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India boasts a rich history of town planning, which has been practised for almost a millennia; from the Harappan City of Dholavira to 20th century Chandigarh. The imagination, articulation and evolution of the use of space and the built environment of traditional Indian cities have been concerning its natural surroundings, planning, streets, traditional neighbourhoods, water bodies, crafts, public spaces, tradition, artisans, communities and their pattern of living, customs and beliefs.

What is urban heritage and historic buildings?

According to UNESCO, Urban heritage is a social, cultural and economic asset. It is an accumulation of traditions and experiences, recognised as such in their diversity.

A historic building is generally considered to be a building or structure that has some kind of ‘historic value’, i.e. people in the present are connected to it via past events in some way. This value warrants it being afforded consideration in planning decisions that have to be made concerning it.

Imagination, articulation and evolution of the use of space and built environment in traditional Indian cities. Source

What consists of built heritage or architectural heritage?

According to INTACH, buildings, artefacts, structures, areas and precincts that are of historic, aesthetic, architectural or cultural significance with natural features should be deemed as built heritage. It must recognize the adjoining cultural landscape that is crucial to interpret the site and its built environment. 

How to list a building as ‘heritage’?

To determine whether a property is ‘built heritage’ one must understand three key concepts : 

  • Historic Significance refers to the importance of an estate to the culture of a community in terms of history, architecture, archaeology and engineering.

  • Historic Integrity identifies the authenticity of property, verified by its physical features. It enables the structure to illustrate significant aspects of its past. 

  • The knowledge of the historic context makes it easier to understand the property as a product of its time and gives a contextual understanding of its built environment.

Listing of historic buildings. Source

Understanding of these three concepts should be followed by extensive research and documentation with fieldwork to understand the setting.

Why preserve, conserve, restore? 

Heritage design work may involve the restoration, preservation, and adaptation of existing structures and landscapes. It may include adapting a place to facilitate contemporary use. It may concern the creation of appropriate new infill development in sensitive heritage contexts, precincts, and conservation areas.

Restoration is described in the Burra Charter as the process of “returning a place to a known earlier state by removing accretions or by reassembling existing elements without the introduction of new material”; Preservation is the process of “maintaining a place in its existing state and retarding deterioration.” Reconstruction is the addition of new fabric that is, nevertheless, not considered “new work” under the Burra Charter.

Restoration of  Royal Opera House, Mumbai

Aged 106 years, owned by the royal family of Gondals since 1952, is the only surviving Opera House in India. After being unattended for 23years, heritage conservationist Abha Narain Lambah took over the restoration of the structure. The century-old building was once a cinema, putting it through severe structural distress, abandonment and devastation.

Royal Opera House, Mumbai, Maharashtra restored by Abha Narain Lambah architects. Source 

The structure displays outstanding technical proficiency, not only structurally but also acoustically. It adds on to the old world charm of southern Mumbai. To enjoy this gem virtually, check out this virtual tour

What except preserve, conserve, restore? Adaptations and adaptive reuse 

Adaptation involves changing a place to facilitate contemporary use. This could involve alterations and additions to meet current expectations of comfort and function, or the upgrading of a building or site to respond to new processes and procedures. Adaptive reuse gives new life to a site by designing sympathetic alterations and additions that enable the site to accommodate compatible new uses and functions, while maintaining the heritage significance, and communicating it to new generations of users.

Adaptive reuse of Ismail Building to Zara Store, Mumbai, Maharashtra 

Ismail Building, a 110 year old building, at the junction of Flora Fountain, has received a recent glow up to accommodate Zara’s first street store. The large-scale restoration of 51,300 sq ft was taken in collaboration with Zara’s parent group, Inditex, and two local heritage conservationists – Kirtida Unwalla and Mona Sanghavi. 

It is the perfect blend of contemporary interior design within the Edwardian Neoclassical building. The mall-sized outlet affords shoppers a relaxed shopping experience.

Zara Outlet by Kirtida Unwalla and Mona Sanghavi with Inditex . Source 

Original building materials are recovered and now exposed to emphasize the structure’s historic context and significance. The decorative elements, such as the moldings on the doors and windows have also been recovered.

To conclude, there is more than one way to treat a building of historic significance. However, sometimes it is also good to accept that a building has reached its inevitable end. Not everything old is heritage, and not all heritage is limited to age and time. It comprises layers of sensitive and sensible understanding that folds and unfolds to conclude the historic value of a structure.

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