Jayant Sriram meets conservation architect Vikas Dilawari
The conversation around development and urban renewal is a persistent and urgent narrative that spreads across all government and policy discussions in Mumbai. It has become synonymous in recent years with a desire to raze old structures and superimpose them with towers of concrete and steel. Pockets of the city like South Mumbai then often feel like islands unto themselves, with their Neo-Gothic and Art Deco-style buildings.
There is immense potential in Mumbai for restoration of heritage structures, evidenced by the 17 UNESCO awards for such projects that the city has already won. Twelve of those have been won by the man I am about to meet: conservation architect Vikas Dilawari.
When legislation to protect buildings began to be introduced in 1993, architects like Dilawari acted as a bridge between the government and NGOs. He was also involved in the first ever listing of heritage buildings undertaken by Intach. “I roamed around the city during those days, and that gave me a hang of the city’s architecture,” he says.
There was still very little money in conservation though, and if someone wanted to restore or just clean up a facade, it was still a big deal. The first big break came with the American Express bank building in Fort, where Dilawari helped restore both the exterior and, for the first time in Mumbai, the interiors. “It was a great project to showcase the potential of conservation. During the time of economic liberalisation, a great push actually came from various foreign banks that came into India. Banks have always been patrons of conservation and art. It is part of their culture because it speaks to their lineage,” he says.
The lack of awareness of proper conservation techniques, along with policies like rent control, and the failure to see heritage structures as an asset in the planning process are some of the reasons why Mumbai’s true potential for restoring its best architecture has not been realised, Dilawari says. It’s estimated, for instance, that Mumbai has the second highest number of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world, yet the policy of rent control means there is little incentive for landlords to maintain these buildings.
Cheaper than a pizza
“If the rent is going to be cheaper than buying a pizza, for instance, and if a small portion of that is going to the municipal authorities, you are not going to get enough to maintain any of these buildings,” he says. Dilawari points out that not a single government has introduced, encouraged or induced conservation. “All we have done is a listing. Today, people are disgusted if their building gets a heritage tag. In Mumbai, if you want to rebuild or redevelop, the government will offer you a higher FSI (floor space index). Why can’t they offer an incentive for carrying out repairs?”
For a while, Dilawari’s dissatisfaction with government inaction spurred him towards private projects: restoration of private bungalows in Matheran and Mahabaleshwar, and housing blocks owned by the Parsi community which had the funds, knowledge and enthusiasm for restoration. It was good in a sense, he says, because it gave him a chance to work with less prominent buildings that were nonetheless a part of the quotidian look of the city.
Lately, however, he has moved back to working on larger public monuments through public-private partnerships. “The PPP model is the one big saviour of conservation. I have recently had good experiences working on three projects: the Mulji Jetha Fountain, Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower and the Wellington Fountain, in partnership with organisations such as Intach and the Kala Ghoda Association,” he says.
Then, of course, there is Flora Fountain, a government project undertaken after a long gap.
“It can be frustrating, and there are still bureaucratic hurdles. But it has been encouraging to see the enthusiasm that some of the younger engineers have and that is encouraging.”