Heritage streetscape

ABHA NARAIN LAMBAH

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PERHAPS the first impression most visitors to Mumbai get is not of the Gateway of India or Bollywood, but the teeming millions swarming out of Victoria Terminus Station (renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). With the vast majority of people entering this ‘city of dreams’ by train and over two million daily local commuters at this monumental Victorian neo-Gothic station alone, it is no wonder that Dadabhai Naoroji Road – linking the famous Crawford Market to Victoria Terminus and moving onto Flora Fountain in the south – forms the main commercial spine and image centre of the city. By its very existence as a dynamic commercial artery, as well as the fact that it is virtually the civic centre with the Municipal Corporation headquarters, the Times of India and various banks and public plazas located on and around it, the area plays a critical role in framing the public perception of Mumbai.

Once known as Hornby Road after William Hornby, Governor of Bombay from 1771 to 1784, the history of Dadabhai Naoroji Road can be traced back almost two hundred years, when it was a mere street running along the bastions of the old British Fort. With the demolition of the fortifications in the 1860s as part of the Governor’s efforts to improve civic sanitation, the area was laid out as a broad avenue, with large plots defining its western edge and constituting largely of handsome office buildings, with a mandatory pedestrian arcade along the façade on the ground floor. In 1869, the Flora Fountain was placed near the spot where Church Gate once stood. It was soon to become an iconic image of Bombay, with nearly every movie made in the following decades showing at least one scene framed against the backdrop of the elegant fountain.

This 19th century streetscape, a medley of Victorian neo-Gothic, Indo-Saracenic, neo-classical and Edwardian structures linked together by a continuous ground floor pedestrian arcade mandated by government regulation in 1896, remains among the early urban design statements of colonial India. With the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay 1995, the entire stretch of Dadabhai Naoroji Road was declared a heritage streetscape, with each edifice along this spine assigned the prestigious Grade II-A classification, acknowledging the significance of this road as a monumental architectural ensemble. The regulation advised ‘intelligent conservation’1 of the area, making all and any external changes to the buildings on the road ‘subject to scrutiny’2 of the Heritage Committee instituted by the city authorities.

 

 

Sadly, over the decades, its handsome colonial facades were obliterated by unregulated commercialization in the form of unsightly signboards and hoardings. A proliferation of billboards obliterated many an architectural facade and often the pedestrian was so overwhelmed by the chaotic medley of shopfronts, commercial hoardings and advertisements that he hardly noticed the fine architecture of the neo-classical buildings behind them. The loud colours and dominant images of monumental billboards formed the veritable backdrop to the famous Flora Fountain, dwarfing the central fountain itself. So, while you may have set out to admire the sculptural beauty of the Flora Fountain, images of the LG signboard or the Blitz hoarding announcing the latest film gossip was what eventually grabbed your attention.

Street furniture too was a chaotic sight, with the design of road dividers, benches and other public amenities completely out of sync with the ambience of the historic streetscape. Polished granite water fountains clashed with scalloped yellow mild steel railings, ubiquitous pink concrete benches and kiosks in all shapes and sizes.

 

 

In a pioneering effort undertaken by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority in the years following the Heritage Regulation, a trust fund was set up to institute the MMR Heritage Conservation Society. This body was mandated to provide grants and funding for documentation and research studies that would facilitate the conservation of Mumbai’s heritage. The first project commissioned by this body was a grant for a thorough documentation of the Dadabhai Naoroji streetscape and the compilation of a design handbook aimed at suggesting directive guidelines and design options for heritage sensitive street furniture and signage.

My association with Dadabhai Naoroji Road began in 1998 when I set up a team of nine architects and undergraduate students to document this phenomenal streetscape. Since the municipality had no available records of architectural elevations or drawings of these phenomenal facades, we worked for nine months to document every building on D.N. Road – mapping elevations, surveying land records and conducting door-to-door-surveys to generate data on occupants, owners, type of business and commercial establishments, existing signboards, shop fronts, hawkers and all such information that was to have an impact on the final scheme.

This was followed by an exercise of preparing urban guidelines for signage and shopfronts through the street. In order to avoid a generalised approach, each building elevation was drawn up with the exact location and number of signs existing at the time. And then an alternative proposal was made, showing the same elevation with a revised signage scheme. Care was taken to ensure that each ground floor shop was given an opportunity to exhibit its shop sign in almost the same square footage of sign area as they had earlier, simultaneously ensuring that the signs were relocated and redesigned so as not to obstruct architectural details such as cornices, keystones and pilasters, and that the architectural quality of the building was not compromised. Detailed schemes were drawn up for the installation of heritage sensitive street furniture such as cast iron benches, litter bins, information signs, bus stops and railings that would enhance the quality of this Victorian streetscape.

