Restoring heritage one brick at a time

While the government’s efforts of restoring heritage buildings are certainly welcome, more needs to be done to preserve the rich architecture of the State

Updated - November 28, 2021 11:17 am IST

Published - November 03, 2019 12:51 am IST - CHENNAI

Illustration: R Rajesh

Illustration: R Rajesh

The idea of preserving the built heritage of the city has gained impetus over the past few years. But, the government has only taken baby steps so far in protecting public buildings. There is a long way to go in scaling up conservation efforts, which require a thorough understanding of architectural history to be able to restore them to their authentic state, note heritage experts.

After its initiatives to protect public buildings such as Madras High Court and the PWD complex, the Public Works Department has set the ball rolling to renovate 36 heritage structures at a cost of ₹100.13 crore across the State, including in Pudukottai and Kanniyakumari.

Multiple projects

The department has recently submitted proposal to restore various public heritage structures that house courts, educational institutions and other government offices. They include Kuthiraivandi court or old labour court in Coimbatore; Registration building, George Town; Government Press, Mint and Clock Tower building, University of Madras in Chennai.

Officials of the PWD said the projects would be taken up one after another in three months, according to the funds allotted and skilled manpower available. The Building Centre and Conservation Division formed in 2017 now has nearly 25 engineers across the State who are trained to deal with heritage work. “We are testing the materials sourced from specific locations and construction procedures for strength. The building techniques are better compared to past years,” said an official.

Holistic approach

However, heritage experts noted that there needs to be a holistic and sensitive approach as well as a collaborative effort by conservation architects to save the historical structures that are in a decrepit state. A. Srivatsan, professor, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, said there has been a slight shift from ‘no will’ to ‘more will’ towards protecting heritage structures in recent years. But, repeated demonstration of conservation efforts is essential for better awareness. There needs to be a check on in-house capacity, skills and technological knowledge as the projects are scaled up.

The plan to set up heritage conservation committees at the district level and the Tamil Nadu Heritage Commission Act must be put into action properly, he said. Conserving private heritage structures also remains a challenge as it is difficult to resist increasing real estate value and renovate at high cost, according to experts.

Sujatha Shankar, architect and convenor, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) Chennai Chapter, said awareness about heritage preservation has increased after the issue was brought into focus by many public forums.

“The government has undertaken projects and how it is done needs to be professional. Conservation architects must be engaged and materials and services must be chosen to bring the original touch and turn them usable for contemporary purposes,” she said.

The government must come up with a mechanism to encourage protection of private heritage, including subsidies. Transfer of development rights must be implemented effectively, she added.

Public access

Experts also suggested that instead of allocating space to government offices, the restored structures should be thrown open for public access.

Taher Zoyab, co-founder, Madras Inherited, said a framework must be chalked out for collaboration with architects and heritage specialists and ensuring quality conservation. Some of the restored heritage structures like Chepauk Palace could be developed as tourist destinations for people to appreciate the richness and complexity of the architecture.

It was equally important to celebrate private buildings and structures in disuse could be put to better use. People were now approaching heritage management consultants for protection measures.

Skilled Labour

On an average, nearly 60-100 labourers from different parts of the State, including Kovilpatti and Rajapalayam, trained in heritage construction, are involved in renovating Humayun Mahal. Skilled carpenters from Kerala are also engaged


Unlike concrete structures, it would take three times the building cost due to intricate workmanship and special materials. About ₹9,000- ₹9,400 would be the building cost per sq.ft.

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