Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

A home for heritage

Conserving heritage structures in urban areas is a challenge in any part of the world. The solutions are inevitably unique but the London example might prove a useful handbook for Mumbai

Published: Sep 14, 2015 06:35:30 AM IST
Updated: Sep 10, 2015 11:49:10 AM IST
A home for heritage
Image: Joshua Navalkar
The Town Hall that houses The Asiatic Society in Mumbai

Most international cities grapple with the issue of conserving the past, while embracing a route to the future, meandering through the present. Bombay (now Mumbai), where I was born, and London, the last city I lived in, are both bound by the circle of seven—Bombay’s seven islands and London’s seven walled gates (some would say not unlike Dante’s vision). Both these cities battle engorged edges, incorporating wild urban sprawl and an immigrant population flocking for dreams to make real.

Who holds the custody of our cultural heritage? How does a society bow to history and yet get on with the tedium of everyday living? We must push forward and yet we must watch our step, to not crush along the wayside a heritage that cannot be rebuilt in a day, a year, or two hundred. If the arches at Fort, or the beams at the Crawford Market Building were to disappear, should we care?

Yes, we should. And with this aim in mind, this January the Indian government launched a Rs 500 crore project to rejuvenate and preserve our cultural heritage, revitalising 12 cities, including traditional religious centres like Puri, Ajmer and Mathura. Minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu said during its launch: “No nation can move forward ignoring its cultural heritage and legacy. India is a diverse land of languages and religions and we need to preserve the legacy of all kinds. Hriday (Heritage Development and Augmentation Yojana) is a step towards reviving the soul of cities hosting such rich heritage.”

The building of Bombay

Did you know that Bombay had an actual castle? It’s what children dream of—playing amid the ruins of a castle, hunting for treasure. In my case, the treasure was ruined fortification walls, leading me back through history. I found out that the castle structure was built by one Garcia da Orta (a Portuguese nobleman, physician and botanist), who was granted possession of Bombay as a protectorate in 1554. So, in the 16th century, it served originally as the Portuguese governors’ house and was called the ‘Manor House’. Situated in the heart of the Fort area, behind the Town Hall and between the Mint and the Old Custom House (which were built more than a century later), its function changed over the years. Initially, it became headquarters to the East India Company. For a short while from 1715, the castle also housed the Bombay Law Court. Finally, in 1830, it became the headquarters for the Bombay Navy.

The basis for the city of Bombay makes for fascinating research. Sometime in the 17th century, Gerald Aungier, a man few of us might have heard of, was appointed president of the East India Company’s Surat factory; he was also made governor of the Bombay Presidency (1672-1675). Constant skirmishes between the Company’s traders in Surat and the Marathas—caused in large part by the growing importance of trade and commerce in the region—made Aungier decide on replacing Surat with Bombay as the Company headquarters.

And so, the first plan for a city was born.

Aungier’s town plan was set up around the already decrepit Bombay Castle, along the current southernmost coast, beyond the Ballard Pier area. He opened the Mint, built a hospital, and set up a printing press. He began work on a fortification wall, which was concluded under his successor Charles Boone. These decisions and activities outline a culture of building that formulates the function of a town, which then grows into a city. In the late 1800s, the efforts of Sir Bartle Frere led to the restructuring of the Fort. It was to honour him that Flora Fountain (dubbed Frere Fountain initially) was erected.

The city developed in stages around several core areas. Interestingly, there were no restrictions on the designs of building façades during this period. They were conceived of and built by different architects around Elphinstone Circle (now Horniman Circle). However, each building was required to have an arcade, to act as a physical and a visual element tying together these varying, possibly clashing, architectural styles. Similar projects were undertaken to replicate this process as the city grew.

However, the emergent new town of Bombay did not convey the idea of bombastic, axial town-planning schemes, like those used in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and later in New Delhi. In fact, the vibe presumably suggested the evolution of a new image of a city that was organic and carefree.

A home for heritage
Image: Joshua Navalkar
The Rajabai Tower, better known as the clock tower of Mumbai

It was built on pure imagination based on pre-existing patterns and settings. Its architectural tone was not, as in the case for Calcutta (perhaps because it was the Raj’s first capital), limited by the singular use of the severe classical style.

Bombay was designed to have an almost loose-limbed quality, enhanced by the exuberant surface decoration inherent in Gothic architecture. It became a beacon for ambitious architects, who literally went to town, creating, according to John Begg (consulting architect to Bombay in 1920), a “bumptious, even riotous” city plan that pinged with a sense of adventure. Very soon, it received the title ‘Urbs Prima in Indis’ (premier city in India) despite only ever being the ‘second city’. Begg also wrote (in The Origin of Bombay, 1993/ 2004; J Gerson Da Cunha): “Calcutta and Bombay sound totally different notes to the architect. Bombay is energetic, exuberant, sparkling, and had building stones of many kinds and colours. Calcutta is calm, respectable, orthodox. Its leading materials are brick and plaster.”