 

 

In November 1999, I presented a Design Handbook for a Heritage Streetscape: Guidelines for Signage and Streetfurniture for Dadabhai Naoroji Road, the first such urban conservation control handbook in India, to the MMRDA and the Municipal Corporation. With the help of this handbook, it was hoped to give the area a much needed facelift with the restoration of the heritage facades, as also identifying potential sponsors for the streetscape restoration and the provision of well-designed street furniture. Though these were subsequently approved by the Heritage Committee as well but despite all the adulation and kudos received, the government did not make any move to implement these guidelines.

Finally, in July 2000, after having made numerous presentations to various municipal commissioners (the project has seen three different commissioners), the standing committee of the city corporators, the mayor and practically the entire top brass of the Municipal Corporation, I decided to give up on the regulatory top-down approach altogether and directly enlisted the support of the local shopkeepers and residents. For six months, I visited every shop on the street, explaining to them how their signage relocation would help improve the area, at the same time giving their building a facelift.

 

 

With help from the local ward officer, Kiran Achrekar, and Mr. Pereira, the licence inspector, we sent out a circular to all the residents and shopkeepers on D.N. Road to attend a public meeting where the design scheme was presented. Close to 150 shopkeepers, bankers and representatives of other business establishments attended and finally this entire effort took on a near voluntary approach. Monthly meetings of the D.N. Road citizens were convened as the local ward office adopted a heartwarmingly proactive stance in getting people to jointly discuss the issues of signage relocation, working out time schedules, and adopting a citizen’s participatory approach in resolving this issue.

The UCO Bank at Petit Building near Flora Fountain became the first establishment to replace its old bulky signboard of over 15 feet length with neatly located signs placed within the building arches. Soon to follow were the shop owners of Nawab Building, with representatives like Mr. Ghulam enthusiastically coordinating the efforts of over 10 different shop owners in the building. Corporates such as Thomas Cook relocated their sign to reveal the building’s finely detailed keystone and cornices and McDonald finally removed its bulky sign and replaced it with three neatly lined semi-circular signs within the arch inset, paving the way for the 40-odd tenants and shop owners in the Mahindra Building to come together to jointly discuss their signage relocation scheme.

In 2001, The Times of India Group sponsored the implementation of a pilot project on heritage sensitive street furniture for the pavement stretch of 100 metres outside its building on the road, the first such heritage sensitive street furniture project in India. The same year also forged a local stakeholder’s association, The Heritage Mile Association, that was brought together as a result of these initiatives and is a registered charitable organisation with most of the street’s stakeholders (owners, occupants, tenants and shopkeepers) as members.

 

 

Today, nearly all the 30-odd buildings on the western side of the road conform to the signage scheme as do a majority of the east side buildings as well. The Heritage Mile Association is three years old, having adopted over 200 metre long pavement area with uniform cast iron railings, granite cobblestone paving, litter bins, lamp posts, information signs, area maps and heritage plaques on historic buildings installed in the approved design. It has undertaken this, along with round the clock security, cleaning drives and tree planting with funding from local shops and corporates and is on its way to the second phase, of another 200 metres, aiming to complete the entire stretch by 2005. Over endless cups of tea and a general air of bonhomie and goodwill, this group meets every Monday to take stock of the improvement effort, encouraging other stakeholders to take charge of their own areas and contribute positively in the protection and upgradation of their neighbourhoods.

 

 

I alone cannot take credit for this development. Each shopkeeper and commercial establishment that has relocated its shop sign, or contributed towards financing the street furniture improvements, is equally a shareholder. A gynecologist by training, Anahita Pundole perhaps is the real hero in this saga; she filed a PIL in 2002 with the Bombay High Court against the proliferation of hoardings in the city. The court directed the Heritage Committee to look at the feasibility of hoardings in heritage areas. The Heritage Committee (of which I am currently member) ruled that all hoardings on individual heritage buildings or in heritage precincts must be removed. The Municipal Commissioner, for the first time in its history, overruled the recommendation of the Heritage Committee but it all came full circle when, on 5 May 2004, the Bombay High Court upheld the Heritage Committee’s verdict, giving the billboard agencies four weeks to remove all hoardings from heritage precincts in the city.

I am finally looking forward to seeing Flora Fountain without the backdrop of the Cine Blitz hoarding! To me, this project will always remain my first baby. It took nine months of initial groundwork and another five years in really growing up to stand by itself. But, I hope this does form a precedent for other historic street fronts in the future, with Connaught Place in New Delhi and Park Street in Kolkata taking a page out of the Mumbai experience.

 

Footnotes:

1. Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay 1995, Government of Maharashtra, Urban Development Department.

2. Ibid.

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