It cannot be denied that there is considerable heat and dust being generated on heritage in our State at the moment. On the one hand, the Legislative Assembly has passed the Heritage Conservation Commission Bill and it has received gubernatorial assent. And thanks to a High Court judgement, several heritage structures that would have otherwise vanished are clinging on, though without any maintenance. The question that stares us in the face, however, is, given that heritage structures will be listed and protected, are we geared for conservation and restoration in a scientific way? Or are we going about it in the usual fashion – full of good intentions but completely clueless on execution? The few restoration projects that are ongoing would indicate that the latter is sadly true, welcome though the fact that some attention is being paid to them.
Take for instance the restoration of Victoria Public Hall and Ripon Building. Both these projects are ostensibly being done under the guidance of an expert panel drawn from various institutions. But we understand that the panel is hardly ever consulted and most of the work is being undertaken by the PWD and State Government agencies who have no expertise in heritage conservation. It is also reliably learnt that even though some of the constituent experts have protested about some of the methodologies adopted, the work has continued on its own way, regardless. Is this scientific conservation? Not at all.
Internationally, it is understood that heritage conservation, if it is to follow the principles in letter and spirit, should involve original material, function and design as much as possible. This includes the use of timber, clay, lime and stone. It is highly unlikely that this is being followed in the case of the two examples cited above. In the case of VP Hall, it is said that the original staircases have been removed. In the case of Ripon Building, it is understood that pillars are going to be encased in synthetic material to make the structure earthquake-proof. It is learnt that experts have pointed out that such synthetic protection is required for multi-storied buildings that use cement concrete and pile foundations, both of which are not used in Ripon Building. Such protection is superfluous and there is no knowing what its impact will be on the pillars, which, being lime-coated, need fresh air to breathe.
The rampant adoption of air-conditioning is yet another case in point. Traditionally, heritage structures with their high ceilings and air vents are meant for air to circulate freely with no necessity for artificial cooling. But the new trend is to close all openings and provide for air-conditioning. This has three major attendant problems. Firstly, it involves the introduction of false ceilings, which completely hide the real ceiling from view and, therefore, prevent access to it for routine maintenance. Most old buildings have wooden beams and rafters, which need to be periodically inspected for signs of stress and failure. False ceilings prevent this. Secondly, most old buildings are built using lime mortar. Air-conditioning has a major impact on such cases, as the resultant moisture is absorbed by the hygroscopic lime, resulting in seepage and eventual flaking of plaster. The third is increasing fire hazard as the additional electric wiring increases the danger.
Many of the so-called restored buildings use vitrified tiles instead of traditional stones for the flooring. This again is contrary to accepted practice. There is also the recent trend to cover open courtyards to make for additional living space. This cuts off all scope for natural ventilation and results in several new problems.
One of the reasons for such short cuts is that heritage conservation is by no means a cheap exercise. On the other hand, use of modern material is inexpensive in the immediate short-term but takes its toll on heritage buildings in the long run. Unfortunately, very few people have the vision to foresee this. Even in the case of buildings that have been splendidly restored, there is complete ignorance on how they ought to be maintained after that. Senate House and the old block of the Connemara Library are two cases in point. Both were renovated in complete compliance with conservation principles but locked up thereafter. Senate House was later opened to house an exhibition of rather doubtful value, but the years of being closed had taken their toll on the walls. Connemara Public Library’s old block has not been opened in the last three years.
All this goes to show that even though we have as a State have come to recognise the need for heritage conservation, we are yet to evolve a proper methodology to go about it. Will we improve with time and experience?