Contesting imperialism in modern architecture: British India 1920s-1940s

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This paper explores stylistic evolution in training and practice, particularly in Bombay, now Mumbai, and proclaimed by Governor H.B.E. Frere (1815-1884) as "India's first city" in the colony's early days. From Frere's advocacy of the Gothic Revival the style had been the undisputed choice for most public commissions. A challenge of Imperial architecture was then instigated by British architect Claude Batley (1879-1956) during his post at the J.J. School of Art, an architectural school that modeled on the Ecolé de Beaux-Arts curriculum. This contestation of style in turn emanated an Art Deco modernism, followed by Batley's protégé G. B. Mhatre (R.I.B.A., 1902-1973) who became an avid protagonist. A local architect, Mhatre's works alone reflect the evolution of contemporary design in Bombay amidst the final days of British Imperialism. Indigenous designs were regarded as inferior when compared to imperial styles, and yet it was felt that the International Style, a later variant of modern architecture, counteracted the Indian propensity for surface ornament. Art Deco was thus not only a decisive reaction against Imperialism but a negotiation between tradition and modernity. A resonant "modern style" was also observed at the Empire's home prior her swansong, at the 1938 British Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, which was regarded as "uniformly and dramatically Art Deco". As a style extending from the Empire s heart to respective colonies, issues regarding built form, architects, and architectural institutions have yet to be addressed during the inter-war decades, and this research also builds upon colonial architectural discourse. Implications of Art Deco throughout the Empire will be analyzed together with the forces behind proponents of the style, ultimately concluding the consequent roles that architectural design played in shaping modernization in colonial British India. Copyright © 2011 the author.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-79
JournalThe International Journal of the Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011


Lau, L. K. P. (2011). Contesting imperialism in modern architecture: British India 1920s-1940s. The International Journal of the Humanities, 9(2), 73-79. doi: 10.18848/1447-9508/CGP/v09i02/58238


  • British Empire
  • British India
  • Colonialism
  • Modern architecture
  • Art Deco
  • International style


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