Kolkata’s Jaquar Design Confab reveals the deep love of the design community for its city
Keynote address by archtitect Brinda Somaya sets the tone for the forum, which talks about preservation of built heritage
There’s nothing like a shared passion to bring the architecture and design fraternity together, inspiring and encouraging each other to pursue their profession with reinvigorated spirit. The Jaquar Design Confab series was conceptualised by the Jaquar Group in association with Architect and Interiors India for this very purpose. Having visited four other cities, namely Pune, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kochi, the recent leg of the series was held in Kolkata – where architects from around the country gathered to discuss a pertinent issue of our times.
‘Back to the future: Preserving the built heritage of the City of Joy’ was the perfect theme for the city that is known for its blend of traditions. “Kolkata’s architecture is a unique mix of styles reflecting the communities that settled in the city over the centuries. (It’s a) diverse collection not seen anywhere in India: classical residential buildings, art deco commercial structures, Gothic administrative buildings, and Bengali style homes dot the city. But recent developments are altering the cityscape,” pointed out Rajesh Mehra, director, Jaquar Group.
Conservation of tradition is an important issue in defining the future and nature of development. “Whether you call it Bharat or India, both are realities in the contemporary scene,” he added. “It is the experience of these dichotomies that fuels the debate of the larger objectives of conservation. The consequent ambiguities are reflected in... our built environment, where the old and the new coexist with equal felicity.”
Who better to understand the nuances of such a topic than architect Brinda Somaya who, in the last 40 years, has worked with great passion on heritage buildings and newer developments – respecting local context and climate. Coming back to Kolkata to share her personal journey as an architect was special to her, since she studied at Loreto House before moving to Mumbai as a child. She began her presentation by admitting that the role of an architects is questionable, “sometimes we feel peripheral to society, but we should always remember what Gandhiji said: In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Building her practice, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants (SNK) since the late ‘70s, meant taking cues from the master architects of India (Correa, Doshi, Kanvinde, Rewal…) and starting a new chapter of architecture history at a time that had its own unique post-independence challenges. In 40 years, she has worked on 200 projects, focusing on an Indian architecture vocabulary, with emphasis on water, walls, lights, materials and geometry – the five elements that Somaya values most in design. More so, these four decades taught her that “an architect has to be an activist” protecting the built and unbuilt heritage. These projects illustrate more than well-designed spaces. “We fought for our city and our open spaces. We built for both rural and urban population. And we collaborated to share our rich Indian culture,” she said, demonstrating through slides.
With a repertoire of projects like the restoration of Bombay House and IIM Ahmedabad, adaptive reuse of old mill structures in Lower Parel, Mumbai, to building one of the largest residential towers in the country, Somaya has developed both a sensitivity towards the past as well as an optimism towards the future. It was evident when she elaborated on each project and then stated, “Can the old and new live together? Yes they can! Each one can live in a different way.” Since the culture of collaboration is getting stronger, she mentioned, “Architects should not be afraid of collaboration, but you must choose them carefully.” If we can transfer knowledge and are confident in our identity, we don’t have to feel threatened by changing times, added the architect-activist. “An active participation in the civic life and sense of belonging towards public spaces is crucial – if we wish to see positive changes in our cities.”
The audience was visibly inspired as Somaya explained how Colaba Woods was transformed from a garbage dump to a public garden through a unique public-private partnership – a model that was soon replicated by other public gardens. It was a holistic intervention. “We built a little centre for children to study with lights because, in those days, the nearby slums didn’t have light.” Currently, SNK is designing a playground in a slum area as a safe space to mitigate the drug problem and women safety issues plaguing that area. But not all social projects see the light of the day. Somaya spoke about the Mumbai Esplanade project, an initiative she proposed with Prof. Sidhu to pedestrianise the streets of Mumbai, by moving cars underground. It received huge public and press support, but it also taught her that “any major intervention in the city cannot be done without political and bureaucratic support.”
