Chennai's architectural heritage

Print edition : May 23, 2003

The Public Works Department building on the Marina seafront. An example of the Indo-Sarcenic style of architecture, it was built in 1865 by Robert Chisholm. -

HISTORIAN S. Muthiah refers to Chennai as a "city of firsts", a place that played a pivotal role in the origins of the British Empire. He points out that Madras was the first major British settlement in India and until 1774 it was the capital of the entire British empire in the east, which stretched from India to Indonesia. Many Empire builders, names such as Clive, Hastings, Wellington, Yale and Pitt, started their illustrious, and in some cases dubious, careers here. The city's Corporation, founded in 1687, was the first such governing body to be set up outside Europe. The Madras Eye Infirmary, founded in 1819, is Asia's first. The Indian Army traces its antecedents to the Madras Regiment. The erstwhile Guindy Engineering College, now Anna University, was the first institution outside Europe to teach engineering. British law and its courts functioned for the first time in India in Madras in the mid-1600s. Even the first ever Ranji trophy cricket match was played at Chepauk!

Like many other Indian cities, Madras was a British creation. Villages such as Mylapore, San Thome and Poonamalee existed well before the British arrived but the beginnings of the city of Madras can be traced back to 1639. Francis Day, a trader of the East India Company, was attracted to a strip of beach on the Coromandel Coast as the hinterland around offered "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 per cent than anywhere else" and set up a trading post. Madras soon grew into a settlement of importance but in 1774 the British shifted their capital to Calcutta, influenced by its proximity to the north, its commercial importance represented by industries such as jute and indigo, and its climate. Until Independence, Madras remained the capital of the Madras Presidency, an area that encompassed the whole of south India as well as parts of Maharashtra and Orissa. The British imposed their identity on the city but traditional structures coexisted with colonial creations. Madras may not have had the flamboyance of Edwin Lutyens' Delhi or imperial Bombay and Calcutta but its quiet charm was unmistakable. Apart from traditional architecture, Indo-Sarcenic, Colonial, Classical, Gothic, Romanesque and other styles can be seen in Madras. Many early examples of the highly regarded Indo-Sarcenic style, which culminated in Lutyens' magnificent planned portion of Delhi, can be found in Madras.

Today, few recognise the historic and architectural importance of Chennai. Hidden by the ocean of hoardings and the chaos of the overflowing streets, the fascinating past of Madras lives in its many buildings, public, institutional and private. A recent publication, Madras - The Architectural Heritage by architects K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer and published by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), tries to bring to the forefront this living heritage of structures still in use. The enormous wealth of heritage buildings in Chennai is striking and 254 structures are documented in this book.

Madras - The Architectural Heritage comes at a very opportune time. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's recent decision to demolish the historic Queen Mary's College (QMC) (Frontline, April 25), has created much controversy and spurred tremendous public interest in heritage buildings. The QMC contains heritage buildings - the Pentland, Stone and Jeypore Houses. Capper House, an older building, was demolished earlier this year. The government has claimed that the QMC buildings have little artistic merit. It has failed to recognise that heritage buildings are not only those structures with "artistic merit", which in itself is a subjective criterion, but any structure associated with historical events or figures, and they deserve to be preserved. The QMC's role in women's emancipation in India definitely makes it worthy of recognition. The QMC is located on a beautiful seafront campus and its simple yet elegant buildings "depend more on the solidity of their mass and simplicity of elements rather than complicated details for expression".

The Tamil Nadu government has also refused to protect heritage precincts such as the Marina in their entirety. The buildings on the Marina seafront, along with the surrounding environment, make it a unique heritage area and proposed multi-storey structures will adversely affect its character.

The QMC isssue made its way into the High Court, where judgment has been reserved. But the plan for a new Secretariat at the QMC site has run into problems. An April 22 notification by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has banned demolition and reconstruction of heritage and historic buildings, and buildings of public use, including those used for educational purposes, on coastal stretches without prior permission from the Ministry. The notification issued under the Environment Protection Act and Environment Protection Rules also prohibits activities with an investment of Rs.5 crores or more within coastal regulation zones.

The book has two main purposes - it is meant to serve as a guide for tourists interested in the city's architectural heritage and it also documents the city's living heritage buildings and the list could prove useful in conservation activities. Kalpana and Schiffer have meticulously documented and photographed buildings by locality. Both British constructions and indigenous structures, such as the city's temples and traditional residences, find a place. The history of each locality is traced, a walk of the architectural highlights is suggested and then the floor plan and features of each heritage building is provided. The painstaking architectural and historical documentation of each building is impressive, but the book's small font, its hard-to-find page numbers and busy layout take away some of the reading pleasure.

The book must be commended for its attempt to place heritage conservation in a wider perspective. Through eight short essays contributed by various experts, a broad urban, historical and architectural context is introduced to the reader. The issues addressed include the rationale behind heritage conservation, the history and loss of urban public spaces, the case for urban renewal in congested George Town and town planning in Chennai. Two essays in particular deserve to be highlighted - `Heritage conservation can save the city', by P.T. Krishnan, INTACH (Tamil Nadu) Convener, and `City and public life - History of public spaces in Chennai', by A. Srivathsan of Anna University.

