Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Thinking 'Conservation': What do we conserve, why, and for whom

What is a protected site? What is a monument? What is a temple?
This blog will discuss the questions above through onsite experiences. The questions were triggered while documenting a protected monument complex. The site, a ruined temple complex, was considered a monument as defined by archaeological acts and not under worship, meaning no puja was performed.
Let me describe the site, its setting and then the incident. We were working in the dark interiors of one of the cells in the complex: the floor was covered with debris and bat droppings, hearing us moving about some bats flew out, others continued to hang overhead in the darkest corners, we treaded carefully checking for snakes. Added to this there were many open joints and cracks on the inner wall through which the mud core of the double wall had spilled out. Many other cells of the complex were inaccessible due to collapsed inner walls which prevented our entry, besides the mud and debris accumulation around them. Such ruins were of course the living spaces of chameleons, large lizards, scorpions, cockroaches and other animal life that we could only hear but not see due to low visibility. We could only guess what they might be. As the sun rose overhead, we felt the scorching heat through the gaps, and the roof overhead which had lost its waterproof coating. The above describes our typical site, an exceptional case would be if we managed to access most parts of the site. The setting was also typical of most of the sites we work in, generally in a small village, with few or no caretakers.
Based on past requests and experience, at such sites, though they are declared monuments not under worship, within the premises our team would work without footwear. This was of course not a stated rule but an understood norm and applies to visitors too. The first incident involved a visitor who got into a tiff with a villager who preferred the visitor remove footwear before entering the “temple complex”. Neither the villager nor the visitor would budge. The villager was a local, likely with emotional attachment to the site as ‘temple’. The visitor on the other hand just saw a ‘ruin’.
The second incident is one we used to see in such monuments / temple complexes not under worship but with ticketed entry. Residents would demand ticketless entry as the monument was part of ‘their’ village. In this particular instance a local said it was “their temple” with a sense of pride and ownership and demanded entry to the site. Another time a resident spoke about how the access to his fields used to run just beside the complex but now it is fenced off.
These above incidents are just couple of many such “situations” where the historic structure is “a monument” for visitors but “a temple” for others. Or a part of their village that ‘outsiders’ are now claiming. All too often we would be mute spectators to such instances with the question of “whom these spaces are being conserved” running through our minds.

Based on field experience and training I could see both sides to the incidents above, i.e. “why can't the visitor respect the villager’s viewpoint as a person who is attached to the temple probably since his ancestor’s times”. On the other hand “why can’t the villager understand that temples were not designed to be visited during peak hours of the day and now that someone is visiting in the heat it would be difficult to walk barefoot and avoid stepping on droppings, debris and animals”.
These are some of the difficult situations that we face as field based conservation architects,who straddle the world between conserving ‘monuments’ that have survived time and appreciating the 'monument' as ‘ruined temple’, that is part and parcel of people's’ daily lives, their homes, and backyards.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Doing 'Conservation': being detective and unravelling a building's many layers

In an earlier blog we had noted about not confusing visible problems with root cause which may not be apparent at first glance. In line with this observation this blog briefly touches on being building detective.

By which I mean trying to find and follow the trail of clues that building(s) leave around for conservation folk like us to find and interpret. The appropriate intervention in terms of structure, construction techniques, material detailing and finish of course depends on the 'right' interpretation.

Let me illustrate with a few examples from a recent project - conservation assessment of Napier Museum, Thiruvananthapuram. An intended monument if ever there was one given its location, setting, architectural style and detailing. See picture below.

We started our inspections:

At first glance from below (ground level) the yazhis that are part of the decorative roofing system looked like they might serve a structural role along with the rest of the timber truss. See picture below.

However when we finally managed to get eye level with the truss we realised they were purely ornamental. For example, see the picture below which clearly shows that the yazhi has become dislodged at some point and tied to the truss member in an attempt to keep it in place.

Getting eye level with the roofing truss might not sound too difficult an enterprise but what if there is no clear access (stairs, ladder) which is pretty much most of the time. In this case we managed to get tall scaffolding erected not to undertake repairs but purely to investigate, which took a certain amount of convincing. See picture below.

Likewise from below the painted ceiling looked like it might be composed of wooden panels but when we finally managed to access it and the roofing void above, with the help of the scaffolding, working with a team of art conservators we realised the ceiling was metal sheets. See picture below.

This also gave us a chance to clarify that the decorative elements on the truss members were indeed ornamental painting, in imitation of wooden inlay, though at first glance it looked like light wood inlay on the dark wood of the truss.

To me the most interesting instance of reading a building 'right' came up in the exteriors. Over the years the building had been repainted many times though it still appeared to retain its "iconic" look. That is, from a distance the pattern of painting made it look like a particular kind of exposed brickwork that originated in England. See picture above. However on closer examination (by carefully peeling back paint layers) and comparing with archival images of the building we realised that over time in certain locations the colours had been inverted, elsewhere the pattern had been altered, till broadly it looked like the original pattern but wasn't.

