Many new buildings come in the way of appreciating heritage structures, says A. Srivathsan

Chennai looks like it is creatively challenged. At least that is the impression visits to heritage sites convey. By the side of and amidst old and architecturally wonderful buildings sit modern additions like ugly ducklings. Unlike fairly tales where there is hope that monsters would turn them into a pretty prince or princess, new additions in Chennai not only remain grotesque, but also undermine the value of the precious buildings nearby. They literally come in the way of appreciating and using the old buildings better.

Take for instance the Oriental Research Institute fronting the Marina beach. This well proportioned brick building, with a cupola on top and a double height colonnade, is an impressive design by any standard. This structure was built as the examination hall of the University of Madras in 1935. It was a worthy addition to the row of grand buildings on the beach.

Next to it sits the new addition, another university building. This structure is a design gone terrible. Neither does it have aesthetical qualities nor does it creatively defer to the old architecture. It also affects the appreciation of heritage structure.

Walking down the beach, at the corner opposite to the Senate House is Ezhilagam, a State government office building. This typical 1960s building, with a folded concrete cap, complexly hides the Chepauk palace behind it. Subsequent ad hoc and random additions along the northern side ensured that the remaining parts of the 18 century palace are ruined without having to demolish them.

The DGP police office building near the light house is a good example of what attention and care can do to a heritage structure. This building, which was marked for demolition a decade ago, was saved after public protest. After restoration, the DGP building has turned out as one of the best office spaces in the city, and has helped retain the charm of the beach.

The same cannot be said about the buildings next door or the Government Museum in Egmore. In front of the Queen Mary's college, also a neighbour to the DGP's office, is a new incongruous addition, with a glass façade smeared over white walls.

The new building assumes that having a little dome on top of it reflects sensitivity to the 100-year-old heritage structure. It not only hides the old building, but also stands as a bad design example and unintelligent mimicking.

The Victoria Memorial hall or National Art Gallery as it is now known in the museum campus in Egmore is flanked by two appalling structures– the children's museum and contemporary art gallery. The multistoried secretariat building inside Fort St. George is the worst of the lot. This tall building sticks out as a sore thumb amidst some of the oldest heritage structures in the city. It has been repeatedly repaired and the façade altered. From a bare elevation it has morphed into many things and it is currently set for another round of alteration.

The location of such a tall structure within the fort complex is fundamentally flawed and no amount of repair can do the wrong right.

If the proposed designs of entry and exit portals and ancillary buildings for metro rail are any indication, not much is going to change in near future, it appears.

There are many good examples where sensitive additions to old buildings have been made and creative changes have helped reuse them better. It will do well for the state government and city mangers to learn from those.