Conserving VT Holistically
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Conserving VT Holistically

January 4, 2020

What makes Mumbai tick are its railway connections
and obviously the oldest railway line And what makes Mumbai tick or what really
makes Mumbai visually the most amazing place is all these amazing Victorian buildings and
art deco buildings of South Mumbai And I think it would be daft if a citizen
of Mumbai didn’t feel at some level connected to them The very fact that this was the first great
railway station The very fact that as a public building which
is a railway station, it acquires the monumentality of a palace was a very strong political statement
by the British… …that for them infrastructure are the new
palaces and so it’s from the royals and the princely rulers and the snake charmers This was leading India towards modernity and
this was sort of a great ambitious plan of railways And that it symbolizes that in every way possible But having said that it is also a beautiful
amalgam of Victorian Neo Gothic and Indo Gothic So it’s really an amazing amalgam of European
architectural ideas that came to India, were embraced by Indians and then reinterpreted So you have you know some of the spires actually
look like temple forms Then you have within the filigree of stone,
that is part of the pierced panels, you have peacocks, and you have snakes and you have
mongooses and you have gargoyles It just is a rich vivid imagery of symbols,
of nature, of elements and then again you have the busts of British as well as Indians
on the facade So it’ s really in a kind of sense a marriage
of two different cultures, a marriage of ideas of East meets West and it really stands for
that sort of synthesis I think these kind of buildings take longer
to be restored than they were to be built in the first place and it’s just mind boggling when you see
the monumentality of these buildings and the fact that they didn’t have machine tools at
that time and they didn’t have JCBs and a whole lot of modern equipment
And yet they were built with such a rapid pace and they were sourcing material from
everywhere and they were using local craftsmen and training craftsmen on site And yet these buildings were built on time,
within budget and to such a remarkable degree of quality and finesse
It’s something that you salute these builders, especially the 19th century master craftsmen
and master architects of Bombay For a city like Bombay, conservation has a
very different meaning from any other city in India We literally have a very intimate relationship
with historic buildings So they’re all in active use and very vibrant
active use So you have the Victoria Terminus which is
you know a station where you have a million people coming in and out every day and they
are using it very actively You have the Bombay High Court which is sort
of chock- a -block full with people, litigants, plaintiffs So the conservation in Mumbai is in a sense
far more active because it’s not only that you are conserving heritage for the sake of
conserving heritage Because you need to use those buildings, you
need to make sure that they are workable And I think that brings in a completely different,
and a far more pragmatic view to conservation You can’t afford to sit on an armchair,
sit back, think, theorize I think in Mumbai we don’t have that indulgence We have to get going and look at conservation
in a very active, constantly dynamic way Well, structurally the building has been well
maintained The railways does look after its building,
so they have a proper structural review they do to look after it, considering it’s an
old building But there are also places where there is scope
for improvement I would just say that it needs to be holistic,
it needs to be interactive and it needs to make, it needs to re-stitch the Victoria Terminus
as an important urban marker back with the city Because currently that bit of that interface
that happens through its Central forecourt and its landscape has been lost And if that could be restored it would make
for a better urban interface with the city If you have the Victoria Terminus it’s a
World Heritage site but you can’t say we’ll just light it up beautifully and watch it You know you got teeming people coming in
and out, you need to look at visitor facilities, you need to look at risk issues, you need
to look at security issues, you need to look at housing, all those offices of the railways
within the buildings So there are many layered challenges that
just are not limited to the building and its architecture but also majorly towards its
use, sometimes misuse and sometimes overuse What really happened with the Victoria Terminus
was that I think it is emblematic of a few decades in India where post-Independence,
we didn’t really begin to think of historic buildings as being important
And maybe it was a fallout of the modern movement But infill and alterations that were made
over time were always kneejerk reactions to a need, a necessity So if they needed more space, a wonderful
big hall would be compartmentalized and partitioned, initially in timber and as the decades rolled
by they were replaced by plywood partitions, aluminum partitions So we’ve had a whole lot of add-ons and infills
into this historic building that happened as a response to a certain use and not necessarily
with this sensitivity that we are looking at a beautiful heritage building Similarly we have had historic lights replaced
by florescent tube lights, Chock-a-blocks sort of hanging from the ceiling We’ve had layers and layers of electrical
wires and conduits crisscrossing over stoned walls and arches We’ve had toilets inserted where they probably
were not We’ve had verandas that were once open to
let the breeze in, closed up and boarded because they needed a little extra space so you block
a veranda and park two office tables there and it gets used So what’s really happened over the last few
decades is that incrementally changes have happened in a very small piecemeal approach.
Seven or eight years ago, they did some sort of a stone cleaning of the facades
But yet the windows were not all restored or the stain glass was not restored or infill
acrylic painted glass was not removed and leaded stain glass was not put in Yes, the stone finials were replaced and done
well and Dutchman repair was used But again the landscape was left out of the
conservation plan and add on infill were not removed So what’s really lacking in the case of the
Victoria Terminus is a holistic budget allocation, a holistic sequential phase-wise plan of restoration
