The whole story has déjà vu written all over it. The builders’ lobby constructing huge structures in all available spaces… heritage under threat… the public remaining insensitive… a few people lodging protests… an appeal in the Courts of Law… judgement given in the absence of any law protecting skylines…In case you thought that was something that happened only in Chennai, relax, for you are in august company. London has the same problems.
It may be the city with maximum protection for heritage and with the highest number of footfalls seeking out history, but it is no different from Madras! Late last month, some of the city’s most influential names in arts, academia and politics began a campaign to protect the city’s skyline which they say is under grave threat. This was after the Courts gave the go-ahead for a £600m development on South Bank which, according to UNESCO, poses a grave threat to Westminster’s world heritage status. On the other hand, with England still in the midst of a grim recession, this could do wonders for the economy.
Not so, say the intellectuals. And some of the language they have used sounds very familiar to us fighting the same battle in Chennai: “It is shocking that such a profound change is being made to a great city with so little public awareness or debate. There is also a startling lack of vision from the city’s leaders. These towers do not answer the city’s housing needs, but respond to a bubble of international investment in London residential property. A short-term financial phenomenon will change the city’s skyline forever. Over 200 tall buildings, from 20 storeys to much greater heights, are currently consented or proposed. Many of them are hugely prominent and grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline.
“This fundamental transformation is taking place with a shocking lack of public awareness, consultation or debate. Planning and political systems are proving inadequate to protect the valued qualities of London, or provide a coherent and positive vision for the future skyline. The official policy is that tall buildings should be ‘well designed and in the right place’, yet implementation of policy is fragmented and weak.
“Too many of these towers are of mediocre architectural quality and badly sited. Many show little consideration for scale and setting, make minimal contribution to public realm or street-level experience and are designed without concern for their cumulative effect and impact. Their generic designs, typical of fast-growing cities around the world, threaten London’s unique character and identity.”
You just need to replace London with Chennai in the above text and you could use it here.
The city, by which we mean Chennai, has already lost much of what was once a great skyline. Rajaji Salai was once home to Indo-Saracenic, Gothic and the Neo Classical. Much of that still remains but you can see what it is likely to become by noticing what is coming up here and there on that road. NSC Bose Road and the Esplanade was once home to an unbroken Art Deco facade as was the stretch between Egmore and Central Stations. Much of that has vanished or has been irretrievably transformed thanks to the use of Al-Cu bond tiles and other such quick fixes. The greatest tragedy has been Mount Road, which from a great and fashionable downtown has become a long stretch of multi-storeyed buildings with no harmony in design anywhere. If at all there is still a sole survivor, it could be the Kamaraj Salai (South Beach Road), which still retains much of its grandeur. There too, we have seen threats to the DGP Headquarters, Queen Mary’s campus, the Lady Willingdon Institute and Wenlock Park. And let us not forget, this is without bringing in residential areas such as Gandhi Nagar, T Nagar and Mandaveli which have completely lost their skylines.
Cities such as Barcelona, Miami, Shanghai and even our own Mumbai have made much of their skylines and converted them into tourist hotspots. Why can this not be done in Chennai as well? Perhaps it is time for the intellectual community to come together. Would Madras Week 2014 be a good time for this?