The Hindu has accessed rare prints and drawings depicting the layout of the heritage building, which should help the PWD in restoring the structure in entirety rather than just the facade

The good news is that the 244-year old Kalas Mahal, ravaged by fire two months ago, will not be demolished to make way for a misfit building. The bad news is that the proposed repair and reconstruction of this heritage structure, if the recent government order is any indication, would produce a historically misleading and kitschy building.

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On January 19, the state government constituted a three-member expert committee to study the damaged Kalas Mahal and recommend future course of action. In just five days, after investigating the building, the committee recommended rebuilding of the outer facade of the Kalas Mahal as it was in the past and with the help of building materials salvageable from the site. However, it said the Pubic Works Department (PWD) was free to design the interior anew to suit the functioning of a government office.

The government has accepted these recommendations, and has not insisted on an integrated conservation plan. It also has not insisted on including a conservation expert in this restoration project and left it entirely to the PWD. Heritage experts, taking exception to this casual approach, have strongly protested the move.

“The Kalas Mahal is classified as a Grade I heritage building in the Justice E. Padmanaban committee report because of its architectural and historical significance. The interior of the building is as important as the exterior and cannot be tampered with. Unfortunately, the government-appointed experts have recommended just that,” said Sriram V., convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Tamil Nadu Chapter.

“Given the poor design capabilities of PWD and their zero expertise in heritage conservation, Kalas Mahal is bound to end up as a pathetic and kitschy building. This is not the way to treat the birthplace of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India,” he added.

K. Kalpana, a conservation architect with experience in restoring the Senate House and many other heritage buildings in Chennai, is equally aghast. “It is pointless to restore only the envelope. The interior and the exterior cannot be separated,” she insisted.

The government-appointed committee has observed that no photographic documentation and drawings of Kalas Mahal exists. A senior person closely associated with the recommendations told The Hindu that since the PWD does not have sufficient information about the original design of the interior, it was free to come up with its own plan.

However, The Hindu has accessed rare prints and detailed drawings of the layout of the Kalas Mahal. The prints are part of a private collection while the drawings were made by the School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, about eight years ago. The meticulous drawings clearly illustrate the internal layout, the façade, and some of the ornamental features of the building.

Ms. Kalpana said the existing drawings and photo documentation should be useful to the PWD. She said “the precariously loose joists, charred wooden beams and debris” — as recorded by the committee — should not be thrown away and instead studied carefully to understand the original construction system. “Many other cities in India have successfully resurrected heritage buildings that were destroyed by fire. They have restored both the envelope and the interiors. It will do well for the PWD to study these examples instead of rushing into reconstruction,” she explained.

She is also clear that designing an office space within such an authentically reconstructed heritage structure is not a challenge and is efficiently achievable.

“The first step in the way forward,” Mr. Sriram explained, “would be to appoint a conservation specialist. Second, the PWD must not adopt its usual methods and give it to the contractor who quotes the lowest price. The Senate House of the University of Madras, which was restored a few years ago, is a model worth looking at.”

“This project is a good opportunity for the PWD to work and arrive at processes which it can use in future projects. The INTACH will be more than happy to work with the PWD and use this project to train them in architectural conservation,” Mr. Sriram concluded.