Saturday, 26 December 2015

Translating dreams into reality: So whats the fuss all about?

We are all dreamers, all designers are experts at building the perfect concept, but reality hits when you are faced with the fact now how are we going to build this. The haveli project has been an eyeopener in many ways and the one lesson that shines brighter than the sun is that " simple solutions are often the best solutions". Although when one looks at finished images of the project, most people react, its pretty, big deal, whats the fuss all about. Why is our project so fascinating to the Indian and International media? For all of you that think that we made a killing with this project, had a special PR exercise to promote it, the truth is the only thing that propelled this has been passion. Our passion for turning dreams into reality in the given constraints of time and money and the Clients passion of having his "pushtayni haveli" {ancestral house}restored as his home. Everything else just happened to fall in place.

The big deal about the Haveli Project is that our sole objective with this project has been to reiterate that conservation isn't just about the buildings, its about the people and their stories about those spaces. The survival of heritage in the current socio-political climate will depend solely on how relevant it remains to its owners and occupiers. Urban conservation isn't just about restoring the buildings and streetscapes in an old city, its also sustaining the "spirit of the place" of keeping the dynamism, the people their stories and their way of life. It is more than architecture, it is social science, it is urban geography, it is economics, it is urban planning and much more.

I suppose the most challenging part of this project was the fact that this wasn't a monument, it was a home to a family that had lived here since the 1920s. There were meanings and associations with each and every space, for me what was a grand 20th century extension, complete with its semi-circular arched fanlights and fireplace for the owner it was "dadijis room" where she sat and supervised the household while sitting on the bed. He told me once " Dadiji used to sit on her bed here and keep an observant eye on what the bahus were upto."

Another interesting anecdote was when we were relaying the floors of one of the bedrooms, we found foundations of earlier walls made in lakhori brickwork which to me meant, that the rooms had been reconfigured in the 20th Century, getting me super excited that our understanding of the chronology was bang on supported by the building archaeology! But the Contractor and the owner thought that there was a secret passageway that lead to some hidden treasure and "khazaana". The owner told me that a Muslim family from Pakistan had once come looking for their family treasure that they had hidden and left behind in the partition in a haveli that matched the description of this one and this was possibly our chance to discover the treasure. I had to tell them that if they excavated any more the haveli will fall down and aborted their attempt of the treasure hunt there and then!

Its also an extremely engaging experience when we are not speaking the same aesthetic language, a journey that has taken us almost half a decade is eloquent of this fact. Endless debates on what would be the ideal material, would it be durable, how often would it require repair, would it be easy to maintain, what is its longevity made sure that we were absolutely sure of what we are doing. Some battles are still ongoing. We had a gamut of ideas thrown at us such as painting the jack arched ceilings a la Sistine chapel, printing patterns of wall paintings from Shekhawati havelis on vinyl and pasting them on the hall walls, placing mirror glasses in the doors and windows, buying furniture from IKEA for the heritage house, Vasstu considerations thrown in when the work is finished. I would say the one skill that was sharpened in this whole process is that of "negotiating" and sometimes "arbitrating".
To us the Haveli Project shall always remain special because it brought conservation from the text books and guidance notes out on to the ground. Every conservation architect studies the importance of lime and advocates its use in every project, but apart from the chemical equations no book tells you where you buy it, how you make it, how to use and how to maintain it. Secondly the merits of this material had to be proved to the Client, who kept insisting on using cement since it was more "strong and durable". Most of the Client's advisers and relatives told him that I was "Wasting his time" with lime mortar. We didn't have any specialized masons, we had old masons who remembered the technique, who themselves were skeptical why this "madam" wanted to use old and regressive chuna and even tried to convince me to use cement. This was one battle I wasn't prepared to give up, we tried and failed and tried again until we got it right and the belief came only when the 8' high seepage and rising damp perpetually in the room disappeared after lime plastering and didn't return even in the heavy monsoon. A battle that was won after 4 long years, we had a client so convinced of the lime mortar and its benefits that when students would come to visit, he himself gave the demonstration of how to use and mix.

Lessons learnt while dirtying our hands are what will stay with us forever. It also reinforces an idea that conservation requires nothing more than "common sense", the principles of conservation are ingrained in our way of traditional way of life, repair, reuse, juggad and innovate. In this day and age, where traditional and vernacular is considered regressive while the perception of modernity is posh, swanky and elitist. When we began, reusing the historic wooden doors and furniture were out of question, as the owner could "afford" new. Debates on how the quality of the old, its craftsmanship was far superior that what we could ever buy new didn't help until the entire market was surveyed and the same conclusion reached after 2 months.Once fresh from a trip to China, I was told that whatever design you want, Chinese manufacturer would be ready to make, not a big deal. Words like "local" and "sustainable" didn't have much meaning. I guess what turned the argument in the favour of conservation was ultimately the constraints of time and most importantly budgets. For me its a red letter day, when all the old furniture and doors and windows have been restored insitu by the carpenters and when I am told " Aaree beta the quality of that time is unparalleled, even after 100 years it is surviving".

As I stand at the closure of this project, for me the biggest prize is how this project managed to make conservation relevant to a common man, how conservation helped reinforce their identity and how Mr Bagla became the Sethji of the haveli. With this conservation project, we have been able to bring back the glory and keep intact the memories of this family. It has also been proved that it is possible for anyone to live with the luxuries of contemporary living in a heritage house complete with their memories and associations.
The Bagla Family lives at Kashmere Gate Haveli
Photo Credits: Daniel J Allen

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