Ending on a more positive note, Somaya shared her most recent project – an educational campus in Indore. Even though it was built on a barren plot of land with no distinct features, the campus has been enriched with a concept inspired by the local Narmada river and contemporary structures that have a story to tell in their form and orientation. She encouraged the architects present to boldly take up such projects, “The government is building lots of IITs, IIMs… these are the competitions that you should enter and build international standard campuses all over the country. I believe this is definitely something very important coming up in the future.”
After such an inspiring keynote, the panel members were charged up to share their individual experiences in working with similar initiatives in their own cities. At Jaquar Design Confab, panel discussions seek to bridge the gap between ideas, thoughts and action and pave a way for the future. Bibhor Srivastava, group publishing director, ITP Media, moderated the discussion, encouraging the panel to share their personal interventions and successes in preserving their city’s identity through built structures, the challenges they encounter along the way and how they navigate them.
Rupande Shah, principal, Rupande Shah & Associates, brought to light the work of Calcutta Heritage Collective, a group of civilians from all walks of life who are bringing about awareness that the built heritage is extremely rich in culture and has stories to tell. They are relatively young in this endeavour, but are already in the process of adopting their first territory – Kumortuli, a traditional potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata. The collective has invited private players to work in collaboration with the owners to restore this heritage area. “The mantra is restore, reinvent and reuse,” shared Shah.
Public engagement is a must, expressed Shera Bano Merchant (founder, Square 9 Designs), so that conservation doesn’t appear as an elitist activity in the eyes of the public. She shared how, in Nagpur, old wadas of the city are being transformed into boutique hotels and restaurants using the adaptive reuse strategy. This process enables the younger generation to enjoy their history in functional spaces that are relevant to them. “It’s more about making the general public realise the value of our heritage. If they are not engaged, they will feel it’s some kind of elitist (endeavour),” Merchant said, adding that if we garner public support such initiatives will be more successful.
Continuing in a similar vein, principal of RLDA Design Studio Rahoul Singh, stated, “In people’s consciousness, we need to start looking at buildings – not just with economic value, but also in terms of social and cultural value. That’s how we identify with our city.” Talking about the Hall of Nations controversy, he commented that it was heartbreaking to see how we don’t value modern architecture as heritage. “If we don’t have a past, we don’t have a future,” Singh insisted. Within such built heritage are stories that we are going to pass on to generations and, in turn, pass on the pride in our city.
Economic challenges aside, Kamal Periwal, founder, Maheshwari & Associates, believes that when it comes to adaptive reuse, issues related to bye laws need to be addressed as well and, possibly, refined. If authorities gave such developments some incentives, it would encourage more stakeholders to preserve their city’s rich history. Additionally, he shared that such buildings and precincts should be open to public use – which creates more awareness and interest among the masses. Citing the Kala Ghoda festival as an example, Periwal suggested that every city should organise similar initiatives that draw people to experience their treasured history and indirectly get more connected with preservation.
According to JP Agrawal, founder of Agrawal & Agrawal, restoring and repurposing heritage structures and precincts is a smaller challenge, the real hurdle is getting necessary government support. Mostly referring to Heritage category buildings, he pointed out the unique challenges faced by families living or owning such spaces. For them, selling the property makes more economic sense. However, Agrawal opined that if such developments were adopted by CSR initiatives, it could help all stakeholders in the picture.
Lest everybody thinks that every single old building needs to be preserved, Sandeep Shikre, CEO and president, SSA Architects, explained, “Every (Heritage C) structure cannot be maintained – but when it’s redeveloped, there are certain guidelines which (if followed) you can create for today’s architecture which respects the old architecture. You can revitalise the whole space.” He gave an example of the Parsi Colony in Mumbai where some old debilitated buildings had to be redeveloped into mid-rise buildings, but in a way that is in continuation with the architecture language that is unique to that locality. Understanding and preserving social behaviour is also as crucial as preserving heritage buildings, Shikre mentioned later in the discussion. Behaviours that are peculiar to the ‘kolis ‘or the ‘chawls’ cannot be forced to fit into the rigidness of a typical apartment building, they need to be addressed sensitively and with inventive design strategies, he added.
It was heartening to see that the architecture and design community, including lay people, are not just passionate about conservation and preservation – but are actively working towards it too. With continued support from each other and industry leaders like Jaquar, there is hope for our built future.