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Sunday , June 15 , 2014
 
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Heritage bulldozed

- Beauty makes way for development

Guest Column

Amit Chaudhuri

This piece arises from my wish to address three questions related to this city. The first: what happened here that led to a distinctive style in architecture in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries? The second question: what’s been happening to that architecture — to those buildings — in the last twenty-five years? The third question is my real reason for writing this piece: what will happen to this architecture in the future? My reason for bringing up these questions here, and in other articles and forums in the past year and a half, is because I believe that Calcutta’s architectural legacy is in a state of crisis, a crisis deepened by the fact that very few people recognise it as one.

A few months ago, in the course of an informal chat, I conveyed to the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty my sense of this crisis, and that I thought what was at stake was more than “heritage”, but a substantial portion of Calcutta’s visible cultural history. I emphasise the word “visible” because, unlike ideas, language, or even books, which we often carry around in our heads or in our conversation, buildings (as much a product of historical epochs as books and ideas) are where a culture’s shape and variety literally appear before us. When Chakrabarty began to see that what I was referring to had not so much to do with “heritage buildings”, but with something broader which was now being systematically, yet almost haphazardly, destroyed, he agreed: “It’s true. I believe there was an urban revolution in Calcutta in the nineteenth century, and that these buildings are evidence that it happened.”

“But I never actually looked at the houses you’re speaking of, though I see what you’re saying,” Chakrabarty said. “The kind of struggling middle-class background I belonged to meant we didn’t look at houses or think about them. Also, the intelligentsia would have found such a project quite funny.” I put to him that a constricted economic background hasn’t necessarily interfered with intellectuals — even very politically committed ones — in other cultures from engaging with the aesthetic. The problem of our “not looking” at our own cities must lie elsewhere.

Commonality of features, heterogeneity of style: two houses on Sarat Banerjee Road

This brings me to a related difficulty: of defending an architectural legacy whose very existence is in doubt. There’s a comfortable awareness that architecture in Calcutta denotes colonial buildings. But even colonial “heritage” isn’t properly looked at; or else an estimated 1,600 heritage buildings wouldn’t have been reduced, according to the architect Partha Ranjan Das of the Heritage Commission, to roughly 700. It’s an Asian problem: I recall receiving an email from an organisation in Hong Kong two years ago, offering a tour of the city’s sixteen heritage sites. Sixteen! Similarly, Pune, sucked into the property vortex, duly decimated its architecture. This is the path that Calcutta’s following, which is strangely concordant with its parallel project of “beautification”. But “beauty”, in a city, doesn’t fall from above. It begins with us looking at the spaces, streets, and houses that surround us and which we inhabit.

When you speak of a Bengali architecture outside of the colonial buildings, people might, at a stretch, think of the rajbaris of north Calcutta, with their verandah-lined, rectangular outlines enclosing a courtyard, with a dalan at one end. These are indeed — despite their bygone hubris, or because of it — remarkable. But by Calcutta’s architectural legacy I mean a more modest habitational space that’s to be found everywhere, but most commonly in Bhowanipore, Bakul Bagan, Paddapukur, Hindusthan Park, Ballygunge Place, Sarat Bose Road, and even in Kidderpore (in the last, you find a cross between the rajbari and the sort of Bengali home I’m referring to). Once ubiquitous, this kind of house is now being destroyed relentlessly, partly because families can no longer afford them; partly because, even if they can, developers will offer owners a tempting sum of money for the land that the house stands on, in order to raze it down and build a block of flats; and partly because the architectural value of these homes isn’t clear, and they aren’t listed “heritage” buildings. Not that “heritage” ever stopped a builder. Whatever Credai, the builders’ affiliation, might claim to be doing in order to make their work seem above-board, a recognition of the architectural pedigree of extant buildings isn’t one of their concerns. But it should be a primary concern for those who habitually buy to destroy.

One down, two to go: three houses in Hindusthan Park, Pictures by Pabitra Das and Anindya Shankar Ray

Most of the homes I’m talking about came up between the late nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth: they’re what made Calcutta Calcutta rather than another city. As they vanish, we see the sort of transformation that has occurred worldwide after globalisation: of places with particular characteristics becoming generic cities and towns. Of course, there are any number of cities that have taken globalisation on board while resisting being changed into the generic: like Berlin and Istanbul. Whatever strategies they have adopted, there are laws in place in such cities to prevent the destruction of not only landmarks and heritage sites, but every building that is definitive of their ethos. In India and in Calcutta, we have no such laws: we have “heritage” regulations that are either flouted at will or ignored.

