Sunday, July 8, 2012

A brick in time saves nine-Jul 8, 2012

Marzban Colony, opposite Nair Hospital at Mumbai Central, is a complex of five buildings in the vernacular style of architecture. All are over 100 years old. Until a few years ago, the colony blended right into the neighbourhood's tapestry of greys, such was its degree of dereliction. Today, it leaps out of its high-rise surrounds like a newly painted bas relief. It owes its new life to three years of architectural conservation.

Conservation is often the road less travelled in Mumbai, while redevelopment has become the common way. The blocks of Marzban Colony (or Lal Chimney as it is alternatively called after a long-gone red chimney stack in the vicinity) with apartments that are 300 to 400 sq ft in area, were originally designed to accommodate Parsis with low incomes. A century of wear, ad hoc masonry, and ill-conceived efforts to optimise limited space by switching kitchens and bathrooms and diverting plumbing and drainage, had taken its toll on the property. Despite the oversight that left Marzban Colony out of the city's heritage list — and gave Garib Zarthostiona Rehethan Fund, the trust that runs the colony, free run to raze it — residents voted for conservation. "The alternative would have been demolition and redevelopment," says Muncherji Cama, one of the trustees. "But we're old-fashioned that way."

Old ideals won for Lal Chimney and four other estates run by the trust, an extended life. Vikas Dilawari, the conservation architect, tasked with revival of Lal Chimney, says, "It is economical; people who have lived in these spaces retain their social cultural behavioural/character, that is, talking to neighbours across the balcony; and it's safer. Moreover, restoration does not tax the local infrastructure with regards to water supply, drainage, car parking, etc."

Conservation takes the route of minimum intervention and adheres as much as possible to original material and methods. At Lal Chimney Dilawari knocked off plaster slapped over teakwood balustrades but he lost the battle to the box window. While he wanted architectural authenticity, the tenants wanted security. The restoration cost close to Rs 3 crore.

Ashok Gupta knew he'd have to meet his tenants halfway if his Art Deco building, Zaver Mahal was to be restored. This 69-year-old piece on Marine Drive was not only patched up at the expense of landlord and tenants (Gupta footed half the bill), but restoration also attempted to set right earlier infractions. "We banned chapras (aluminium awnings on windows) and had tenants get rid of their box ACs that violated the building's facade," says Gupta, who came into ownership of the building seven years ago.

Most buildings in disrepair choose redevelopment because landlords and tenants lack the wherewithal and to preserve them.

Dilawari faults the Rent Control Act for Mumbai's dismal spectacle. "If our heritage was protected a decade ago it was not merely because of heritage regulations but because the FSI for reconstruction was less than what it enjoys presently," he says. "The problem started with old cessed properties dilapidating on account of very low rents. The government's solution was reconstruction (with higher FSI), instead of repair."

There are presently 14,995 cessed buildings in the island city, of which approximately 200 apply for redevelopment every year. Buildings constructed up to 1969 are deemed cessed by the Mumbai municipality (which means they fork out a cess tax every year that entitles them to repairs by Mhada).

Perhaps the most vulnerable of cessed properties reside in the gaothans, where restrictions on redevelopment are routinely impugned. At a meeting of the Bombay East Indian Association, housing activist H S D'Lima suggested that the body establish a fund for the disbursal of loans at low interest to those East Indians who need money for house repairs. "The excuse they'd use is that they don't get permission for repairs, but as per section 342 of the BMC Act no sanction is required unless changes are being made to the structure," D'Lima says.