Around the 1920s in Western Europe, a modern, quirky new style of architecture was gaining ground fast. It spread to America by the 1930s. This was Art Deco and Miami saw a cluster of buildings designed under this style after the devastating 1926 hurricane. It was around the same time that India moved out of the Victorian Gothic style and embraced this hip new movement that was making a clean sweep around Europe and America.
What’s art deco?
Art Deco is characterised by modernity — simple, clean shapes and a very streamlined look. The patterns are symmetrical and the colours are vibrant. Decorative panels have geometric ornamentation and they are usually found on the entrances or around windows and balconies. There are nautical elements, too, that manifest themselves in porthole windows, railings reminiscent of ship decks and observatory towers. Mirrors and metallic finishes are prominent features, too. The style back then was called ‘Style Moderne’ and was influenced by new technology and the availability of new materials
such as reinforced concrete cement, plaster and tiles.
In Mumbai, too, the influence of Art Deco took over after the elaborate Victorian Gothic had left its indelible mark on the city. In Mumbai, Art Deco structures are largely restricted to five storeys, in line with the legal stipulation for residential buildings then. Most of these buildings, 17 out of the 76 included in the precinct, overlook the city’s Oval Maidan, right from Court View to Rajjab Mahal to Empress Court. The others form the collective cluster of the first row of buildings facing Marine Drive, the buildings around the Cricket Club of India, and Regal and Eros Cinema. The architects were varied, most of them belonging to architectural firms some of the notable ones being Gregson, Batley & King and Bhedwar & Sorabji. Here are Mumbai’s notable Art Deco buildings:
Walking along Marine Drive, you cannot miss Soona Mahal. It takes a place of pride in Mumbai’s Art Deco precinct since it stands at the rounded corner along the junction of the main road facing Marine Drive and the connecting road leading to Churchgate Station. Soona Mahal sports recessed curved balconies on the front façade and recessed rectangular balconies on the rear. These balconies have bandings painted in rust and art deco motifs embossed on them. The structure was built in 1937 by Kawasji Fakirji Sidhwa who ran a flourishing liquor business back then. While most of the Art Deco buildings in the Oval area sport British names, Belvedere Court, Windsor House, Court View, Sidhwa named his building after the lady of the house — Soona bai Kawasji Sidhwa. It later housed the iconic Jazz By The Bay that was the hotbed of jazz performances and jam sessions, which transformed further into Not Just Jazz By The Bay.
Designed by Charles Stevens, the son of renowned city architect F W Stevens, Regal Cinema is an imposing Art Deco structure. Charles used reinforced concrete cement back then, spearheading the Art Deco building style in the city. Cubism influences are also evident in the interiors of this cinema as seen by the works of Czechoslovakian Cubism artist Karl Schara. Regal, by night, is also quite a beauty to behold; it was especially so in the 1930s when it was opened to the public. Neon lights would accentuate its clean Art Deco lines making its exterior stand out. Back in the 30s when Parsi entrepreneur Framji Sidhwa bought the site and commissioned the Stevens to build a cinema, he is believed to have specifically told him to build the best cinema East of Suez. The 1200-seater with a 65-feet-long balcony, an underground parking and the country’s first-ever air-conditioning system was grand, to say the least.
The second-most important Art Deco cinema of the city, Eros Cinema was designed by Bhedwar & Sorabji, the city’s best architects at that time. Eros lies diagonally opposite to the Western Railway Churchgate Terminus. The V-shaped Art Deco structure is defined by features such as horizontal bands decoratively painted, window sills and even sun screens. Eros actually is made up of two wings that meet and round up at the main entrance.
The structure is partially done up in red Agra stone while the mouldings are highlighted in the same shade of red. The rest of the building is cream in colour. This visual drama, very Art Deco in style, gives the building an illusion of being taller than it actually is. The stepped octagonal tower further enhances the beauty of Eros. Shiavax Cambata, who owned the building, was highly influenced by the cinemas he had seen in London, and wanted Eros to be a replica of those. When it was built, it had not just a movie hall but also a restaurant, shops, offices, and even a ballroom.