July 12, 2014

Inferno - Chennai's Heritage in Flames

         How often does one manage to see a building of fire? Every few months if you live in the city of Chennai. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon, the weather had cooled down a little after the few thunder showers in the city in the last couple of days. I busy studying the busy streets of Broadway for an Urban Design project when a couple of people accidently ran into me. This was a common in the busy streets of Broadway so I continued to carry on looking at the road widths and encroachments. As I walked on I saw a crowd gathering on the road right outside the State Bank of India building. Another young man ran into me and I caught his gaze. I looked up to see what he was staring at and that's when I saw the SBI go up in flames. Thick smoke billowed from the Bank of Madras, one of the most exquisite examples of Indo-Sarasenic architecture in Chennai. The bank constructed in 1843 was an amalgamation of many regional banks in Madras in the 19th century. The fire raged on for two hours, the first and second floors completely gutted, it was finally put out at 7 pm. At least the response of the fire department was quick enough and the building was saved before it was reduced completely to ash.
Bank of Madras on Fire, 12th July '14
    Similarly, the government run Co-Optex textile showroom turned into a camp fire site in November last year causing a traffic jam that lasted an hour at a very crowded junction at Egmore. The building that is at least a decade old has caught fire more than once.
     The Indo-Sarasenic Moore market, a landmark in the city, was razed to the ground in a fire by 1985. It was rebuilt and the new structure has caught fire twice since then. The cause of these fires are often electrical short circuits. The cause of the Moore market fire outbreak was never actually found and the investigation remained inconclusive, but rumor has it that it was started by Southern Railway officials who wanted the land back as the market stood on Railway property.      
       So what is it with these frequent fire outbreaks? Just sheer negligence and public insensitivity towards heritage structures.
      While the government is busy building monuments and memorial arches, converting buildings from state legislatures to multi-specialty hospitals, nothing is done to protect or maintain existing structures which actually have historic significance. What is the future of these buildings that have survived a fire? They are treated as an invalid. They are cleared out, locked up and left to decay and crumble until some suited-up industrialist or politician with a receding hairline decides to tear it down and build something more safe and user-friendly. Some heritage buildings stand even till today over grown with weeds and moss with no future intended for them
            Some of these buildings are actually ancestral property owned by affluent families in the city. Having interned with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in Chennai I have seen many proposals for renovation and conservation of heritage buildings shot down for reasons like "relevance to a modern context" and "risk of building collapsing a few years after renovation". Here 'modern' buildings less than a few months old are collapsing killing hundreds and yet people don't seem to trust an old building that has survived centuries. Ironic?
             While the governments in Brussels and Italy are busy formulating and implementing policies to save their historic cities and minimize the impact of urbanization, our Indian cities are losing a lot of it's colonial neighborhoods to the demand for housing and sprawling metros.
            My idea of a Utopian city in India would be one where the past, present and future co-exist, where history is an integral part of a cityscape and where people respect spaces and structures and Chennai city seems to have a really long way to go.

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July 08, 2014

Pop Quiz with Uncle Matthew

        I finally found a little breathing space from my hectic final year course work to write this blog post. All of us at Architecture School would have at some point had to do a survey to collect data to support theories and claims part of a project. So this particular magazine article required one such survey. The survey required participants to answer a questionnaire on reuse of buildings and preservation of historic buildings in the city. 
        Going door to door, to all the houses in my neighborhood, I finally dropped by Uncle Matthew's. His 42 year old house was two doors away from home. A retired Southern Railway employee, Uncle Matthew was known for his miserly existence and his extremely cranky moods. Yet everyone had to agree the man was a walking encyclopedia. There was nothing this man didn't have an idea about. My mother had talked me into making Uncle Matthew take the questionnaire. 
        Now, having lived in the neighborhood for 21 years, Uncle Matthew and Aunty Alice had practically watched me grow up. I spent considerable amounts of time playing with their granddaughter in my childhood. 
        When I did go across to their house I realized I hadn't been to their house in over two years. I noticed how frail they had become and how oblivious I was to the neighborhood and its people changing around me. Stepping into their dimly lit home was like rewinding my life at least 10 years. The house hadn't changed much and I made myself comfortable in one of the chairs in their living room almost by habit. After pleasantries were exchanged I came down to business. It was time for Uncle Matthew to answer the questionnaire. 
        My first question was if historic buildings were relevant to a city and if they needed to be preserved. Uncle Matthew, smiled, smirked more like, adjusted his dhoti, and continued slicing bits of green mango into a plate. He asked me if I knew what the first Colonial building to be erected in Madras was. Now here I was a final year student of architecture planning to make a living out of Architectural Conservation and writing, talking about neighborhood revitalization, the question caught me completely off guard. I had a reputation of being one of the smart kids of the colony and really couldn't afford to let that image slide from the minds of these old folks so I made a good guess and answered "Fort Saint George". 
        I had just initiated my a Pop Quiz. Uncle Matthew didn't seem to want to give up so easy. He quizzed me about the history of the neighborhood to national economy to current affairs. At the end of it I had learnt about the first railway line in India from Mumbai to Thane, the old city limits and how many roads in Chennai got their names from important British figures. Question after question I felt stupider and stupider and my wiz kid image was hanging in the balance. Finally I managed to steer the conversation back to the survey and asked Uncle if he would ever feel the need to move out of the colony. 
        Uncle Matthew offered me the plate of mango slices which I was in no position to refuse. So as I munched on the little bits of mango which uncle had so carefully cut for me, he enthusiastically began a history lesson on the neighborhood and the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai. 
         One and a half hours later, Mr. Matthew had convinced me to go around the neighborhood and look at it with a different perspective this time and I did. Soon after I left, I went up to Loco Works Bridge to catch the sunset. Now THAT was another surreal experience altogether. 

