Why Chennai’s Timeless Art Deco Buildings Must Be Preserved

Even as many of the city’s freestanding homes are being razed to make way for apartments, historians and architects are urging residents to save and preserve the Art Deco buildings that define the city. How do you recognize them?

Even as many of the city’s freestanding homes are being razed to make way for apartments, historians and architects are urging residents to save and preserve the Art Deco buildings that define the city. How do you recognize them?

Lata Madhu, of multi-designer store Collage, recently moved her store to an Art Deco house in Nungambakkam. “We have fine examples of the style in the houses near the Academy of Music and at Purasaiwalkam. When I chose this house for my store, I wanted to keep almost all of its aesthetic intact, including the exquisite roof and floor, while emphasizing the natural lighting and adding glass between the veranda and the house. The style is so unique, with its pillars and cornices; it needs to be presented in its entirety,” she says, explaining why.

As detached houses are increasingly razed to make way for high-rise apartments, there is a trend to save and preserve the city’s remaining Art Deco buildings. How do you recognize them? Simple lines, elaborate staircases, pillars with cornices and wraparound balconies with concrete grilles are commonplace in the lanes of Royapettah, Mount Road or Thyagaraja Nagar, telling the story of a bygone era.

A building in Mylapore

A building in Mylapore | Photo credit: Baby Binsan Oommen

The Art Deco movement swept through the United States and Europe during the years marked by the two World Wars, design elements from the movement grew in popularity among the city’s architects. Chennai’s romance with the Art Deco movement coincided with India’s freedom struggle, when the Madras Presidency adopted the architectural style imbued with clean lines, simplicity and departure from the Victorian Gothic and Indo-Saracen styles. of the time.

One of Chennai’s earliest Art Deco structures was the Royapettah Clock Tower built in the 1920s, followed by the 1938-dated National Insurance Building on NSC Bose Road, designed by LM Chitale. Further up the road, the iconic Dare House was built in 1940 as the office of the Parry Company (now Parry’s Corner).

The State Bank of Mysore building in Chennai

The State Bank of Mysore building in Chennai | Photo credit: special arrangement

Sujata Shankar, Chennai-based architect and head of the city’s INTACH chapter, recalls, “The movement was a new aesthetic, which was delayed in India, but lasted longer. It reflected a mood of minimalism, freedom and echoed the mood of people. In Royapettah, some residential buildings still bear columns, balustrades and parapets, incorporating the Art Deco sunrise motif into the jaalis.

Chennai’s earliest buildings in the Art Deco style can also be seen along sections of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road, from EID Parry, and the Esplanade area. Sujata says, “The old insurance and banking buildings had the characteristic of the ziggurat. Approaching a corner with a curve was another feature seen across buildings in the older parts of the city. CIT Colony, Gandhinagar and the homes of movie stars of yesteryear also had strong decorative elements: fascinating floors, mosaics, stairs with wooden balls at the top and balustrades.

United India Insurance Building

United Indies Insurance Building | Photo credit: BRS Sreenag

Ashmitha Athreya, architect and operations manager at Madras Inherited, a citywide initiative that undertakes heritage awareness, preservation and conservation in the city, organizes heritage walks through Triplane, Mylapore and T Nagar. “It’s fascinating to see Art Deco characters on buildings like the Dare House. The townhouses on Nadu Street in Mylapore have jaalis with sunburst elements, and we also see deco patterns in the Broadway Talkies and other buildings on NSC Bose Road. Athreya observes that the style emanated from the wealthy as the landed class sought to adopt this new architectural style, and, “over time the middle class borrowed elements from it, so you find decor throughout the town”.

The movement was short-lived in Madras. It was a time when concrete was first used, cantilevers were built, and nautical designs, like portholes and curved balconies, first appeared in apartment buildings and apartment buildings. local offices. “Casino Cinema Hall, Kamadhenu Theatre, all had soaring vertical lines; other buildings in George Town and the Esplanade feature some of the best features of the Deco movement, such as the Olympic Rings and the Frozen Fountain design. This movement also coincided with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, so you find Egyptian motifs in the deco buildings,” says Sujata Shankar.

While some buildings built for business still stand, historian V Sriram laments the decay and destruction of the city’s Art Deco residences. “The movement has been the worst casualty of modernization in Chennai. Our Indo-Saracenic buildings are larger than life and command pride of place, but in private spaces the decor is quickly disappearing. Many houses in RA Puram and Mandaveli have disappeared. Meanwhile, Mumbai is doing a fantastic job of saving its Art Deco stretch on Marine Drive.

Sriram suggests that “the transfer of development rights is a good way to prevent the development of property, despite the loss of monetary profit from renting the space”. Transfer of development rights is a zoning technique that preserves land by redirecting development that would otherwise occur on the land to another area suitable for denser development. In this way, the Art Deco buildings can be saved, while the owners of the property are compensated by offering them real estate options in other parts of the city, albeit of lesser value. This instrument has been used in Khotachiwadi and Bandra regions to conserve heritage buildings in Mumbai.

Ashmitha talks about her home in Choolaimedu which followed the Art Deco style not only its exterior facade but also its interiors. “There was usually a small office when you entered the house, to see visitors, without encroaching on the whole space, the bathrooms were at the very back and you could see the whole house from one point of view. ” Built with lime mortar and Burmese and other sturdy teak, she feels maintenance can be difficult these days, “we don’t use lime mortar anymore, and these houses were built to larger families, so aging couples whose families have migrated, sometimes cannot support them.”

Sriram urges a public-private model to save the buildings, as most families need extra income and are unwilling to preserve it, or risk losing their rent. Stating that there is now a resurgence in the value of antique Art Deco objects, from perfume bottles to furniture and vintage cars, Sriram adds: “Some of these houses like the Bedford Villa in Santhome are still standing, but people really need to value their homes. From my perspective, property value only increases over time, and a higher price is just around the corner.

  A pair of Art Deco jowls

A pair of Art Deco bajubands | Photo credit: special arrangement

Ruby Art Deco

AstaGuru, a high-end auction house, recently showcased a mosaic of coveted jewelry, vintage silverware and timepieces, with several Art Deco inclusions that highlight the influential movement’s legacy of tastes and preferences in jewelry material. A pair of Art Deco bajubands set with old cut diamonds and natural Burmese rubies in a typical chevron design, an Art Deco diamond ring set with an old European cut diamond flanked by four baguettes of diamonds mounted in platinum, bracelets in Art Deco-inspired diamond and a five row graduated Burmese ruby ​​bead necklace were among the pieces that won auctions of over ₹11 lakh each.

Jay Sagar, Jewelery Expert, AstaGuru Auction House, says: “The prized collection is truly an ode to the rich history and intricate craftsmanship of European designs. The lots on offer are fine examples of pieces created with a confluence of gemstones, including natural pearls, vivid fancy diamonds, Zambian emeralds, Burmese rubies and thorns.

Christopher S. Washington