India’s ‘Miami:’ Putting Mumbai’s Art Deco on the map

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This photo taken on Nov. 8, 2017 shows an Art Deco building in Mumbai. (AFP)
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This photo taken on Nov. 8, 2017 shows an Art Deco building in Mumbai. (AFP)
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This photo taken on Nov. 8, 2017 shows an Art Deco building in Mumbai. (AFP)
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This photo taken on Nov. 8, 2017 shows an Art Deco building in Mumbai. (AFP)
Updated 26 November 2017
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India’s ‘Miami:’ Putting Mumbai’s Art Deco on the map

MUMBAI: The seafront is lined with brightly colored buildings boasting curved corners, stylish balconies and exotic motifs but this isn’t Miami’s famous Art Deco district — it’s Mumbai.
Bombay, as the Indian city was formerly called, is known more for its Victorian Gothic edifices than the sleeker architectural designs that swept Europe and America during the 1920s and ‘30s.
But now, a group of enthusiasts are making Mumbai’s hundreds of Deco structures, which include residential properties, commercial offices, cinemas and even hospitals, as famous as their 19th century counterparts.
The ambitious Art Deco Mumbai project aims to document every single one and educate residents about the buildings’ origins to ensure the “style moderne” architectural legacy of India’s financial capital is preserved.
“Bombay has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world. It’s an incredible heritage,” Atul Kumar, keen conservationist and founder of Art Deco Mumbai, tells AFP.
Palm trees blow gently along the three-kilometer Marine Drive promenade where Soona Mahal, a symmetrical, yellow-painted building with orange vertical lines and elaborate turret, sits proudly on the street corner.
“It’s an iconic building that looks like a ship pushing through waves,” says 70-year-old Mehernosh Sidhwa proudly. He is the third generation of his family to live in it after his grandfather had it built in 1937.
Around the corner, five-story buildings sporting elegant Deco fonts, marble floors and spiral staircases line the Oval Maidan playing field while nearby are the popular Eros and Regal cinemas.
The areas make up the heart of Mumbai’s Art Deco precinct which in 2012 was submitted to UNESCO for world heritage recognition. A short distance up the coast is Breach Candy hospital, also in Deco style.
“There’s an interesting amalgamation of classical European Art Deco and Bombay Deco. You have ziggurats, rounded locomotive balconies, tropical images, streamlining, speed lines and Egyptian motifs as well as Indian designs,” enthuses Kumar.
The buildings were constructed between the early 1930s and early 1950s after wealthy Indians sent their architects to Europe to come up with modern designs different to those of their colonial rulers.
They visited as Deco was taking the West by storm following the 1925 Paris exposition.
“Mumbai’s Deco buildings have always lived in the shadow of the Victorian Gothic structures built by the British,” such as the main railway station, museum and high court, says Kumar.
“But Art Deco is no less. It’s a colorful, vibrant, free, sophisticated style that represented the aspirations of a whole new class. India was under oppressive colonial rule and this was a very unique statement through architecture.”
Tour guides are fond of telling foreign visitors to Mumbai that only Miami has more Deco structures internationally. Local legend says the coastal Indian city has 200 such buildings.
Kumar and his small team, which is not-for-profit, are working hard to come up with a precise tally for the first time by documenting the entire city and adding all the Deco buildings to a Google map on their website.
“We want to establish the accurate number and therefore position Bombay’s relevance correctly across the world,” explains Kumar, who says they’ve already counted 136 in 18 months, with several neighborhoods left to investigate.
“It’s definitely going to be way more than 200,” adds the finance professional confidently, before cautiously speculating that the final number could be around 300.
The team talk to owners to establish which structures are Deco. They record building and architect names, dates of construction, coordinates and Deco features.
Key specifics and photos are then uploaded to an inventory on www.artdecomumbai.com. Images with captions are also published on Twitter and Instagram.
“We have 100 percent accuracy. If we are doubtful then we don’t include the building,” says Kumar, who also organizes walking tours to spread the word.
He laments that a lack of awareness has led many Deco buildings to be demolished or compromised by alterations. Property developers offering lucrative sums to replace them with luxury apartments have also caused destruction.
“Ultimately our objective is to conserve this tremendous collection. As we talk to people they become fiercely proud and that translates into a desire to preserve,” concludes Kumar.


Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Updated 25 May 2018
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Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.

 

The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)