Well, the purpose I initially went for was left half done but I did go home that evening a little wiser and with a brand new perspective for my project. It's amazing how much one can learn from just talking to people and keeping our eyes and ears open to all that's around us. 
Loco Works Station- To infinity and beyond

July 01, 2014

Black Holes in the City- Chennai's Dying Malls

Spencer Plaza, Mount Road, Chennai

        Strolling into Spencer Plaza, at Mount Road, made me wonder if it was a weekday or weekend and a quick check on my phone confirmed it to be a Saturday. This mall which is a landmark in the city of Chennai and as large as three phases of shops and boutiques seemed absolutely deserted. A few visitors were walking about casually looking at the merchandise on display, some munching away corn and cookies from the respective stalls. Walking down the narrow aisles, trying very hard to evade an occasional clothes rack of night gowns and tee shirts and a scary mean-looking shop owner trying to get you to buy a carpet or a printed salwar I noticed most of the shops were on clearance sale or were packing up for good. I sneezed half a dozen times. The place hadn't seen a mop in eons.
          I remember coming to this mall as a child for everything that I wanted to buy, be it clothes for my birthday or a new bag and stationery for a new year at school. We always lost our way, my mother and I, and every visit to this mall was an adventure. The mall built in 1863 and reconstructed in the 1980s was one of the largest in South Asia at the time and the largest departmental store in India. Now people visit the mall only for specific purposes, mostly to purchase cheap electronics and accessories for phones and computers and to get a tattoo or piercing.
          There are other rather old malls and plazas in the city, Spencer's was just one such example, which were THE places to go to on a weekend when people just wanted a break from the monotony of life. They now seem to be dying centers of activity as their newer and fancier counterparts coming up in the city cater to the current standards of living of people. The newer malls seem to draw the crowd consistently with luxury brands, restaurants, clubs, food courts and multiplexes which offer new age entertainment, while the old ones reply on their regular customers to remain in business. Some of the older malls thrive also because they house offices in their premises whose occupants aren't in no hurry to move out.
           These dying activity centers are now a good breeding ground for antisocial activity as security is limited to none. The small crowd and empty shops result in many a dark corner and safety is not guaranteed. These places are thoroughly exploited by couples to get some alone time as they use the small crowd and the little chance of being caught by their angry conservative families and friends who might be at the mall at the same time, to their advantage.
             Many of these malls have historic value as they were built as early as the 1800s and I always feel that any building of some historic significance adds to a cityscape. I think its really up to the owners of these gigantic commercial spaces to keep these places alive and . Be it marketing gimmicks like flash mobs and badminton tournaments or just bringing in merchandise and the kind of entertainment people are looking for at present days. I went about asking my shopaholic friends what they thought these old malls lacked. The most common answer was lack of security, cluttered aisles, dim lighting and clouds of dust lingering in the air which gave the place an eerie atmosphere and terrible customer service. So it is clear that a better effort has to be made in order to maintain the space and provide enough security and services so people are not put off when they visit. If the owners of the various boutiques took the effort to make their shop fronts attractive and be a little more customer friendly rather than scaring potential clients by harassing them to make a purchase at their shop, it would automatically make shopping more enjoyable. Perhaps social media and newspapers can help highlight this issue and this blog post I hope makes a small difference.

Fountain Plaza, Egmore, Chennai

Post in the comments below if you feel something can be done to help bring activity back to these landmarks.
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This article was inspired by a post on a social networking site by a good friend +Manjith Mothiram who addressed this issue. Cheers to that!