Heritage buildings, always an endangered lot in our city, are faced with a new threat – being hidden behind modern high-rises, built on spaces surrounding them and originally intended to give an approach vista and an impressive setting. Thanks to realestate hungry owners, unimaginative architects and an indifferent administration, most of the familiar heritage structures we know are soon going to become lost to view.
Not many of our readers may be familiar with Moore’s Pavilion, a handsome double storied tiled-roof structure that stood (or probably still stands) behind Central Station. Over the years, all its surrounding space has been built over and it is impossible to even catch sight of it now. Long admired the Quaid-e-Milleth Government Arts College as you drove by? A new block is rising fast and is going to hide the old building from view. The Egmore bungalows that were residences of the Superintendent and other officers of the Government Hospital for Women and Children now have several construction projects on their premises, some so close to the old buildings that windows in the latter are forever sealed. The CSI Rainey Hospital has a new block that, true to its name, completely blocks the old building from view. The old Kardyl Building, which has long suffered thanks to the Bharat Insurance Building built in front, now has a Metrorail structure coming up beside it. Space for the latter has been made thanks to the quick demolition of the erstwhile Southern Railway booking office, which by any standard was a heritage building (but was not in the Padmanabhan Committee report and so did not qualify as one). There are many more such examples.
There are several reasons why new buildings have to be built, all understandable – ours is a space-starved city, institutions need to modernise and require space to grow, etc. We are not objecting to any of this. What we are concerned about is the manner in which it is being done. It sometimes appears that the new ones are built only to weaken the older buildings or at least hide them from view. Secondly, the new wings are built in styles that do not remotely resemble the heritage structures thus destroying the delicate fabric of the entire precinct. Perhaps the only two exceptions are the new extensions to the Central Station and the DGP Buildings on the Marina. And yet it was not always like this. The Presidency College campus has two later additions to the original Chisholm-designed building. The first, done in the 1930s by Jackson and Barker is so akin to the original that only the closest inspection can detect that it was constructed 70 years later. The next one, close to Triplicane High Road and built in the 1980s in a manner as to block all side views of the old college building, is shockingly ugly and, not surprisingly, the most dilapidated of all the buildings in the campus. Similar is the story at Ripon Buildings. The annexe built in the 1950s is a joy to behold while the later additions are terrible and falling apart.
From the point of view of a property owner not overly concerned about heritage, building a new structure to hide the old makes much sense. The hidden building can wither away due to lack of maintenance and even collapse, without anyone noticing, thereby making space for still newer buildings. A tough Heritage Conservation Committee can choose to object but in our case we have a largely hibernating and comatose committee, which prefers to look the other way. We can only hope for better sense among the owners themselves.