Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVII No. 8, August 1-15, 2017
The new State VIP Guest House mimicking the Sydney Opera House.
An addition to the architectural landscape of Chennai is a structure that has emerged in Government (Omandurar) Estate, next to the new Kalaivanar Arangam, to serve as State VIP Guest House. The elevation is touted as having been modelled on the world renowned Sydney Opera House, abutting the Sydney harbour in Australia!
The entire erstwhile Government Estate, called the Omandurar Estate, now has many new structures, of course, dominated by the mammoth fortress-like structure originally meant to house the Secretariat but subsequently made by a successor government into a multi-speciality hospital.
To heritage lovers and nostalgic Chennai residents, the Secretariat-now-hospital building has been cause for disappointment – not over the public purpose that it serves but over the insensitivity of putting up a building of such monstrous proportions in a historical spot, a prime location in South India. It is of a design devoid of art and grace and totally at variance with colonial style buildings and historical structures of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the neighbourhood. To some extent, the new Kalaivanar Arangam has attempted to incorporate ancient temple style and Dravidian architectural features to keep up with the cultural character of this area.
The latest addition is a purposeless, swanky, pathetic imitation of the Sydney Opera House. Imitations never become the equivalent of the original. They only invite derisive comparisons. Why this incongruous imitation in an area where enough architectural inspiration is available from the Khalsa Mahal, the Humayun Mahal, and the old colonial buildings in the neighbourhood?
Heritage conservation through restoration and protection of ancient structures and their sites is only one aspect. When several major heritage structures and styles are predominant in an area – as in the Estate area – the neighbourhood is endowed with a heritage atmosphere and character acquired over several generations through history. As such, heritage neighbourhoods need to be defended as much as specific structures and sites. Ideally, private and public agencies should voluntarily desist from designing new structures that are out of character with the surrounding atmosphere. But voluntary restraint to avoid violation of a heritage atmosphere cannot be depended upon. Responsibility for decisions on designs of new public buildings may often lie with a relatively lower level of the bureaucracy and, as such, it is too much to expect heritage sensitivity. Some broad regulation for surroundings of listed clusters of heritage structures and monuments and prior clearance of the design of new structures seems necessary.
Sydney Opera House, a ‘model’ for our PWD?
When a building or cluster of buildings is listed as heritage, as part of a heritage code, and is incorporated into the local zoning plan, compliance should automatically apply to surrounding buildings and spaces within a specified radius of the declared site.
The Handbook of Conservation of Heritage Buildings published by the CPWD in fact recognises this principle of heritage atmosphere. “The Heritage comprises archaeological sites, remains, ruins, and monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and their counterparts in the States, and also a large number of unprotected buildings, groups of buildings, neighbourhoods, and public spaces including landscapes and natural features which provide character and distinctive identity to cities”, (emphasis added).
The Tamil Nadu Heritage Commission Act, 2012, could be suitably amended to widen the definition of heritage and archaeological monuments to ensure that the character and distinctive identity of the surrounding are undisturbed. It may also need widening the scope of powers to the Commission under section 11 (2) (k) which now deals with only regulating advertisement structures in heritage buildings.
Preservation confined to specific structures and sites can defeat itself if the protected structure is overwhelmed by culturally insensitive and socially irresponsible constructions in the immediate surrounding. It is even sadder if the offending party is a government agency that decides to mimic some unconnected tourist spot in a foreign country, mindless of the damage it inflicts on our own heritage environment.
It might be argued that regulating the heritage environment is too far a cry when we are still trying to activate the government to restore hundreds of heritage structures all over the State. The suggestion may be ambitious but it is no sin to aspire.
As for the new building, it has about 20,000 sq.ft. of built area on the ground floor, 18,000 sq.ft. on the first floor and 16,000 sq.ft. on the second floor. In the building – yet to be electrified, furnished and landscaped – there are 40 guest rooms, two conference rooms and four meeting rooms besides a large dining area on the second floor, all of them air conditioned. It might take 3-4 more months for the building to be ready for use. The building is in about one lakh square feet of ground area.