Preserving a city's aesthetics

Preserving a city's aesthetics

Bengaluru needs to march forward, but not by razing its past, writes Meera Iyer, as she narrates the heritage landscape of the City

In the mid-1980s, just around the time there was a move to demolish the Attara Kacheri, the now-dissolved Bangalore Urban Arts Commission had commissioned the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to prepare a list of iconic buildings in Bengaluru.

The list was compiled by Prof K N Iengar, a renowned professor of architecture. The bespectacled professor surveyed the City for two years, pedalling through its lanes and bylanes, before he put together a list containing 823 buildings. The year was 1985.

Now and then

Cut to 2015. Faced with a paradoxical situation where increasing public interest in heritage is mirrored by increasing disregard for it by those in government, the Bengaluru chapter of INTACH embarked on a resurvey and update of the 1985 list of Bengaluru’s heritage buildings. While everyone agreed that we were fast losing our architectural heritage, it seemed important to be able to quantify it with some actual data.

Accordingly, volunteers from INTACH, including this author, spent about five months roaming the City on foot, motorcycles (but not bicycles!) and electric cars, looking for all the buildings K N Iengar had listed 30 years ago. The resurvey exercise was filled with almost as much drama and emotion as a soap opera! Each day brought with it delight at finding a building still standing in all its stateliness, and despair at finding others that had succumbed to ‘development.’

We classified the buildings into different categories — government (public), religious, private institutions, commercial and residences. The results in a nutshell: Out of the 823 buildings that the 1985 list recorded, less than half survived — only 354 to be precise. Bengaluru being less a city of monuments and more a city of heritage precincts — less like Delhi, for example, and more like Mumbai — not surprisingly, 510 of the buildings in the 1985 list were residences. Of these, only 129 made it to 2015.

Most of the monumental buildings that we do have — such as the Sheshadri Iyer Memorial Hall, the Victoria, Vani Vilas and Minto hospitals — are government-owned. Happily, almost all of them have survived. Nonetheless, it was unsettling that almost but not all the government buildings had survived till the second survey. Being owned by the custodians of the City’s heritage, they should have ensured that the number remained unchanged over 30 years. Instead, of 117 heritage buildings that were under the government’s aegis in 1985, only 96 were found still standing in 2015.

The remaining had given way to the demolition ball. The old taluk office building on Kempegowda Road, the office of the deputy commissioner, and even some buildings with the army, amongst others, have been devoured by the ‘modernity’ virus. A few private buildings had also achieved near-monumental status, at least in the hearts and minds of the people.

Many a hand was wrung in anguish when the iconic Cash Pharmacy building, at the corner of St Mark’s and Residency roads, was brought down about a decade ago. Another building that had a special place in the hearts of many Bengalureans was the house named ‘Golden Threshold’ on St Mark’s Road, owned by Camilio Miranda. As a child, I remember pausing everyday on my walk to school, to take a glimpse of the handsome building and its equally beautiful garden, which to me seemed straight out of a fairy tale. This building was one of the earliest in that area to be demolished.

Down memory lane

Bengaluru’s heritage buildings were not restricted to any one neighbourhood, but were found even in its smallest lanes and congested spaces. There are street houses on Kenchappa Road that exude charm, for instance, or small houses on Puliyar Koil Street that are full of refinement. I fell in love with one particular house on Anthony Nicholas Street in Ashok Nagar, or at least with its photograph.

It was described by Prof Iengar in 1985 as “an example of how middle class house owners might design their residences rather than ape the craziest wasteful designs of the present decades.” This building has now been replaced by a modern building.

One of the memorable roads was the tree-lined Vasavi Temple Road in Basavanagudi, a street brimming with history. Writer and activist Arathi Manay’s great grandfather Ramachandra Rao Scindia built a house on this road in 1925. She says, “The Vishweshvarapuram area in Bengaluru was established in about 1918, and much of the land was bought from the Mysore government by Marathas, through auction.”

Prof Iengar’s documentation corroborates this when he notes how the neighbourhood had five very similar palatial buildings, all built by the same business community. Arathi’s ancestor’s house, no longer in her family, has now been replaced by apartments. But a few others still stand in the area. Prof Iengar’s list also includes Edward’s Street, which was filled with heritage houses. Isha Krupa, one of the eight houses found there, was noted for its multiple roof planes and “a harmonious composition”.

Several of these houses, built in the 1920s and 1930s, look strikingly similar. Prof Iengar calls them ‘Indian bungalows with Indian and European details’: two storey houses with porticos and drives, canopied corners, and very decorative details in plaster, especially around the doors, windows and parapets. Yet, a close look shows up differences too. It is the same with the colonial-style bungalows in the cantonment area. At first glance, one sees only the similarities: monkey tops, trellises and decorative roofs.

But as pointed out by the owner of a 112-year-old house in North Bengaluru, the houses differ in their details, such as the style of windows, the floor designs, the decorations on their parapets — hers has a coat-of-arms, for example, while others down the road have flowers. This is what gave each house a particular character.

C Aravind, a co-ordinator at INTACH Bengaluru, says, “Many things in old houses were customised and had to be made on site, such as the windows, plaster decorations, doors and so on. Today’s buildings, on the other hand, are mostly made with mass-produced items.”

Several owners of heritage buildings have strong attachments to their houses and hold on to them, despite many problems. Maintenance is difficult and can be expensive, they say, especially since many are left to be looked after by aged parents, the children having flown the coop.

Given that a city’s image, its undefinable soul, is tied to its heritage buildings and its neighbourhoods, can the government ensure heritage buildings in its care are no longer torn down? Can we come up with a mechanism that provides some support to owners of heritage buildings? In most modern cities, the old sits comfortably alongside the new. Yes, Bengaluru needs to march forward, but that need not mean razing its past.

(The author is the co-convener of the Bengaluru chapter of INTACH)

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