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2007 Award of Distinctionion

The Convocation Hall

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Project Title: The Convocation Hall

LocationUniversity of Mumbai, Fort Campus, Mumbai, India

Size1,372 square metres

CostUS$ 468,608

Responsible PartyUniversity of Mumbai (Vilay Khole, A.D. Sawant and Jayant P. Dighet)

Heritage ArchitectAbha Narain Lambah Associates

ContractorM/s Savani Contractors

Date of CompletionJuly 2006


Context

The University of Mumbai, formerly the University of Bombay, was founded in 1857 following the promulgation of the Dispatch on Education of 1854, which called for the creation, in every major city in India, of universities modelled on London University.

The oldest campus of the University is located in the Fort heritage district near the southern tip of Mumbai, along the eastern side of the Esplanade, or Oval Maidan. After the demolition of the coastal fortifications of Bombay in the 1860s, the area was set aside for major public buildings such as the Bombay Secretariat, the Central Telegraph Office, the High Court and the University. The Oval Maidan retains the greatest concentration of monumental Victorian architecture in India.

The Fort campus is notable for its fine collection of Gothic buildings, including the University Library, Rajabai Clock Tower and the Convocation Hall.

Building History

The Convocation Hall was commissioned in 1869 to provide a large public gathering place for the University. The Hall, the Library and the Rajabai Clock Tower were all designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who is noted for designing London’s St. Pancras station and the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. The buildings of the University of Mumbai precinct are the only examples of his work in India.

Gilbert Scott never visited the site himself, relying solely on information provided by the University Registrar concerning environmental conditions and wind direction. Construction was carried out under the supervision of Lt. Col. John Augustus Fuller of the Royal Engineers, who went on to design the High Court of Bombay. He was assisted by local engineer Muckoond Ramchunder, who was also responsible for directing the carvings at Elphinstone College and St. Thomas’ Cathedral.

The cost of construction was underwritten by the Parsi industrialist and financier Sir Cowasji Jehangir, whose statue stands to the north of the Hall. The Hall was listed as a Grade I heritage structure in 1995.

The Convocation Hall is built in the neo-Gothic style, with an apsed southern end and a pointed barrel-vaulted nave. In form it has been compared to a cathedral, reflecting Gilbert Scott’s substantial oeuvre of ecclesiastical architecture. Construction is of buff Malad trachyte and grey Kurla basalt, with ornamental details in soft white Porbunder limestone, red sandstone and green serpentine. The exterior of the Hall is articulated by vaulted lateral porches, octagonal towers that contain two spiral staircases and a porte-cochère. Stone gargoyles and other carved details were executed by students from the Sir JJ School of Art under the supervision of its then Dean, John Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Convocation Hall is the stained glass windows, which include the seven lancet windows of the apse, the windows of the nave on both levels and the colossal rose window in the northern façade that measures more than seven metres across. Created in London by the preeminent studio of Heaton, Butler and Bayne, the glass panels are of immense historical and aesthetic value. Of particular interest are the zodiac pattern of the rose window and the armorial windows of the nave, with the arms of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, followed by those of Sir Cowasji Jehangir, of the University and of successive Governors of Bombay.

Project History

Despite its continuous use as the primary ceremonial venue of the University of Mumbai since its completion in 1874, the Convocation Hall was in considerable disrepair prior to restoration. Its official function was limited to annual convocations and occasional meetings of the Senate of the University, and disused furniture and equipment had accumulated in an untidy manner.

The need arose for the restoration of the Hall when the University of Mumbai was chosen as the setting for the sesquicentennial celebration of the foundation of the three oldest universities in India, those of Mumbai, Madras and Calcutta. Undertaken in an abbreviated period of seven and a half months, the conservation work restored the University’s most iconic public building to its former grandeur in time for the 18 July 2006 ceremony presided over by His Excellency Abdul Kalam, President of India, who remarked appreciatively to the conservation team, “Your building is smiling”.