My concern, as I’ve said earlier, is with the middle-class homes that exist outside officially defined notions of heritage, but contribute fundamentally to the city’s architectural landscape. Let me try to describe them. They often stand cheek-by-jowl — unlike the mansions of the very rich, they aren’t built on a large expanse of land. Despite this, they suggest a sense of space that the apartment buildings that come up in their place don’t. Importantly, the (mainly two-storeyed) homes have certain “family resemblances”. These include: a small courtyard; long verandahs with cast-iron grilles; wooden French or Venetian windows with slats that can be manoeuvred by a lever; red stone floors; ring-like knockers on doors; a lintel-like bar to lock doors; a narrow open corridor alongside the house leading to a space at the back; rooftop terraces; intricately designed cornices and railings on balconies; figureheads or carvings on the terraces; ornamental perforations, placed high on walls, that serve as ventilators; and grilles with motifs including the lotus and other flowers, or the art deco-influenced sunrise. Although several of these houses are now gone, there are still so many of them (far outnumbering other types of buildings), that they represent a local architectural style. You won’t find this genre of habitation in Bombay, Delhi, Paris, or even London. The last comparison is instructive: Calcutta may have been a colonial city, but its architectural efflorescence combines a variety of elements that takes it out of the realm of colonial authorship. There is little of Calcutta in London, or any other English town, and vice versa. Certain elements I have encountered elsewhere: the red stone floors in Brussels and Marrakech; a version of the slatted window in France and Italy. But this convergence of features I haven’t found anywhere else.

What’s most remarkable about these houses is that the family resemblances comprise a style, but not a blueprint intended to produce homogeneity. I have never found two houses, though they’ll necessarily share the features I’ve mentioned, that are identical. This makes them very different from, say, English Victorian houses, whose property value is high, but which are less varied. Look, now, at the two photographs of neighbouring homes on Sarat Banerjee Road and Hindusthan Park to get a sense of what I mean: of houses in democratic proximity to each other and the street; of houses echoing each other in style; yet utterly strange to one another, and, as a result, self-contained, each dealing with space and habitation on its own terms. For the unknown architects of these homes, the family resemblances provided guidelines; but each house was a fresh departure, a sometimes radical reinterpretation of the rules. We’re aware of the four houses that are said to be, with Suren Kar’s collaboration, Tagore’s “creations” in Santiniketan — we think of them as being emblematic of the “poet’s restlessness”. But what they really remind us of is Tagore’s instinct for improvisation: for being true to the love of “light and space” that he mentioned in a letter, but also for not repeating himself. This instinct informs, en masse, the Calcutta homes, though the term “en masse” belies their experiment with heterogeneity; it’s a revolution on a scale at once small — given the size of each house — and large, covering neighbourhoods. It gives us an entirely contemporary signature, with no utopian impulses, no pretences to the European Renaissance, no nostalgia for a Hindu golden age. This makes these homes the true monuments of the modern city.

A semi-painted house on Pratapaditya Road. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

We should hesitate before we say farewell to this inheritance. See, in the photo of the three houses standing side by side in Hindusthan Park, the sobering image of the third building on the left, which is coming up in the place of one that’s been recently brought down. There are many measures for containing destruction, in ways that are not unjust to owners. But if this architecture is a part of Calcutta’s common inheritance, then both owners and developers need to understand that people have a democratic right to buy and sell private property, but not to destroy it for the price of land. This sort of transaction, exculpated by many reasons, both genuine and opportunistic, has now become overly cynical. Moreover, what is the market value of these houses, if they are bought to live in, rather than for the land they stand on? Our rich — the NRI, the businessman — need to educate themselves in the desirability of these homes (as opposed to condominiums and apartments in gated communities) as places to inhabit.

And Credai must resolve to build on available land, and take into account environmental impact, as it continues its mission of development, rather than making profit from destroying the vestiges of Calcutta’s architectural distinctiveness.

The truth is, the new architecture — with the exception of Charles Correa’s City Centre — is dreadful. Its badness is not even an exposition of an ideology of ugliness, a pointed turn against the past, such as, say, Sixties brutalist architecture or the Bauhaus school were. It’s a profilerating unprogrammatic badness, buoyed up by the market. The problem isn’t a Calcutta-centric one. If you were to visit booming Indian cities — say, Chennai — you’d be struck by the absence of any vision of development or design in India outside of the daily agglomeration of highways, flyovers, five-star hotels, shopping malls, gated enclaves, and airports: the hastily accumulated paraphernalia of “infrastructure”. I have no objection to these features: their appearance might inject a sense of economic purpose to a metropolis, one of whose indirect, unintended consequences might even be to draw new attention to a city’s cultural, and architectural, history. But the tightrope walk that “development” treads between rejuvenation and irrevocable obliteration is a very thin one, and we should be conscious of this fact. Moreover, the mushrooming of flyovers, towers, and malls doesn’t necessarily add up to a plan for development. In protesting against this tide, one might be accused of being out of touch or elitist. But this pattern of growth does little for poverty-alleviation; most often, it bulldozes the individual textures of our cities. It’s time to debate about how to proceed.

How do you think the city’s built heritage can be preserved? Tell [email protected]