Since Independence, many of India's cities have been transformed significantly as a result of economic and population pressures. Over time cities have changed from concentrated and identifiable towns to sprawling urban areas. This growth has usually resulted in a poor quality of life for the average citizen. The pressure on land in urban areas has drastically increased its value and often a city's heritage buildings have been sacrificed for more financially lucrative enterprises. On the pretext of urban development, new constructions, which often have scant regard for local conditions and contexts, have damaged the very quality of life they were intended to improve.

Krishnan suggests in his essay that modernisation and conservation are not competing aims and growth need not be sacrificed at the altar of conservation. Economic growth is vital to any country's future but growth without consideration for the quality of life of the average citizen is meaningless. The book points out that the lack of a well-rounded approach to town planning has compounded urban problems severely and it suggests that conservation can be a starting point for planning purposes.

The Museum Theatre and Connemara Library complex.-

There is a strong cultural and historical rationale behind building conservation - architecture is a symbol of the past and a touchstone for future generations - and heritage has often been dubbed "the cultural capital" of a country. A claim often made by politicians is that many heritage buildings in India are symbols of colonial power and do not deserve to be saved. History, however, has to be preserved in its entirety, not merely the more acceptable portions. The Auschwitz concentration camp, where an estimated 1.5 million people were gassed and tortured, is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Muthiah accepts that heritage preservation is a luxury and there are more pressing problems. However, he stresses that this does not justify mismanagement or destruction of historical and cultural wealth. He points to the example of Senate House on the Marina, a magnificent structure owned by the University of Madras and which once housed the Vice-Chancellor and was used for convocations. Today, it is deserted and has been allowed to deteriorate. The best way to preserve heritage buildings is to use them and surely the Madras University can put Senate House to some use or even rent it out.

Besides cultural, historic or social reasons, there is a more pragmatic economic rationale for conservation. Preservation efforts world-wide have proved that heritage preservation can be economically rewarding. Through "adaptive reuse", old structures can be upgraded and brought into mainstream activity. The use of heritage buildings and areas for tourist purposes has been perfected in the West but several States in India are beginning to recognise the fact that value can be added to old buildings through creative uses. In New Delhi, the historic Hauz Khas village is now a thriving area of shops and restaurants geared to tourists. Similarly, the Fort Kochi area and the French Quarter in Pondicherry are being promoted in heritage tourism ventures. Heritage buildings can be viewed as a resource and can become self-sustaining projects. In Chennai, there are many areas that are ripe for such reuse. Already some old buildings are used as film sets. Not all reuse needs to be tourism based. P.T. Krishnan points out that Moore Market, a Chennai landmark which was demolished in the late 1980s, could have been saved and used as a passenger concourse for the Central railway station's suburban terminal. The book argues that the congestion around Central Station could have been avoided if planners had the foresight to recognise the larger implications of the demolition of Moore Market.

Many believe that it is always more economically viable to destroy old buildings and put up modern constructions. This is not necessarily true. Many heritage buildings are located in older parts of the city where the streets are typically narrow. Development rules prevent the construction of multi-storey structures on such streets. Building rules in Chennai permit greater floor space index (FSI) for any additions or improvements made to existing structures. New structures are permitted a smaller FSI. As such owners of heritage buildings may not be optimising land use when they choose to pull down old structures and build modern constructions. In many places, heritage buildings have the acquired the `antique' tag and appreciated in value when restored to their original condition.

There is false perception that all heritage buildings are decrepit. The fact that most living heritage buildings are being actively used despite little or no maintenance indicates that they are in somewhat fair condition. Living heritage buildings are testimony to the skill and quality of construction in the past. Muthiah estimates that 70 per cent of heritage buildings in Chennai are owned by the government and almost all the others are owned by institutions and entities having the resources to carry out basic maintenance. Some heritage buildings require greater care, but conservationists believe that such buildings can pay for their own maintenance if put to the right use.

The essay by Srivathsan sheds very interesting light on the history of public spaces and the lack of such spaces in today's Chennai. Public spaces, if accessible to all, can often improve the quality of life across the board. The British disapproved of `native' social spaces such as bazaars, temple tanks and maidans and developed spaces more appealing to their tastes.

The Madras Club. It was built in the 1780s by George Moubray.-

Apart from the promenade along the Marina beach, they built parks and gardens. Simultaneously, private social spaces such as clubs, shopping malls (Mount Road), theatres and racecourses, which excluded the native population were developed. The essay provides fascinating insight into the leisure activities, both of the British and local people, and shows how the notion of leisure and public interaction have changed over time. Despite the city's dramatic growth, no spaces totally accessible to all sections of society have been created. Today, social spaces are `privatised' and "leisure and consumerism have been coupled so tight, that a discerning eye is of paramount importance to see through the deceitful and manipulative nature of new public spaces".

Chennai is a veritable reservoir of historic buildings but the State government has been indifferent to the cause of heritage preservation for too long. In the process many buildings, including landmarks such as Spencers, Bentinck's Building and Moore Market, each a little piece of history, have disappeared from the cityscape. Heritage regulations for the city are long overdue. Cities such as Hyderabad and States, including Maharashtra, Punjab and West Bengal, have taken significant steps and Goa, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are looking to emulate them soon.

Chennai is bursting at its seams and there is an urgent need for a holistic approach to town planning that recognises that the old and new can exist together. In 1900, the city was described as a "very charming old lady, gowned in old silks and laces". If the Tamil Nadu government continues to be apathetic towards the city's heritage, the charming old lady will be devoid of most of her old silks and laces.

Madras - The Architectural Heritage

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