Project Scope and Framework

The conservation project aimed to address the structural and architectural challenges facing the Hall in a comprehensive, sensitive manner, using original materials and techniques, where possible, to resurrect the beauty of Gilbert Scott’s Victorian structure. In addition, the University also called for an upgrade of the building services and interiors, with the installation of state-of-the-art electrical, lighting and acoustical equipment, to ensure that it could accommodate contemporary use for ceremonial and public functions. 

At the start of the project in 2005, the 130-year old structure was in a state of serious deterioration. The entire roof structure, comprising the terracotta tiled roof supported on timber rafters and trusses that spanned the large stone vault, had been badly damaged by the monsoon rains. Successive layers of bitumen, applied as a waterproofing agent to the roof over the years, had gradually peeled off, clogging the mouths of the stone gargoyles that had acted as rainwater spouts. The trapped water had seeped through the roof and down onto the vaulting, resulting in wet rot in the embedded ends of the ceiling rafters and roof trusses, discolouration of the stone, and peeling paint and plaster. Tests showed that nearly two-thirds of the roof vault was saturated with water during the monsoons and that the lime content of the mortar had reduced by half, raising grave concerns about structural safety. Moreover, several large peepal (Ficus religiosa) trees had sprung up immediately beside the structure, their roots undermining the foundations, causing settlement which translated into structural cracks and stone displacement in the upper roof parapets. 

The stone elements on the exterior were encrusted with a thick layer of sulphate deposits created by the reaction of layers of dust with soot and atmospheric pollution. There were visible signs of rising damp and water damage, which resulted in staining, decay of stone mortar and delamination of stone layers. Insensitive repairs in the past had used hard cement for repointing, in itself a problem. Many of the stone figures, colonettes and mouldings were damaged or broken.

Moreover, a concrete shed housing a printing shop had been added to the south end of the Hall in the 1960s, with further accretions, such as water tanks, obscuring the elegant apse.

The interior of the Hall had been treated carelessly, with the addition of tubular neon lighting, fans and exposed wiring obliterating the original grace of the decorative details. Statuary had been painted over, furniture was missing or badly damaged and Burma teakwood doors had been boarded over with plywood. The Minton tile floors had been damaged in places, with some sections bulging and others patched in cement. Termites had damaged some of the original woodwork, especially on the gallery level. During the analysis of the vaulting, it was discovered that the soundproofing layer that had been applied to the ceiling during the 1940s was composed of hazardous asbestos fibre, which had to be very carefully removed. 

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The roof repairs were carried out first, to ensure they were completed before the onset of the April rains. Following the removal of the asbestos layer, an analysis of the roof and vaulting took place. Ultrasonic pulse velocity tests were undertaken to ascertain the integrity of the rubble stone and lime masonry of the vault, along with endoscopic examinations of the embedded wood rafters and trusses. Mortar samples were analyzed to determine whether the lime content in the mortar of the vault masonry had been leached away over the decades.

The entire vault was consolidated by injecting a fine lime grout in slurry form. This was followed by a waterproof layer of lime plaster composed of traditional waterproofing additives such as gur (jaggery or unrefined cane sugar), guggal (the resin of Commiphora wightii) and methi (fenugreek seeds). Rotted ends of rafters and trusses were spliced with seasoned teak members. For the upper roof, heavily damaged members were replaced and the whole framework of battens, rafters and trusses was treated for termite infestation. Finally, the tiles of the roof were removed and cleaned, with 90 percent of the tiles retained. Lead flashing was installed under the tiled roof as a second line of defence against water infiltration, a common technique of Victorian Bombay architecture.

Accretions to the exterior of the structure were carefully removed, including the shed structure. In order to counter rising damp, the foundations were stabilized and regrouted. 

The peepal trees were pulled out and a traditional mixture of lime and asafetida was applied before the stonework, which had been displaced by the roots, was realigned.  Insensitive cement repointing was removed and replaced with lime mortar closely matching the composition of the original material. Where the exterior carved Gothic stonework and columns had deteriorated beyond repair, replacements were inserted using matching white Porbunder limestone, red Dhrangadhra sandstone or green Karnataka serpentine sourced from or near the original quarries.

