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A two-decade-long urban conservation movement is winning accolades for Mumbai

A few Mumbai buildings were recently restored from a near-derelict state.

mumbai Updated: Nov 06, 2017 00:33 IST
Manoj R Nair
Manoj R Nair
Hindustan Times
Mumbai news,Christ Church,conservation of building
The Royal Opera House in Mumbai(HT Photo)

Last week, four architectural landmarks in Mumbai - Christ Church, Royal Bombay Opera House, Bomonjee Hormarjee Wadia Fountain and Clock Tower and Wellington Fountain won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

The award recognises work done by individuals and organisations to restore, adapt and conserve structures and buildings of heritage value. The Mumbai buildings were recently restored - the clock tower and opera house from a near-derelict state.

Mumbai is in the midst of a construction boom that is obliterating old residential and industrial neighbourhoods, but a parallel heritage conservation movement is saving and restoring many architectural landmarks. The city now has 15 UNESCO recognised sites, the most for any Indian city.

Abha Narain Lambah, the architect who has been involved in the conservation of buildings like the late-nineteenth century municipal headquarters, Town Hall and the Royal Opera House, said that Mumbai is now recognised as a city with an active urban heritage conservation movement. “I think the projects are testimony to the fact that a lot of things are happening,” said Lambah. “There is a dynamic conservation movement in Mumbai.”

Architects said that they can trace the beginnings of the movement to 1995 when the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) was created to list architecturally significant buildings and localities, creating rankings and rules for their protection and conservation. Chetan Raikar, MHCC member and conservation architect who restored landmarks like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Standard Chartered Bank building and the HSBC building said, “The first effort was made in 1995, so we can say conservation got its acknowledgment then.”

One of the first major projects was the Rajabai Clock Tower in the Fort campus of the University of Mumbai, in 2000. Architect Vikas Dilawari, who did the restoration, said that after the heritage laws were laid down it took a few years for the urban conservation movement to take off. “I graduated in 1985 but we never got (conservation) projects,” said Dilawari. “We did the Army and Navy building (which houses a department store and offices) in 1997 and it was the first project of its size. It picked up when we did the Rajabai tower; it really started from there.”

Architectural landmarks did receive attention before 1995, but the work done then was classified as repairs, rather than restoration, said Raikar. “Our company has been working on heritage structures for 50 years but what we did then was providing structures with urgent help, even if it meant marring the building with interventions like steel. The structure’s characteristics were changed,” added Raikar. “It was not conservation.”

The government also deserves credit for ushering in the movement, said Lambah, because Mumbai was the first Indian city to create an agency to protect and document its architectural legacy.

The list of buildings and structures that Mumbai has conserved are eclectic, ranging from the majestic Royal Opera House which was restored by its new owners, the former royal family of Gondal, to Lal Chimney Compound, a housing colony for poorer members of the Parsi community, restored by Dilawari. The JSW Foundation restored the Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Kanyashala, a century-old school building.

One category – typology in architectural terms – of structures that have been ignored are the 19th century textile mills, vestiges from the city’s past as a manufacturing centre. “Religious, residential, all kinds of structures have received attention, except industrial,” said Dilawari. “It was a golden opportunity (to restore and readapt mills that closed down after the 1982 strike) It was advocated when we were part of the Charles Correa committee (set up in 1996 to prepare a master plan for the Parel mill district). There was no government support.”

Other problems like the outdated property laws are responsible for blocking restoration of structures like Esplanade Mansion, formerly Watson’s Esplanade Hotel, one of the first examples of cast-iron buildings in India.

Lambah blames this on rent laws. Esplanade Mansion, which is decaying, is a cessed property (under the Rent Control law) where rents are frozen, leaving the landlord with no inclination or funds to restore the building. A majority of buildings in south Mumbai are in this category.

But there is optimism about the preservation of the city’s urban heritage. The list of Mumbai’s protected architectural sites is growing — the latest list has 800 more structures — an increase of 125% from the original 1992 version.

First Published: Nov 06, 2017 00:33 IST