Alt/ Urban: The story of the iconic Bombay Stock Exchange building
Mustansir Dalvi on what the risk-taking architecture of Chandrakant Patel says about an earlier era
At the cusp of the 1990s, on every working day, I took an elevator to the 26th floor of the second most-photographed building in India. This was the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) building, and I was privileged to work for its architect, Chandrakant Patel.
His design studio, the Architectural Research Unit, offered views and inspiration, as ribbon windows swept over the panorama of the harbour across the bay to the hills on the mainland. Patel passed away in late April this year. I take this moment to ruminate on his times through the building he is most known for.
Lesser known in the canon of modernists who designed the buildings of independent India, Patel’s work bookends a period that started with the Nehruvian vision of what the Nation State was to look like and ended with liberalisation in 1990.
Chandrakant Patel graduated from the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, a contemporary of Bombay architects Kamu Iyer and Rusi Khambatta. In 1958, he attended the International Congress of Architects in Moscow as the only Indian representative, and went on to work for Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish architect and designer.
Patel imbibed Aalto’s vision of architecture as a complete work of art, with functionalism and materiality as its rationale. I recall Patel’s resistance to the right angle, his insistence on the right material for the right place and using geometry as an unerring guide to create original-looking designs. All these principles could be seen in his conception of the iconic Stock Exchange building.
In fact, the building became an icon even before it was built. The project was the brainchild of Phiroze Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, chairman of the BSE for more than three decades and one of its longest serving members.
In 1969, his vision to create a modern edifice for the financial centre of the country—replacing a half-century-old building by Claude Batley in congested Dalal Street with a soaring skyscraper and trading hall—coincided with the design prowess of a young architect, freshly returned from Finland.
Patel had earlier worked on the design of the Usha Kiran building in Tardeo, which was then the tallest building in Mumbai until surpassed by Jeejeebhoy Tower, which is the proper name of the BSE building. In storybook fashion, the old stalwart put his faith in the young architect based on a model he presented to the governing board, who unanimously approved his design. What is remarkable is how close the finished building is to the initial design.
The 29-storey building that you see now was the result of several architectural and structural innovations. These were needed to realise his floor plan, hitherto unseen in any tall building in Bombay. The two swinging wings, designed for variable floor space, were envisioned through non-concentric arcs and pinned together by a structural core housing the array of elevators, services and toilets.
The wings were held up by thin steel mullions, ‘matchstick columns’ as Patel called them, that ran along their entire perimeter. These allowed the façade of each floor to be free of structural restraints and resulted in the continuous ribbon windows.
The core was built in RCC and raised to its full height of around 300 ft using a technique called ‘slip-form’ construction, where the formwork in which concrete is poured is winched into place, rising from floor to floor. That this winching was the result of very well-coordinated manual labour is an ‘atma-nirbhar’ story quite ahead of its time.
For a while the city of Bombay was witness to the core, this tall chimney stack-like construction rising incongruously from the skyline around Flora Fountain and Kala Ghoda, not quite knowing what it was. Some even thought it was the completed building.
This was because of several stoppages in the work, partly political, partly legal, including objections raised by the Navy as the building would overlook the dockyards. The tower was finally completed in the 1970s. The tower wings were edged by a very early example of glass curtain walls attached to the outside of the building, while its basements were created using diaphragm walls.
Patel worked in collaboration with the noted structural designer Kamal Hadkar to achieve his vision. Their innovations and risk-taking were validated twenty years later when the building survived relatively unscathed after a car bomb exploded in the basement of the BSE in March 1993.
In the late 1980s, the second phase of the building resumed, to create a vast trading hall. This single domed space was for brokers to throng and hawk their wares, yelling out “Leedha! Deedha!” (Gujarati for bought and sold).
Patel and Hadkar joined hands once again to create a structural system that allowed fresh basements to be excavated even as the superstructure rose, a combination of straight and Y-shaped columns, tilted steel mullion and RCC slabs.
This came up during the stock boom, fuelled for more than a year by Harshad Mehta and others. Rising indices kept the building in the news every day. The image of the skyscraper took more media space than the Taj Mahal, and this continued even after the inevitable bust.
The Jeejeebhoy Tower, which remained the tallest building in Mumbai until the millennium, has since been overshadowed by several taller ones. Interestingly, the skyscrapers of the past were mostly commercial and office buildings, while the rising edifices today are largely residential.
This is a reflection of the unflinching hold of real estate on the city as well as the changing nature of the workplace. What is certain is that the forms of buildings allowed in a freer time are no longer possible because of the cost of land as well as the byelaws of the city.
Tall buildings today are less expressive than they have ever been in the past (despite fancy party-hats and LED lights), and can be viewed as building regulations made concrete.
The Bombay Stock Exchange led the skyscraper boom in the city, with the RBI tower coming up not far from it and, as the builder/developer gained centre stage, the confections of Hafeez Contractor.
Inevitably, the business of stockbroking and exchange had its own paradigm shift. In an irony only architects face with their creations, trading in the Bombay Stock Exchange went online on 14 March 1995, rendering the newly completed trading hall silent in one fell swoop.
(Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)