Sunday, May 30, 2004

Edifices of yore get a new lease of life

Reproducing an article from the latest issue of India Today (7 June, 2004):

Romancing The Retro

The city has lost some of its antique buildings. But makeovers give a new life and commercial meaning to other old beauties.

By Nirmala Ravindran

The 92-year-old building is abuzz with activity. Who could have imagined that what was once The Blighty's Tea Rooms and later a store that housed biblical literature could become the flagship shop of the coffee giant Barista. The grey-brown stone walls look as strong as ever and the high ceiling, criss-crossed by wooden rafters, and the well-ventilated room keep the summer heat at bay. No wonder old-timers say, "They just don't make them like these anymore."

OLD BUT FIRM: Art store Brahma (left) and restaurant Sigri were fashioned out of 150-year-old twin houses; a mansion (below) became a Neemrana hotel

While it is too late to mourn the fact that some of the best buildings in Bangalore no longer exist, and in their place stand monstrous glass-and- concrete structures, what gives hope is that some old edifices which would have gone the same way have been saved and preserved for the present thanks to adaptive architecture, or re-architecturing as it is called today. A group of architects and some sensitive clients have taken it upon themselves to preserve what is possible without waiting forever for the Karnataka Government to pass the Conservation Bill. The result? The beautiful old buildings are finding new life and commercial meaning, thanks to their architectural makeover.

"Till the Government passes the Conservation Bill, there is very little that anyone can do, except get sentimental about history and memories," says Naresh Narasimhan, principal architect of Venkataramana Architects and a very influential voice in the city. He does not mince words when he explains that builders and developers are not always the villains they are made out to be. "There is a practical side to it. The people who inherited these colonial bungalows were all inherently poor and needed the money. And to the builder, what could be greater than putting up 2,00,000 sq ft of commercial space? Are we ready to compensate the owner and buy the property from him at market value? No!"

While the suggestions to compensate the owners were many, not too many of these found takers. Narasimhan's own suggestion of following the British method of setting up a heritage fund that would purchase buildings at market rates and then open them to the public as museums or public spaces did not meet with any success. Narasimhan, incidentally, is re-architecturing the old but beautiful Maneckavelu Mansion into the Gallery of Modern Art. New structures will be added around the building to house the gallery and a garden café.

GLITZY AVATAR: An old bungalow was made into nightclub and bar Spinn
Victoria Hotel, one of Bangalore's landmark buildings, was razed to the ground last year because Motha, the then owner, could not afford to run it. A monolith in glass and concrete stands today in the place of the old colonial structure. "I have nothing against modern structures, but this is the kind of development that leads to infrastructure problems," says award-winning architect Renu Mistry. "You could be in one of these buildings and be just about anywhere in the world, which is fine. But what happens to the architectural character of the city?"

Acase in point is the family home of the owners of Ganjam Jewellers, a 90-year-old house that was not in use. "We wanted to convert it into something that would preserve our happy memories," says Umesh Ganjam. Mistry was roped in and the result is Ganjam Kalyana Mantapa, a perfect blend of the old and the new. The building is booked round the year for weddings and cultural gatherings and performances.

One of the first examples of adaptive architecture came when architect Sandeep Khosla renovated a 100-year-old building owned by Roshni Jaiswal and Jay Singh into 180 Proof, Bangalore's first high-end lounge bar. "180 set a precedent-later Barista and Spinn came to us," says Khosla.

Other examples of re-architecture are Brahma, an art store, and Sigri, a restaurant, fashioned by Mistry out of 150-year-old twin houses. Villa Pottipatti, a dilapidated mansion belonging to the Reddy family, was acquired by Francis Wacziarg of Neemrana and re-fashioned into a Neemrana hotel. As for retail experiences Mistry has just converted a 150-year-old house of the Minocher family into retail space. Another much talked about retail store is Raintree, set up in the beautiful 75-year-old family bungalow and grounds belonging to Jaya Pravindra.

While the Government continues to dilly-dally over the Conservation Bill, citizens have been lapping up the feeling of actually experiencing old buildings that have become public spaces. They and the conservation lobby continue to hope that their efforts to preserve the city's heritage will soon get an official stamp of approval.


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