Mumbai, India’s financial capital, has kept pace with the international trends across centuries, proving to be a truly global city. We make a brief survey of noteworthy events, spanning from the advent of European authorities in Mumbai until the recent liberalization of Indian Economy. We observe the variables of commerce and office spaces which evolve constantly across history, to decipher the nature of their inter-dependency, through the lens of architecture. 

The East India Company And Bombay Islets

In 1661, the British reached Mumbai, which was a group of islets under Portuguese hold. To the Britishers’ advantage, the Portuguese economic and political strength was lacking. A year later, the British King Charles II married Portugal Ruler’s daughter and received the possession of Mumbai in the form of dowry. This Betrothal, also a politico-business arrangement, notifies us that Mumbai itself became a charter exchange. This marked the initial moulding of the pliable character of Mumbai.

Governor Gerald Aungier had rolled out his plans to develop Mumbai into a maritime trade centre in 1669. Under the Governor’s leadership, cause-ways for interconnectivity, land reclamation and the establishment of Mint encouraged the influx of Western Indian merchants. Craft guilds and cosmopolitanism emerged giving rise to socio-economic and cultural morphing in Mumbai. Through these plans, the now interconnected island witnessed a medieval Euro-Christian development drive.

The British built the George Fort in 1769 to defend their economic base, whose walls came down in 1862 enabling the market and the trade destination to expand further. While the fort is no more, the invisible boundaries of it continue to outline the financial nucleus of Mumbai, known as South Bombay even today.


Business And Architecture During British Raj

Fresh nuances in the scheme of workplace architecture began emerging. Traditional masonry buildings fenestrated with tall ornate windows of Gothic Victorian style significantly contributed to Mumbai’s architectural development. Offices of these times smelt of musty wooden furniture and had high ceilings flavouring a traditional formality to a workplace. The vernacular verandahs fused with the Victorian typology also helped cut down the heat. Most workplaces during this time belonged to the government and not the public, which is why business complexes were hardly seen.



Municipal Corporation Building

The Secretariat (1874) and the Municipal Corporation Building (MCB, 1893), are iconic till date for their Gothic grandeur. Generally, from this period the architecture largely focussed on aesthetics, and therefore facade articulation can be observed. Until now, the British did not yet effectively adapt to local architectural styles as opposed to the field of business which allowed for many cultural collaborations.


Accelerating The Business Motor

As cotton demands grew during the 19th century owing to the civil war in North America, the textile industry took birth in Mumbai, giving rise to an industrial hub. An incumbent opium trade firmly held ground thereby making Mumbai a flourishing maritime urban business centre. The evolving business drew in merchant communities from around Mumbai creating a diverse atmosphere. Mumbai was nearly saturated as a cultural crucible now.

The Bombay Dyeing Company (BDC), is a case in point, which was conceived in 1879 by Nowrosjee Wadia and has stood the test of time until today.


An old-picture of Mumbai, then Bombay, during the East India Company rule

Ballard Estate, named after Colonel JA Ballard, was envisioned to be a business district housing Mumbai’s flourishing commercial splendour at play now. The workplaces shifted from being red taped to more fluent and privately-run enterprises. It became a premium business spot, as architect George Wittet dressed the district with Victorian Neo-Classical buildings. The textile boom and the revamping of Ballard Estate grew an elitist influence, applying a London-like render to the city.



Neville House

The Bombay Dyeing Company (BDC), is a case in point, which was conceived in 1879 by Nowrosjee Wadia and has stood the test of time until today. The architecture of The Neville House, headquarters of BDC, represents the Victorian character well. Blending into the local climate continued here and some of the Ballard Estate buildings incorporated courtyards and Islamic elements.

Adoption of Indo Saracenic elements marked a transition architecturally from the otherwise strict European theme. Perhaps, this was accompanied by a socio-economic shift. This was witnessed with the General Post Office built-in 1869. Although initially styled in Medieval Italian, it later endorsed Indo – Saracenic for its new workplace. Inspired by the Gol Gumbaz, John Begg designed a dome 65 feet in diameter to crown the building, which till date is the largest in Mumbai. The influence of Mughal Architecture too is noticed through intermittent turrets and minarets along the volume.


Art Deco – The Architectural Aid To The Middle Class

Victorian buildings also started Indianizing in form while on the other side, during the 1930s, pastel-coloured buildings were apparelled with organic forms. The entry of Art Deco in Mumbai brought a quirkier and free-flowing architecture, enabled by a new addition in the material palette- concrete.

The Indian Economy was changing faces after Independence. While many businesses took birth during the British period, they were now entering a new unknown commercial climate after Independence.

These buildings marked the Art Deco Movement alongside a socio-economic and cultural advancement for the educated middle class. Interestingly, the architects of Mumbai contextualized the style to create a version called Indo Deco. This localized version of the Art Deco also grew in fertile architecture grounds upon land reclamation. Indo Deco gave a new spin to the residential neighbourhoods of Mumbai, especially in Marine Drive displaying its unique maritime character.


