The Loss Of Inheritance
“People don’t come to the Gateway of India to gape at some pointless pile of stones put up by the British to remind us that we were once slaves. They come there to relieve themselves.”
I didn’t make that up. That was the actual submission made by a lawyer whose feistiness was directly proportional to his seniority, on behalf of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MMC). The statement was bizarre, but perhaps no more than the case that drew it, a public interest litigation to protect an old, small structure near the Gateway, on the access road to the Taj Mahal Hotel. The structure in question was, incredibly, a public toilet and it stood in the middle of the road that the MMC proposed to widen. The argument was that this edifice needed to be preserved because it had ‘heritage value’. The case was forever known, at least on this side of the Bar, as the Taj heritage loo case.
The case and its reaction emphasize the polarized views to almost any proposal at conservation and preservation. There are those who claim that it is nothing more than an impediment, and that the structures sought to be preserved are merely dilapidated with no redeeming value. Proponents claim that it is necessary if we are not to lose every semblance of our past. The voices of those who live and occupy these structures are equally divided.
Heritage protection is now law. In Mumbai, since 1995, it has been included in the regulations that control the city’s development.1 A very long list is drawn up. It proposes individual structures, precincts, areas and natural forms, and it grades these, and these grades in turn dictate future development. The list and its grades are subject to public consultation, after a fashion. The recently published revised heritage list for Mumbai has drawn much flak. Irate citizens claim that many of the items on that list have no value worth preserving. Some show the errors in this list, such as the inclusion of buildings long gone.
At least part of the problem is the nature of this heritage protection law, and this applies as much to Mumbai as it does to every other city in India that has something like it. It is a restrictive or prohibitory statute, created and enforced by people who, its opponents claim, are unaffected by these restrictions. The public consultation is limited to considering suggestions, and these may or may not be accepted.
This criticism isn’t without justification. A voluble proponent of all things heritage once claimed that bathroom taps could not be changed, though these only provided lukewarm and ice-cold running rust, and that written permission was needed to install mosquito mesh-netting on window frames. Because old, therefore good; this kind of heritage evangelism is surreal, and is its own worst enemy, not least because of its inherent daftness.
The problem is exacerbated in areas that have rent control. If a structure is both tenanted, and therefore subject to rent control, which means that rents are pegged at some meaningless level, and heritage restrictions are loaded on, the result is a diminished standard of habitation for the tenant and a deteriorating property value for the owner. Even for structures that aren’t tenanted but have long since fallen into disuse, such as abandoned mills and factories, to say that these must be preserved in their ruinous condition or that an owner must spend lavishly to restore something with no prospect of making any modifications to facilitate more modern needs is to score a self-goal. In its current form, heritage law makes two tragic assumptions: first, that a small coterie knows what’s best for the entire city; and, second, that citizens are too infantile to know what’s good for them. That is precisely the wrong way to go about things.
At least in Mumbai, this seems to be changing: newsreports indicate that there are now proposals to provide fiscal and financial incentives to owners of heritage properties. That is long overdue, and should have been done in the first place, and it goes a long way to addressing a fundamental failure of heritage protection law: making it participatory rather than prohibitory. Canvassing views isn’t enough; people must want to protect and conserve their properties and the law must give them enough reason to do this.
The trouble with a prohibitory statute is that it is easy to breach, and all it does is make rich lawyers significantly richer. The monstrosities that have come up in our neighbourhoods, some so high that one cannot see their tops from the narrow streets below, are unacceptable for this reason: they are unmindful of their surroundings, and therefore unmindful of the people who choose to continue to live there. There are many aspects to living with the past, but none so important as the sense of community. Replacing these communities with towers of isolation in the name of development and progress is a canard. This is not betterment of living; it is the fracturing of communities and therefore, incrementally, the city. Leave aside the dubious aesthetics of these constructions; their construction comes at an enormous social cost, and this is a strong justification for conservation. Shoving people out of their homes or stacking them in pigeon coops is not a civic improvement; restoring their homes is.
This does not mean that every single thing of antiquity must be retained only because of its historicity. London and Prague have magnificently preserved buildings that aren’t abandoned tombs but are very much in use. Even old industrial structures — railway stations and power plants, for instance — have had their shells preserved but have been internally adapted to new uses, and to stunning effect. And yet both these cities have found ways to reinvent themselves and to change their visible imagery: London has the Eye and the Gherkin and will soon get the Shard; Prague has very contemporary architecture squashed between buildings several centuries older. It is possible to both conserve and build new and keep these in step with each other. That is, however, something we have never quite learned. The results, in our cities, speak for themselves.
Old and New :: Dancing House, by Frank Gehry, 1996, Prague.
Courtesy: Arch1390 Ilynn ONG
Old and New :: London Eye
Courtesy: World Travel Guide
Old and New :: London with Gherkin
Courtesy: Famous Wonders
Old and New :: London with the Shard
Courtesy: Another Part of Me
In Mumbai, the places that have been restored, and which are visible from public streets, are stunning. The David Sassoon Library at Kala Ghoda or, more recently, Zaver Mahal on Marine Drive are excellent examples. Seeing them like this, and knowing what they looked like before the restoration, is the best argument in favour of conservation.
There are areas in every city that are worth preserving: for their architecture, for their spacing, for the quality of life these forms provide, for a number of intangibles. Equally, there are areas we must be prepared to let go or allow to change. Not every architectural detail and every ramshackle structure is worth keeping. Heritage conservation in every city would be far more effective, and efficient, if it was more nuanced and had a more fine-grained approach, and if the law actually tempted citizens into becoming part of the heritage conservation enterprise.
What heritage conservationists must do is to convince citizens that heritage protection is about more than pickling a city in a desperate attempt to hold on to some dimly remembered past; that we need it to remind us of where we came from, and where we are headed; and that a city without a past is a city without a future.
In Belgium, a Converted 19th-Century Mill | NY Times
22 September 2012 | Liverpool | The Economist
The rebuilding of England’s northern cities has stopped
STANLEY ALLEN, a self-employed painter and decorator, bought his house in Liverpool’s Welsh Streets 18 years ago. He is still there—but few of his old neighbours are. Most of the redbrick Victorian terraced houses on his street are sealed off with metal grilles across the doors and windows, ready for demolition. “They’ve destroyed the whole community”, he says, of Liverpool’s scheme to regenerate the area by demolishing older houses. “And it used to be lovely.”
The Welsh Streets are one of the more prominent examples of the failure of the previous government’s plan to restart the housing market in several depressed cities in the north of England. Tenants were moved out and compulsory purchase orders sent to landlords. A row grew as protesters claimed that the government was subsidising private developers to knock down Britain’s industrial heritage. The programme’s defenders claimed that replacing old houses with new ones would attract young families to blighted areas, increase house prices and even cut crime.
But demolition ground to halt when, as part of the coalition government’s attempt to close the huge deficit in Britain’s public finances, the £5 billion ($8.1 billion) programme was cancelled eight years early. Liverpool council lost £130m earmarked for the scheme. Having won some money from other state funds, it will refurbish 32 of the houses in the Welsh Streets, including the birthplace of Ringo Starr, a Beatle, as well as a few hundred elsewhere in the city. More still are due to be demolished, but that is controversial. On September 19th the High Court ordered a judicial review into the use of “transitional” funding to knock down houses. Similar scenes, without the Beatles tourists, can be seen across the north of England. … read more