A new wind is sweeping around the heritage buildings of the city, at least around some of them. Unfortunately, it is an ill-wind. Several heritage property owners have embarked on plans of either complete or partial reconstruction of their buildings. Those in charge of giving permission for such activities are mistakenly giving in, on the assurance that the new structure will be “exactly as the old structure was”. There is nothing more misleading than this. For, a new building or even a partial reconstruction using modern material is not heritage conservation under any circumstance.
Take, for instance, the historic Bible Society building in the Memorial Hall premises. Despite its being included in the Padmanabhan Committee Report, thereby bringing it under the purview of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) of the CMDA, this structure was demolished. This was done on the grounds that approval for demolition had been given before the High Court of Madras ruled that the buildings listed in the Padmanabhan Committee Report had to be protected. That the demolition was done immediately after the ruling is another matter altogether that we will not go into.
Served with a fait accompli, the CMDA had to permit a new building with the Bible Society promising to give it a “heritage look”. When the plans came up for approval by the HCC it was found that the new structure was several stories higher than the old one and also completely dwarfed Memorial Hall. For once the HCC asserted itself and decreed that the number of floors had to be reduced so that Memorial Hall could be seen. This was accepted and adhered to. The building is now complete, with everyone congratulating themselves on having preserved heritage. The new structure, it must be admitted, has a few arched windows. If that is heritage preservation, then so be it.
Internationally, heritage conservation follows certain norms. Firstly, the attempts are always to preserve what is still standing. Therefore, demolition is a strict no-no. In which case the old Bible Society building must have never been pulled down. Secondly, in case partial reconstruction is to be done, care is taken that existing material is the first choice. If that is not possible, new material is sourced from exactly the same places from where the original was procured. This was, for instance, done in the case of Senate House renovation, where chunam and not cement concrete was used. Thirdly, any reconstruction is done keeping the heritage grading of the building in mind. Structures of utmost importance cannot be altered in any way. Those of less importance can have permissible changes. We now leave it to you to decide as to how the Bible Society building can be construed as heritage preservation/renovation/restoration.
Now that a precedent has been established, several others have begun jumping on this bandwagon. St Ebba’s School (also in the Padmanabhan Committee Report) has in the name of restoration removed the entire roof and is replacing it with reinforced cement concrete. That this is being done without any conservation architect on board can be a reasonable assumption. And if one has been involved, then that person has not been faithful to the spirit of restoration. The two building materials, chunam that was traditionally used on the walls, and cement that is now being used, are not known to bond together and considerable problems are predicted for the future. The YMIA, it is reliably learnt, is mulling over demolition and construction of a new Gokhale Hall, “on the same design, inclusive of dome.” Several churches, temples and educational institutions have either done this or are contemplating to do it.
Which brings us to what is a recurring theme in several of our editorials. What exactly is the HCC doing? Why is it not being proactive in advising heritage property owners on what can be done? It is now merely an approving authority that sits in judgement over demolition plans. It is high time it set itself a broader agenda with vision, and one that includes a Heritage Act for the State. Failing that, we are bound to lose our heritage to misguided restoration efforts while the Establishment keeps patting itself on its back.