Exclusionary Geography

UNESCOcide in Bombay

Karan Saharya (MDes Critical Conservation ‘20)

An aerial view of the Nominated Property © Abha Narain Lambah Associates; Web source:   https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1480/

An aerial view of the Nominated Property © Abha Narain Lambah Associates; Web source:


Conservation studies have long focused on architectural preservation as the default mechanism to ‘protect’ certain buildings. In post-colonial nations, this is often the legacy of imperial regimes that enacted laws for territorial annexation, entrusted bureaucracies over local knowledge and laid the academic foundation for architectural discourse. ‘Heritage’ sites are portrayed as idyllic spaces entirely removed from their urban contexts, insular to exigencies of urbanization, migration, technological innovations and social exclusion. Conservation freezes space in time, and thus is a mode of power to create exclusionary geographies.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Listing highlights a new global rat-race to demonstrate national soft-power through conservation. I seek to analyze the designation of the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble in south Mumbai. What was fêted as a bottom-up movement to showcase ‘exemplary’ architecture at a global platform has drastic spatial implications – particularly for the millions who inhabit the city.

Firstly, the justification of the WHS designation under the UNESCO criterion of Outstanding Universal Value reproduces misapprehensions. By creating a space designed for tourists, a section of the city is conserved to produce staged authenticity. The experiences remain imitations of forgotten cultural landscapes and political economies, where the gulf between the local and the tourist is further widened. The process was dictated by a pre-defined index of architectural beauty deemed worthy of UNESCO designation. It is important to note the WHS designation has been bestowed upon a physical ensemble of two architectural styles, namely Victorian Gothic and Art Deco. Curiously, Art Deco was once considered “pastiche” and “impure” by European architects.  Likewise, Victorian Gothic utilized High Church and token Indo-Islamic elements as an imposition of colonial power, where the might of Empire was imbued in grand architectural symbols designed to suppress local imaginations. Today, remarkably, it is not just building facades and specialized structures that have been listed in the WHS document, but also ornamentations like balustrades, staircases, tile-patterns and railings. To that end, I ask, do such commonplace architectural elements define Mumbai’s heritage? In the hyper-globalized city, who can decide the worth of a style?

Secondly, my research revealed that individuals with tremendous “cultural capital” collectivized to dictate the way land around their neighborhoods ought to be utilized. Through rigid skyline controls, FSI recommendations, signage-templates, prescribed window-sizes and even restrictions on road-widening plans, the process reproduced severe spatial hegemony. As a result, today 94 buildings across 66.4 hectares of elite, upwardly-mobile ‘Bombay’ have been secured from the vagaries of ‘Mumbai’, with an additional recommended buffer-zone of 378 hectares – all in a city facing rising inequalities, spatial segregation and sky-rocketing land prices.  Of these, 35% happen to be occupied by high-income tenants and almost 31% are owned by co-operatives and trusts run by individuals with tremendous political capital. Furthermore, over 70% of all the buildings listed were constructed post-1940, of which 5% were erected post-1970. This significantly shifts the way conservation has hitherto dealt with historical architecture, for these structures are merely a generation old. At this rate of preservation, what will become of Mumbai city?

Preservation nurtures architecture through constructed nostalgia, but Mumbai – through its history of dynasty and colonization, commerce and media – has always been a relentless project in place-making. As a conurbation of both billionaires and ‘slum-dwellers’, the city embodies class divergences innate in post-Liberalization India.  In a place this disparate, preservation creates zones of exception.  Such a process begs the fundamental questions: whose history is really being told, and how?  Who decides what is ‘worthy’ of preservation? Who truly has the right to the city, when self-proclaimed experts control the narrative? Therefore, while the nation as a territorial entity may have undergone decolonization, it remains deeply mentally colonized. Though conservation may yield high tourist-incomes and seek to bridge the old with the new, the trade-off may often be too skewed: the real conflict arises when it is weaponized for territorial and social exclusion by elite individuals. My critique, therefore, is of the manner in which conservation and ‘UNESCO-ization’ is instrumentalized for co-opted advantage, rather than as a precursor for promoting equitable and inclusive urban systems.

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