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Past to the Future

Madhu Pandit


Repurposing the Past to Build for the Future

At the end of the last millennium, I was invited by the Regional Director, SOS KDI to design a Visual & Performing Arts Centre for the SOS Children’s Village in their existing campus in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand. Having taken a few years of sabbatical to be with my two new borns, this could not have been more opportune, since my girls had rapidly evolved into toddlers, showing all signs of imminent independence. Moreover, I was ready to get my teeth back into architecture, into the life I had known and loved.

The brief was to repurpose the Palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jhind, which had switched several hands in the past decades and finally landed up with the SOS CV. The site for the Village and the School was strategically located in relation to the amphitheatre of hills that hold the Bhimtal Lake in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. Its tranquil lakeside landscape was definitely was more overwhelming than the two historic buildings set in it.

The Palace, built in early 20thCentury was a celebration of pell-mell of styles and kitsch. Reinforced concrete was clearly a novelty and used gingerly for eaves and flutings, while the main gravity structure comprised of two and a half feet thick or more of stone masonry in mud mortar. Art Deco had seeped its way from 1920s Mumbai and added to its architectural misdemeanours. But at the heart of it all was this double storied, 2000 sqm floor area, very derelict in parts but quite robust in many. It had  stood the test of time, however grumpily, for most of the last Century, and now it was mine. Mine to breathe back some life into.

After a detailed documentation and structural assessment, my team and I dug into it stoically, looking at the spaces under the rafters and the gables to offer design solutions which met the needs of the client’s new brief. While we made substantial space structure changes to incorporate student-centric creative learning spaces, we retained the mass as true to its original planning as possible. The months that followed saw us removing large pieces of walls, inserting frames and ties and new slabs, gable wall treatments, plugging in new rafters, stitching and strengthening old ones, pressure grouting thick, thickest walls, while all the time keeping a sharp eye on the costs. It required special knowledge and effort on the part of our structural engineer/MEP team intervention as well as construction management. It was a steep learning curve for all.

Thus began my journey of exploring existing building stock as an opportunity to reclaim and rebuild for the future. Woodstock School in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand gave us the opportunity to revamp their existing campus on the hillside to celebrate their 150 years for the year 2005. That project has its own stories to tell, from highly emotional users, lamenting a ‘relocated rickety old stair’ to reconstructing a severely damaged “turret” from the earthquake in Uttarakhand in 1991.

More recently, we were approached by a design college, which has an urban campus from several buildings (on lease) in one of Delhi’s institutional areas, to redesign, rearrange and expand their various departments into some more buildings. In a 60 day window, we had to close the new brief, programme, prepare the master plan of about five buildings sitting in a radius of half a kilometre, as well as design, detail and subsequently get tender ready for construction for the first phase of works.

The new design transformed every square inch of these industrial buildings into a dynamic and progress learning environment. While the core shell and some services were kept intact, large sections of walls were removed, movable partitions and innovative furniture layout schemes proposed for flexible planning and collaborative learning. New mechanical systems were introduced, sometimes in conjunction with reuse of the existing ones. Over and above all this, a thematic outer new skin was visualized, which would tie up all the buildings. We worked with an approach of revitalizing the immediate area outside the buildings, systems for traffic movement and parking (not easy in an overcrowded urbanscape, but not impossible). It was harder than designing a greenfield facility but twice as much more exciting for our design team.

Adaptive reuse is not new. There isn’t an architect who has not been involved with several at some point in her or his life.Our culture and many across the world have been doing it for thousands of years. Anecologically sensitive approach does not always have so much to do with the climate change pathologies, as with our genetic memory of reuse as well as an inherent abhorrence to mindless appropriation of our natural resources.

But here’s the thing, with the forward wave of IT and ‘globalization’ the world shrunk into a transnational one. ‘Think global and act local’ lost its meaning while the architectural profession alienated itself from most things local. Precious physical and cultural resource, accumulated over centuries was destroyed and continues to be in the name of what society defines as better buildings, that is, those that are more efficient, profitable, ‘original’ and technically accomplished. No one can argue that any sensitivity to context, whether socio-cultural, urban, historic or ecological has been ignored by the new industrial logic of internationalism and standardisation. In addition to this the collective aspirations for these so called ‘accomplished’ buildings have led many away from what is already there, abandoning it for the new. Real estate promoters and developers have seemingly looked out to the edges for affordable and available land and converted them into coveted ‘addresses’ when they could be looking towards the urban core.

I am not advocating dismissing the new. New is unquestionably the way forward, but in the journey of discovering this new, we will have to readopt some old methods of recycling/avoiding waste, sharing existing amenities and infrastructure, other than transforming the old, very often, decaying urban fabric of our cities and towns into some contemporary vibrancy. The fact that this allows for an opportunity to plug into the existing traffic arteries can benefit all. I can see the sceptics shaking their head at the parking issues. Let me say that I have seen some kindness in the urban nightmare of this city. They are examples of time tabled parking, like the restrictive zoning in the traditional sense of “manage the access, don’t deny it”, and it works.

Getting to carbon neutral environment is tough, but it is time the designers/planners and all stakeholders put their money where their mouth is. In light of the recent economic meltdown which wreaked havoc, not only in the developed world, but in many public as well as private investments in the building activity in our country our too. While the this industry continues its galloping pace, the busy retail and life style centres, malls and high energy office complexes have seen changes in terms of high vacancy rates, deferred use or even abandonment. This has resulted in having left gaping holes in the new urban fabric of our expanding cities.

Vacant/underused spaces for reuse are many. This may be unbelievable, given our overcrowded and unwieldy cities but they are everywhere around us, whether they are new retail, offices, or abandoned public buildings like some made unwisely for the last Commonwealth Games held in Delhi, or even listed/unlisted historical ones scattered all over many of our cities. There are many cinema halls which are lying around in melancholic decay. Every time I go to Old Delhi, I see so many opportunities in old abandoned and derelict buildings. I know this will shock most because it is unthinkable for anyone in their right senses to aspire to live in the clutter, dirt and, in many places, inhumanly derelict environment. We cannot forget that this state of affairs is a result of decades of anachronism from overbuilding which started with the British and was subsequently inherited by the new independent nation’s planners and municipal bodies. But we can always look at the possibility of a non-profit public-private-partnership like the Nizammudun Urban Renewal project intervention which can step beyond ‘conservation’ to some honest to goodness ‘reuse’.

No doubt many of these buildings are tied up with ownership and legal issues but as design professionals, do we have the courage to pursue a movement calling for redevelopment which can legislate for use of such building stock? Can we promote and visualize vacant community spaces as a viable alternative to housing for the underprivileged? Can we advocate to the state stakeholders that a government college can meet its programmatic brief by renovating an abandoned factory/power station in the heart of the city?

Above all, can we propose a system which seriously revaluates mega scale plans of building new at all costs?