RUINS of MEMORY

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By Bad 'restoration' is the bane of marvels of architecture in the city SOUMITRA DAS
  • Published 31.05.09
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Anyone who has visited Bandel church of late expecting to see a venerable Portuguese-style place of worship centuries old is bound to be horrified when confronted with a brand-new building, its walls lined with slabs of gleaming granite that conceal its time-scarred original structure. The church is now enveloped with shiny granite from the base right up to the pinnacle to which the faithful ascend carrying giant candles for thanksgiving on the terrace. Perhaps we prefer this gaudy new look to that of one which makes no attempt at glossing over the age of a building, thereby serving as a constant reminder of the simple truth that without the past there can be no future.

Ideally, conservation architects should aim at bridging the gulf between the two periods of time so that a heritage building, even if it has been modified for reuse, helps us revive in our imagination times that we have left behind. A sense of history can have a steadying influence.

Sad to say, Bandel is not a stray case. The presence of the watchdog bodies of the state government and Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) notwithstanding, developers in this state and city have been allowed to behave like the proverbial bull in a china shop, plundering “heritage” at will so that they can squeeze out maximum gains. Ruins of memory are what they leave behind.

Two egregious examples are located in the heart of the city itself — the attempts at “restoring” the Great Eastern Hotel (Grade IIB, according to the CMC heritage buildings list) opposite Raj Bhavan, which had for a considerable period of time been incurring huge losses, and the magnificent, stone-clad Mackinnon Mackenzie building (Grade I on the CMC heritage buildings list) constructed in 1927 on Strand Road, which was overgrown with parasites after it had been gutted in a mysterious fire and abandoned thereafter.

A Delhi-based hotel chain (belonging to the late Lalit Suri, now headed by his widow, Jyotsna) and a Calcutta-based real estate agent, Diamond Group, respectively, “saved” the two listed heritage buildings from destruction, and have reduced these two sprawling properties to structures as flimsy as egg shells and as illusory as stage props that have nothing behind them. In both cases, their brick-and-mortar structures were dismantled and now all that is left behind the ghosts of the façades are giant vacant plots where new buildings are expected to come up in the near future.

Demolition men

It has been nearly a decade ago since Metropolitan Building was saved from the wrecker’s ball, yet this imposing early 20th century structure on Chowringhee, that was once a department store, is still vulnerable to the impact of heavy showers. Even post-restoration, its damaged terrace was left untouched, and every time it rains, water flows in torrents down its wooden staircases. Before the first and ground floors were turned into a shopping mall, the wealth of art deco stained glass that graced its windows was smashed and replaced with plate glass. Even before that, a fortune’s worth of marble disappeared from its floors, a phenomenon that occurs in all heritage buildings undergoing what passes for restoration.

It happened in Currency Building in Dalhousie Square after the CMC intervened and stopped the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) from demolishing this grand Italian Renaissance building. Before CPWD allowed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to take the building over, crores worth of marble and teak was smuggled out in the intervening period. Now ASI is reconstructing it, albeit in slow motion.

Architect Dulal Mukherjee, who is overseeing the “restoration” of both Great Eastern Hotel and Mackinnon Mackenzie building, and was earlier in charge of refurbishing Metropolitan Building, says both heritage structures were in a critical condition and so had to be swept aside. The grand staircase of Great Eastern Hotel will be reconstructed, and the same holds for the atrium and dome of the Mackinnon Mackenzie building that were damaged by intense heat.

This building was initially meant to be transformed into a mall, but after the downturn the developer has decided to create office space there, subject to the CMC’s decision, of course. The only permit obtained now is to ensure structural safety of the “heritage” sections that are being retained. “Offices will be built around the recreated dome keeping in mind the old design,” said Mukherjee.

As to the leaking roof of Metropolitan Building, Mukherjee said some of the tenants of LIC, which is the richest landlord in the city and owns this building, had obstructed work. While that may be the case, LIC is not entirely blameless. It had once planned a multi-storeyed structure there but public pressure brought it to its knees. And now Metropolitan Building has turned into a gaudy Big Bazaar plastered with signboards that have all but obliterated its heritage character.

Saving the soul

Could the two buildings that are being “restored” not have been saved? According to a highly placed source on the CMC’s heritage conservation committee: “There was no way out. Even if the two damaged buildings could have been restored, the ‘viability gap funding’ would have been beyond the CMC’s means.”

Asked how Firpo’s market, which was declared a condemned building after the fire in 2002, was allowed to be rebuilt in two years’ time, he said Mackinnon Mackenzie was taller than the former, so the same rules would not apply in both cases. Moreover, in the case of Mackinnon Mackenzie, the internal steel structure was terribly distorted in the heat, whereas Firpo’s, being brick built, was not so seriously affected.

Conservation architects based in Delhi and Mumbai would, however, take issue with the CMC. Asked if Great Eastern Hotel and Mackinnon Mackenzie could have been “saved”, A.G.K. Menon, convener, Intach, Delhi chapter, said it was a question of sensitivity. “If you want to act ethically it has to be an internal drive. It cannot be forced,” he added. Mumbai-based conservation architect Vikas Dilwari came out quite strongly against demolition. He explained that there were two schools of thought in this regard.

