Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

ars-longa-vita-brevis
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Shah Jehan and Sir Gilbert Scott are both in their graves, but the Taj Mahal and the University Clock Tower, still stand implacably in their grandeur, much as they were, when they were built – a source of inspiration to those who live near them and those who travel long distance to see them. They enrich our society by their mere existence. Do we not therefore have a duty to protect and conserve them?

What we aim to do in our presentations is to go behind the legislation, first to share with you the rationale for urban heritage conservation – can buildings have a value for the community; what does this value represent; are such buildings worth  preserving – and then, to explore the interesting consequences of heritage legislation for planning in Mumbai.

In an unexpected way, heritage conservation has caused us to re-focus our attention on the processes we have adopted for urban planning and to question many of our existing planning assumptions. For example, can planners regulate the development of  a city the size of Mumbai through the mechanism of a single FSI ratio and a uniform set of building control regulations? Or, does the existence of precincts which have heritage value, each exhibiting a unique and different character, merit a variety of differing planning approaches and regulations, so that the unique character of each heritage area can be safeguarded and enhanced?

The Image of the City

Looking at cities can give a very special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. “Like a piece of architecture, the city is a  construction in space… at every instance, there is more than the eye can see, the ear can hear, a setting or view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings,…. often made richer by the memory of past experiences.”

As we find our way around the city we live in, our psychological link with our surroundings is the environmental image – the generalised mental picture of the physical world that we hold in our individual minds.

The need to recognise and empathise with our surroundings is so crucial, and has such roots in our past, that this image of our city,  for  each one of us, has profound psychological – and even more importantly emotional – importance to the individual. It furnishes the raw material for the symbols of collective memories of groups. For example, common memories of the “home town” were often the first and easiest point of contact between lonely soldiers during the last War.

This environmental image, if rooted in one’s mind and feelings, gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security – it helps establish a harmonious relationship with oneself and the outside world… it adds to the depth and intensity of human experience.

That is why the rapid fracturing of our cityscape, starting in the ‘fifties and proceeding through the ’90s has proved to be such a shattering  experience for those of us who retained a vivid image of our city imprinted on our minds in our childhood.

How it all began

The public at large generally became aware of heritage conservation regulations in Bombay in May 1995 when the Government of Maharashtra formally notified Regulations to protect some 633 buildings and precincts in the city.

However, owners of these buildings and the architectural profession had become aware of these Regulations five years earlier, in 1990, when the Government of Maharashtra introduced its first (Draft) Regulations for heritage conservation and invited, through due process of law, objections and suggestions from the public. In fact, the Government of Maharashtra had also not suddenly awaken in 1990, to the virtues of heritage conservation. The decision to publish these rules had a long history that went back another twelve years.

From 1978 till 1990, many attempts were made by various civic groups in Bombay to produce lists of heritage buildings and a few senior bureaucrats in the Government of Maharashtra had also spent several years applying their minds to these proposals. The heritage rules of Bombay therefore spent a long time in the melting pot.

The very first List was prepared in the mid 1970s by the Save Bombay Committee when a small group of persons led by activist Kisan Mehta and including urban historian Foy Nissen, proposed to Mr.B.G. Deshmukh, then Municipal Commissioner, the need to bring under protection the key landmark buildings of Bombay. Foy Nissen’s first list numbered 70 and odd buildings and carried very short descriptive notes. Surprisingly, the list was well received and Mr. Deshmukh initiated a major change in the thinking of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) by acknowledging that the BMC should take up the responsibility for preserving heritage buildings in the city.

Vita Brevis
Vita Brevis

He was aware that Section 22 of the Maharashtra & Regional Town Planning Act empowered the local planning authority -in Bombay’s case, the BMC – to take such steps as were necessary to identify and preserve buildings or landmarks of historic, aesthetic, social or cultural value for the city. Mr. Deshmukh created a fund of Rs.10 lakhs to support documentation of the list. This greatly encouraged the citizens group to extend their work. His successor Municipal Commissioner Mr. Jamsheed Kanga was no less committed than his predecessor and continued the support of the BMC to listing efforts.

