UK experts rue loss of Calcutta’s heritage

Conservation experts from the United Kingdom are voicing concern over the loss of Calcutta’s architectural heritage.

Conservation architect Philip Davies, who campaigns for the “shared heritage of Calcutta and Britain” and James Simpson, OBE, architect and vice-president of ICOMOS, UK, a heritage and cultural organisation, have lent their support to the protest march that Calcutta Architectural Legacies (CAL) is organising on April 18, the World Conservation Day.

Simpson believes Calcutta is facing a situation that Edinburgh faced 50 years ago when development had threatened to rob the Scottish capital of its architectural heritage.

“Calcutta is eminently worthy of recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage City. When chief minister Mamata Banerjee came to the Scottish capital last November, she saw in Edinburgh a beautiful city, whose heritage has made it one of the best places in the world in which to live and to do business, and to whose economy tourism makes a significant contribution,” Simpson wrote in an email sent to Metro on Sunday April 15, 2018.

The Calcutta Municipal Corporation had last year downgraded the heritage status of the building that housed the old Kenilworth Hotel near the Middleton Street-Little Russel Street crossing, enabling its demolition by the present owners. Conservation activists have alleged that a builder-authorities nexus was behind the downgrading and the subsequent demolition.

The civic body had said the heritage downgrade of the building happened in accordance with law.

Amar Nath Shroff, the chairman of Alcove Realty, has said his company has not done anything outside the law. Alcove Realty is part of the consortium that owns the plot where the hotel stood and is promoting The 42, Calcutta’s tallest building.

Simpson said Calcutta’s heritage is its greatest asset, on which its future should be built. “Amit Chaudhuri and his supporters in CAL and PUBLIC are fighting for the very survival of the city. Without the architecture and the culture which makes it uniquely special, Calcutta will, in global terms, sink into mediocrity,” said Simpson.

London-based architect Philip Davies, who believes citizen’s movement is important to force governments into action, said: “Amit Chaudhuri, CAL and PUBLIC are to be applauded for taking to the streets to protest against the de-listing of buildings and the refusal of repeated administrations to designate conservation areas to protect its historic centres. Kolkata is one of the world’s great historic cities. Its remarkable heritage is enshrined in the very fabric of its buildings, neighbourhoods and public places. They desperately need strong statutory protection.”

Lamenting the loss of many such buildings, like the Strand Road warehouses, Davies said: “What is happening is a scandal. The Strand Road warehouses have stood vacant and decaying on a prime central riverside site for over 50 years losing crores and crores of potential revenue. The Botanical Gardens are of world significance and the oldest in Asia, but they are appallingly neglected with no coherent strategy for their future.”

He also lists the Silver Mint and Mint Master’s House, among the finest neoclassical buildings in India, that have been lying dilapidated for decades. The buildings that made Calcutta “a city of palaces” are threatened with development, he said.

Historic buildings and neighbourhoods are a huge economic and cultural asset, feels Davies. “A successful city can, and must, have both. Conservation is not an optional extra luxury, but crucial for sustainable, urban regeneration and change. Heritage-led regeneration works,” he said.

Experience across the world – from London to Cape Town – demonstrates that waterfront cities can, and do, reinvent themselves. Calcutta can do the same and reap huge economic benefits for all, but it needs vision and leadership, felt the architects.

Grateful for the support from the UK, Chaudhuri said: “They have long been interested and invested in conservation in Calcutta.”

Talking of the UK experience in conservation, he said: “We can learn from Glasgow, which never lost any of its architectural heritage, unlike Scotland. We can learn from Scotland and London. But we can also learn from our own Mumbai, which has its own heritage precincts like the Churchgate and Oval Maidan, the art deco of Marine Drive and Dallas Estate. All these places are not museum-like but lived spaces shared by the affluent and the ordinary people. Calcutta too has the same mix of livelihoods and buildings that would form an attractive part of the city.”

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