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Calcutta is a city of buildings that are painted either yellow (ela mati in Bengali) with green doors and windows or in a white-and-light blue combination. Keeping this colour scheme in mind, the previous governor of West Bengal had repainted Raj Bhavan yellow and green. But the colour scheme does not seem to have found favour with many architects based in Calcutta, even when the buildings are of a certain age.

Two heritage buildings in Calcutta prominently located in Chowringhee and Park Street are being given a new look, tarted up rather, in a fashion that has little connection with the past. The two are Metropolitan Building and Park Mansion.

Marble out, mall in

The first, as is well known, used to be Whiteaway and Laidlaw, the famous department store. After it closed down, the property changed hands. The Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) became its landlord, and gradually this grand building that defines the character of Chowringhee went to ruin like most good things in Calcutta.

Yielding to public pressure and the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s (CMC) notices, the LIC undertook a project to restore it. But not before the structure was vandalised — its beautiful Italian marble floors were ripped off and a wealth of stained glass windows facing JL Nehru Road and SN Banerjee Road was smashed for the sake of a mall.

The building looked clean for a while, then began to look shabby once again. In spite of its “restoration” the roof is not waterproof and during heavy showers, the top floors become flooded. Water cascades down the grand staircases. This has not happened yet this time, but where is the monsoon this time?

Gaudy and golden

Now the building is being given another coat of paint. Good decision. But look at the shades being used. Metropolitan Building, even at its shabbiest, had not lost any of its dignity. Now it looks downright vulgar with that abundance of gold on its cupolas and the procession of urns on the terrace and the acanthus on top of each Corinthian column. Metropolitan Building, if memory serves and old photographs are anything to go by, never looked gaudy before.

Even if the architect responsible for this act is under the impression that he is actually beautifying the building, has he forgotten that restoration is far removed from beautification? The conservator’s task is to uncover the authenticity of the structure as far as possible. The architect has successfully eliminated all references to its past.

Park Mansion, “restored” by the same architect, wears the same look. A part of this building was gutted in a fire, and it is now off-white with bright red windows and dabs of glitter on strategic points like the cupolas. Perhaps it is not legally binding to paint a building the way it always used to be, but any self-respecting “conservator” would think twice before transforming it into a piece of kitsch.

On what basis does he do it? After painstaking research? One is sure he does not bother like most architects in Calcutta.

Colour code horror

Conservation architect Nilina Deb Lal stresses the importance of research before a restoration project is undertaken: “It is important to find out whether the process of decision-making is supported by rigorous research. Frequently intensive study is not undertaken. There has to be a statement.”

Churches in medieval times used to be gaudily painted, she says. Now there is a conscious decision to leave them stark — to understate the object. In the case of these buildings it is a reverse decision. “They should have been doubly careful,” feels Deb Lal.

The same architect, who has “restored” Metropolitan Building, Park Mansion and Queens Mansion has all but ruined Great Eastern Hotel and the Mackinnon Mackenzie building.

He has walked out of the latter project but not before destroying the stone-clad building. Why the CMC allowed him to tear down both these iconic structures remains a mystery.

With an unerring eye for the banal he is now meddling with the façade of Great Eastern Hotel, which he was supposed to keep intact. A palm tree has been planted on the pavement under the balcony, its trunk sprouts out of a huge gap in the balcony. How did the architect get away with it?

And now he is collaborating with a British architect to design the annexe of the Victoria Memorial Hall.

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