To our whole team this is part of the joy in engaging in field based conservation - putting our skills, knowledge and experience to the best possible use to peel back a structure(s) chequered history, that may not be visible or apparent at first glance, and hoping that we have indeed managed to read the building(s) right.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Teaching 'Conservation': Characterization of historic urban neighbourhoods

Sometime back I was asked if I would teach an elective on Heritage Conservation for 3rd semester undergraduate students of PESU Faculty of Architecture. I initially hesitated a bit as I considered they were still rather new to the field of architecture to cope with a specialized branch of the discipline but decided to give it a go. Rather than have classroom bound lectures on 'conservation' I decided to engage them in the field and introduce them to the concept of socio-cultural significance through studying and understanding a 'neighbourhood'.

I chose Richards Town - a fairly small and self contained colonial period city extension defined by a park at its heart and a church complex at one end.

The first day we met at the park I set the students an exercise in 'understanding the neighbourhood'. I asked them to walk away from the park, for about half an hour, in four different directions and come back and discuss what they considered the edge or boundary of the neighbourhood. I asked them to use visual and sensory triggers to help them define this edge. For example, street names, trees – width / girth / canopy / type, garbage piles or smells rather, age of people, noise and traffic, kinds of vehicles, pavements, the buildings themselves and observe if these various parameters could be typified. Although slightly mystified over the point of the exercise they obediently did their best. I asked them to present the results of their wanderings as a map which we discussed in the studio (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 - neighbourhood map sketch

I felt they did a good job of observing their surroundings and 'place'. So over the next few sessions I divided the class into three groups. I gave each group the task of studying one neighbourhood parameter: (a) Built Form (structural and architectural) (b) Landscape (physical and sensory) (c) History and Toponymy and then independently arrive at the neighbourhood's boundary based on the parameter they were observing. I explained it to them as "for the given parameter do you observe some sort of consistency and at what point does this fade or transform".

The 'Landscape' group observed older more mature trees planted to a pattern which gradually transformed into haphazard planting / much younger trees / no trees. I helped them understand the importance of terrain in spatial planning and they then observed that the church was on higher ground compared to the rest of the neighbourhood.

Based on a 'sensory' map they noted that there was more waste segregation towards the eastern rather than western part of the neighbourhood - smells or lack of smells guided them. They also stated that the smells were more 'heterogenous' to the west while the eastern part was characterised by an almost lack of smell. They also observed that the eastern side felt more calm - less traffic noise, more birds.

The 'Built Form' group observed the presence of larger plots with either 'bungalows' or medium-rise large apartment blocks with ample setback immediately around the park and to the east. To the west, they noticed far smaller houses with lesser setback with more resident families per plot. They also observed that streets got progressively narrower to the west and the footpath 'disappeared' at some locations unlike in the eastern part.

The 'History and Toponymy' group noted that the blocks around the park had 'English' names. On getting to them dig deeper they realised that the 'English' sounding names around the park were likely people names, Hall Road, Davis Road. Whereas the names along the edge of the neighbourhood, like Pottery Road and Tannery Road, were occupational names. This led to a discussion on hierarchy in spatial planning at neighbourhood level (see figure 2 below).

Figure 2: students attempting to characterise and then analyse the neighbourhood.

We then did an exercise in overlaying the three boundaries (Landscape, History, Built Form) and surprise, surprise, the three sets of boundaries were an almost exact fit. I was thus able to lead their field exercises to an extremely fruitful discussion on characterisation of neighbourhoods - not just spatial / sensorial / historical / architectural but a combination of all these parameters. What I described to them as 'a sense of community' whatever form this might take. Hopefully they will carry this learning with them as they continue to design and respond to increasingly complex contexts.

Figure 3: showing a part of attempt at analysis

I concluded the sessions by briefly stating that socio-cultural significance of a neighbourhood would be the resultant overlap of all the layers above, likely 'unique' to every neighbourhood (see figure 3 above).

To me the only missing element in this extremely satisfying semester of work was the fact that the batch was unable to present its work to the neighbourhood. We were all quite keen on this but the planned interaction finally never took place. Hopefully another batch, another time, another neighbourhood.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Doing 'Conservation': the importance of stepping back to understand ‘context' and 'setting' while conserving heritage structures

Most often while assessing the condition of heritage buildings one is on a quest to find solutions for problems that have resulted in the building's distressed condition. And as we advise students, interns or junior architects, the right way to undertake this quest is NOT by looking at the problem in isolation but in light of the overall structure. For example, what we see as visible signs of damage for e.g. cracks in a wall or plant growth are typically just the ‘problem’. It is not enough to solve this by stitching the crack or removing the plants as the 'problem' may reappear. It is more important to find the ‘root cause’ in order to arrive at an appropriate long-term solution. Such an approach extends to the 'setting' or 'context' of the structure as well. Let us take the example of reviving built water features within a heritage complex. This could be a kund, tank, step well or simply a well. A fairly straightforward solution could be restoring or strengthening walls and desilting the water feature. But is that sufficient?  

