COMPLEX PASTS: DIVERSE FUTURES

COMPLEX PASTS: DIVERSE FUTURES

This year’s theme of World Heritage Day “Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures” aims to promote awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage of humanity, its vulnerability and the efforts required for protection and conservation. 

By: Dolly Singh

India has so many historic monuments which need proper restoration and repurposing. Government is trying their best to renovate or repurpose old historic monuments to save their culture and preserve this historic structures. It is very important to restore or renovate our heritage structures time to time. As history, culture and religious values are attached to them. And heritage structures are identity of a nation. Some conservation architects and communities have joined their hands with government bodies to restore these eminent structures. 

“Once heritage buildings are conserved, they command good commercial value which helps in retaining the cultural significance value too. What is required is self-sustaining efforts. Citizens can play an important role if they are made aware of heritage, environment.” Vikas Dilawari

“Heritage conservation needs to be considered a mainstream conversation that is a necessity rather than a pleasure.” Aishwarya Tipnis

“There is an absence of heritage incentives and funding for privately owned heritage. As a result, be it the historic towns of Shekhawati or the streetscapes of old city centres in Lucknow, Agra, Kolkata or Shahjahanabad, we see a tragic loss of heritage buildings, dilapidation, neglect as well as inconsistent new development.” Abha Narain Lambah

“History is not just witnessed in museums but lived within our neighbourhoods. . People are forgetting their history and where they come from. We should not eradicate our past to build a future that lacks soul.” Shashank Shahabadi

 

HERITAGE BUILDINGS CONSERVATION IN INDIA 

Setting the context of the heritage conservation activities in India, Vikas Dilawari, Proprietor, Vikas Dilawari Architects mentioned, “Heritage buildings in India require special attention as these have been neglected for a long time, one is due to lack of awareness of heritage which is now slowly building up and other is because of Rent Control Act introduced during World War II 1940’s still continues as a result the buildings can’t be maintained and they start decaying. Though the Central Government has taken out Model Regulations for this, hardly any States have implemented it. Hence, redevelopment is favoured over the repairs. This is one of the reasons that conservation needs immediate attention. 

Aishwarya Tipnis, Architect & Conservation Planner, Aishwarya Tipnis Architects stated, “Heritage buildings are testimonies and links to the past, they are witnesses to the changing times and continue to tell the story of what happened but are active participants in the present and in the future of our cities. They root us, give us identity and are a physical manifestation of our evolution as a society. They need to be treated as a living resource, that add value to society and our local economies and not just as burdens of the past. Not all buildings are monumental or great pieces of architecture and thus often become victims of redevelopment.”

Abha Narain Lambah, Principal Architect, Abha Narain Lambah Associates expressed, “India has a built heritage that is older than 4000 years and yet we have barely any urban mechanisms that mandates heritage conservation of urban streetscapes and historic settlements. In the absence of holistic policies towards protection of heritage, urban conservation we have witnessed large-scale demolition of historic building stock that has taken place across India. With historic town centres lacking any urban controls or heritage specific byelaws, incongruous new development of concrete buildings and glass and aluminium clad structures threatens to destroy historic streetscapes. Numerous age-old buildings in dilapidated forms get quoted as “bhoot banglas.” One of the bylanes of old Calcutta was one such building with monumental history. Nature was almost overtaking the rummages of that bricks and mortar. The crest of the arches was withering and a tree had sprouted. This is what most buildings in the present Calcutta look like. The city is fading away. The exquisite streets of Park Street to the intricate buildings in the north are all bygones of the past.”

Shashank Shahabadi, Principal Architect, Eastside Office said, “It is an honour to restore the architectural marvels, each of which carries a poignant story. I find so much beauty in those cracks between the lime-plastered walls. When left untouched, we find nature takeover with its’ caressing roots, holding those buildings firmly. Heritage buildings are not just buildings but a cornucopia of artisans’ techniques, exclusive raw materials, patience, reverence, and memory. Such edifices embody memories and emotions and are of inherent value. The richness in the brick and mortar technique or the use of natural healing limestone talks about the progressive architectural and structural elements. Following the concept of “pucca,” today we see architects and builders gravitate towards materials like glass, steel and aluminium. While on one hand they promise the idea of being low maintenance but we see them wearing down in less than 10 years” 

Modern-day design practitioners trained in modern materials and construction, do not understand the specific traditional building materials and practices. The undergraduate engineering and architecture curricula too have no pedagogical content on ancient Indian construction materials and methods.

 

ROLE OF PUBLIC & PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS 

Everyone has a role to play, the Government is the owners of most inherited heritage public buildings and it’s their duty to ensure they are conserved properly with dignity as these constitute lived heritage unlike the dead monuments protected by Archaeological Survey of India. Vikas Dilawari expressing his opinion said, “It is important for the Government to understand that urban lived heritage is a special discipline and requires care and attention and use of like to like materials. They are the owners and users and hence they should respect and care for it and not try to beautify or repair but to conserve it sensitively to meet the present day requirements viz a viz services. The Government should bring in Heritage protection legislation which at present is in very few cities. Once these legislation are in place a good monitoring system is essential and encouragement is required whether in terms of financial or other incentives. Pvt Institutions especially Corporates who earlier used to reside in these heritage were patrons of conservation, but now they have also drifted to Glass towers due to non-encouraging lease policies.  If those who are still housed in such heritage buildings can look after them then we have a better environment around. The Private Institutions as part of the CSR can encourage and sponsor some benchmark conservation projects.” 

Aishwarya Tipnis stated that monument conservation in India is largely the domain of the Government (Central/ State or Local) which look after monuments that have been protected as heritage under some law. “Sometimes Governments engage with the private sector through partnerships and PPP or CSR for the conservation and restoration of important monuments. However, I feel the heat is really on non-monumental heritage, the buildings that make up our old cities that remain in private ownership, those are the ones where the funds are required and not available.”

