If the architecture of yesterday is the heritage of today, then can today’s architecture be the heritage of tomorrow, wonders Mumbai-based conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. With over a dozen UNESCO awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation to his credit, he is known for his work at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lal Museum and Flora Fountain. He will be part of a discussion on “Contemporary Heritage – Is the meaning lost in translation?”, organised by the GD Goenka University in Delhi. In an interview, Dilawari talks about the lack of awareness and legislation on contemporary heritage, and the need for heritage labs. Excerpts:
English art critic John Ruskin proposed the idea of ‘voicefulness’ in conservation. Do you think contemporary conservation is sensitive to the ‘voice’ of structures?
One has to see the conservation movement in our country in an overall perspective. Unlike in the UK, it does not have governmental support here, nor are citizens aware. Our conservation movement is only 30-40 years old. It is an emerging discipline, which came from activism, and is getting some awareness but then, equally fast, we are also losing our heritage. Legislation is completely lagging, with no incentives; it’s a builder-dominated development market.
Heritage in India is often faced with the dilemma — should it be conserved or preserved? Aren’t there more approaches to heritage?
True, sensitive development or skilful repairs and urban renewal can be alternatives but for that, the government has to introduce laws that control greed and allow needs to be met. For instance, a balcony enclosure or addition of a part floor for a growing family need is fine, but redeveloping a ground+1 storey for a ground+8 with free parking and sale component is not desirable.
Ideally, the preserved approach is for non-living monuments, those protected by ASI. Conservation is of two kinds, one that is done professionally, following a philosophy, while the other is random beautification done by the contractor or when a turnkey takes over.
We have examples in Smart Cities and Hriday projects. Why not have a Heritage City where sensitive development is the key. Few are experimenting in Pondicherry, which is good but it has to be done holistically.
Prof AGK Menon, in an article, said that the dichotomies of Bharat and India fuel the debate on the objectives of conservation? Have you seen that happen?
There are dichotomies but I don’t think it is fuelled by the Bharat or India debate. We often hear that it’s Bombay vs Mumbai, which is colonial Bombay vs present Mumbai, especially after 2007 floods where the suburbs were badly hit due to poor infrastructure and overgrown population, whereas the older city, the Fort area, was not so bad.
In our country, we haven’t arrived at a good conservation philosophy as it is so vast and diverse. Also, we have inherited the Colonial and Western approaches.
Also since conservation is not mainstream architecture, it remains aloof. The revival of tradition and process is well-meaning but hasn’t happened with living heritage on a substantial scale. There are good efforts like what the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is doing for significant monuments.
What are the challenges facing contemporary heritage?
Firstly, awareness and importance. There is a gap in our mainstream architectural fraternity and students. Secondly, the sense of pride is lacking. If a locality takes pride in what they have inherited, it will be respected and taken care of. There is also a bigger question, how and what to conserve. There are no easy answers.
Also, contemporary heritage is mostly of reinforced cement concrete (RCC). So how to prolong the life of RCC is a challenge, be it for lived-in heritage (Art Deco buildings, Mumbai) or for monumental, exposed concrete buildings (Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh). We lack proper research facilities, like good laboratories, to test and trial. That’s the reason we need to collaborate with leading world institutes.
The event is on March 29 at India Habitat Centre, Delhi, 9 am onwards