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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