Designs on the past

Unesco awardee Aishwarya Tipnis on how she restored an old haveli and outfitted it with modern amenities


Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Seth Ramlal’s haveli in the Chhota Bazar area of Old Delhi, hardly a 15-minute walk from Kashmere Gate metro station, is a repository of stories. It is one of many grand old mansions tucked inside the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Old Delhi—lanes that are dotted with shops selling everything from fruits to street food and auto spare parts. Ramlal’s haveli is steeped in history. It saw the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, other conflicts and wars and has stood the test of time—but only just.

Ask Aishwarya Tipnis, a conservationist architect. “The building was in a bad structural state,” she says. “Damp walls, a crack running through the centre of the floor and the walls right to the ceiling—there was major dereliction.”

In 2010, current owner Devkinandan Bagla sought professional help to “repair and spruce up” the 1,000 square yard haveli that has been owned by his family since 1905. The building, however, needed a major overhaul: comprehensive structural repair and architectural restoration, including electrical and civil works, redesign of interiors and the revival of original finishing such as lime stucco plaster.

That work, which began in 2010, will be completed by the end of this year. As Tipnis’s first independent restoration project, it will be keenly watched by experts in conservation architecture. Last month, the New Delhi-based architect won the Unesco Asia-Pacific awards for cultural heritage conservation for two of her restoration projects: the walls and bastions of Mahidpur fort in Madhya Pradesh and the main building of The Doon School in Dehradun.

Tipnis, who worked on the haveli while people continued to live inside, smiles easily, is animated, full of energy and a cheerful interviewee. “When I was studying architecture, it was all about India Shining. Everyone was building new swanky offices. Demolishing and rebuilding was preferred to conserving and restoring,” she says. She was constantly asked why she wanted to restore or conserve a building when it could be taken down and rebuilt. “It made me realize very early that I was swimming against the tide.”

Tipnis, 36, started an eponymous architecture firm in 2007. The Unesco recognition has come after almost a decade of work.

For Tipnis, who studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, and has a master’s degree in European Urban Conservation from the University of Dundee, Scotland, restoration is the marriage of the old and the new—it’s about how sensibly one can do that, keeping in mind the lineage of the past with needs of the future.

According to the Delhi government, there are more than 1,000 heritage buildings inside the walled city. Most of them are in a shambles or are locked down with families fighting for ownership. The restoration of Seth Ramlal’s haveli is, therefore, an important project. It is a Grade II listed building, according to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Buildings in this category are of local importance, possessing special architectural or historical value. They form local landmarks, contributing to the image and identity of the city.

The haveli, which exudes an old-world charm, is today fitted out with modern amenities as a personal project financed by the owners—no grants, no government or public money is involved. So far, the Baglas have invested Rs50 lakh on it.

“We made this a home,” says Tipnis. “It was just one of the many old buildings in the area when we started.” The kitchen is certainly an example. In 2010, there were two smelly store rooms here. Turned into a modular kitchen, today, it is the most modern cooking space in the locality, made with traditional materials.

“The idea behind the project is to spread the message that if one common man can restore such an old building, then everyone can. And once that happens, there will be a movement,” says Tipnis, who feels people need to realize the importance of restoration, conservation and sustainability. “As conservation architects, our job is to make people understand that in a language that they know,” she says.

She had a hard time explaining this to Bagla, but the family eventually understood the economics behind sustainability.

Tipnis, who goes by her instincts in choosing projects, says there is no template to restoration. She has also worked on the restoration of the French colonial town of Chandernagore and on preserving the Dutch heritage in Chinsura—both in West Bengal. One of her ongoing projects is conserving and restoring the Oberoi Maidens Hotel at Civil Lines in Delhi.

“Starting where I did, the Unesco award is a big deal,” says Tipnis. “It’s my first, really. But I sure as hell hope it becomes a streak.”

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