December 20, 2023

Taking pride in our built heritage

The Christmas-New Year festive season is almost upon us. It’s that time of the year when Kolkata decks up for the yearend carnival and endless partying. There’s a sense of bonhomie and bonding all around. This is also the time when we make our New Year promises. This time, why don’t we vow to appreciate our amazing architectural legacy a little more?

Kolkata’s rich literary, artistic and cinematic heritage is universally acknowledged and celebrated, but our built heritage rarely features in our daily discourse. Isn’t it kind of strange, considering that the city’s part-European, part-Bengali architectural mélange is so distinctive, it has fascinated eminent architects and urban planners around the world for decades? Is it a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?

The intricate cornices, high ceilings, wrought-iron grilles, crescent-shaped verandahs and slatted windows are all a vibrant reminder of our colonial-style built heritage, seamlessly intertwined with an aristocratic Bengali design vocabulary. Elegant and profound, yet charming and beautiful. As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen describes Kolkata’s historic built environment: “Calcutta’s eccentric but exciting old buildings.”

A walk around the BBD Bag business precincts reinforces the belief that Kolkata had the trappings to become one of the world’s most magnificent cities. Maybe somewhere down the line, we lost our way. Most of the splendid edifices are in various stages of decay and disrepair and crumbling even as we speak. So, are those priceless structures like St. James’ Church or the GPO with its majestic dome, the Writers’ Buildings, et all beyond salvage?

While the Currency Building is the only concrete example of a prominent heritage structure restoration in the CBD till date, there seem to be a clutch of piecemeal plans like restoration of St. James’ Church, beautifying a stretch in front of the GPO, an extension of the Millennium Park, etc. The beautifully conceived Palladian Lounge in the BCCI building was meant to be an oasis, attracting people back to the office para after dark through its myriad events and expos and fine-dining spread.

However, it needed greater traction to engineer a more widespread urban renewal wave in the Dalhousie Square area. While so much could be done along the riverfront, linking it like a ‘T’ with BBD Bag, there were some setbacks that have stymied efforts to steer a holistic regeneration. First, the planned adaptive retail-and-entertainment reuse of the revamped 16 Strand Road (Mackinnon & Mackenzie House) didn’t come off, then the pilot beautification project between the two bridges is yet to take concrete shape. And of course, there was the devastating fire in one of the Strand warehouses of the Port Trust.

So, can’t we put up a united front of various stakeholders and expert groups to create a collective bandwidth to protect Kolkata’s unique built heritage? Let’s not talk about political will only, this requires healthy doses of public will as well. Citizens’ consensus is the biggest enabler in any urban renewal initiative and this can be one of the most significant inner-city rejuvenation programmes in the country. What cities like New York, London, Birmingham, Istanbul or Marrakesh have achieved through such interventions, we can replicate in our beloved Kolkata as well.

Many iconic European cities like Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Prague have shown the world how centuries-old buildings can be restored and put to intelligent adaptive reuse, including art galleries, museums (think Tate Modern) and even modern retail. All it needs is intent and a collaborative approach.

Of course, there are countless other architectural gems elsewhere in the city, like the splendid North Kolkata brick building quarters or the grand Art Deco buildings like Roxy and Metro cinemas in the Esplanade area and also Purna cinema in Bhowanipore, not to mention the beautiful, elegant and stylised old houses of South Kolkata.

However, a systematically restored and rejuvenated BBD Bag can do wonders for the image of our city and create a tourism magnet to draw people from across the country and around the world. A vibrant heritage retail and entertainment pedestrian zone can also be a massive economic energizer, which should generate captive revenue for the maintenance of the entire precincts. It sends out a strong positive signal to the outside world and goes a long way in bringing back the lost glory of Asia’s first cosmopolitan metropolis.

In India itself, Mumbai has already attempted something similar, engineering an afterhours reverse traffic flow to its CBDs in the Fort area, Cuffe Parade, Colaba and BKC, among others, creating retail and fine-dining destinations anchored by aspirational brands and elite F&B outlets. It’s a great way to keep the office districts hip and happening even after swipe-out time, while creating a whole new attraction, drawing friends and families in their hordes, giving them enough reason to spend and blow their workday blues away.

No reason why we can’t replicate a similar, why not better, experience in our own CBD. It’s a project waiting to be signed, sealed and delivered – a value-add that can have a magical ripple effect.

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