Abha Narain Lambah shared that government needs to be enabler of conservation through a carrot and stick policy – carrot: viz. heritage incentives, funding for privately owned heritage, protection of heritage and planning incentives such as Heritage TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) etc and stick regulatory mechanisms to prevent demolition of historic buildings, urban controls and heritage specific byelaws. “CSR funding and Trust funding and grants for protecting heritage, conservation of heritage and promotion of heritage as well as private funding to promote Recycling of historic building stock and adaptive reuse are some options, she added.

As a founder and part of the Eastside Office, Shashank Shahabadi believes that it’s important for architects and designers to embrace history to build for the future. “Rather than demolishing these colonial-era buildings and to be replaced with something out of context we strive to preserve the inherent nature of the very building and to make it more adaptive and reusable to modern times. As we transcend into cookie-cut ideas of skyscrapers, glass buildings, and townships, we are losing our cities day by day. Vandalism, demolition, and neglect have left not just monuments but also public spaces in shambles.” 

In conservation it is a known fact that using a space or property is the best form of conservation. However the new use should be adaptive and should not alter the historic urban setting, it should not alter the cultural significance of the property. It should be reversible as far as possible. 

 

REPURPOSING OF OLD BUILDINGS  

In India unlike the west we don’t have many unused properties, issues are different such as overused properties (where due to tall heights illegal mezzanines are created), misused properties and sometimes abused too. Vikas Dilawari added that with so much encroachment done, the main fabric is hardly seen. “In larger cities many buildings are wrapped with bill boards with Neon Lights and these are not the right things to happen, Hence heritage legislation and its enforcement is an important factor which is missing as all heritage committees are advisory committees only. Enforcement is not in their jurisdiction. New uses should be sensitive to the zone and the building. Yes, up to date modern facilities, services need to be integrated and the need of the hour but the key is to do it sensitively.”  

Shashank Shahabadi said that rapid urbanization has left the city scavenging for both commercial and residential spaces. “Government agencies should be culturally mindful in creating development frameworks that are inclusive and value cultural heritage, understanding the heritage sites, and plan more inclusive townships. A collaboration with urban planners, historians, architects, and conservationists can bring about awareness and create a need to preserve these old relics.”

Aishwarya Tipnis feels that buildings remain worth as long as they are in use. “Repurposing and reusing old buildings is one of strategies employed to make them relevant again. Not all buildings can be reused, not all buildings can be repurposed and it is case to case assessment that is influenced by the existing physical condition of the building, cost of the conversion and financial market dynamics, kind of funding available. It is easy to say that old buildings should be repurposed, but I think it is important to be pragmatic as to why they are not being repurposed and try to address those concerns, instead of painting everyone as villains in the narrative.” 

Abha Narain Lambah agreed that while we all speak of recycling water, paper etc., recycling of buildings is equally pertinent to sustainability. “The greenest building is one that already exists and therefore very often repurposing an old building to a new use can not only be a sustainable solution but also lends character to a new function.”

Architects need to acknowledge the cultural history these heritage buildings hold. They serve as a connection for the community with the past. One should not look at heritage conservation as opposition to economic growth and urban development.

 

ROLE OF INDIAN ARCHITECTURAL COMMUNITY 

Abha Narain Lambah who has been for 25 years working in the field of heritage conservation has seen the field grow into a robust discipline. She expressed, “Each project is challenging in some way or the other. Recently we completed the restoration of the Moorish mosque Kapurthala that won the Best Restoration Award from Hudco.”

Shashank Shahabadi giving examples of his projects shared, “Local communities can stand up for their neighbourhoods and plan interventions. To restore is not just to conserve. Restore also means to repurpose. We are currently undertaking conservation of old temple architecture and modernizing some of the old buildings in our city. The peaceful residential street of Bhawanipur in South Calcutta has become more viable as a commercial street. So a 90-year-old “Bengali Bari” which was part of their neighbourhood suddenly seemed non-functional.  We are currently converting this building into a cafe and retail space without compromising its architectural language and keeping its inherent character intact. 

Vikas Dilawari added that with redevelopment being the mantra of every city, the architectural profession is at cross road. “It’s like climate change- we need to see the larger good than short term personal gains. The Conservationist is a miniscule population and a fine balance is required by sensitive development and redevelopment needs to be replaced with Urban Renewal. Being a new discipline in the country only 30 years old this field possess different type of challenges like some time it can be structurally very challenging to save and protect the original fabric, sometimes we don’t have the expertise or traditional material and very often funds are limited .The BH Wadia Clock Tower repairs was challenging structurally as it’s an island site in the middle of the road. To make the Muljee Jetha Fountain functional was a challenge as we had no clue of its water engineering till we opened up and we had to then resolve and make it functional.” 

“It is really not fair to put the onus of heritage preservation just on the architectural community as it is a collective responsibility that has to be shared between the government, people, owners, users etc.,” said Aishwarya Tipnis. She added. “The architects are merely facilitators of this process of change. The key game changer is the political will and motivation, policy context and funding available that determine the course of the project. I think the architects need to be trained and equipped to be dealing with these aspects and becoming much more than designers on the project. My most challenging project is still underway, which is the restoration of the Registry Building at Chandernagore West Bengal. The building was heavily derelict with trees growing out of the roofs, large sections being unsafe and dilapidated, it has a demolition order for over 23 years. Through a bottom up initiative involving students and the local community, it has been decided to be restored and converted into a community resource by the collaboration of the local and state governments and the Government of France. The planning phase of this project is now complete and we are awaiting the implementation phase post the Elections in Bengal this summer.” 

 

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