Status check
Mumbai, in many ways, pioneered regulations to conserve heritage. The Maharashtra state government enforced the Heritage Conservation Act in 1995. As a result, 615 buildings and 14 precincts are listed as heritage structures; it also has a committee of urban planners and conservation architects.

The city’s heritage movement began as an environmental one. Under the Morarji Desai government (March 1977-July 1979), it was decided that its Yacht Club would be demolished, and a highrise will be erected in its place. It was only due to the intervention of several eminent personalities, who compiled a list of important heritage buildings and sent it to the municipal commissioner, that the building still stands.

But the city has seen much of its architectural legacy threatened under more recent developmental machinations. Its draft Development Plan (DP) 2034—subsequently rejected by the state government, following complaints and petitions by activists—had stripped the protective cover from two-thirds of its 1,500 heritage structures, sites and precincts. The very heart of the city—the core from where this city began—including the Grade I listed Town Hall (which houses The Asiatic Society), one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in India, was under threat.

Other prominent structures found missing from the DP’s heritage list included the Victorian Bandra Railway Station and the Mount Mary Church (both Grade I structures). Pankaj Joshi, executive director, of Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai, says, “Many of the Grade I structures, which are of national importance, were removed as this helps in diluting the 100-metre radius buffer zone restricting any construction activity. Omitting these sites and allowing them to be redeveloped is to lose the city’s heritage and history.”

The latest news on the current status of the DP is murky. It appears that till such time that the revised DP is tabled, this current flux and state of uncertainty will continue. Developers must wait to examine the proposals, and analyse their implications to launch meaningful projects.

Who decides what is heritage is not in question here. Neither is what specific criterion is taken into account for the tag. However, a question of juggling the needs of the present with the weight of the past, while determining a path to the future, is clearly what must occupy city conservators and analysts.

Hampi: A living heritage
In 1993, I had worked on a surface archaeology project in Vijayanagar Hampi. Never before had I seen such an extraordinary expanse of ruins: Temples, colonnades, fortification walls, and all within the perimeter of fields of sugarcane and other agrarian produce. It was a living breathing site. What struck me most was how the temple, in the midst of what is essentially an archaeological site with World Heritage status, was in constant use. After all, these structures had stood for nearly 800 years.

I was immediately up in arms and furious with our “silly, uneducated culture”. I’ll never forget what London-based architectural historian George Michell and American archaeologist John Fritz told us that night over dinner in a canvas-covered canteen, ruins rising all around us: “But these buildings are meant to be used, we just have to remind those using them that we should still have them around in another century or so.” Their composure that history is an ongoing, living process had not sunk into my nineteen-year-old idealist brain, where history was preserved in books, and behind glass.

A home for heritage
Image: Corbis
The extraordinary ruins of Hampi have stood for nearly 800 years and should survive for several more centuries

On that trip, I made the incredible leap from wanting to be a writer to being a meaningful observer of history.
Months later, in November 1993, I went to Hampi again, this time as a tourist. The experience was both worrying and uplifting. I went to see the well-known Vithala Temple complex, with its famous musical pillars. I was imagining a finger-operated orchestra playing an entire raaga, as the resident deity was paraded through the colonnades to be bathed in milk and honey, when a sharp tapping snapped me out of my reverie. “Please do not touch the pillars,” said our guide, a well-studied local man, dramatically knocking against the guide book in his hand. He then proceeded to demonstrate how precisely soft, musical sounds could be coaxed from the pillars—a thin but lilting melody rang out under his adept fingers. He warned us how years of bad management and man-handling had created irreparable concave indentations, thinning the pillars beyond any possible conservation. But, bizarrely, once his official spiel was over, he invited each of the tourists to experiment on those same delicate pillars, turning a blind eye to their use of keys, coins and rings to produce music.
“To this day, Hampi lacks an informed, coordinated and properly implemented policy that protects the monuments and their spectacular natural setting, and which involves local stakeholders in appropriate management and development,” say Michell and Fritz.  

Later, standing atop the hill at Matanga, I was looking down over the 26 sq km archaeological site of Hampi, which was in desperate need of conservation and understanding. Unauthorised use and reuse of the ancient structures have occurred throughout the old site. The contemporary city of Hospet, which acts as a gateway into the ancient site, is a bustling space. There are also agricultural fields, banana groves and fruit plantations. Can the past and the present co-habit naturally?

