The Mairie: A lost heritage

Is it finally time for the rebirth of The Mairie, the iconic 19th century sea-side building that collapsed due to negligence in 2014?

Ironically, The Mairie, built in 1870-71 and which once served as the Town Hall, fell barely days after the launch of the much-delayed ₹7.5 crore restoration project funded by the World Bank had begun.

Though the French-era landmark’s collapse during a spell of rains on November 29, 2014, had forced a critical re-evaluation of heritage conservation among civil society, heritage experts and government, and injected a sense of urgency in moving to save the standing landmarks in the city, the feeling among heritage activists has been that conservation is in limbo “as the heat is off.”

On Wednesday, Minister for Public Works A. Namassivayam told the Assembly that the government will shortly float a tender for the reconstruction of the historic Mairie building.

Fund agreement

Replying to a query by MLA K. Lakshminarayanan, the Minister said an agreement was signed with the World Bank for obtaining funds for the reconstruction. The financial institution had sanctioned ₹15 crore for the work. The government was in the process of floating an e-tender inviting bidders to start construction of the heritage building.

Mr. Lakshminarayanan said the historic building was a landmark and demanded immediate construction of the building. In fact, one of the main reasons for the delay in putting together an actionable rebuilding plan for The Mairie has been fundamental discord among the various stakeholders and this remains a non-consensual theme.

The basic point of disagreement among experts from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and other agencies and the Government pertained to the material to be used for reconstruction of The Mairie.

While the PWD has been pitching for reinforced cement concrete (RCC) and cement mortar and cement plaster, INTACH’s preference was for lime mortar and ‘Madras-terrace roof’ technique.

INTACH experts have pointed out that structures built in the traditional way have a much longer life. In contrast, the buildings built with so-called modern technique using RCC just 35-40 years ago are already in dilapidation. The proponents of modern techniques and materials take the line that good quality lime for traditional construction is not available any more while torch-bearers of the traditional way aver that the raw material required for lime or cement is actually good quality Limestone.

Petition to L-G

The People for Pondicherry’s Heritage (PPH), a citizens’ collective which spearheaded a campaign to force the hand of the State to notify other heritage buildings and propose a plan for The Mairie, has petitioned the Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi on the go-slow of the heritage conservation front.

The PWD’s stand is that the reconstruction of the Mairie should be done using conventional RCC construction and not using traditional materials while the PPH and INTACH believe that the reconstruction must be done using original drawings and as close to using the original materials and construction techniques as possible today.

In fact, the majority decision at a subsequent State Level Heritage Advisory Committee was to take up the PWD proposal for a concrete look-alike, in spite of dissenting notes by some members.

According to PPH, the government is now moving forward to construct a RCC look-alike of the Mairie despite knowing that it is possible to reconstruct the Mairie using traditional materials and building techniques, and knowing that the funds needed for this type of construction are available as a grant from the same agency that had initially agreed to fund the restoration. Moreover, the estimate prepared by the government based on an RCC frame has many loopholes and the total cost of building a fake heritage look-alike will eventually not be less than an authentic reconstruction, the PPH says.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 9:22:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/puducherry/the-mairie-a-lost-heritage/article18683518.ece

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