Kovai’s conservation quandary

Architects and heritage enthusiasts from Coimbatore talk about the state of preservation of the city’s heritage buildings
The newly renovated Victoria Town Hall
The newly renovated Victoria Town Hall

CHENNAI: On a sprawling 2.6-acre plot in Avinashi Road, Coimbatore, work is steadily progressing on the renovation of the court complex known locally as Kuthiraivandi Court. Built by the British in 1863, the court is believed to have acquired its name after a number of horse-drawn carriages were fined for traffic violations, in an era when motorised transport still lay in the future. After decades of being in a state of total disrepair, it was finally decided to restore and renovate the court to house a museum complex at a cost of Rs 9 crore, and the restoration is being carried out by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Coimbatore chapter.

“It (the court) was in a completely dilapidated state, and the government had plans to demolish it; that was when we decided to intervene. We convinced the government to halt the demolition and restore it to its former shape. Work on it is almost complete now,” said Ramachandra Prasad, convenor, INTACH Coimbatore.

Architectural legacy

The Kuthiraivandi court is one of a handful of historic buildings in Coimbatore that were given a facelift in the past years. Earlier this month, GD House in Podanur, the place where the famous industrialist GD Naidu hosted Mahatma Gandhi on his visit to the city 1934, was revamped into the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Other buildings like the Victoria Town Hall, built in 1892, and the Hamilton Club, opposite the Railway Station, have also undergone extensive renovation — the latter was revamped into a Police Museum. Built in 1918 as a recreational centre for police officers, the museum now hosts, among other artefacts, a cast-iron cannon from the 18th century that was used in the third Carnatic War.

For a tier-II city, Coimbatore is home to several historic buildings across a variety of architectural styles. If the Town Hall building had elements of Victorian Gothic, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) complex in Vadavalli was built in the Indo-Saracenic style, and they all share space alongside the more vernacular building traditions. “If one really took a list of the various historical buildings in this city, you’ll find hundreds of them still standing,” added Philip Fowler, architect and partner of the Coimbatore-based firm Mini and Fowler.The one conspicuous international style noticeable in the city though, is Art Deco. At the same time that Art Deco mansions were popping up on Mumbai’s famed Marine Drive in the 20th century, many of Coimbatore’s prosperous merchants, taking note of the trend, erected palatial bungalows using the same. Anybody conversant with the style is likely to spot a few on a trip through some of the city’s major thoroughfares.

Conservation challenges

For a city with a rich architectural history, however, awareness regarding their conservation is rather low. Sakthi Murugan, heritage conservation architect and co-founder of Gravity Architecture in the city, argues that apart from awareness, economics plays a huge factor. “Conservation is something that attracts the interest of people who are affluent and have vast exposure to the cultural world, so they are the people who take an interest in such things. It is a huge task to take up the conservation and restoration of a heritage building, and it all boils down to economics. Even well-to-do and elite people find it hard to maintain some of these buildings,” he said.

Several of the bungalows sit on prime real estate, so their owners would only be too keen to hand the property over to a prime developer. Tagging these buildings as heritage property would prevent any such lucrative deal, said Ramachandra. And it’s not just the big bungalows — many of the older precincts of the city, like Town Hall and Big Bazaar Street, are home to several tenements going back several decades, all on the verge of demolition.

“If you look at Mumbai and the Fort Area, many of those buildings from the colonial era still exist because they belong to the Mumbai Port Trust. These buildings are then leased out as office spaces. So these buildings can’t be touched. So I keep wondering why can’t something like that be done in Coimbatore,” asks Philip. He also rues the cultural and official apathy towards the idea of preservation.
Among the many structures struggling to stay afloat are the single screen theatres that began losing their audience to the multiplexes. Theatres like Royal, which opened in the 1940s and was crucial to the emergence of stars like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, now lie almost decrepit, sustaining themselves through re-runs of older films from that era, films that continue to have a fan base. “Theatres like Royal and Shanmuga would also host theatre groups, at a time when Tamil drama was at its peak. With the art form in decline, that source of revenue also began drying up,” Philip adds.

Possible way out

The idea of adaptive reuse, where old buildings are repurposed for modern needs, is yet to take root in a city in the midst of a housing boom. But, asserts Lakshmi Menon, a sustainability consultant based in the city, they could be a way forward to preserving the city’s built heritage besides being easier on the environment. “When viewed through a sustainability lens, conserving built heritage makes significant economic and environmental sense. As materials become increasingly scarce, architects should advocate for the careful restoration and adaptive reuse of old buildings over demolition and building anew,” she added.

While recent restorations of heritage structures in the city point to a burgeoning interest in conservation, it is too early to say how long before it becomes widespread. And there is enough room for optimism where one can assume that not many of these buildings will have to lose out to real estate before a general sense of awareness begins to prevail.

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The New Indian Express