The carved stone faces, gargoyles and other pieces on the interior and exterior of the building were meticulously cleaned using soft nylon brushes and water. Paper poultices, mild surfactants and water misting were used for the cleaning and the removal of unsightly paint.

The stained glass panels were in a state of degradation as a result of soot deposition, loss of paint, bulging, shattered glass, damaged lead and ferramenta, and degeneration of mastic putty beds. Entire sections were missing. A small studio was set up on-site to undertake “bench repair” of most of the panels, which had to be removed to be worked on, while the large rose window was repaired in situ. Extensive documentation with photographs and rubbings were taken of each panel. As much as possible of the original material – glass, lead, metal and surrounding masonry – was retained.  Cleaning was undertaken using non-abrasive techniques. Corroded metal armature and parts had to be replaced, while damaged stone components were repaired. Broken or missing glass was replaced and re-leaded. Following treatment to protect against further damage, the repaired panels were then reinstalled.

A team of master craftsmen from Rajasthan was deployed for the gold leaf gilding, which was painstakingly reapplied to the decorative ironwork of the railings and brackets, as well as to the wood work frieze of floral motifs. This involved carefully cleaning the surface to be gilded and applying a layer of alsi (linseed) oil and special clay from Rajasthan. Several layers of 24-carat gold leaf were then pressed onto the surface and burnished by hand.

The spectacular encaustic Minton floor tiles were removed and cleaned before being reset and polished with wax. Wooden doors, windows and roof members were repaired with old seasoned Burma teakwood. New electrical wiring was discreetly concealed along the upper gallery level.  Cellulose-based fibre board was installed under the vault as an acoustic treatment in lieu of the asbestos.  

Important Issues

Beyond the conservation measures, the project strove to restore the stately atmosphere of the Hall, a major factor in which was the lighting. The Convocation Hall had been completed before the introduction of electricity and had been lit entirely by gaslights. A major challenge in the conservation process, therefore, was the aesthetic conversion of the structure to electrical lighting. This had been previously introduced in a way wholly incompatible with heritage nature of the building: neon tubes were suspended from the ceiling with their wiring snaking haphazardly across the interior surfaces, the cold white light imparting a sterile glare to lit surfaces. The conservation team was faced with the task of installing discreet but effective electrical lighting that would set off the rich decorative programme of the interior, most crucially the lustrous gilding, filigree and sculptural elements. An ingenious system of warm yellow spotlights was devised, recreating the glow of the Hall as it would have appeared under gaslights, and reanimating the lush interior. 

Project Sustainability and Viability

As the primary ceremonial venue of the University of Mumbai, the Convocation Hall enjoys a privileged status among the buildings of the University and will continue to under the University’s ongoing care. Given new life by the conservation project, the Hall will continue will provide a distinguished setting for seminars, lectures, examinations and ceremonies for many years to come.

Project Impact

The Convocation Hall represents a remarkable synergy of British architecture, Indian and Anglo-Indian craftsmanship and private philanthropy. It is a testament to the cosmopolitanism and splendour of Bombay during the late nineteenth century. Its conservation has rescued a superb example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture and a monument to the beginnings of higher education in India.

Following on this outstanding effort and the similarly successful rehabilitation of the adjacent University Library and Rajabai Clock Tower, the University of Mumbai has embarked upon a wider conservation programme aimed at restoring all of the buildings of its historic Fort campus. The success of the campaign has encouraged the government of Maharashtra State to acknowledge the value of other neglected Victorian buildings in Mumbai and to set aside funds for their restoration 

Quote from the Project Team

“The project is, in a sense, a complete conservation project that has involved structural repairs, exterior and interior restoration, material conservation, stained glass conservation and service improvements, involving a range of historic materials and conservation techniques. Moreover, this conservation has resulted in giving back to the city a precious resource, a cultural and academic centre that had fallen into disrepair.”