that would address each one of these issues with a larger vision So that’s something I hope will happen one
day Currently a complete absence of a visitor
interpretation plan If you as a visitor, as either a tourist or
a citizen of Mumbai or a commuter of the suburban railway system, walk into the Victoria Terminus,
other than the one plaque that says it is a World Heritage site there is very little
information on the architecture, the history of the building
And even on interpreting different spaces as…. Ok this is a historic ticketing office
and why was the color used or selected by the architect The railways does have an amazing archives
of historic drawings by Frederick William Stevens I wish they would be included in the signage
panels so that people could actually look at these architectural drawings and understand
how those spaces were designed This is something that affects a larger number
of citizens I mean, a station where you have a footfall
of more than a million per day is something that is definitely in the public domain and
definitely something that impacts people. And conservation of that building also should
be something where citizens are made a party to the discussion
At least the dialogue if not the actual conservation process Engagement is currently just limited to catching
a train and you know alighting at the platform And I think the engagement needs to go beyond
that to people to be able to come around and may be on Sundays or weekends and walk around
different parts of the building The building also needs to be more accessible
to the public Other parts of the building other than the
concourse But the rest of the offices or sort of outside
and especially given the security and you know threats to this building
It’s had a major terrorist strike during the 26/11 Bombay Terror Strike So there is this palpable threat of terrorism
But yet, as a result of that the average tourist or visitor gets denied that chance to walk
through the central staircase and marvel at the domes or look through the windows and
see the stain glass or you know see the beautiful patterns of minton tiles that are there in
the corridors of the building So that aspect of the visitor experience becomes
limited because of other issues like user and risk issues Why CST, is the same reason why the Twin Towers
in New York Because if a terrorist is hitting out at something
he wants to make it a great visual drama The fact that you had two air crafts found
their way into the Twin Towers is not just about killing x number of people It’s about creating the visual image that
would be spectacular and hideous and horrible at the same time and would shake the people
And therefore, had so many people been killed anywhere else it would have been equally a
tragic loss and a great amount of human suffering But when you want to hit out at an identity
of a city I imagine the terrorists want to really hit out at something that is a visual
emblem of the city… …and for that reason we have both the Gateway
of India, the Taj Hotel and the VT that were part of this horrific attack Because by doing that, in some way they were
chipping at Mumbai’s Identity, chipping at Mumbai’s favorite places or iconic landmarks And in that sense trying to inflict damage
not only on the number of human casualties, but also inflict damage on our psyche, on
the psyche of the city or the average Mumbaikar This is the bloodline of Mumbai, you stop
the circulation of Mumbai by cutting off an artery So we had no choice as a city to just get
back and have the trains functioning as soon as one found it was possible
And that is the reason it was back to being functional The problem lies in the fact that you got
different agencies looking at different aspects of the fort area So while the railways is the major stakeholder
and it owns the building issues such as hawkers and all that are looked
at by its neighbor, the Municipal Corporation And there needs to be a greater dialogue between
the railways and the BMC to actually work out a minimal way of accepting the kinetic
city… and yet making sure that it doesn’t engulf
it and, in any way, threaten its integrity and its historic authenticity And for that reason, I think there needs to
be a greater thinking I mean, when you now think that you not only
have the road and the way you’ve got the hawkers screaming but you also have the metro, underground
metro lines, three that are proposed How are we able to you know look at user connections
at transportation links, at underground links between the metro and the railway Could somebody take the metro line and get
to the station to catch a train to go to Aurangabad Or would it not match, would you have underground
pedestrian linkages and therefore be able to remove those caterpillar sort of additions
that have been highly criticized by citizens, which were subways
So all this is something that needs a lot more thinking and a lot more interaction between
various agencies whether it is MMRDA, BMC and railway How much of name changes are actually political
gimmicks and how much of name changes are something that citizens demand
I mean a case in point is a fact that to this day you get onto a cab and say “Kala Ghoda
leke jao” and he brings you to the place where once an equestrian statue stood and hasn’t
been there for entire living memory of most people
It just shows how names can continue in history longer and sometimes are more evocative than
even tangible structures And therefore while people do call it CST
there are enough people who still call it VT CST was designed to be a railway station and
continues to be a railway station So unless there is a major change in suburban
lines, this is one building which will continue to be extremely relevant in contemporary society
and extremely relevant to the average citizen of Mumbai So in that sense I don’t see it has been changed
much What I would say is, yes perhaps, you know
with what one reads about these sorts of mega schemes, what the railways is going to do
with their lands on P D’Mello Road Maybe those kinds of things will change it
or bring in a different aspect to the railway station, especially if they add hotels or
other facilities or increase its engagement with the eastern water front Leaving all that, I think this is one building
that has stayed the same ever since the time of its commission till today. To date, it
remains equally important with no major shifts in its usage or in its significance

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