For example, years ago I was called to assess the condition of a step well at Someswara temple in Lakshmeswar, Karnataka. The plan was to conserve the structure, which I interpreted as not only restoring the actual structure but also reviving its function by recharging the well. I argued that conserving the step well was not a fairly straightforward exercise of dismantling and reconstructing the bulged out walls. Speaking to local people I understood that when water level in the nearby Hulikere(tank) raises, the step-well automatically recharges (possibly through underground aquifers). So would the conservation solution be revitalizing Hulikere tank or going one step further to suggest that that the entire water catchment area of Hulikere tank needs managing? 

In the field this is often where we feel the limits of our professional boundaries in suggesting and promoting such a solution. And so we advocate an interdisciplinary approach to conservation.

Google Earth Map of Lakshmeswar, Karnataka with overlay 

A similar example was in the case of the potable water channel for the public kitchens of the Virupaksha temple complex at Hampi World Heritage Site. There was some discussion on how best to maintain the water inlet to not just ensure clean but also continuous flow of water.

As we retraced our steps to figure out how water entered and left the kitchen channel we realized that - water was flowing into the kitchen channel from an upstream source of river Tungabhadra through channels that cut across valleys, through rocky terrain on rock cut channels, controlled effectively at inspection chambers before finally flowing into the kitchen and back to the river Tungabhadra further downstream. Hence in this case the solution was not as straightforward as cleaning or resetting the water channel within that structure. In fact such an approach may have disturbed the integrity of a 500 year old ‘living’ network. (For more information on this unique network read 'Irrigation systems under Vijayanagara Empire' by C T M Kotraiah, Dept of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore, 1995).

Plan of Virupaksha Temple Complex, Hampi 

At that point of time we were amazed over how a 500 year old water supply network was still functional at most locations on a site that was largely visible as ruins and archaeological remains. For example, at the public bath, Queens bath and octagonal bath structures, water does not stagnate but still drains out after every rain. Where does it go? These examples speak for themselves, by pointing to an important fact - that what we see today as structures or monuments do not exist in isolation but are part of a larger network.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Teaching and Learning 'Conservation': Emerging Technologies in Conservation and Characterisation

Teaching and learning from these assignments is an important part of our vision towards a holistic, integrated and inclusive approach to heritage and its conservation. We participate (as resource people) and initiate a number of workshops in formal education, continuing education and faculty development programs.

One recent workshop (Jun 2017) that we conducted, as part of the NITTE School of Architecture's Summer School, was 'Characterisation of Historic Urban Areas'. This workshop stands out in my mind as we were finally able to demonstrate the use of technology in conservation to students. Not only did we plan it as a field based workshop but also one which would expose participants to use of emerging technologies like Geo-ST (Geo-Spatial Technologies) in the conservation process.

First of all, much like elsewhere we interpreted the general brief to conduct a workshop on Conservation rather liberally. This was because the participant group was going to be mixed (25 odd undergraduate students from different colleges and at different levels of formal education). Rather than focus on physical conservation, restoration, preservation and the like, we felt the main takeaway from the workshop ought to be understanding context, design as a response to context, and the role Geo-ST could play in developing such an understanding. 

We planned it as a joint workshop with colleagues who are experts in cultural applications of Geo-ST (M B Rajani and her team from NIAS, Bangalore, who readily came on board). The team provided participants with an overview on the role Geo-ST can play in enhancing our understanding of landscapes (in this case an urban scape). Then based on field observations in a historic neighbourhood of Mangalore we provided participants with an overview of historical urban areas and their various layers of architectural history.

Over the next three days participant groups attempted to record these different historical layers (we consider recording as the first step to documenting and understanding historic areas) using a freely available app. The app helped them record text and geo-spatial co-ordinates of structures, vegetation, water bodies, open spaces and streetscapes they considered 'historical' for various reasons (that they then defended). We 'hand-held' the groups through anticipated glitches in field recording using apps and downloading this information back onto a system. We then worked together to integrate all the information layers in a comprehensible manner using Google Earth (see image below).

Notes on image above: the wide dark line to the left is Gurupura River. The yellow icons indicate residential structures of interest, the red religious, dark blue commercial, white institutional and green human icons indicate intense zones of activity. We used other icons to indicate vegetation, water bodies and open spaces.

Using the Google Earth interface we were able to successfully integrate field notes, sketches and photographs with each of these geo-referenced icons (see image above).

The resulting overlay clearly indicated a central spine running through this historical neighbourhood (indicated as an orange line) with maximum density of varied activities and at least two loops (indicated in orange) that lead one away from and back to this spine.

We concluded the extremely satisfactory workshop by deliberating on ways to maintain the character of such areas through informed conservation. For example, participants could conduct heritage walks along the spine and loops leading off from it to raise awareness of the area's socio-cultural significance.

It was encouraging to note that Mr. Vinod Aranha, Director, NITTE School of Architecture decided to have this neighbourhood as one of the field sites for the vertical design studio conducted between Aug-Dec 2017 across 3rd and 5th semester students.

Further he invited us to mentor this studio which we readily agreed to and that is another story to be shared sometime.