Michell and Fritz have been working towards this aim and their efforts found form in the Vijaynagara Research Project, started in 1980. The duo saw the instituting of a small band of students recruited from Indian, Australian and British institutions, who would travel to the historical site to help with documentation. The project was in association with Karnataka’s Department or Archaeology and Museums, and was sponsored by the American Institute of Indian Studies in Delhi. Several years, and several negotiations, later this exchange has turned into a full-fledged revival project. It was under Fritz that the vision and planning of the citadel of Hampi was implemented.

Reinventing heritage
With buildings, the most effective way to preserve them is to use them. Old spaces should find new uses. When the British Museum, built in 1759, was celebrating its 250th birthday, I was writing my thesis in its Round Reading Room; the space that has housed the thoughts of literary and political heroes like Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Bronislaw Malinowski. Thousands were cheering the extraordinary structure that was not just standing but had been adapted for use in the 21st century.

A strong regeneration programme was begun in 1997, which recast the use of the space between the Reading Room and the immense galleries surrounding it. The Great Court, as this expanse is called, had been of great concern to conservationists because it was open to the skies and suffered constant weather erosion. In a move of adaptive foresight, the architects forged a glass-and-metal roof to create an inside-outside experience while walking between the galleries. This was cast in the vision of Sir Norman Foster and his Team 4, who undertook the task to ‘save’ the grand museum. Sometimes, it takes just such individuals with a vision to reshape our past and re-present it to the future.

Foster’s insights into global changes and their impact on architecture have guided his projects. Foster & Partners have been responsible for designing Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport and the towering 30 St Mary Axe (nicknamed Gherkin) in London, and the redesign of Wembley Stadium.

There are now two canteen-style cafeterias at the British Museum, a large gift shop; even weddings can be organised in the Great Court on long summer evenings. Yes, it is all being commercially sustained, with a mind on profits, but preservation is at its core. Words from Tennyson’s poem ‘The Two Voices’ are inscribed on the floor of the Great Court: “Let thy feet millenniums hence be set in midst of knowledge.”

A home for heritage
Image: Corbis
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court at the British Museum

But it is not just the grand structures that fall within conservation efforts. Last year, I witnessed a project underway on Baker Street, very close to the living quarters of one of the world’s best known detectives, Sherlock Holmes. The entire insides of the building were gutted, but its Art Deco façade was being preserved and painstakingly resurfaced. This is how they deal with it here: They save what they can, often with aid from a National Lottery fund. (The Heritage Lottery Fund was set up to distribute a share of income from the National Lottery to projects aimed at preserving the nation’s heritage. Daily hopeful residents pull a pound from their pockets and join the kitty to win a windfall, little realising that their pounds protect the past.)

In London, there is this very commonplace tussle of the old with the new. Alongside the ridiculously opulent Houses of Parliament, you will see the Shard, an awkward and invasive structure, and the monstrous London Eye; close to the St Paul’s Cathedral you see the building sometimes called the Cigar, and sometimes the Gherkin. New and old stand shoulder-to-concrete-and-glass-shoulder, as they should.

Our finest architectural structures, many of which give our city its grand design, need to find newer uses. As in the case of the British Museum, can heritage structures in Mumbai be let out for weddings? Surely, they would provide for majestic backdrops to celebrations, and be a win-win for all concerned? Urban developers could also knock on the doors of big businesses to rope them into conservation projects.  

Attempts similar to those in London are being worked on in Mumbai as well. The existing Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee made a representation to the state Urban Development Department in April 2013.

The model regulations redefined and strengthened the provisions for Mumbai’s Grade I, II and III heritage structures and precincts with an emphatic stress on “what posterity would not willingly let die”. It proposed a slew of measures, including a 50 percent rebate in property tax, allowing partial use of these premises for offices or restaurants, and the grant of transfer of development rights; each of these being conditional on the fact that the owner maintains the heritage structure intact.

Ideally, the authorities in Mumbai need to revisit their masterplan and re-imagine a city if the DP (2034) or its cousins were to cause it to be shorn of the origins of its identity. At the religious site of Hampi—where worship must be accounted for, where flames can cause damage as much as hands trying to pick out a tune on those magical columns—priests and pilgrims have been gently reminded, re-educated, that if their place of worship must remain for generations, they must protect and preserve as well as pray.

Heritage committees, whether of London, Mumbai, or elsewhere in the world, have much to grapple with. They have a difficult task—to preserve, and yet to persevere in progress. A city needs streets to make movement possible; people need homes to make living possible. But a city without history? Names being wiped from memory have already obliterated links with the past, clouding clues and hiding histories. Who would know why Flora Fountain was built? Where the Bombay Castle hides?

The past must give way to the present for there to be progress; however, it is far more crucial for the past to be co-opted into the present for it to carry messages to generations yet to come.

The writer has a master’s degree in South Asian studies from SOAS, London. She has been engaged with architectural conservation since her years as a student at the University of Mumbai and working on the 1993 surface archaeology project at Hampi.

(This story appears in the 18 September, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)