The Mackinnon Mackenzie building at 16 Strand Road, on the Hooghly riverbank, is an imperial sandstone edifice, and marks the western edge of Dalhousie Square, the city’s central business district. It’s been staring down at passersby since 1927, and has always housed companies.
That’s about to change. It is to get a Rs100 crore makeover, and will be transformed into a mall. All that will remain of the old building will be its stone façade, with almost everything inside it scooped out and refurbished. The Mackinnon Mackenzie building will join some of Kolkata’s finest old buildings that will be lost to
history forever amid irreversible structural changes and indiscriminate renovation.
Hollowed out: A Rs100 crore makeover will transform the Mackinnon Mackenzie building into a mall, preserving only its stone facade.
The Kolkata Municipal Corporation, which listed 1,300 heritage buildings last year, is yet to categorize these buildings for the degree of structural change that can be allowed. Until now, only about 10% of these buildings have been surveyed and slotted, leaving most of them exposed to possibilities of tampering.
As reported by Mint on 10 July, heritage properties have lately become the flavour of the day for developers. Still, builders working on these projects are driven by modern-day commercial needs. They categorize their changes as “adaptive reuse”. But conservationists are not impressed.
“If the categorization was in place, many of these alterations would not have been possible,” says G.M. Kapur, convenor of the West Bengal and Kolkata chapter of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).
Conservationists are also appalled at the reluctance of the civic authorities to intervene in these restoration works.
The municipal corporation has empanelled about 13 conservation architects, but their services are not used in all the projects, admits a high-ranking official of the corporation who is also on its heritage committee, and who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“Where we see the involvement of an architect sensitive to heritage concerns, we allow the project to go ahead without supervision,” the official says.
Often, the civic body’s intervention has come too late. On Little Russel Street, in the heart of the city, part of a heritage building was demolished before the municipal authorities stepped in. Even then, they allowed the Kolkata-based Mani Group—which had acquired the property—to add an annexe to the old building.
The changes made to the building are a bit too drastic, admits the official of the civic authority. His only consolation is that they were able to stall the complete demolition planned for the building. An official website of the group calls it a work of heritage conservation with the caveat that “the entire property has been completely rebuilt from within”.
This is not the first time the state’s Heritage Commission has been caught napping. Last year, the 70-year-old Dunlop House on Free School Street was brought down to make way for an 86,000 sq. ft steel-and-glass mall and office complex. The Pataka Group, which makes beedis, was halfway through the demolition before the municipal corporation, which had actually cleared the process earlier, realized what it had sanctioned and tried to move the Calcutta high court, with little success.
Those arguing for the renovation of heritage buildings say that one has to move with the times. “If you do not rework the buildings to the modern needs, why would the commercial players invest? And how would you save the heritage buildings then?” asks Dulal Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based architect who is involved in most of the projects involving heritage buildings in the city.
Mukherjee is also working on the Mackinnon Mackenzie project. The building, acquired by Kshitij Advisory & Co.—the investment arm of the Future Group—was gutted in a fire in 1998, and subsequently declared unsafe after a study by a team from Jadavpur University. “Beyond the façade, the building did not have any architectural value to be preserved,” insists Mukherjee.
Preservation is an issue at another landmark, the Great Eastern Hotel. Once a symbol of imperial luxury, the hotel declined in stature and profitability and was taken over by the state government in 1980. It was finally acquired in 2005 by Bharat Hotels Ltd, which bid Rs52 crore for a 90% stake in it. The new owners promised to retain the old-worldy charm of the hotel, originally built in 1840. But structural changes going on will leave only the façade, says a conservationist who did not wish to be identified to avoid controversy. But the municipal corporation official says much of the front of the building and even the relatively new (1960s) art-deco style structure at the back is going to be retained.
Mukherjee, who is working on the hotel with a Singapore-based architectural firm, says that what is being taken out is a clutter of buildings “with little architectural relevance”, to make room for a central courtyard offering parking space in the “introverted” property.
“The kind of restoration work we are seeing right now can at best be called deplorable,” says conservation architect Nilina Deb Lal.
Private players are not the only ones messing around with heritage properties, she says. Most government projects have to be handed over to the state-run public works department, which is under no compulsion to preserve the heritage value of the building.
But Lal’s prime worry is the use of cement in these buildings, as part of the “restoration work”. Most of these heritage buildings are living structures that breathe, thanks to the use of lime mortar and plastering. Cement hampers the building’s ability to “perspire”, giving it patchy walls. On the exterior, it affects the building’s weathering. Worse, cement, being a harder material, does not bond well with lime, and starts falling off after a while.
However, today, the focus of the conservationists’ war against builders is on the more visible structural changes.
Kapur, for one, would like to see the listing of properties done before more such shells are generated. In his estimate there should be about 4,000 heritage structures in the city.