Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects

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Note: The contents below are published as provided by the architect/designer.

The fact is that a lot of modern architecture is monstrous, and seeing it blow up is an ecstatic release.1

Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones authors these words in his essay as he captured the general sentiment of southwest England’s public, who avidly watched, cheered, and recorded the crumbling of three cooling towers at Didcot within seconds. In another country, while the capital’s residents did not specifically celebrate the demolition of what many [architects] consider an architectural marvel of modernity, the support from them [against the demolition] was severely lacking in comparison to the outrage by fellow architects and the architectural bodies. Are they to be blamed for not displaying identical passion and dedication as the ones related to the architectural profession in wanting to protect the Hall of Nations and Industries?

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 1
Crowds gathered in grassy areas surrounding the station to watch the three cooling towers fall at Didcot power station, UK
© Reuters

The outrage that followed the announcements and the demolition of the Indian structure, Hall of Nations and Industries by Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj, was so extensive among the architects that the echoes of it are witnessed and heard in debates around the preservation and demolition of modern heritage even today. The dust doesn’t seem to settle, and yet the question emerges – do people really care for architecture? Let me rephrase- should people really care for architecture (at least for the ones that the architecture community vehemently shows off and about)? It also becomes a crux for questioning the over-romanticization of structures by the architects that seem to be running so deep within the pedagogical systems as we dictate what is “bad architecture” and “good architecture”.

Have we confined ourselves to believing that every iconic contemporary architecture needs preservation and holding onto, well, because it is iconic?

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 3
View of the Hall of Nations from the Hall of Industries, visible in profile on both sides of the image
© Mahendra Raj Archive

I am not in the favour of rampant destruction of modernist icons. But I also disagree with the notion of having to preserve every modern structure that continues to have its existence crumble in pieces and proceeds to put the public using it in harm’s way. A balance needs to be struck between the two before either of them results in cities turning into architectural ghosts leaving behind a lifeless graveyard of conserved iconic structures or a visual slurry of mindlessly constructed buildings that fills the skyline in ghastly ways. It also means understanding what can be classified as modern heritage, each relevant to the countries’ changing landscape and architecture, independent of UNESCO’s universal definition that seemed to materialize from the Eurocentric foundation- “which comprises the architecture, town planning and landscape design of the 19th and 20th centuries” in 2003. Following the same vision, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) submitted the following to Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), “The post-1947 period in India is architecturally important as the country was shaping a modern identity and buildings possess contain the same characteristics of heritage as historical buildings which require preservation. “2 DUAC’s response seemed reasonable as they suggested that modern heritage was a complex issue that needs further studies.

Modern architecture, modern heritage, iconic modernist structure – modernism seems to have become both the “genesis and bête noire of preservation”3.

While it is propelling the conservation bodies, there is an evident lack of one of the necessary stakeholders within these conversations and the general discourse- the public, as modern buildings continue to walk a tightrope swaying between being destroyed and conserved. Peter Spearritt, an Australian historian and author, raises a few questions on this matter, “Who should make decisions about which historic structures and precincts should survive and whose interests should be represented in the decision-making process? Should we accept the judgement of architects or historians about which buildings should remain?

A letter addressing Prof. Errol D’Souza (Director of IIM- Ahmedabad, India) and members of the Governing Council of the Indian Institute of Management was drafted in December 2020. A glance at the list of 1052 people who signed the petition for saving the IIM-A demolition of the dormitories, reveals that many are from a diverse, local, and global community- architects, academics, cultural critics, and historians4. It is tough to find a student from IIM-A on that list. Meanwhile, a letter sent to IIM-A in January 2021 reveals the increase in the supporters of restoration, every one of them from the architecture community and the allied fields. It is appreciated to finally have the design community as stakeholders in the decision of the future of such an important structure, but the lack of a more important one (the students themselves) presents a big void in support. When rhetorical statements like “privileging of functional requirements of the current user over the memories of the past”5 are made to question the decisions of the institution, it reeks of the arrogance of an architect with a complete disregard for the very user the building came into being for.

