Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Preserved for posterity
Faculty member, School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, Chennai.
A character in a novel tattoos the history of his kingdom and the legends of his king on his body. As an envoy he moves around the world, visits other courts and marketplaces. He stands still while people read the tattoo and copy the history. The legends of the country spread and the envoy collects silver in the process.
Prakash Israni/ Fotomedia
Buildings often remind me of his character. They inscribe on themselves, the life and times of the culture in which they are located and stand as veritable symbols of collective memory. They grow old to be an important cultural resource of any society. While the economic value of a building attracts developers and decision makers, its cultural value is not recognised many-a-time wantonly. In contrast, conservation is a practice that protects and enhances the cultural value of a building. It places value on the building and not on the land on which it sits. For these reasons conservation is often misunderstood as an antithesis of development. Conservation also resists the bulldozing arm of development. A city is an "interesting collage" and its variety and cultural patterns cannot be erased. In this context, conservation offers an alternative paradigm for development; while this idea has been clearly understood and accepted in environmental realms, it awaits recognition in the architectural and town planning realms.
In India, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is the premier institution concerned with the conservation of monuments. This institution was established in 1861 after the initiative taken by the antiquarians of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. The primary interest of this institution was antiquity and authenticity. Even after independence, this colonial legacy continues. As a result, about 5000 monuments alone have been declared as heritage sites. Another equal number of monuments have been identified by the various other state departments of archaeology. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, declares buildings that are 100 years old and above as monuments and provides for their protection. Monuments are frozen or mummified; at times, later additions are removed and the structure is restored to its original/ authentic state of existence. This may be necessary in certain cases but it is not comprehensive enough to cover a wide range of built heritage that is present in the country. For example, age alone cannot be a criteria for valuing a building. A building may not be hundred years old, but can still be considered important for its commemorative importance or its architectural merit. Second, we cannot declare all heritage buildings as monuments and afford to freeze it either. There are a host of structures whose survival or sustenance will be meaningful and possible only through their rouse. Hence, there is a need to have a different approach and attitude to negotiate a host of other "living" buildings i.e., buildings that are still being inhabited. Authenticity of the structure cannot be a major issue in this alternative approach. Conservation of many buildings may involve repair, addition and reconstruction without damaging the value of the fabric. However, much of this reconstruction could be authentic. That is, with the traditional crafts and craftsmen still existing, many of these structures or portions of them can be built as before. This traditional skill too has to be recognised as part of the heritage and linked with conservation efforts. Ignoring this and misconceiving heritage as something "authentic" and frozen would cause irreparable damage. Dakshinachitra - a conservation and show casing of South Indian built heritage is a case in point. More of it later.
In 1984 the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) was established. One of the objectives of this non-governmental organisation is to focus on the "unprotected" architectural heritage. INTACH primarily interfaces with the development and town planning agencies to protect built heritage. It has drawn up a national listing project wherein an inventory of heritage buildings in various cities has been listed. This inventory helps to assess the extent of heritage stock. Second, it becomes the basis to inform and impress the town planning agencies to confer a special status on these buildings. This special status helps monitor these buildings and provides financial incentives for their conservation. Apart from individual buildings, INTACH has also attempted to delineate heritage zones within various cities. The history of many Indian settlements necessitates this.
In any city three quarters are easily delineable. The pre-colonial, colonial and the post-colonial. The precolonial quarter is qualified by contiguous built up area, the presence of many layered streets, activities and public spaces. The colonial quarter is characterised by the stand-alone bungalows, various civic buildings and parks. The third, the new town is separate, distinct and made up of "modern" residential quarters and office buildings. These three distinct quarters require different town planning approaches.
Unfortunately, most of the town level masterplans do not take cognisance of this variety in built form. Whether it is the new bazaar of Jodhpur or the MRTS terminal at Mylapore (Chennai), the fate is the same. At the most, the new master plans relate to the colonial and post-colonial parts of the settlement. The heritage rich pre-colonial historic quarter is completely ignored. As a result, many city cores have dramatically changed with their historic character surviving only in fragments. These historic cores or their fragments derive their character through a collective presence of traditional buildings. These traditional buildings may not be unique exemplars or even distinct from one another, but, as a group they become important.
