We have had occasions to write about this in the past and we still feel it is a matter of greater relevance even now. There appears to be a mistaken notion among those who matter – Government officials, those in real estate and some architects – that heritage preservation is all about retaining the façade of a building while the rest can be changed in any fashion. This, if allowed to continue, will create a set of pastiche fronts and that will be all that we can claim as our heritage. It would be best if this trend were corrected at the earliest.

D'Angeli's/Bosottos - now being demolished from the rear
D’Angeli’s/Bosottos – now being demolished from the rear

Take the case of the Bosotto’s building on Mount Road. A landmark of the city, it has had a history of more than a century, beginning life as D’Angelis hotel, once one of the best hotels in the city, and continuing to remain a hotel under various owners till the 1970s, when it became viewed as a prime piece of real estate. It has been listed as a heritage building worthy of preservation by the High Court of Madras. And yet, as the photograph above will testify, work on the demolition of its interiors has begun. This is indeed a pity, for, apart from fire damage, most of this building was structurally intact and could have been put to creative alternative use.

According to the judgement delivered by the High Court of Madras on April 29, 2010 on Writ Petition No 25306 of 2006 which, incidentally, is the only protection that heritage buildings have in our city, “No development or redevelopment or engineering operation or additions, alterations, repairs, renovations including the painting of buildings, replacement of special features or demolition of the whole or any part thereof or plastering of said listed/heritage buildings or listed/heritage precincts shall be carried out except with the prior written permission of the Member Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. The Member Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority shall act in consultation with the Heritage Conservation Committee to be appointed by Government (hereinafter called ‘the said Heritage Conservation Committee’).

Such being the Court’s order, it is to be assumed that in the present instance, approval has been sought from the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) and the CMDA before demolition work was begun. It is, however, in the interpretation of this judgement that there is necessity for greater clarity, for several parties have begun to assume that all that it protects is the facade of a heritage building. This is because, the court has relied on a listing of heritage buildings put together by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee in connection with another case which related to outdoor hoardings. That committee’s report was mainly concerned with facades as it focussed on preventing heritage structures from being hidden by large outdoor hoardings. However, when judgement was delivered in connection with WP 25306, the list was taken as one on heritage buildings as a whole and did not deal with simply protecting the facades.

The fact remains, however, that there is at present scope for a wrong interpretation of the judgement by vested interests to suit their ends. This has been taken advantage of in several instances such as P Orr & Sons and the Saidapet Teachers’ Training College buildings where Metro Rail has bulldozed structures. It would be best if the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) represents the matter in court once again and seeks a clarification in this regard. When it comes to heritage structures, mere restoration of facades will not do. It is vital that CMDA, the HCC and the owners of properties adhere to the High Court’s orders in the full spirit of the law.