Each panel showcases a set of images highlighting the building’s prominent features. It is reviewed by an architect and independently approved by a senior architect. The panel below was created for the Aurora Theatre in Matunga.
This rigorous process of recceing, mapping, photography, and finally creating panels ensures comprehensive coverage of each zone. It also provides a visual reference of the buildings that are not Art Deco.
The approach is long drawn out, and there can be several challenges along the way, Mumbai’s weather being one of the many. One also has to build a relationship with and rely on the cooperation of residents to access their buildings, which demands time, persistence, people skills, and often a little bit of humour. In some neighbourhoods, residents may be excited by people taking an interest in their building, and may even volunteer information themselves. There have, however, also been the odd instances of residents being protective of their buildings, suspecting anyone trying to photograph it. Another challenge is the orientation of each building vis a vis the sun, which dictates the time of day in which they can be best photographed. These are all factors one must consider not only before stepping out into the field, but also as they navigate through the process.
This documentation is important for Art Deco Mumbai’s research interests, but it also becomes a constructive way to provide residents with an online public domain repository, where they can appreciate an architectural style that emerged in their city nearly a century ago. It preserves a record of the city’s architectural heritage. Most importantly, it is an archive that belongs first to the people of the city.
Although ADM has covered many neighbourhoods, the organisation is nowhere close to being done. The hope is to continue this exploration in the coming years, and discover many more architectural jewels that are spread throughout the city, hidden in plain sight.
Originally published on May 12, 2019. Updated on December 10, 2021.