Heritage zones acknowledge this collective importance, delineates this group as one entity and demands for it special status, sensitive development plans and building rules.
The existing town and country planning acts do have provisions for conferring special status to buildings and heritage areas. However, for many reasons it has never happened. In order to focus attention and also action on heritage buildings, recently, INTACH and various other environmental organisations have pushed for a separate Heritage Act/ regulations. Mumbai is the first city to have such a regulation, followed suit by Hyderabad. Mumbai regulations are not very comprehensive, but it is an important beginning. These regulations and acts notify and protect heritage buildings and provide for financial incentives in the form of Transfer of Development rights (TDR). TDR in simple words mean that whatever development, in terms of buildable area is denied to an owner of an heritage building, he/she can transfer the unutilised area to another property or sell it to others. This, it is hoped, would provide enough incentive for people to protect built heritage. The model act circulated by the Central Government also advocates TDR. Experience elsewhere suggest that there is a conceptual flaw in determining or linking the heritage value of building with that of land value. Fickle land markets will demand a tight and complex planning system to make TDR work.
It is necessary to explore alternative planning tools not only for the above mentioned reasons but also to negotiate heritage buildings in rural areas where the speculative land market is almost non-existent. Another major limitation in the model act as well as many of the INTACH's listing project is the privileging of buildings of only national importance. This is a hangover of the ASI policy and Ancient Monument Act. It also betrays the importance of the 73rd constitutional amendment which bestows more powers to local bodies to decide on matters of development which also include heritage. It is ironical, that in Tamil Nadu, while Vivekananda House and the Rajiv Gandhi memorial have gathered heritage status, Arumuga Navalar's Press in Chennai, which is the earliest Tamil printing press, is yet to be recognised as a heritage building. Local or regional history is as important as "national" history. It becomes even more important when efforts are taken to make conservation a community based movement.
Conservation efforts in India also suffer from limited availability of expertise. ASI trains archaeologists in their institute and limits their participation to ASI related monuments. While others have to depend on limited efforts of the Delhi School of Architecture and the Lucknow Institute. INTACH in collaboration with the Charles Wallace Trust has been supporting scholars to train in conservation at York University, U.K. For many reasons, it has had a very limited influence. There are hardly any provisions to train contractors and building craftsmen in conservation efforts. The only silver lining is the existence of traditional craftsmen. One has to be grateful to the hosts of master craftsmen in this country who have kept many buildings and other related crafts alive.
It would make for good technical sense and social relevance to integrate crafts in conservation projects. First of all, many conservation efforts are possible only through using traditional craft and building techniques. Growing support for such conservation projects would pave for sustenance of such skills and craftsmen. However, recent projects like Dakshinachitra are found wanting when it comes to such important aspects. Dakshinachitra has attempted to display the various building types of South India in the outskirts of Chennai. In this project, building styles such as a Chettinad house, weaver's residence and agraharams were bought from different owners, removed from their "authentic" landscape and reassembled with major modifications (to suit tourist trade) along the leisure corridor of Chennai for public display.
This assemblage is improper and inauthentic. For example, the Chettinad house is compressed and the layout has no clue to its anthropological roots. The agraharam house too suffers the same fate. Distortion in this case was because the site available for reassembling was smaller than the original building length. However, the serious and fundamental conception flaw is that this project relates heritage and conservation solely to the factor of "authenticity". As a result, an agraharam house is demolished and reconstructed using modern technology and modified layout, whereas it could have been completely built afresh with available craftsmen without being less authentic. Where the process of building and crafts could have been given a chance, the product and commodification has taken over.
Recently, when the proposals and specification for the restoration of Senate House, Madras University were submitted, the engineers following the PWD norms and rates refused to sanction the plans and estimates. This is mainly due to the reluctance of the PWD to acknowledge and accept traditional building techniques. In this context, projects like Dakshinachitra could have helped to sort certain procedural problems of conservation, but an opportunity has been lost. The future of conservation is in its acceptance and transformation as a community movement. Through its links with crafts, it can even influence mainstream architecture practice and pave the way for a new architecture idiom.
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