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India Assurance Building

A few Art Deco office complexes include New India Assurance Building established by Dorab Tata and Bombay Mutual Building of Ballard Estate. Master, Matre and Bhuta were the designers of both these structures. The New India Assurance Building embraced a monumental façade of sculpted ribs together, posing as an Art Deco workplace Giant. Interestingly, it also incorporated the modern air conditioning systems. The Bombay Mutual Building is an example of Indo Deco workplace adorned with curved edges, pastel-coloured bands wrapping around the façade and sashes of windows. It resides in the commercial glory of Ballard Estate.



Bombay Mutual Building

Adoption of Indo-Saracenic style and the Indo Deco movement challenged the dominance of the colonial aesthetic thereby proving to be a guide for the architecture of Independent India. The overarching footprint of foreign forces faded out as they had to give in to local customs.


Architecture During Economic Independence

The Indian Economy was changing faces after Independence. While many businesses took birth during the British period, they were now entering a new unknown commercial climate after Independence. The direction that the Indian economy was taking was founded on the Nehruvian vision to promote Indigenous capitalist class growth, to control the free market influence. Modernism inevitably became an architectural tool paving the way for India, which also inspired the new direction of workplaces.


The Petroleum House, the office of an American oil enterprise, drew inspiration from the capitalist ideology giving rise to open-plan layouts, central air-condition systems and automated telephones. This building unfurled a new course in the architectural realm of Mumbai and was in alignment with Nehru’s vision for Modern India. The elevation’s main feature was emulating Le Corbusier’s Brise Soleils which helped in reducing heat gain and air conditioning costs.



Petroleum House

The Express Tower built during 1972 by Joseph Allen Stein in Mumbai, was upon its completion the tallest in South Asia for two years. The building was commissioned by Ramnath Goenka, founder of Indian Express. Goenka and Stein envisioned the Tower to set the built tone for Nariman Point which eventually contributed to the evolving modern skyline of Mumbai.


Following nearly fifteen years of liberal development, the country witnessed a spike in youth population and unemployment rates. The emergence of the start-up culture was favoured in these conditions.



Bombay Stock Exchange

The Bombay Stock Exchange Tower, one of the tallest buildings built in 1980 took up an interesting curved profile, unlike most skyscrapers during that time. The building, finished with concrete and glass, was designed by the young architect Chandrakant Patel who worked with Alvar Aalto known for his organic forms. We can note that by now Mumbai’s history of evolving workspaces has been driven by its long blossoming commerce. That marked the leadership that Mumbai assumed for other Indian cities, to emulate models of mercantile and workplace culture.


Liberal Skylines Of Mumbai

In 1991, Liberalization took charge of the Indian Economy, leading to an outburst in private sector enterprises. This allowed individual ambitions to explore global business opportunities. Businesses during this time, found themselves moving towards an undetermined digital future. IT-enabled services proliferated across the globe and workplace typologies like Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) were transplanted. The burgeoning entrepreneurship demanded quickly built office spaces. This need was met by the RCC shell – Curtain Wall building typology which pushed the metropolitan limits in the form of commercial sprawl seen with the likes of Parel. Further, the global integration of business models also caused the adoption of the glass skyscrapers we see today.



Bandra Kurla Complex

Following nearly fifteen years of liberal development, the country witnessed a spike in youth population and unemployment rates. The emergence of the start-up culture was favoured in these conditions. Contemporary work atmospheres like shared office spaces were now being used as a strategy to cut down on operational overheads and liabilities. These spaces also enabled engagement with the multidisciplinary crowd, incorporating unconventional interiors, open plans, common meeting rooms and thereby attracting more start-ups. The boom of mainstream modern workplaces since the 1990s now took the form of independent and co-working spaces.


As Mumbai’s Commerce Moves On

The relationship between Mumbai’s Commerce and workplace evolution is asymptotic. The city’s architectural evolution is reflective of how Mumbai has always been mouldable, adapting into different periods and movements.

The design thought that created Mumbai’s built environment before independence, was largely influenced by the colonial era commerce, culture and context that existed. Post-independence, the shaping of the economy and its built environment were in Indian hands. However, the city continued to give in to global ideas of development, which brought in international architectural influences too. Consequently, Mumbai’s skyscrapers today develop with ignorance of the local cultural mores and meaningful references to the context.

Coming to the present, the year 2020 marks a new event in the course of the city’s evolution by shifting public habits towards bio-safety. This has promoted work-from-home and digital commerce beyond unexpected levels, primarily because of the worldwide dependence on it now. Being a hyper-dense urban environment, Mumbai’s condensed office spaces are expected to transcend into a new status quo. Regardless of the constant change in events, Mumbai – the fastest of cities, will continue to be swiftly malleable in the times to come.



Sweta Bhushan is an architect who has worked on research-oriented interior and architectural projects in Mumbai. She is interested in contributing solutions to issues concerning urban societies and the environment. Currently she is a Fellow of Built Environment at Anant National University, Ahmedabad. Sweta also enjoys cooking as a hobby. Follow her here.

Varun Kumar has worked as an architect in Chennai alongside reporting and a Deputy Editorship at World Architecture Community (WAC). Varun is continuing as a writer while currently pursuing studies in Governance and administration related subjects. He is also interested in research on socially relevant architectural initiatives. Follow Varun  here.