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Restoration of Mumbai's heritage structures
‘The very idea of conservation is to salvage as much of the original structure as possible and undertake repairs only when necessary,’ says Vikas Dilawari.
Twelve of 17 UNESCO awards for restoration of heritage in Mumbai have been given to architect Vikas Dilawari’s projects
The conversation around development and urban renewal is a persistent and urgent narrative that spreads across all government and policy discussions in Mumbai. It has become synonymous in recent years with a desire to raze old structures and superimpose them with towers of concrete and steel. Pockets of the city like South Mumbai then often feel like islands unto themselves, with their Neo-Gothic and Art Deco-style buildings.
There is immense potential in Mumbai for restoration of heritage structures, evidenced by the 17 UNESCO awards for such projects that the city has already won. Twelve of those have been won by the man I am about to meet: conservation architect Vikas Dilawari.
It’s 5.00 p.m. The busy intersection colloquially referred to as ‘Fountain’, after the 32-foot Flora Fountain that stands here, is one of the city’s most iconic structures and one that Dilawari is restoring, work having started in 2016. He is on his weekly site visit here, after which we duck into a small, bustling Udupi restaurant in one of Kala Ghoda’s lanes.
Over coffee and the ubiquitous Bombay sandwich, Dilawari tells me his journey with conservation architecture began with a college project at L.S. Raheja School of Architecture to redesign Crawford Market. “I came up with a plan to conserve it, but my peers, who decided to demolish it, got better marks,” he says. It motivated him to study and prove to himself that his approach wasn’t wrong.
All about lived heritage
In 1989, Dilawari enrolled in Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture as part of the second-ever batch that was formally taught conservation architecture. It was India’s only such course at the time. For most people, as Dilawari says, conservation meant historical monuments, not lived heritage.
When legislation to protect buildings began to be introduced in 1993, architects like Dilawari acted as a bridge between the government and NGOs. He was also involved in the first ever listing of heritage buildings undertaken by Intach. “I roamed around the city during those days, and that gave me a hang of the city’s architecture,” he says.
There was still very little money in conservation though, and if someone wanted to restore or just clean up a facade, it was still a big deal. The first big break came with the American Express bank building in Fort, where Dilawari helped restore both the exterior and, for the first time in Mumbai, the interiors. “It was a great project to showcase the potential of conservation. During the time of economic liberalisation, a great push actually came from various foreign banks that came into India. Banks have always been patrons of conservation and art. It is part of their culture because it speaks to their lineage,” he says.
The Indian Heritage Society had instituted an urban heritage award, which foreign banks like American Express and Standard Chartered were keen on competing for, and that created a buzz and awareness around conserving heritage architecture.
Other major projects soon started to come in the form of Rajabai Clock Tower at Fort and the Tata Group’s Army & Navy Building at Churchgate, that was restored to celebrate 50 years of Independence.
In 2000, a project was commissioned to repair the Bombay Corporation Hall that had been damaged in a fire. A year earlier, as part of a pioneering public-private partnership between Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Intach and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, Dilawari acted as the chief conservation architect on the team that restored the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla. The museum stands today as one of the finest examples of heritage restoration in the country, and it won a Unesco excellence award in 2005.
The award noted the project’s balance between conservation techniques and support of crafts skills. The project had succeeded in reviving dying techniques such as gilding and stencil work in the process of restoring the decorative details of the building, it said. These are the foundational hallmarks of Dilawari’s work.
“With every project, we try to showcase a different craft and engage craftsmen whose community can get some attention through the project,” he says. His other commitment is to ensure that his intervention as an architect is always respectful of the original structure. “That is the very idea of conservation, to salvage as much of the original structure as possible and undertake repairs only when necessary.”
These are difficult commitments to keep. Finding craftsmen can be tough, especially locally, and working patiently to retain a structure’s original integrity can often clash with time and budget constraints. “That is one of the reasons I had to withdraw from a lot of government projects, because they wanted to go for the lowest bidder and that did not allow me the flexibility to practise the right conservation techniques,” Dilawari says. It’s easy sometimes, to confuse conservation with what is commonly referred to as beautification. “For instance, I have spent nearly a full year removing the paint from Flora Fountain. Someone else could paint it in two days and inaugurate it and be happy.”
The lack of awareness of proper conservation techniques, along with policies like rent control, and the failure to see heritage structures as an asset in the planning process are some of the reasons why Mumbai’s true potential for restoring its best architecture has not been realised, Dilawari says. It’s estimated, for instance, that Mumbai has the second highest number of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world, yet the policy of rent control means there is little incentive for landlords to maintain these buildings.
Cheaper than a pizza
“If the rent is going to be cheaper than buying a pizza, for instance, and if a small portion of that is going to the municipal authorities, you are not going to get enough to maintain any of these buildings,” he says. Dilawari points out that not a single government has introduced, encouraged or induced conservation. “All we have done is a listing. Today, people are disgusted if their building gets a heritage tag. In Mumbai, if you want to rebuild or redevelop, the government will offer you a higher FSI (floor space index). Why can’t they offer an incentive for carrying out repairs?”
For a while, Dilawari’s dissatisfaction with government inaction spurred him towards private projects: restoration of private bungalows in Matheran and Mahabaleshwar, and housing blocks owned by the Parsi community which had the funds, knowledge and enthusiasm for restoration. It was good in a sense, he says, because it gave him a chance to work with less prominent buildings that were nonetheless a part of the quotidian look of the city.
Lately, however, he has moved back to working on larger public monuments through public-private partnerships. “The PPP model is the one big saviour of conservation. I have recently had good experiences working on three projects: the Mulji Jetha Fountain, Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower and the Wellington Fountain, in partnership with organisations such as Intach and the Kala Ghoda Association,” he says.
Then, of course, there is Flora Fountain, a government project undertaken after a long gap.
“It can be frustrating, and there are still bureaucratic hurdles. But it has been encouraging to see the enthusiasm that some of the younger engineers have and that is encouraging.”