Unfortunately, after Mr. Kanga, there was a long hiatus when indifferent Municipal Commissioners, fire-fighting on other issues, gave heritage conservation a back seat. During this period, the Indian Heritage Society and the INTACH Bombay Chapter came into being and both groups produced lists of their own, the INTACH list raising the number of heritage buildings to 200 with somewhat more elaborate descriptions of buildings. INTACH also produced an interesting monograph on the Vernacular Architecture of Bombay, to supplement their List.

Regrettably, Government apathy during the ’80s and the exploding construction of high-rise buildings throughout the city, made it seem that there was no hope for preserving Bombay’s fast disappearing architectural heritage.

The Old Yacht Club – The First Test Case

Only one small victory for the heritage was achieved in the ’80s when a proposal by the Department of Atomic Energy to demolish the old Yatcht Club building at Apollo Bunder – to make way for a high-rise modern structure – was halted at the intervention of Prime Minister Morarjee Desai under intense pressure from a group in Bombay led by Shyam Chainani. A compromise was struck with the Department of Atomic Energy to preserve the old Yatcht Club building which permitted construction of an adjoining modern structure, the height of which was not to exceed that of the old Yatcht Club.

The NCU

A fortuitous remark by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 in Calcutta – when he indiscreetly exclaimed that Calcutta was “a dying city” – may have had something to do with the revival of the heritage conservation in Bombay. Rajiv Gandhi was so stung by the furious reaction of the Bengalis that he felt obliged to set up a National Commission on Urbanisation, under Charles Correa, to study the issues raised by the unregulated development of Indian cities and to make recommendations for more orderly urban planning. One of the areas examined by the NCU was heritage conservation. The Commission strongly recommended that heritage conservation be integrated by State Governments into the town planning process through a novel set of city development control regulations.

The NCU commented in its Report released in 1990: “historic quarters and buildings of the cities are the very flesh and blood of the urban settlement. These can be protected by solutions which facilitate conservation without making a futile attempt to stall the forces of urbanisation. This can only be done through the instruments of town planning. A starting point for urban conservation is therefore the land use map which must recognise the existence of buildings and areas to be protected.”

The key civic groups in Bombay took a cue from this and revived their dialogue, this time with higher levels in Government, including with Mr. Kanga who was now Revenue Secretary. He convened informal meetings with concerned bureaucrats to see whether the Maharashtra Government could take the lead in the task of heritage conservation. Mr. D.T. Joseph, Secretary-Ubran Development, became the key catalyst in the process that was quickly to unfold, by setting up a Working Committee on Urban Heritage Conservation under the chairmanship of Mr. Kanga. The Terms of Reference were to advise the State Government on ways of preserving the aesthetic quality of the urban environment in Bombay and to suggest appropriate legal controls to conserve buildings and precincts.

The Kanga Committee Report

The Kanga Committee accomplished its task quickly, in part because it comprised a wealth of expertise, both bureaucratic and non-official and also because of the considerable preparatory work carried out in early years by citizens’ groups. It recommended a broad-based, integrated programme for conservation based on a number of assumptions, some of which may have appeared quite novel at that time.

First, the Committee adopted the broadest possible definition of conservation – “to identify and retain those essential features contributing to the character of any area, and to ensure that any new development is in sympathy with, and contributes to, the character of that area”. Second, the Committee also defined the built heritage in fairly broad terms as “consisting not only of important buildings but also of groups of lesser buildings where the group as a whole and also larger areas or precincts, retained a special social-economic, cultural or traditional value that was worthy of preservation.”

