Digging Deeper into Conservation Architecture with Architect Manish Chakraborti

Ar Manish Chakraborti

Ar Manish Chakraborti is a Professor and a practicing conservation architect and his office, Continuity, founded in 2000  is one of the leading architectural conservation and management practices in India. Consultant to World Monuments Fund, National Museum of Denmark, Asian Development Bank and Archaeological Survey of India, he has authored various books on architecture and conservation and a visiting faculty to schools of architecture in India.

He has been awarded fellowships from Charles Wallace, Geothe Institute, Italian Government and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands wherein he delved into intensive training in conservation planning, strategies and techniques. Recently he was honoured by a premier architectural magazine Society Interiors for two decades of conservation practice and advice and his project on Conservation of St Olav Church, India won the Unesco Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Distinction in 2016.  His recent restoration project of Denmark Tavern from a ruin into a heritage hotel and café is widely acclaimed in India and abroad.

What changes have you observed in conservation architecture in the last 20 years?

I think there have been significant changes in the restoration architecture in the last two decades. Initially, it was all about identifying buildings that are culturally and historically significant and outside the ambit of the protection by the state and the center. There is innumerable number of buildings since the state and the central governments have only identified a very small fraction of the rich cultural heritage of our country. Therefore the first decade of the 21st century went into identifying and listing the historically and culturally significant buildings across the country along with finding the right organization responsible for taking care of such structures. In this regard, INTACH and other cultural organizations played a very significant role. The second decade was about the redevelopment of the already identified buildings.

Here arose the conflict between city developments versus destruction of listed heritage buildings which became evident with cases across the country. This began the critical awareness about mindless destruction of our heritage in the name of quick profit motivated development. It was a silent yet significant movement among the people who are against the mindless destruction of heritage properties. Media also played a significant role by making people more aware. This resulted in more restoration projects being initiated by the government.

While the first half of this decade saw a mindless destruction, the second half came with a lot of restoration projects being started, standards being set, examples made that restoration can be viable too.  Adaptive reuse of old buildings is a very good way of development.

I always say, “Let’s conserve to develop, not the other way around.” There are areas dotted with lots of listed heritage properties like Dalhousie Square, Kolkata, Pattharghati, Hyderabad or Nizamuddin, Delhi.  Here the Area Conservation (improving the area by restoring many heritage buildings was also demonstrated to turn the area around to make it more distinctive and a symbol of the city.

How aware do you find people about heritage conservation? 

Most of the architects who were not a part of the restoration movement are being challenged by the people who were a part of the said movement since the last two decades, were behind mindless destruction in the place of the heritage buildings.  So it is quite understandable that a significant fraction of the architects feel that it is against their practice. At the same time, there is another section like me, Abha Narain Lamba in Mumbai, Benny Kuriakose in Chennai, Rahul Mehrotra and Vikas Dilawari in Mumbai, etc., who are actively engaged in heritage conservation. In fact, unlike what many architects believe, if asked, most people in the country would understand heritage conservation and would surely be in its favour.

Globally, many renowned architects in the world are doing projects combining heritage with development. Architects need to be more sensitive towards our heritage. There has been a steady increase in the understanding and awareness about architecture with conservation bend of mind.

Over and above the regular study of architecture, an architect needs to know how a building behaves. Unfortunately, new architects have stopped visiting the site. Instead, they send the design and some junior architect to get the work done. However, in the case of a conservation architect, one not only has to produce his drawings but also has to match the proposed drawings with the existing structure which is not possible without him being present on site regularly. Therefore, being a conservation architects is more challenging and interesting and at the same time, it makes you more sensitive aesthetically, culturally, material-wise and so on. Therefore conservation architects are much more interpretive, articulate, and sensitive than many practicing development architects.

Architects are creators of the buildings and it gives them an immense joy to create something which keeps on having their name for a long time to come. Conservation architects create spaces in relation to the old structures while making a building live again.

So it doesn’t make sense to call Conservation architecture less creative and the New Architecture more creative.

Denmark Tavern 1787 reborn on the bank of river Hooghly

What is adaptive reuse of buildings and how it makes heritage conservation a viable activity?

I have restored many buildings many of which are not commercial including churches, mosques, temples etc.  Here the joy is to make it live again. However, there are many heritage buildings for which there are no resources. For them, Adaptive Reuse is a very viable model. It proves that Conservation is also beneficial and can be a great return on investment like restoring a building which is like a ghost for the last ten years and you show that can be restored with complete authenticity, with its material, expressions, image as well as, can be put in use for daily needs, making that a unique point of departure in design. This gives immense joy and an example to the other buildings for turning their fate around. This proves that conservation is not a non-economic activity or anti-development.

Adaptive Reuse is a great solution for countries like ours to prove that old and new can coexists without necessarily demolishing the old and reusing the existing for modern needs and requirements.  

Your message to students

Interestingly, the architecture syllabus today has a very high seven credit score elective course on conservation architecture which was a not a part of the curriculum when we were students. And when I joined as a teacher, every student took that elective course. It is really great and whatever I am envisioning for the future, I am sharing with the student. I would like to tell them, ‘architecture is not about designing in the paddy fields. It is also about coexistence, living with the existing, and responsiveness towards the buildings. 

Also Read: Heritage Restoration & Conservation Architects of India

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