Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bath in Bombay

Mumbai, January 24, 2013

A great deal of the British colonial architecture in Bombay is extraordinary but in a rather extreme and bizarre way.  Even the terms used to describe the styles of the buildings--such as "Victorian Gothic Italianate" or "Indo-Saracenic"--give you the sense of the excess.  In that context, it's surprising to find a place like Horniman Circle, that could have come out of Georgian Bath.

Completed in 1872, Elphinstone Circle (as it was known before independence) is a large round space within the fabric of the Fort area, the core of the colonial city.  It has a consistent three-story Neoclassical façade of arches, capped by fourth story of slender columns and a thin projecting awning.  At street level, the heavily rusticated arches articulate an open gallery.  The buildings follow the geometry of the circle, but it's really more like two parentheses bracketing the space north and south.

Quite incredible how this uncompromising figure addresses its context.  To the east, it incorporates the earlier Greek Revival building of the Asiatic Society, absolutely flat and frontal.  Still, it not only works with the circle but also ties the space with the original Colaba Causeway running tangentially north-south (now Sahid Bhagat Singh Road.)  On the west side it's the opposite, not a frontal façade but a perpendicular street, Churchgate (now Veer Nariman Road,) that runs all the way to the other side of the city on the Arabian Sea.  That end opens to the view of nearby St. Thomas Cathedral on one side of the street.

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