Why Conserving Modern Architecture Has Become Nearly Impossible

Retrofitting or repairing modern architectural landmarks could be challenging. Concrete structures, as in the Ahmedabad Stadium, are challenging to preserve. Among others, glazing used in modern buildings is only sometimes energy efficient. But these challenges can be met.

by A. Srivathsan

Mirza Ghalib’s verse – ‘My heart boils in the clamour of discontent/ This voiceless bubble augurs a storm’ – best captures the current mood of Indian architects horrified by the quick loss of significant modern buildings. The iconic Hall of Nations in Delhi was pulled down six years ago. Last year, IIM Ahmedabad decided to demolish about 14 buildings, mostly dormitories, on their internationally renowned campus.

Architecturally significant Kala Academy in Goa also faces a threat, and recently, a part of the structure collapsed. Recent reports indicate that the impressive Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, described by the World Monuments Fund as a representation of the ‘experimental spirit that characterised India’s post-independence period,’ will be pulled down.

Architects lament these losses since they embody the best values of their practice and tell stories of progress, invention, and architecture’s contribution to the country. Without these exemplar structures, they are worried that the already beleaguered profession would be further impoverished. The sense of loss is acute.

However, there seems to be no storm brewing because of these demolitions. At the most, a few mild online protests have happened. People have given up, and the hope of protection for what is left of modern architecture seems to be receding. For good reasons, many blame the state’s apathy and private owners’ greed for the present state. However, they alone are not the reasons for this disquieting condition. Other equally critical factors include the narrow definition of heritage and architects’ failure to articulate modern architecture’s values. Without examining them, trying to find a solution would not be fruitful.

Four key factors have put modern architecture in this unenvious spot. First is placing age as the primary determinant of what constitutes heritage. Second, the Indian architecture discourse casts suspicion on modern architecture as non-indigenous. Third is modern architecture’s preoccupation with the new and denial of history to establish its relevance. Fourth is the conflict between the use and exchange values of the buildings, which has recently intensified since a premium is placed on the land, not the building that stands on it.

Age has been a key determinant in declaring a structure as heritage. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act in India enunciates that only structures that have survived 100 years qualify as heritage and can receive legal protection. Longevity is the key determining test. The assumption is that one needs sufficient years to assess the significance of structures, and hence, the older, the better.

Although understandable, using the longevity test as a filter to manage a large inventory of competing old structures for heritage status is not useful. Repeatedly, this has been challenged, and exceptions have been made. For instance, in the US, where the threshold value is 50 years,  the multi-storied Citicorp Center was designated as a landmark in 2016 even though it was only 38 years old. In England, the threshold age is 30 years, which has helped designate outstanding buildings completed as recently as 1996, such as the Judge Business School, Cambridge, as heritage sites.

Nothing comparable has happened in India. There was an opportunity to unambiguously recognise modern buildings as heritage when a few states, such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, enacted heritage legislation to care for non-monumental structures. However, even state-level efforts have mostly identified colonial and a few pre-colonial buildings as heritage. Focusing on the public value of modern architecture is the way to correct this. For it to happen, changes must begin within architectural discourse and practice.

How modern architecture in India is viewed 

The suspicion that modern buildings are not indigenous must be challenged and corrected. Modern architecture in India is viewed as a shadow of European and American architecture. It is criticised for showing faith in modernist doctrines such as functionalist planning and a faithful following left behind by architects such as  Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.

Architectural historians tend to portray that it was only after the 1980s when Indian architecture engaged with the vernacular and the historical as a redemption. It is only in recent years that researchers have started to reassess this position.

The early modern architecture in India is beginning to be seen as a confident expression of its conditions and an emancipatory project representing an independent country’s progressive and pluralistic vision.

Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs, architect and urban studies experts, called architects ‘natalists,’ who always thought about making things anew. Buildings must die, they argued, and without the idea of death, architects would not be cured of their obsession with the new. To them, the loss of buildings was a positive thing that compelled a rethink about their practice and the lifecycle of the buildings they construct.

Architects may not entirely agree with this provocation but will admit that their practices privilege ‘fantasies of creativity’ and novelty.  Breaking away from history is one of its foundational ideas, and continuity and recycling are anathema. In this context, architects’ demand to perpetuate the legacy of modern architecture by presenting it as historical seems like a late realisation, if not an irony.

Related to this is the perception that modern architecture is not much about permanence. Architects position buildings as contained spaces and consider function as the key driver. Modern building materials celebrate a sense of lightness, almost bordering temporariness. If the pre-modern buildings were about permanence, the new ones are transient containers meant to be demolished when it is not serving their function.

Another factor that threatens the building value is the land value. In the current land value-driven property condition, the land value on which buildings are placed increases rapidly, which can be extracted only by demolishing the building. In other words, the building use value is less important than its exchange value.

A UK heritage policy expert, Kate Clark, reframes this problem in the context of conservation. She points out that the debate is about the intrinsic and instrumental values of a building. The argument against modern architecture is that it does not have intrinsic public value and should be judged only by its instrumental economic value.

How to rectify this? Alois Riegl’s analysis of monuments offers help. Modern buildings may have been designed to serve their function and never intended to commemorate nor have traits of conventional monuments. However, they could become ‘unintentional monuments.’

Reigl points out that unintentional monuments could perform commemorative functions as the intentional ones. However, the key difference is that ‘while the value of the intentional monument is always conditioned by its makers, the value of the unintentional monument is relative and left to us to define.’ In other words, architects have the biggest onus to define the value of modern architecture to save it from demolition.

Second, as Kate Clark would argue, positioning conservation as a sustainability measure would help. Protecting a modern building is not only about the longevity of a structure. Reusing or adapting a building for another use saves the energy consumed in producing the building materials, which would be wasted if demolished. Reuse also saves energy consumed in building a new structure in place of the existing one.

Given the many new constructions, such measures would make a big difference. It will be critical to empirically demonstrate how much reuse or extended use of the landmark building saves and how it is a sound environmental decision.

Retrofitting or repairing modern architectural landmarks could be challenging. Concrete structures, as in the Ahmedabad Stadium, are challenging to preserve. Glazing used in modern buildings is only sometimes energy efficient. Techniques and knowledge needed to conserve fragile modern materials and structures are still evolving. These challenges can be met. But what is immediately needed is a change in perception about the value of modern architecture, how we assess them, and the will to protect them.

This article was originally posted by The Wire on 16 September 2023. Extracted on 05 October 2023 from the original here.

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