Fort, Marine Drive set to get Unesco world heritage tag

The city’s cluster of Victorian and Art Deco buildings in the Fort and Marine Drive heritage precincts is just a step away from being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
On Thursday, May 3, 2018, Unesco’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) technical adviser, the Paris-based International Council of Monuments and Sites (Icomos), recommended the prestigious tag for the landmark south Mumbai enclave. Once Icomos gives its stamp of approval to a proposal, it is generally accepted by UNESCO. The recommendation will now be tabled at Unesco’s 42nd World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain next month.

The Victorian and Art Deco ensemble of Mumbai will become the city’s third World Heritage Site (the other two are CST and the Elephanta Caves).

“This is special because it acknowledges India’s modern architecture. Most of the earlier nominations from the country were for ancient and medieval sites,” said conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who prepared the heritage dossier for Mumbai. It was supported by the state government’s urban development department and citizens’ associations at Churchgate, the Oval and Cooperage areas, and Nariman Point.

Lambah had first mooted the idea of pushing Mumbai’s heritage treasure at a Unesco conference for the Asia Pacific back in 2004. The site under consideration covers an area of around 163 acres. In all, 96 buildings are under consideration, including the buildings around Oval Maidan (MG Road and Dinshaw Vachha Road), buildings from the CCI to Marine Drive, the front row of buildings facing Marine Drive and the Marine Drive promenade. The Maidan is the 97th heritage entity under consideration in the district.

Once endorsed with the Unesco tag, Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco district will help raise awareness among citizens and tourists, and be a step towards preserving the city’s heritage. Such a tag draws high-end tourists, attracts private funds and grants for the upkeep of buildings. It will also pitch Mumbai as a global financial-cum-cultural city.

The Icomos note said that two waves of urban development in the 19th and 20th centuries transformed Mumbai from a fortified trading outpost to the first city of India.

The first expansion included the construction in the 1880s of a group of Victorian Gothic public buildings and the creation of Oval Maidan. The second expansion was the Backbay Reclamation scheme in the early 20th century, which saw the making of Art Deco residential, commercial and entertainment buildings and the creation of the Marine Drive seafront.

According to the note, the Victorian assemblage of grand buildings created an Indo-Gothic style by blending Gothic revival elements with Indian ones. Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings of iconic cinema halls and apartment buildings blended Indian design and created a unique style that became known as Indo-Deco. Its influence then spread through the subcontinent.

“Icomos acknowledges the significance of each of the two styles and ensembles of buildings and the quality of their contrast facing each other across Oval Maidan,” said Icomos’s recommended statement of “outstanding universal value”.

Other Asian cities have a number of fine High Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings, though these are often individual buildings or smaller ensembles, such as Singapore, Jakarta and Bandung. “But no city is characterized by this architectural style to the same degree as Mumbai, which champions high Victorian Gothic architecture and also integrates this style with Indian design themes and artistic works,” it said.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was one of those who pushed for the proposal with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a letter to the PM, he said the site is “extremely unique”. Actor Amitabh Bachchan too had pitched in for the nomination dossier.

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