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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 9, august 16-31, 2008

'Stays’ don’t prevent
buildings being neglected

(By A Special Correspondent)

Those of us who celebrate Madras Day have a sense of déjà vu. It happened in 2006 and now it has happened in 2008 as well. In 2006, two buildings that would have been preserved in any other country were demolished in August, namely Gandhi Illam in Government Estate and the Oceanic Hotel. This year it could well be the turn of historic Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. Well, almost.

The Madras High Court ­recently granted an interim stay against the demolition of the YMIA’s Gokhale Hall. Readers of Madras Musings will recollect that the management committee had decided that the existing building ought to be pulled down to make way for a modern highrise, its historic nature notwithstanding. This was challenged in the High Court by a long-standing member of the YMIA, who in his petition had stated that the design of the building was unique in many ways and that the Hall had been the venue for conferences and meetings where many eminent freedom fighters had been present. The petition had also challenged the opinion of the committee that the building was structurally unsound.

But even before the court gave its decision, demolition work had begun inside the building and, by the time the stay order was served at the site, irreparable damage had been done. The plaster was chipped in several places, the wooden fittings ripped out and work was on to dismantle the roof. This was subsequently, with the court order, brought to a halt. Heritage activists and conservationists may heave a sigh of relief, but it is only a temporary respite. It will be recalled that the demolition of Kardyll (Bharat Insurance) Building was stayed under similar circumstances. But nothing has happened since.

Too often in the past, those who were in possession of heritage buildings and wished to bring them down had resorted to tactics of a pattern. As a first step, they declared the building uninhabitable and had it vacated. The empty structure, given over to the elements, would then become just what they intended to make it out to be – structurally unsafe. An expert would then be called in to certify that the structure needed to be pulled down and that is that. Bentinck’s Building, Gandhi Illam, Kardyll Building… the list can go on.

The absence of a Heritage Act means that any such case taken up in court will probably end with a judgement that prevents demolition of a building, but does not ensure an order to restore it. The building then continues to remain empty till it is finally weakened enough to be brought down, with those who had opposed the wreckers’ hammers being forced in the changed circumstances to say the building was indeed no longer safe. Attention has already been drawn in these columns to the fact that Kardyll Building is standing without a roof for over two years now. Gokhale Hall may soon face the same fate. So too would countless other buildings in the event a Heritage Act is not enacted sooner than later.

In this context, the comments of the German Consul-General in South India at a recent event in Chennai are significant. He stated that while he goes around the city he notices that there are several historic buildings and many are in the process of being brought down. It was his personal opinion, he said, that nothing was being done to preserve these structures. He drew a parallel to his own country and said that, in the past, Germany, in the name of development, had pulled down several historic buildings, only to later regret the action. In an attempt to recreate heritage, that country, he said, was now trying to rebuild what was lost. He felt it would be a pity if India took the same route.

With foreigners in the city noticing and commenting on our lack of heritage awareness, it is time Chennaiites woke up.


In this issue

A Heritage Act, please
'Stays' don't prevent...
The Metro experience
Less waterways width...
Escalators for Chennai...
Other stories in this issue...

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
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