Mumbai

At 50, Air India building is still Mumbai’s architectural, cultural icon

Dusty, but not done: With its 1,502 windows, the Air India building was among the first tall buildings on Nariman Point.

Dusty, but not done: With its 1,502 windows, the Air India building was among the first tall buildings on Nariman Point.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Former employees look back at its glorious heritage, architectural splendour and even its art collection

The Air India building, one of the city’s iconic high rises, and the Maharaja’s erstwhile home, turned 50 on Monday.

It was on June 1, 1970, that Air India shifted its head office to the then newly-designed building located in the then newly-reclaimed central business district called Nariman Point, at the southern tip of Mumbai.

Designed by John Burgee, of the Manhattan-based firm Burgee and Johnson (1967 to 1981), the building was one of the first with all its floors centrally air-conditioned. The structure has a special direct elevator to the board room on its 23rd floor.

According to available literature, in 1970, the building was also perhaps the only one with six lifts, all fitted with piped music. The building was so well planned that when one lift ascended, another descended, cutting waiting time to a minimum.

The building also boasted of two levels of underground parking, something that was uncommon back then.

Watch | All about the Air India building

Old memories

As per the Godrej Archives Volume 2, April 2014, Air India building, along with its neighbour Express Towers, was among the first tall buildings at Nariman Point. It said Air India building has 1,502 windows.

The building was also known for its art collection. “This was an airline which besides flying planes also dabbled in art, which only great organisations can do,” said Ashwani Lohani, former chairman and managing director, Air India, who was instrumental in getting the art work catalogued.

Mr. Lohani recalled the time when the new airline logo was installed on the roof and he went up there to get a ‘Kings view’. “It is a great building. The entrance, with its escalator, makes it royal, representing the airline it was and its culture.

Former executive director, Air India, Jitendra Bhargava recalled that when the building opened in 1970, it became such an icon that security was needed to control the crowds.

Mr. Bhargava, who spent 20 years on the 20th floor of the building, said it was well-designed, equipped with in-built firefighting capabilities, and its large glass walls gave majestic views of the sea. He recalled how the building’s equipment once came in handy to help douse a fire in a penthouse on an adjacent building.

The former executive director also recalled how the building had withstood the 1993 bombings in the city and played a role in helping security forces use the premises to evacuate hostages from the adjacent Trident hotel during the 26/11 terror attack. Lang Jon T., in his book Concise History of Modern Architecture in India (2002), called the Air India building post-modern.

The Centaur

The Air India logo, installed on the roof of the building, remained an icon of Mumbai’s skyline, forming a backdrop in several Bollywood movies, representing Mumbai of the past and present.

Thanks to it location, the building gives an uninterrupted 360-degree view of Marine Drive from Nariman Point up to Raj Bhavan atop Malabar Hill.

Though in 2013 Air India shifted its headquarters to New Delhi, the building still houses the airlines offices on the 22nd floor, besides a booking office on the ground floor. The rest of the building has been rented out to private, government and public sector offices.

At a recent exhibition of Air India’s art in the city, a write-up on display described the building as a plain, rectangular box-like tower that rises above the sky from the second to the 20th floor, creating a spectacular block of solid screen with recessed openings for windows. “The building had a multi-directional view. The revolving glow-sign board on the roof was a real beacon. Unfortunately, the old charm was spoilt by replacing the Centaur logo with the new one, which is okay,” said Captain Russi Bunsha, executive trustee of the J.R.D Tata Mermorial Trust.

The beacon, that Captain Bunsha referred to, was the Centaur, a stylised version of Sagittarius shooting an arrow in a circle representing the wheel of Konark, chosen as the logo for the airline by legendary entrepreneur and Air India’s founder J.R.D. Tata.

It was introduced in 1948 and continued to be in use till Air India and Indian Airlines merged in 2007. A large illuminated metal logo of the Centaur was placed atop the building and could be seen from across the Marine Drive bay, drawing attention to the iconic structure. This was replaced by the current Air India logo in recent years.

Lost glory

Captain Bunsha said the building had now lost its old charm. “It is sad to see it now. Most floors are deserted. I am told that it is not getting the value for the building,” he said.

In recent times, at least two State-owned enterprises — the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Life Insurance Corporation — have shown interest in the 2,20,000 sq. ft building, the reserve price for which is ₹ 1,500 crore.

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 3:05:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/at-50-air-india-building-is-still-mumbais-architectural-cultural-icon/article31727072.ece

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