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‘Multidisciplinary approach’ to Writers’ project

Work on restoring Writers’ Buildings will begin soon after the detailed project report (DPR) is ready, hopefully by the end of November.

About 45-50 students of Jadavpur University’s (JU) architecture department have started work on a detailed survey of the iconic red building in BBD Bag, for which then governor-general Warren Hastings had granted Thomas Lyon, after whom Lyons’ Range was named, a 16-bigha plot in October 1776.

JU was chosen as consultant for this project and Madhumita Roy, the head of the architecture department at Jadavpur University, heads the team that will prepare the DPR.

Confusion prevails about the architectural style of the building from which initially India, and subsequently Bengal, has been ruled. Alex Bremnder, senior lecturer in architectural history, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh, comments in an email: “Stylistically, the Writers’ Buildings is what I would loosely identify as Neo-Renaissance classicism with a French Mansard roof. In this respect it resembles somewhat the ‘Second Empire’ style that emerged during the reign of Napoleon III in France. This was a style that was imitated from time to time in Britain and other parts of its empire. For example, the Town Halls in Bendigo and Sydney, Australia.”

Civil engineering experts of JU have already started to check the health of the building, and the DPR will be ready only after that. In the meantime, the Heritage Commission of the West Bengal government has cleared the project, and its observations will be kept in mind when work begins, said a public works department (PWD) source.

The PWD, which has been in charge of the maintenance of Writers’ Buildings all these years, has been assigned the task of executing the project. The Heritage Commission wants work to start immediately. The PWD has already pulled down temporary structures in the main building and this has improved the flow of air and natural light illumination in the structure.

According to the PWD source, both the Bengal Engineering and Science University (Shibpur) — now the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology — and JU had been asked to make presentations on the conservation of Writers’ Buildings, and thereafter, the chief minister plumped for the latter’s.

It is learnt that initially, the faculty of the architecture department of JU refused to touch the project, and so Madhumita Roy decided to go it alone. However, the PWD source clarified that the help of Intach would be sought to execute the project. And if “Intach cannot tackle any particular problem”, they will go in for foreign expertise. The British government has offered help and the names of two experts, Philip Davies, the former senior director at English Heritage, being one of them, have been mentioned in this respect.

Davies has of late been associated with the restoration of the Secretariat building in Yangon, Myanmar, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Writers’ Buildings. But these requests will have to be routed through the British High Commission.

G.M. Kapur, state convener, Intach, says he has been told unofficially that the organisation will be involved. “We hope to be involved in whatever way we can with our national and international network,” says Kapur. In Calcutta, Intach has participated in projects to restore Prinsep Ghat, Gwalior Monument and St. John’s Church. It is working on behalf of the National Museum of Denmark in managing the South Gate restoration project in Serampore. Intach has its own architectural heritage division in Delhi which handles a number of projects directly, but occasionally also uses the services of conservation architects empanelled with it. Intach has restored Jaisalmer Fort, Mehrangarh Fort and the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

Madhumita Roy says her students started the reconnaissance and condition survey from June 15 and they are doing measure drawings of all the architectural features. They are working in tandem with a 30-40 member professional team. Photographic documentation has already begun. After documentation, a decision will be made on what is to be retained and what demolished and then only will the plan be frozen. The concept plan — how services will be installed and allotment of offices — will begin thereafter.

Roy clarifies that this is not just a conservation project, plain and simple. It needs a “multidisciplinary approach”. “It needs to be addressed in a holistic manner which will include all the issues emerging from a complex which has gradually evolved within a span of 230 years,” says Roy.

For reference work she is using the central library inside Writers’ Buildings, National Library and the British Council Library. Art historians will also be engaged. The PWD website already has a section on the project but soon a dedicated website will be launched. “We want transparency and anybody can post his or her comments and suggestions here,” she says. Roy envisages the restored Writers’ Buildings as a smart building complex with four courtyards and rooftop gardens. The ground floor will be dedicated to the entrance lobby and services.

She adds that she will try her best to get the tender document ready by December-end. But before that she plans to organise a big seminar on the project.