A building can be retained holistically, preserving both the interior and exterior to keep its “soul” alive. This is what they do in Europe and the UK, and he subscribes to this view. On the other hand, there is the American approach, which believes in “reconstructing” heritage — a contradiction in terms. Not surprising, for Americans have no history. While admitting that a conservation architect has to be alive to practical needs, Dilwari said he advocated minimum intervention as it saves costs, and “conservation of resources is what our country requires”.

Façadism

City-based Nilina Deb Lal — one of the only three trained conservation architects that Calcutta can boast of, and who had compiled the Intach heritage guide long before the CMC had come out with it — sounds positive about the way heritage conservation is shaping up in the city, when 20 years ago a heritage list of buildings that cannot be demolished was unthinkable. “The implementing authority will have to take the next unpleasant decision and find a way of preventing demolition — even if it means extra cost — or else the tide will never turn,” said Deb Lal.

“Façadism is only usually appropriate where interiors are bereft of any interest or original fabric or have been heavily altered. Generally, people like their historic buildings to be genuinely old rather than just skin-deep,” wrote Philip Davies of the organisation English Heritage.

Returning to the CMC heritage bigwig, I asked, why was College Street market that was stylistically inspired by Rajasthan demolished. Only its tower was listed, so that was spared, he said. No word about the irreplaceable quaintness of the market, where, for generations, Bengali families had shopped for trousseau. But CMC doesn’t take cognisance of aesthetics. Why else would those aesthetically dead post-Independence statues of national leaders be included in the heritage list? The leaders and their likenesses cannot be confused. It is like saying that all Rabindrasangeet is good, however badly sung. When it comes to national icons we suspend our discrimination.

This becomes obvious when one steps into Raja Rammohan Roy’s house-turned-museum on Amherst Street — a perfect example of “restoration” gone awry. From the gaudily painted porch to the brand-new marble floors and patterned doors — handiwork of the public works department (PWD) — everything goes against the spirit of the 19th century social reformer.

A look inside the College Street campus of the 175-year-old Medical College Hospital reveals greater atrocities. The beautiful Chuni Seal outdoor dispensary building has made way for a standard PWD box. A giant structure is coming up on what used to be the playground in front of the administrative block, like the one near Eden hospital. Gradually the huge once-airy campus is becoming as crowded with buildings as Calcutta itself. The hospital may need extra space but what about extending it elsewhere?

Shamachurn Law Infirmary and Ezra Hospital have all acquired shiny flooring. The original cast iron railings and teak woodwork have been torn off and replaced with cheap substitutes. The marble plaques — one in Hebrew — are missing. Madam Belnos’s oil painting of Madhusudan Gupta, who was the first Indian student to dissect a cadaver, and another portrait of Umacharan Seth, the first Indian doctor, that hang in the general lecture theatre, are heavily damaged. Atul Bose’s painting of Dr BC Roy is missing.

The anatomy museum, where bizarre specimens are preserved in formaline, located in the BC Roy annexe, is falling to pieces, the walls and showcases damaged by white ants. The PWD is supposed to maintain the hospital buildings.

In Ahmedabad, developers are so happy with the conservation work done by the municipality that four of them have gifted the civic body a building in which a heritage centre will be set up. We can only hope that both the administration and the developers in the city will one day realise that history is not for killing.

MILKING HERITAGE

Heritage can be a paying proposition to those assigned to look after buildings so designated only if the original flooring, woodwork and interiors are changed from time to time.The teak and Italian marble that these buildings often yield is always worth a fortune. Add to that the bills for buying new material and the cuts one gets from contractors, and it tots up to a tidy sum. Hence the zeal with which the “accessories” of most heritage buildings that the administration is supposed to look after are changed periodically.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is in charge of the upkeep of Nizam’s Palace, the mansion which was originally known as Galstaun Park on AJC Bose Road and was constructed by JC Galstaun (1859-1947), the Armenian tycoon who had built Queens Mansion. After Galstaun lost his fortune, the building was acquired by the Nizam of Hyderabad. It is a Grade I building on the CMC heritage list. Hemmed in by highrise CPWD buildings, the interiors of Nizam’s Palace, according to a highly-placed source in India Audit & Accounts Service which occupies the two top floors of this magnificent building, had been neglected for a long time, although from outside it looked spic and span. It is only recently that the interiors are being refurbished, but the beautiful floors covered with tiny tiles like millions of polka dots were carpeted with dirt.

Four valuable teak doors are missing, replaced by aluminium substitutes.Cracks have appeared on the false ceiling above the hall with wooden floors. It had begun to crumble and fall. Anyway, CPWD, which occupies the ground floor, uses cement to repair the building, instead of lime plaster used originally. This is confirmed by D.K. Chaudhury of CPWD, who is in charge of its upkeep. “It depends on the availability of material” and “workforce”, he said. He asserted that it was his job to keep things in“shape”.What he was using to do so was immaterial. CPWD has not heard aboutconservation.

It is alleged that CPWD was keen on going in for new flooring and doors, and iron beams to shore up the false ceiling. One can imagine why.