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 5
Kahn dormitories at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad in 1985.
© William J. R. Curtis

Although, a similar case of another Indian educational institute targeted for demolition takes a different path. Kala Academy, a government-run arts institution in Goa, became another target for demolition when the said repairs could not keep up with the deteriorating condition of the structure.

The difference between IIM-A and Kala Academy lies in the accessibility to the citizens, as the latter had several people visiting daily. This extension of accessibility of the structure became visible in the petitions files against the demolition of the Academy’s open-air auditorium, the protests launched, letters sent, and multiple reports by print media TOI that led to the involvement of the high court of Bombay at Goa that took suo motu cognisance of these news reports and asked the state government for a response within two weeks.6

Two years later (in 2021), the state government approved the renovation as the Chief Minister provided assurance that the structure will not be demolished and that the undertaking of the renovations will not interfere with its basic structure.7

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 7
View from the river to the Akademi, with its small open-air stage in the foreground
© Concept Media / Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Public attachments towards a structure because of constant use over time are not only visible in the case of a structure like Kala Academy but also in some buildings like Roxy Theatre in Kolkata predates the independence of India. After eight decades of screening movies, the cinema hall was slated to bite the dust in 2016 as was decided by the then Mayor of Kolkata and KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation), resulting in downgrading its heritage grade (Grade IIA to Grade III). Amit Chaudhari, a writer, launched a movement called Calcutta Architectural Legacies (CAL) against the demolition filing PIL8. While the movement may have been minuscule, it garnered a lot of local attention from people of various backgrounds (not just restricted to architecture) like Rosinka Chaudhuri (professor of cultural studies Centre for Studies in Social Sciences), resulting in the revoking of the decision to demolish, rather restore the structure in 2019.9

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 9
Roxy Cinema, Kolkata
© Sunit Singh

The targeting of modern heritage in other South Asian countries is not very different from India. In the guise of modernizing Bangladesh, in 2019, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Public Works Department (PWD) decided to reconstruct four major structures to accommodate the increasing population and a new metro rail route. While the decision garnered the attention of the architects, what kicked up a protest by the students at Dhaka University was the demolition of the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC), an integral part of the campus and the population in general. As usual, the architectural fraternity published articles condemning the decisions in newspapers like The Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune, NewAge Bangladesh and many more. But, as the Metro Rail authority began preparatory work for demolishing the TSC wall adjacent to the road widening, students of Dhaka University became the frontiers of the human chain as a part of the protest against the demolition10. It was a student-led protest, that included many teachers, with banners that shouted slogans about protecting their heritage, demanding and warning the administration of tougher actions if the demands weren’t met. It was in 2020 that the Dhaka University authorities finally sought the opinions of the protestors (students and teachers at the university) on the demolition and expansion initiative of TSC11. As the decisions got extended, so did the protest.

Debating Demolitions: From the Eyes of Non-architects 11
Teacher-Student Centre (TSC), Bangladesh
© Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed / former Deputy Director General Bangladesh Ansar & VDP

Do people really care about architecture?

The answer is quite simple- they do when the presence of architecture adds value to their lives in terms of identity, attachment, a generational memory formed, and in turn an addition to their history itself. A comparison and examination of the examples provide stark experiences of the possibilities that any modern heritage can witness and experience when the citizens become a part of the conversation as a stakeholder who understands the value of what they are about to lose. There is a reason why the Taj Mahal is extended with a lot of importance by the citizens.

The word “citizen” has no division of architects, non-architects, conservationists, heritage architects, and governing bodies when it comes to such pieces of architecture. There is no “them” and “us”.

As pointed out by Prem Chandavarkar in one of his essays (in the context of Hall of Nations and Industries)- ‘What is Heritage?’,

If these structures warrant so much attention and importance from the architectural community who protest in multitudes of forms, why is it that as architects we fail to include the very people for which the structures are built?12

Prem Chandavarkar

These are pertinent questions that apply to the case studies of all the modern heritage on the verge of demolition or targeted to be demolished. While we as architects refuse to validate our roles and positions, we also hurl flurries of criticism and outrage towards everyone else but the architecture community, when a structure gets the bulldozer.

Architecture is an arrogant profession because we understand the capability of a building that can add value to the world, making it look either better or worse. Even in its temporal nature, it stays for a very long time affecting everyone in the vicinity.