The Committee also advocated adaptive reuse, or recycling, of old buildings. It reaffirmed the value of human dimensions of scale because these appeared to have been ignored in recent planning regulations which were confined exclusively to FSI, setbacks and the like, having discarded attention to height, mass and volume, the key elements which had characterised the earlier pleasing town planning schemes.

The Committee also recommended that a large skills base would have to be developed among both architects and builders to translate these policies into practice, including the orientation of Government officials and special training for those municipal officials concerned with administering the heritage regulations.

Finally, the Committee recommended that a specialist Urban Heritage Commission be constituted in the Municipal Corporation, to assume the responsibility for approving development proposals in respect of listed buildings. It also recommended the necessary legal changes required in the M&RTP Act to bring this about.

Listing

Simultaneously, the Kanga Committee assigned the task of drawing up a list of heritage buildings to a specialist group under the chairmanship of Mr. Gorakshkar, Director, Prince of Wales Museum. The Committee was admittedly lean and had to complete its work in a very short period of time. It was agreed that, instead of aiming at perfection, the first effort should be to produce a “quick list”, to accompany the first draft regulations. Thereafter, the list could be expanded and supported by more detailed documentation.

The criteria adopted for listing buildings were numerous and broad in scope, deliberately allowing for variations in taste and to accommodate changing compulsions in the future. The grounds for listing buildings included:

a) architectural, historical or cultural importance
b) period, design, or unique use
c) relevance to social or economic history
d) association with well known persons or events
e) group value of buildings or precincts of a distinct style or period
f) representation of a way of life having community value
g) being part of a chain of architectural development or representing a particular stage of technological development
h) the quality of a street line
i) vistas of natural of scenic beauty including waterfront areas, a line of sight, skyline, or topographical feature
j) open spaces, especially those that may be integrally planned with associated areas, or which had a distinctive way of life, or which were or had the potential to be, areas of recreation.

There was considerable debate on settling the final list of buildings and it was whittled down to 680, approximately, the Government taking a very cautious approach to listing buildings in private ownership. It was felt that the chances of success would be greater if the List were restricted to Government-owned buildings and those in public ownership, as there would be less likelihood of challenge from these quarters.

Scope for Changes – Guidelines

Next came the task of framing Guidelines on the manner of conservation and the scope of changes permissible. A system of grading buildings into three categories was proposed as follows:

Grade I: being outstanding city landmarks meriting preservation at all costs;

The objective: they richly deserve careful preservation.

Grade II: for significant buildings where minimal intervention would be permissible only in accordance with the opinion of the Heritage Committee – and a sub-grade II B – where, extension of the building or construction of additional buildings in the same compound could be considered, provided they were in sympathy with the heritage building and the addition was in harmony with the existing heritage building or precinct in terms of height and facade.

The objective: they deserve intelligent conservation.

Grade III: mostly buildings considered important as elements of the townscape where interventions would be freely permitted and recycling encouraged.

The objective: they deserve protection of unique attributes and features.

Finally, the Committee was reluctant to promulgate new legislation, fearing delays, and chose the simple route of notifying two new DC Regulations which drew their authority from Section 22 of the M&RTP Act, which empowered the Government to frame rules and guidelines for heritage conservation.

The Skirmish over Sahyadri

A moment of tension arose once the internal approval of the rules was granted by Government but before their final public notification, when the Chief Minister of Maharashtra chose to bargain the publication of the Heritage Notification against his desire to demolish Sahyadri, the famous Government Guest House on Ridge Road, included in the List. It was stated to be replaced by a modern and more spacious building. This was an unpleasant moment for the heritage groups who found themselves divided on the issue, the purists advocating protection of the existing (proposed to be listed) listed building at all costs, the more pragmatic ones prepared to lose one building in the larger interest of ensuring protection for all the others on the List. In any event, the debate was short-lived. The Chief Minister peremptorily ordered the building pulled down and then released the Heritage Regulations, presenting the public with a nasty fait accompli. In that sense, the sweet success of pioneering new legislation started, for all of us, on a rather sour note.

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