Preserving the past for the future

Chennai is home to many heritage sites and buildings. But even these are threatened by urbanisation. This Madras Day, as the focus shifts to the few surviving, it's time to ask: how many will survive?

August 17, 2011 03:38 pm | Updated August 10, 2016 02:29 pm IST

Chennai Collectoragte (Singaravelavar Maligai).Photo: V_Ganesan.(Digital Image) 23.1.04.

Chennai Collectoragte (Singaravelavar Maligai).Photo: V_Ganesan.(Digital Image) 23.1.04.

Italo Calvino, in his much appreciated book Invisible Cities , delightfully captures the wonders and woes of cites. In one enchanting passage, written in the form of a fictitious conversation between the famed traveller Marco Polo and the emperor Kublai Khan, the Venetian edges the Mongol king to look at how the past of a city is inscribed in the urbanscape.

“The city … contains it [past] like the lines of hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” says Marco Polo. What Calvino describes is not a mere fabulous account, but also presents the desire of the citizens to coexist with their past.

Arguments in favour of preserving buildings of the past are not pushing antiquarian interests or sentiments. Heritage structures, apart from being evidences of history and places of commemoration, have validity as alternative spaces of habitation. They are instructive examples of sustainable building traditions and crafts. They are places worthy of preservation. It is an integral part of any inclusive city

Threat of oblivion

Unfortunately, if the regular disappearance of heritage buildings in Chennai is any indication, unlike the king in the Calvino's book, city mangers of Chennai appear not so inclined to recognise the presence of the past in their city. Nor have they realised the need to conserve them. Chennai's heritage, in the absence of a legal frame work, lack of institutional support and insufficient appreciation, face imminent threat.

There is no clear estimate of the number of heritage buildings are present in Chennai and how many have been lost over the years. An earlier estimate by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) showed at least 800 heritage buildings.

On the other hand, the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee Report lists about 400. The INTACH estimate includes old residences, while the Justice Padmanabhan Committee limits itself mostly to institutional buildings and memorials, hence the difference in numbers. However, what is clear is, as a recent Madras High Court judgment observed, “We have already lost much because of the indiscriminate demolition in the name of development of buildings without any regard about the architectural values thereof.”

Minimal protection

Moore Market, Spencer's and Bentinck building are some of the priceless heritage structures that were lost in the past. Buildings such as Bharath Insurance and Queen Mary's College were saved because of the Court's intervention. Threats to heritage building persist.

The heritage committee of Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) has listed the potential damage Metro Rail could cause to heritage structures in Chennai.

While monuments are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Department of Archaeology, non-monumental heritage buildings are not protected by any particular institution. Nor are they preserved. Heritage structures are mostly owned by individuals and often in use. Unlike monuments, they cannot be fossilised nor taken over by the Government to ensure their protection.

The other challenge is pressure of development. In a rapidly growing city, demand for space puts a premium price on land.

To profit from the increased land value, buildings located on them, irrespective of whether they are heritage structures or not, are often demolished.

Best practices around the world have multi-pronged approach to conserve buildings. They offer financial incentives, make technical advice easily available and simultaneously prohibit demolition through legislation.

In Chennai, while incentives are available to conserve old buildings they are not sufficient to deter demolition. Since there is no legislative protection, priceless old buildings can be easily demolished. Only recently, following the orders of the High Court, a Heritage Committee has been set up in CMDA.

This committee is expected to expedite a proper inventory of heritage structures in Chennai, list the important ones to preserve and enable the formulation of a legislation to protect them. This year, the Madras Week celebration has understandably decided to focus on the need for a legislation to protect the heritage of the city.

Getting the stamp

The Heritage Conservation Council constituted by the recommendations of the Government has decided that the following may be the broad criteria for listing the heritage buildings/ precincts.


Date or period of construction

Trends exhibited by the building: The building or precincts may reflect a particular social, economic, political or cultural pattern, characteristic of the local settlement area.

Events associated with: A building may be directly linked to an event of local, regional, or national significance or a noteworthy historical event.

Persons associated with: Building or precincts may be linked to a notable person, group, and institution and has historical significance.


Design: The building may be significant because of its excellence in artistic merits, or uniqueness of its design, compositions, craftsmanship or details. It includes decoration, colour, texture, massing notable proportion.

Style: The building may exhibit features of a particular architecture style, period of construction

Designer / builder: The building might have been designed by an architect / engineer or other design professional or constructed by a builder whose work is local, regional or national importance.

Physical conditions: The condition of the structure may be superior or it may require minor structural repair, or extensive repair, or it may be in a dilapidated condition.

Design integrity: In a heritage building if alterations had already been carried out, then its repairable nature and worthiness to conserve.


Community context: For sentimental / symbolic reasons, the building / precincts might have become significant part of community identity.


The heritage buildings/precincts in CMA will be graded as Grade - I, II or III, which is of importance because it dictates the possibility of intervention by a government body or otherwise.


Heritage buildings/precincts of national or historical importance, embodying excellence in architectural style and design.

They are the prime landmarks of the city.

No intervention should be permitted either on the exterior or interior unless it is necessary.

If it is absolutely essential, minimal changes would be allowed which must be in accordance with the original


Comprises heritage buildings/precincts of regional or local importance possessing special architectural or aesthetical merit, cultural or historical value.

Internal changes and adaptive reuse will be generally allowed. But external changes will be subject to scrutiny.

The extension or additional buildings in the same plot is allowed provided that they are in harmony with existing heritage buildings / precincts, especially in terms of height and façade


They evoke architectural, aesthetic or sociological interest, though not as much as in heritage grade-II

External and internal changes and adaptive reuse would be generally allowed

Still standing…


High Court

Chennai Central

Egmore Railway Station

Victoria Public Hall

Ripon Building

Fort St. George

Raj Bhavan

DIG Complex

Academic Institutions

Veterinary College

Victoria Technical Institute

Presidency College

Queen Mary's College

Madras University Senate House

Guindy Engineering College

Women's Christian College, formerly the Doveton House


Museum theatre complex

Gokhale Hall

Private / commercial buildings

SBI building

Parrys building

Chepauk Palace

Parrys GPO building

Bharati Illam


Bharat Insurance building

Cuddon building


Napier's bridge

War Memorial

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