It is this understanding that reflects in the vanity seeping into the pedagogy where we proclaim and distinguish “good architecture” and “bad architecture”, without leaving the judgement to anyone else. It is also what leads to the assumption that the public will follow the fight of the architect to save what they deem worthy. If anything, it is more reflective of the egotism within the fraternity leading to the unnecessary romanticization of structures.

Building something into existence does not only mean the destruction of it towards the end of a life cycle. Demolitions are an “integral part of contemporary placemaking” around the world. They make spaces transient for becoming hallmarks of the constantly evolving cities and people.

While we want to be included as the design stakeholders in the discussions of the demolitions of the modern heritage, as we build for bigger and better cities, we must also value the presence of a far larger community with a larger stake in architecture- the users.

References

[1] Jones, J. (2020, September 23). So much architecture is monstrous – that’s why we like to see it demolished. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/28/architecture-blown-up-three-cooling-towers-demolished-didcot
[2] Staff. (2019). Contemporary Heritage: Is the meaning lost in translation? Aζ South Asia. https://architexturez.net/pst/az-cf-191261-1553439113
[3] JESTER, T. C., & FIXLER, D. N. (2011). Modern Heritage: Progress, Priorities, and Prognosis. APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology, 42(2/3), 3–8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41228977
[4] Anklesaria, S., Raje, S., Tayyibji, & Riyaz. (2021). An appeal from the International Design Community to IIM Ahmedabad to stop the demolition of dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. Aζ South Asia. https://architexturez.net/doc/az-cf-215915
[5] Laharia, U. (2021, January 7). Demolition of Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad canceled after worldwide outcry. The Architect’s Newspaper. https://www.archpaper.com/2020/12/impending-demolition-of-louis-kahn-indian-institute-of-management-ahmedabad-prompts-outcry/
[6] Sayed, N. (2019a, July 27). KA’s proposed demolition: HC steps in. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/kas-proposed-demolition-now-high-court-steps-in/articleshow/70403329.cms
[7] नेटवर्कट. न. (2021, March 23). Rs 50-crore KA renovation project gets cabinet nod. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/rs-50-crore-ka-renovation-project-gets-cabinet-nod/articleshow/81657841.cms
[8] Ganguly, C. S. B. a. D. (2018, August 25). Mayor plots to rob Roxy of demolition shield. Telegraph India. https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/mayor-plots-to-rob-roxy-of-demolition-shield/cid/1501592
[9] Niyogi, S. R. (2019, January 13). KMC revokes Roxy demolition order, decides to restore heritage structure. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/kmc-revokes-roxy-demolition-order-decides-to-restore-heritage-structure/articleshow/67509264.cms
[10] Students protest demolishing TSC wall for Metro Rail. (n.d.). New Age | the Most Popular Outspoken English Daily in Bangladesh. https://www.newagebd.net/article/79180/students-protest-demolishing-tsc-wall-for-metro-rail
https://www.thedailystar.net/supplements/30th-anniversary-supplements/agents-change/news/are-plans-demolish-dhaka-universitys-tsc-justified-2044777
[11] Prothom Alo English Desk, & Prothom Alo English Desk. (2020). TSC reconstruction: DU authorities seek opinion from teachers, students. Prothomalo. https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/city/tsc-reconstruction-du-authorities-seek-opinion-from-teachers-students
[12] Chandavarkar, P. (2020, December 28). What is Heritage? – Prem Chandavarkar – ArchitectureLive! ArchitectureLive! – Architecture and Urbanism from around the world. https://architecture.live/essay-what-is-heritage-prem-chandavarkar/
[13] Agbo, M., Jr. (2020). Demolitions: Through the Eyes of an Artist. ArchDaily. https://www.archdaily.com/938216/demolitions-through-the-eyes-of-an-artist?ad_source=search&ad_medium=search_result_articles

Featured Image: K.C cinema, 2002, sector 17 in Chandigarh, India © Spacus/ Flickr


As we work on creating a database of the modern heritage structures from across the South Asian countries targeted for demolition/ demolished, but also had public interventions, we invite you, the reader, to share with us the modern heritage that you believe should be saved and the structures that should be demolished.

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