Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Augmenting Living Buildings : Conservation of Historic Buildings

‘Augmenting Living Buildings – Retrofit, Repurpose, Recondition'

Lecture given on 18 January 2024 

for Faculty Development Program conducted by Balwant Sheth School of Architecture in collaboration with the Council of Architecture

Our session is themed on the conservation of historic buildings — and their  processes, challenges, execution and commissioning.

I will briefly share the structure that we will follow in this session. 

  • I’m going to first speak about how the processes, challenges, execution and commissioning of conservation of historic buildings, are fundamentally related to our understanding of what is heritage.
  • So I will begin by clarifying these keywords heritage and heritage buildings, and explore the different meanings of heritage; what is common to these meanings and what is not. 
  • I will move on to what are the lessons that we can learn from the specific process and challenges in specialised conservation work of heritage buildings; and how can we extend these lessons beyond the specialised field of conservation architecture to the field of architecture in general.
  • I will explain this through my experience with the specific case study of the Jantar Mantar site, with which I was associated for many years.
  • And we will have a discussion following all this, to gauge how far these lessons have been communicated in the session.

 I.  Let's begin with understanding what are heritage buildings.

The Oxford Dictionary has 3 definitions of heritage:

  1. A property that is inherited;
  2. Valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations. 
  3. Relating to things of historic or cultural value that are worthy of preservation.

The first meaning, which is the broadest understanding of heritage as anything that is passed down and inherited will cover a large number of buildings that make up our built environment. And therefore that can or should, come potentially under our ambit as architects, whether or not we have a specialisation in conservation or not. The 2nd two meanings are specifically with respect to what are called historic buildings.

What are historic buildings? Who decides what buildings are historic and have cultural value? Normally, it is the government, which through legislation designates buildings as historic. There are also cases, where society as a whole or through communities, decides that a building has historical value, even when there is no designated governmental recognition or protection. For instance, the recent case of the Army Public School in Mhow which was being demolished, and the students there, as well as serving and retired military officers and other concerned citizens, stepped in, formed a human chain, and stopped the demolition — at least for now.

Architects also come into the picture in both these categories: very often, architects are engaged by governments or society to help decide whether a building is historic or not. 

In the official method laid down in our country, buildings are designated as historic buildings if they are at least a hundred years old. So, does this mean that any building which is more than a hundred years old, automatically qualifies as heritage or historic? In most cases, this is not so. Only buildings that are representative of a certain kind of period-architecture, which additionally have values of cultural significance, are officially deemed to be worthy of conservation. What we are often doing thus, is turning buildings into museum pieces. 

Does this mean that if buildings are less than a hundred years old, they cannot have historic or cultural value? What happens to such buildings? What does conservation mean in their context? What can be understood from this, is that just the age does not automatically qualify a building as heritage or not. There also has to be cultural value as well as social value of significance for a building to be declared as a heritage building.

There are also buildings older than 100 years, like the APS in Mhow, which despite being recognised as having historic value, may still be vulnerable. Another recent instance is the Sunehri Masjid in New Delhi which was slated for demolition. In this case, many architects, including conservation architects as well as people from all walks of life wrote to the NDMC, and communicated the need for conservation of this building — because of the associations this building has for us as a culture, as a people, and as a nation. Architects added their specific knowledge to counter the arguments for demolishing the Masjid, and offered viable alternatives to resolve the issue. Here, obviously the challenge was to demonstrate the importance or the requirement for conservation of such buildings. Architects can, and should thus, create such opportunities for buildings to be conserved.

This is the first challenge in conservation.

Let me explain this through the story of my involvement with the Jantar Mantar at Delhi. I don't know how many of you have visited it. I will ask you at the end of our session!

What is the Jantar Mantar? It is essentially an observatory complex. I became involved with it, because the Park Hotel Apeejay Group whose President is Priya Paul, wished to contribute to improving and beautifying its area. 

When she looked at it from across her hotel, she felt that it needed better looking after. The Jantar Mantar’s conservation is in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India; it is designated as a site of national importance. When I was called in as a conservation architect to suggest ways of improving and beautifying its environs and landscape, I argued that this could only be done by understanding the existing buildings on site and their history. 

These buildings which are instruments of astronomy were not understood or appreciated for their scientific value by the general public, and as it turned out, even by the custodians. This is what I discovered through my own research at the start of the project — research into scientific texts, archival photographs, drawings, instruments of astronomy, etc. My research on the buildings and the condition survey also showed that the ASI was not actually conserving the buildings appropriately. This research led me to configure the entire interpretation of the site, including its pathways and landscape design, based on the geometry, the sequence, and the ways in which the instruments were used when they were made, and ought to be used even now. Thus, the improvements of the site were determined by the conservation and interpretation requirements of the heritage buildings. They were informed by their history: by what was the function of the Jantar Mantar; why were the structures in it made; what materials they were made of; their orientation; why they were located where they were; the process of construction, and so on. 

So, what is the lesson here? Before embarking on any design directions, we need to understand the site and what we are trying to conserve through structured and comprehensive research. I will give you an analogy to explain this better. A good doctor will not rush into giving medicines or even diagnosing a problem and offering a solution for improving the health of a patient, without knowing throughly what is the physiology of the patient, past medical history, basic body structure, etc. And if that does not happen, then what the doctor suggests as a cure will not be appropriate or effective for the patient. 

