London to Bombay

Feb 21, 2013, 08:05 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Seventeen trips later, Christopher W London, author of the book Bombay Gothic, can't get enough of the city's Gothic-influenced corners and contours. In Mumbai for a panel discussion on this building style, Fiona Fernandez caught up with the architectural historian who revealed how the city lent its unique character to give rise to a new chapter in British architecture in India

You’d be forgiven for believing that Christopher W London is an Englishman. Blame it on the surname and his topic of interest - British architecture in India. Turns out, London is an American, who is unabashedly in love with Bombay (these days, Mumbai).

The Municipal Corporation building was built by FW Stevens with the intent to complement his other creation opposite the road Victoria Terminus. Pic/Sameer Markande

Presently in the city for an illustrated lecture organised by Avid Learning, he will offer a 360-degree-kaleidoscope on the city’s Gothic buildings. His celebrated opus, Bombay Gothic, will be the basis of the discussion, and will be launched in a revised edition as part of the Pictor-DHF Guidebook Series.

Renowned  photographer Raja Deen Dayal’s view from the 1890s of Victoria Terminus

Post the slideshow, London and conservation architect Abha Narain-Lambah will engage in a panel discussion moderated by journalist-author Sidharth Bhatia, to debate on issues related to conservation, state and community support related to Mumbai’s architectural landscape.

The interview:

What wooed some of the Empire’s greatest architects and planners to look towards Bombay, to establish their credentials?
The city offered an extraordinary opportunity to build on open land. this was the result of a fresh master plan where the city’s fathers had a formal list of projects that needed to be constructed. It was a clean slate. Among them was Sir Bartle Frere, who in the 1840s, proposed and promoted Bombay as the first city of the Empire; when he returned as Governor of Bombay in 1862, he didn’t hesitate to give it a go-ahead.

Looking across the Oval Maidan at Scott’s Venetian Gothic University Buildings and the exaggerated massing of Fuller’s High Court

History played a key role too. America was in the grip of Civil War. There was a shortage of cotton. But on the Subcontinent, rail routes were able to bring cotton to its ports and the rest of the world. For the first time, goods were made available even as trade and commerce prospered. All of this coalesced to push Bombay into focus. Great Britain’s architects were now looking towards this port-city that offered tremendous potential. These included many great thinkers and minds like Sir George Gilbert Scott, Sir William Emerson and William Burges. In fact, Scott, a popular, influential and prolific architect in England, didn’t even touch Bombay’s shores, yet he sent out designers to the city.

Christopher W London
Christopher W London

By then, the neo-Classical style had set in The Mint, the Asiatic Society and the St Thomas Cathedral were examples of this architecture. Amid this, the Gothic style thrived because there was access to great building material, due to the opening up of the railways. This style flourished with its stunning sculptures and ornamentation. Besides, the setting up of the Sir JJ School of Art opened another avenue for impressive artwork, with respected names like John Lockwood Kipling at the helm.

Gargoyles adorning the Convocation Hall at the Bombay University buildings. Pics courtesy/Bombay Gothic, Christopher London

In hindsight, it was a great opportunity since money and open land was available in Bombay, which was complemented by the need for buildings as the city was being developed increasingly as an urbanised centre. This coincided with the time when architects from Great Britain were looking for jobs. Nearly 15-20 of them hopped on a ship and arrived here. The rest… is history!

How did your love affair with India, and the city begin?
(Chuckles) Just like those guys, I boarded a plane and came here! Jokes aside, while studying at Williams College in Massachusetts, I met with Professor Milo C Beach, who was a Harvard scholar. Through him, I got interested in India and its British influences. After all, in the 19th century, India and Great Britain were one country, literally. I wanted to learn more, and arrived in India in 1979. I travelled through New Delhi and Rajasthan including Bikaner, where my experiences whetted my interest, to learn more about its palaces and architecture, and its Britain connect. I left for London, and decided to study about India’s palaces and British Architecture, at Oxford.

