March 31, 2015

First blow for Writers' restoration

First blow for Writers' restoration


Notices are up on various structures of Writers’ Buildings before their demolition begins. Furniture and doors and windows and other fixtures have already been removed from the rooms and hallways. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

The ‘bookbinding building’ between Block III and the Secretariat Library has already been dismantled
This block/building will bedemolished

The writing - in innocuous point size, but in capital letters - is on the Writers' Buildings wall.

As a prelude to its restoration, the dismantling of certain blocks of Writers', which is of 18th century vintage, has begun.

Warren Hastings, first governor-general of India, had granted Thomas Lyon, after whom Lyons Range was named, a 16-bigha plot in October 1776 to construct this iconic structure known as "Lalbari" for its red colour.

The first structure to go was the small "bookbinding building" in a narrow lane between Block III and the Secretariat Library. Small printed notices have sprung up on the walls of other buildings within the maze of this city within a city. Like the one above in Block E.

The process started at the beginning of this month when the public works department (PWD) uploaded a notice on its website inviting "auction sell (sic) on as is and where is basis of Block A, B, E and Block I (Top floor), Block II (Top floor), Main block (top floor, except mansard portion) of Writers' Buildings, Calcutta 700001, including dismantle and disposal of all components of the same by the superintending engineer, PWD, Presidency Circle."

There has been no response from the public yet.

It was on July 13, 2014, that the Mamata Banerjee government had announced plans to remove the structures constructed after Independence and declutter Writers' Buildings. These "non-heritage" structures known as "sada bari" (they are painted in various shades of cream, unlike the heritage sections which are distinctly red) will be demolished phase-wise.

To go in the first phase will be the top floors of Block I and II and the main block facing Laldighi and the entire blocks A, B, and E. In Phase II it is the turn of Block F, the top of Block III, and Block C (complete). Block G (complete), Block D (complete) and the top floors of Block IV and V and the chief government architect (CGA) building. Work has started on the eastern side of Writers'.

Jadavpur University (JU) was chosen as consultant for this project and Madhumita Roy, the head of the architecture department at JU, heads the team. Part I of her report dealt with the history of Writers' Buildings, and Part II determined which portions of the structures will be dismantled. This department does not offer specialisation in conservation but it is included as part of urban design among other subjects.

Roy is quite clear that formats of conservation formulated in the West cannot be strictly adhered to for funds would not permit that. "We cannot suggest an unrealistic budget. We have to do things our own way, for this would be considered a standard for other such projects too," she said.

Consultations have been held with Ausheritage through Intach. According to the Ausheritage website, "Ausheritage is a network of Australian cultural heritage management organisations, established by the Australian Government in 1996. The network aims to facilitate the engagement of practitioners and organisations for the Australian heritage industry in the overseas arena. Its members work internationally on a grant funded, commercial or cooperative basis."

Roger Beeston, deputy chairman of Ausheritage, will hold a workshop in Calcutta next month and the detailed project report (DPR) will be prepared after that.

Renowned architect Balkrishna Doshi has a word of advice. He told Metro over the phone on Wednesday that it is all right if they use new material for restoration so long as the original form and look are retained.

"They have to take one sample, work on it and then show it to an expert before starting on the entire structure. They have to compare it with the older structure. They cannot start working on the front at once. They have to chose a discrete section and if it works they can go ahead," said Doshi.

Writers' Buildings, particularly the facade, has undergone many transformations. Ashley Eden, lieutenant governor-general of Bengal from 1877 to 1882, was given the responsibility of shifting the principal offices, housed in two buildings on Sudder Street and Chowringhee, to Writers'. He realised there was not enough space here for all the offices. So initially, three blocks were constructed and two others added, thereafter, between 1879 and 1906. The new blocks could be approached by iron staircases that are still in use.

It was during this period that Writers' acquired its familiar look, complete with the portico in the central bay and the red surface of exposed brick. The mansard roofs also belong to this period. The portico above the central entrance is supported by six Corinthian columns. The parapet was put in place and the statues by William Fredric Woodington that line the terrace were installed.

However, Writers' was not always red. Commenting on the appearance of the building, Montague Massey wrote in his "recollection" in 1918, "It was formerly, before Government took it over, a plain white stuccoed building utterly devoid of any pretensions to architectural beauty..."

The hyper-committee on this project comprising the additional chief secretary, home, principal secretaries of transport, finance, information and culture and PWD held a meeting on January 19. The report was framed by Madhumita Roy and Saroj Mandal of the civil engineering department of JU. It was decided that the non-heritage structures will be demolished.

It was also decided that structural safety is of utmost concern and must be taken care of.

The foundations of the heritage structures were checked physically for stability by the civil engineering department of JU.

The Secretariat Library under the home department will have to be shifted to the ground floor of Block II.

Since the proposed alignment of the East West Metro will be close to the eastern side of Writers', the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation Ltd will be requested to plan the tunnel keeping in mind the safety of the heritage structures.

Talks have also been held with Calcutta traffic police taking into consideration the planned Mahakaran (secretariat) Metro railway station and traffic and pedestrian flow from Writers' Buildings.

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