The same process needs to be followed for conservation. Except that, most people understand and accept the need for preliminary medical examination as the correct medical procedure, but do not necessarily appreciate or accept this for conservation of buildings. And therefore this is the first challenge: any building that already exists, needs to be thoroughly examined and researched upon before we can suggest any remedial measures, adaptation, or any improvement for extending its life span — which all come under the meaning of conservation.

I had shared some links with you. One of these was titled ‘Feasibility Report for the JM Complex’. This contains the results of the first part of my research, and based on that research and analysis, what are the ways for its improvement and beautification, and what should be the conservation philosophy and process directing such improvements. This Report was fundamental in outlining the correct approach, and in convincing the clients and the custodians for the need to follow such an approach.

So, the larger lesson that we can draw from the process of specialised conservation work which can be applied to any existing building, is that we need to do sufficient research into materials, function, site conditions, etc. of any building before we suggest any design inputs. And this process of research — as you would have seen from the report, if you went through it — requires both primary, on-site investigations and recording, as well as accessing secondary records in the form of existing drawings or specifications or descriptions. And then finally, the analysis of all these is necessary to reach any sort of preliminary methodology or direction about what to do, and how to do it. In other words, if we are not familiar with the materials used in the original building, and their properties, methods and processes of being used in that building, we will obviously not be able to deal with how best to repair, adapt or conserve it.

Research and analysis is thus part of the process and part of the challenge of conservation work, since most clients whether in the private sector or in the government will not appreciate the necessity for doing it; or will not want to give the time or the funds to enable such research. Part of the process and challenge of any kind of conservation work is, therefore to convince people about the necessity of doing this research as a preliminary exercise both for correct design and implementation.

So, for example I had to first convince the client of the necessity of doing this preliminary research — and then convince the official custodians, the ASI, of the recommendations I arrived at through the research — for which the Feasibility Report was very helpful. Having convinced the client and having done this research, the outcome helped me to also convince the custodians to actually change their conservation approach to this site  — which had been, heretofore, a continuation of the colonial model that they had been following for many decades. In other words, though my initial role was restricted to improving the site environs and deciding the landscape, signage etc, I actually became involved with not just the site-environs conservation, but also conservation process of the Yantras. And in additionally involving other experts, such as the late Dr Rathnashree, the Director of the Delhi Nehru Planetarium in the project, and other scientist and students, and changing the conservation approach of the ASI!

What is the lesson here? That the conservation architect is as vital person who starts off the entire project by carrying out research and analysis and putting together the necessary documentation. 

Execution of the Project

Let me now come to the execution.

This was a very long process. Conservation is a long process. First, the research takes time, and then since you are dealing with an existing building or groups of buildings, you have to proceed carefully so as to not disturb the existing structure. This is also a challenge. Once the process is started off, other resource people and experts have to be involved in to even formulate an effective and practical strategy of how to proceed. In other words, this is team work.

In the case of the Jantar Mantar, it was also an active tourist site, so all work: whether installation of signage or lighting or putting in facilities, or even studying the existing structures through on-site investigations of plaster or foundations; had to be done very carefully. There had to be no disruption to existing visitor activities, and one had to be careful that there was no danger to visitors or the built-structures from any kind of physical work on site.

In this case, these built-structure were also instruments of astronomy. So, they were very specialised buildings with their own specific requirements, which had to be looked after. The level of complexity was very great. There were no precedents. And the process that the ASI had been following, in many cases was detrimental to the durability and function of the instruments. For instance, they had been repaired with cement mortar, whereas the original mortar and plaster and render was in lime. This changed use of material for plaster and mortar caused problems of water seepage and cracking. And therefore, in the name of repair and conservation, this work actually jeopardised the well-being of the Jantar Mantar. So, when conservation is done without proper research, this can happen.

The execution was also difficult because the ASI had considered these as monuments and ordinary buildings, not as functional instruments of astronomy. The need for functional restoration had to be demonstrated, the means for functional restoration had to hunted out; and the entire process had to be actually devised for them.

The other specific challenge arose from the fact that it was a site of national importance. There was also a court case challenging the ASI’s work here. Each successive DG of the ASI therefore wished to be involved with its conservation; they all had different notions about what to do; they all had to be re-convinced of our recommendations each time afresh! So, while we succeeded in doing a number of things, there were many things we could not do. It was like climbing a ladder two steps up, and one step down constantly. Also, the process of research did not stop at the preliminary level, but went all through all stages of the project — as you would have seen from the various reports and documents that I had shared, which I had put in the public domain.

This is also why I decided to bring together the research and analysis, and learnings from the Jantar Mantar Project in the form of a book, which could be understood and accessed by everybody, including specialists. The book was written and published with the same objective as that which I outlined in the beginning of my talk: the fact that the processes, challenges, execution and commissioning of conservation of historic buildings, are fundamentally related to our understanding of what is heritage. We conserve heritage only when we believe it has socio-cultural and historic significance. And the way to do this is both by physical conservation of the buildings themselves, as well as by transmitting knowledge of their significance through information that can be easily understood both by the layperson and the specialist.

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