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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 22, March 1-15, 2011
New uses for old buildings
• A letter from Simeon Mascarenhas Melbourne, Australia

The news that Senate House is going to be turned into a museum is welcome. For too long have such public buildings lain forgotten and neglected, while rapacious developers rub their hands in glee, waiting like a cat at a mouse-hole. Then, while the public are distracted by the latest rise in the cost of petrol, blocked sewers or a (hardly noticeable) change of government, the building is quickly demolished – or catches fire mysteriously.

Senate House is one of many imposing buildings in Madras that needs to be put to good public use. It is, after all, a public building. Let me offer a few suggestions to those who are likely to be appointed to re-design the space.

Any large space presents both a blessing and a problem: space creates a feeling of openness and light, but it can also intimidate and limit how it is used. If all the exhibits are housed on a single floor, the museum aspect will be lost and the appearance will be one of a temporary school exhibition. That is, in fact, how all the too many museums in India are come across to the public. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, we can take a few leaves out of the books of very original and entirely satisfactory designs of older structures in other countries.

So, how do we go about making maximum use of the very generous space of Senate House? Certainly not by building a floor that completely ­obscures the ceiling and windows. In one of the courtyards of Le Louvre in Paris is the very original glass pyramid of I.M Pei. When it was first announced, purists threw up their baguettes in horror. A modern glass pyramid! In glass and steel! Mon dieu! And all straight lines! Not a trefoil or volute in sight! Quelle horreur! They changed their minds when they saw the Centre Georges Pompidou. I.M. Pei’s design is universally recognised as brilliant, original in concept and entirely sympathetic to the French Renaissance ideals of light and space. Beneath it, under the flagstones once ridden over by kings, revolutionaries and the Gestapo lies the mundane working hub of ticket offices and information booths. None of these indispensable offices is visible from above ground, and the whole area is lit by natural light.

Senate House has the basic advantage of vast amounts of natural light, thanks to its enormous windows. It should not be difficult to work with the light, rather than against it, and design a floor plan that uses the various angles and qualities of light that streams through the windows at different times of the day and seasons.

A gallery round the edge of the room, at a height in keeping with the design of the stained glass, could carry the exhibits that may not be affected by light. Most museum exhibits, however, are light-sensitive and need to be in a controlled environment. Many are the exhibits in Indian museums – paper, photographs, painting, textiles, furniture – that have suffered serious and irreparable deterioration due to exposure to damaging levels of light. A gallery would enable authorities to create a sheltered, controlled area on the ground floor where light-sensitive objects can be displayed.

No doubt an administration area will be needed. The rooms on the ground floor facing the Centenary Building can be tastefully re-developed for this purpose.

Senate House was once the venue for public speeches. Surely, that practice, with judicious modification, can be restored. It will generate revenue that can be used for maintenance and to acquire new exhibits. To allow this to run efficiently, there needs to be an excellent, permanent sound system that is set at a fixed level and cannot be tampered with to create deafness, as is usually the case. Indeed, that is the best way to lose your audience. And they their hearing. The hall has excellent acoustics, if only organisers can be persuaded to understand that one does not need 50,000 watts of power amplifiers and speakers to make sure that the message gets across.

Now, what about parking? India is one of the fastest-growing car markets in the world, and yet scant attention, if any, is paid to parking. Do we have a legislation on the minimum distance to be allowed between a historic building and a smoky exhaust? Or do we seriously think that the black circles of soot on walls are collective protection against the evil eye?

Every building or public venue in industrialised countries has a publicity department whose job it is to create revenue by advertising the venue and providing excellent service, thereby ensuring the financial return that keeps the place alive. Government proclamations and Grand Openings by Very Important People make good news-fillers, but they don’t keep an institution alive. It is vital that certain sorts of functions, such as weddings and religious celebrations, are kept out of Senate House. Only academic, socio-cultural and historic lectures should be allowed, in keeping with the spirit of the building.

Another building crying for attention is Victoria Public Hall. In its day, it was looked upon with a feeling bordering on reverence. Being a Public Hall, or Town Hall, it was avai­lable for those wishing to throw banquets, conduct marriage ­receptions, etc. My mother’s cousin, Joy Stevens, had her wedding reception held at the Victoria Public Hall when it was the grand and very respectable building it was meant to be. As late as the 1960s it still boasted fine billiard tables. Many champions, unable to attend private clubs, practised here, and my father, the late Don Mascaren­has, honed his impressive skill at billiards against those unknown heroes. I often accompanied him and watched the game, but my memory of the building is hazy.

Does anyone know if the Victoria Public Hall has a pipe organ? Almost every town hall had one. If there is one there, it could well be a very good one, deserving restoration.

In the archives of Madras Musings, I came across news of a DGP declaring that the central prison was to be maintained as a monument. (Alas, even that did not happen; it was pulled down.) But monuments do not generate income. In many countries, several redundant jails, situated in areas that are now well and truly within city limits, have been converted into restaurants and hotels. For a reasonable fee, you get the chance to experience what it was like to be a prisoner. Oh, accommodation is the real reason you go there. A visitor centre with a history and education material on what life was like in the time the jail was built all adds to the experience and fun. Officials just have to make sure that the conversion adheres to all health and safety requirements, and that all information is in the local language – Tamil – and English. History is for ALL, not just for the few who might consider themselves superior if they can speak English.

If we are to preserve our staggeringly rich heritage, we must, like all other countries, turn it into thriving businesses that support the conservation effort. What is absolutely essential is a set of cast-iron guidelines that protect the monument so that it retains its original character. During World War II, the German city of Dresden was almost completely destroyed. Yet, today, the ancient city centre has been rebuilt in exactly the same style, to the original plans but with the advantages that modern technology can provide. That is not to say that concrete replaced brick and mortar, and aluminium the wood of windows. Original materials were used throughout the project. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been faithfully reproduced – but with (hidden) sprinklers and other safety measures. It is a delightful place in which to watch a play, partly because the distance between the benches is a bit more than the original twelve inches! And it isn’t even on its original site – it was moved up river about a mile or so to fit in with the new entertainment precinct on London’s South Bank.

Now, what are we going to do about the Couum and Adyar Rivers?


In this issue

Secrets of Tamil Nadu's Archives
No photographs, please, this is Chennai
Bins of cruelty
New uses for old buildings
A Home for ­Music
Masters of 20th Century Madras science
Why does Tamil Nadu keep failing?
Other stories

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