Homer looking down from a capital in the University Library
Homer looking down from a capital in the University Library

Soon, I realised that I had bitten more than I could chew! The subject overwhelmed me and I came close to quitting. At the time, I spoke with Professor Dr Robert Beeddard who suggested that I narrow the focus. After in-depth research, I zeroed in on British Architecture in Victorian Bombay for my doctorate. Why Bombay? It offered a spectacular mix of styles in its buildings; I liked this grouping. My initial research on Bombay was at Oxford’s Indian Institute and the British Library in London, which has an amazing collection of records, visuals and titles.

A caste sculpture on the Convocation Hall
A caste sculpture on the Convocation Hall

How significant is the Bombay Gothic style in the overall school of Gothic architecture?
Good question. It was an unusual and particular style that veered mainly towards the neo-Gothic style. Without doubt, these buildings are special. This style spread partly because the great William Burges had influenced his student Emerson who brought the muscular Gothic style to Mumbai (it was very popular in Great Britain). Emerson arrived in Bombay with 129 drawings of Burges including his proposal for the JJ School of Art, and stayed on to plan several churches and Crawford Market. The muscular style is more obvious in Bombay, with the David Sassoon High School, Rusi Mehta Fountain and Emerson’s designs for the Emmanuel Mission Church as sterling examples. In fact, the Bombay Gothic style displayed better sculpturing compared to many of Great Britain’s Gothic buildings because it was economical here, with cheap labour and ready raw material.

What were some of the outstanding features that Bombay Gothic architects incorporated in the city’s buildings? How did it stand out despite several prevalent styles at the time?
Its use of local stone - Bassein, Coorla and Porbander - ensured that the Bombay Gothic style stood apart. It was a handsome style where structures were built as standalones in green settings, unlike in Great Britain where they stood in compact venues. Here, these were built proudly in a spectacular space, usually facing a park. Bombay has the highest concentration of high-quality neo-Gothic structures unlike in any other city in the world! The stretch opposite the Oval Maidan rises like a brilliant Gothic dream. At the moment, these need some amount of fixing up.

Does the city do justice to its Bombay Gothic buildings?
Can I say something controversial here? People of the city have been shortchanged. For one, there is zero access to these buildings. Secondly, there is no guided system to take them around. In the absence of guides, audio tours should be provided, where people can take off on their own; this will increase interest. People pay municipal taxes but cannot enter the BMC building, unless it’s for work.

Those at the helm need to address this concern. Money is made in Mumbai, so, I’m sure several companies can figure out ways to open these buildings up for the common man. In cities in the UK, and in New York, architectural weekends are held where important structures are opened to the public; it’s called Open House, and makes for a great way to introduce and educate people about their heritage. Other European cities have followed suit. I’ve visited buildings across the world as a result of this initiative. It must be replicated here. Ballard Estate, for example, has fantastic architecture, yet people are oblivious of its existence.

And finally, what is it that strikes you most about the city?
It’s a livable, fascinating city, and indeed, the Urbs Prima in Indus (Latin: foremost city in India)! It’s neighbourhoods are an interesting phenomenon. From Banganga to Malabar Hill and Marine Drive, there’s a different character everywhere. That’s the greatness of this city.

On February 21 AT Coomaraswamy Hall, CSVS (Prince of Wales Museum).
Time 6pm - 8.15pm
Call 09930134152/ 09930136486;
Log on to

Note: The mention of Bombay has been retained in certain places to retain the historic timeline of the interview. All photographs (Except Afghan Church and BMC) have been reproduced with permission from the author

Interiors of the Afghan Church designed by John Fuller
Interiors of the Afghan Church designed by John Fuller. Pic/Sameer Markande

Big on Bombay gothic
>> FW Stevens (Victoria Terminus, BMC building, Standard Chartered Bank, Royal Alfred Sailors Home) GG Scott (University Buildings & Convocation Hall)
>> James Trubshawe (CJ Building for Elphinstone College, Byculla)
>> William Burges (designs for the Sir JJ School of Art)
>> William Emerson (Crawford Market, three churches)
>> George Twigge Molecey (JB Petit School for Girls, Central Telegraph Office, David Sassoon Building for Elphinstone High School, JJ School of Art)
>> John Fuller (Afghan Church, High Court, David Sassoon Library)
>> John Adams (Wilson College, John Connon & Cathedral School buildings, Royal Bombay Yacht Club)
- Information Courtesy: Bombay Gothic, Christopher W London

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