Iftekhar Ahsan, founder of Calcutta Walks, aims to preserve Kolkata's heritage by turning ancient buildings into heritage hotels
Last year, the City of Joy earned UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage tag for its famed Durga Puja
Conservation of our cultural past was the buzzword last week on World Heritage Day. Most cities, however, mark the day that falls on April 18 with a few insipid panel discussions, notably falling short of working towards sustainably rebuilding their diverse heritage. But Kolkata seems to be the place that is taking its architectural past seriously. Last year, the City of Joy earned UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage tag for its famed Durga Puja.
Mention Kolkata and what comes to your mind is an urbanscape dipped in sepia. As you enter it through the pre-Independence era Howrah Bridge, meandering through the crowded Bara Bazar, it seems as though you have entered the set of a period film. Clinging to nostalgia, it refuses to give up the colonial architecture. For the last few years, restoration specialists have preserved the city’s historical monuments. And these aren’t just the reputed public places like the Princep Palace in BBD Bagh or St Paul’s Cathedral at Maidan but also residences of legends such as Rabindranath Tagore, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Swami Vivekananda. who have contributed to the city’s glory. Even the century-old residences of British barons now house high-street fashion stores.
Narrow lanes, verandas covered with bundles of electric wires and banyans peeping out of broken walls are the predominant features of these ancient buildings. The most common solution is to bulldoze the houses and build modern buildings. The process isn’t just brutal to a city’s design identity but results in adding a tremendous amount of carbon footprint. One of the solutions found by Iftekhar Ahsan, the founder of Calcutta Walks in Kolkata, is to turn one of these ancient buildings into a heritage hotel.
“The problem is that Kolkata has never seen itself as a tourist city. Yet, it has the potential of becoming a major tourist destination. We just need to find ways to monetise our built heritage,” says Swarup Dutta, multidisciplinary art and design practitioner based in Kolkata, who has worked closely in restoring Jhaal Farezi (restaurant) in Ballygunge and Calcutta Bungalow in Shyam Bazar. “Adaptive reuse of these buildings is the way forward. We have to reimagine these houses for usage, be it hospitality spaces, offices, retail spaces, residences, clinics, luxury villas; the possibilities are endless,” he adds. Architects agree that the city needs to capitalise on the past and transform the emotional quotient into a future-proof design thinking.
Indian architecture has been blessed with sustainable materials for thousands of years. It’s sheer westernisation of design to use glass in buildings, which tends to absorb heat throughout the day and needs extra air-conditioning to cool off. The older buildings were built using lime and bricks making them absorb moisture and keep the house clean even in peak summer.
“In most other cities abroad, restoration takes place because of government mandates or the residents feel the buildings need to be preserved for the future. In Kolkata, it works mostly as a passion. The government has no laws in terms of the design architecture of the buildings. Hence, real estate developers find it easy to scrape down buildings and create new ones. In India, the banks do not have special home loans if you are trying to renovate old buildings,” says Sourav Malla, a restoration practitioner in Kolkata and London.
The structural strength of the buildings is another stumbling block. A major chunk of the budget gets into making that stronger. These houses were built by chuna surki and not cement and sand. That’s another expensive investment. Last but not least is to find skilled masons who know the techniques of the construction. Besides, the treatment of termites is another investment in older architectures. “You need to build awareness. They would otherwise feel this house didn’t belong to a king or queen; then what’s the need to preserve it? This is where cafes and hotels coming up in old buildings make sense and people start realising that their old wrecked buildings can earn revenue. And this is the need of the hour,” he adds.