Off-Centre Society

New and nondescript: The dilemmas of renovating our old buildings

Imagined addition/ renovation of Delhi’s North and South Block into the National Museum   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Some have called it the most hated structure in North America; others have hailed it as a stroke of architectural genius. People gawk at it, some kick the base of the building; but no one is oblivious to it. When the Royal Ontario Museum, the largest in Canada, commissioned architect Daniel Libeskind to make an “architecturally appropriate” addition to its old stone Neo-Gothic building, they did so knowing full well the architect’s repertoire.

Libeskind had made the Denver Art Museum, a radical structure of steel rhomboids fused in an unlikely cantilevered geometry. He had also done the much acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, with its trapezoidal shapes and deliberately disorienting window lines. So it was highly unlikely that he would present to the museum board a tame duplication of the old stone gallery.

He didn’t.

The sharply pivoted set of steel and glass pyramids that crashes relentlessly into the stone building, does so without apology or sympathy for history, creating an exceptional meeting ground of the old and the new. Whether Libeskind succeeded in creating a valuable gallery space for the museum is a different matter altogether, but the deconstructivist crystal structure in itself generated enough debate on how to make additions to heritage structures.

Arcane attitude

One of the real dilemmas of doing any addition to an old building in India is that clients often see no value in it. Consequently,

The glass pyramid at Louvre

The glass pyramid at Louvre   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

additions just don’t happen. The owner either demolishes the old structure completely or grudgingly makes minor cosmetic changes to the old and moves in — till the building becomes a ruin and has to be pulled down. As a result of this arcane attitude, India has lost vast swathes of valuable urban heritage.

Delhi in the 1980s happily destroyed whole neighbourhoods of bungalows around Connaught Place. Some owners converted their plots to commercial high rises, but many replaced the remnants of colonialism — thick-walled, deeply shaded verandah houses — with third-rate tinsheet modernism. The flimsy new always edged out the old. This happened in Mumbai too till the late 1980s, when local conservation groups declared Victorian and Georgian architecture worth salvaging and restoring. Mumbai’s most famous domestic modern landmark, the Antilia, was built on the site of a 19th century orphanage. Mukesh Ambani had the choice of keeping the orphanage and converting a few rooms for his family — something Warren Buffett might have done — or razing it to the ground and replacing it with a 27-storied home of over 47,000 square feet, the size of Rashtrapathi Bhavan’s ground floor. Doubtless he was torn, but he eventually went with the bigger option.

Part of the city

Indian design habits are sadly formed out of cautious cultivation. History and archaeology are revered to unjustifiably sacred levels,

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

where the new addition can never match the old. When the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai found it had to add a substantial wing to the iconic structure, the hotel board chose instead to build a separate high rise on an adjacent plot. The new building’s plebeian, overly self-conscious character was but expected, and so was conveniently sidelined. Even today it stands as an ordinary, forlorn sentinel watching over its more illustrious cousin below. Filling up only when the old rooms are unavailable, it works in default mode. Could a new structure growing out of the old have revealed a set of rooms as unique as those in the old wing? No one was willing to take the risk.

Same holds true for memorials. When a competition was held some years ago to commemorate the heroes of the wars after Independence, no entry touched the old India Gate, but delved instead onto a parallel site to make yet another memorial, thus diminishing the impact of both. This tentative and timid approach to historic structures makes our urban public architecture a faceless and unnoticed breed. As the new Central Vista project proceeds into construction, the Lutyens-Baker secretariat is to become the stage setting for the National Museum. It’s a matter of public debate whether that’s a good idea. But how the building is treated in its transformation requires both a conservative assessment of its historic situation and a liberal exposition of its future potential.

Through the last half a century, the active conversion of European and American classical buildings to contemporary urban ideals has had a remarkable impact on public space. At the Louvre, the glass pyramid added an alluring monumental entrance to a 19th century palace. The German parliament, the Reichstag, went a step further in glazing over the centre with a transparent dome. Both were imaginative individual solutions, yet in both cases these new architectural devices increased public access and visibility in buildings that were historically exclusive and introverted in design. The add-ons freed them into the more democratic and liberating life of the city.

The Central Vista’s new incarnation remains to be seen. It would require a radical shift in the government’s design attitude before it gives the new museum in the North and South Blocks to Daniel Libeskind.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 4:11:21 PM |

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