Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Out with the old? Advocating a measured approach to built heritage

That we ought to tear down ‘ugly’ and ‘old’ buildings was the suggestion of Mr. Armando Gonsalves in a recent column in the O Heraldo dated the third of May. Mr. Gonsalves was careful to specify however that when he recommended this demolition, he did not mean ‘heritage’ structures, but buildings that have come up in post-Liberation Goa. Among some of the buildings that Mr. Gonsalves recommends that we pull down, is the building that houses the Department of Health in Campal, as well as the Junta House in the centre of Panjim, that is home to a number of Government offices.

The Dept. Of Health, Campal.
These suggestions are hugely problematic ones to make for a variety of reasons. To begin with, there is the assumption that the idea of beauty is one that is universally held by all. The argument assumes that there is something that one can look at and immediately pronounce, ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. Because, as is well known, but little reflected on, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder; beauty is not intrinsic to an element, but depends on the appreciation of the beholder. Thus, beauty is reckoned by a canon, or code or rules. If we do not know the rules to appreciate the building, or image, then we would simply fail to realize in what manner the building is an interesting, or uninteresting contribution to built heritage. Thus for example, one may look at the Junta House, or indeed the Department of Health, or the similarly styled Department of Education building in Panjim city and marvel at their ridiculousness. However, if one sees them within the context of modernist design that they were being articulated from, then they become very interesting buildings in themselves. Add to the fact that these are government buildings and the State that built them, whether it was the Portuguese State (as may be in the case of the Junta House) or the Indian State, and you realize that a statement was being made. These buildings were not meant just to house governmental departments, but were built to make a statement. Of new times, of the will and determination of the State. Once again, for these reasons alone, these buildings gain an interesting perspective, and grow in beauty in the eyes of the beholder, as well as the heritage activist.

Dept. of Education, Panjim.
If we have so far been unable to appreciate the beauty of these (and other like) buildings however, it is perhaps because of the odd contours of the word ‘heritage’ that is being provided both by Mr. Gonsalves as well as others within the area of built heritage in Goa. What Mr. Gonsalves at any rate is doing in his argument, is to limit the scope and terrain of heritage to solely buildings built before the ‘Liberation’ of Goa. While it is surely not his conscious attempt, what Mr. Gonsalves is doing is to stop Goan history with the period of Portuguese sovereignty over Goa. The rest of Goa’s architectural evolution, does not really matter. This is not an uncommon position unfortunately, and the process of selling Goa (both by State and non-State actors) as a Portuguese-Indian paradise has compounded this trend. Unfortunately, what is often seen as Indo-Portuguese heritage are often the homes of the more privileged members of Goa’s colonial society. Even more unfortunate has been the manner in which buildings from before Liberation, often articulating international styles like Art Deco have been stripped of their ornament and distinctness, to be rearticulated in a new form that seems to be slowly emerging, figuring azulejos, pastel earth tones, and harking to a rural ideal. Post-Liberation architecture, from the homes of people who got rich via tourism and earnings from the Gulf, to the apartment blocks erected by the fledgling real-estate developers, tells us a critical story of the rise of formerly subaltern groups, out of a restrictive social environment, to a more liberating one. These buildings, as ‘ugly’ as they may appear to us, even when we understand their internal vocabulary, are a proud moment in Goan history, and we cannot simply brush them aside and order their demolition! To cast only a particular genre of Goan built heritage as heritage, would result in our effective freezing of a definite kind of social relations, one that sustained the colonial presence in Goa, and this would be simply obscene!

Rearticulating an urbanTaleigao Indo-Portuguese style
More than obscene however, they will lead to a whole lot of social strife, because the association of Goa with Indo-Portuguese styles alone, and this freezing of time sometimes relied upon by heritage enthusiasts, is opposed not just by the Hindu nationalists, but a wider swathe of the Goan population than we would imagine. Take for example the incredible support that Mr. Monserrate, the MLA formerly of Taleigão, gained for projects in the constituency that scandalized one segment of Goa’s population. These projects, aimed at destroying the rural structure of Taleigão, by inserting roads and the like, was supported primarily because the rural setting, a particularly privileged locale for the Indo-Portuguese aesthetic, is not particularly appealing to those native-Goans who form Mr. Monserrate’s vote-base. That Mr. Monserrate nevertheless used elements of Indo-Portuguese design, drawing on conventions of certain kinds of European design, and interestingly rearticulated these in the projects that he initiated, however, is another matter, and one that points us in the direction of lessons that we ought to take note of.

Mr. Gonsalves’ arguments are scarier than they prima-facie appear to be, because they draw on a logic that once approved for use in the manner in which we determine which buildings can stay, and which have to go, the logic can be extended to other areas of social life as well. Take for example, the fact that Mr. Gonsalves suggests that the building of the Department of Health ought to be demolished because it does not fit in with the rest of the ‘Heritage’ zone of Campal. The logic that lies below this facile suggestion is that if something, or someone, does not fit in with the larger group, out they go. This sort of exclusivist logic is the very basis on which the vegetarian ghettos of Indian cities have, and are, been formed; where difference is absolutely not tolerated. This is the logic that eventually led to the European Holocaust that saw the calculated murders of Gypsies, homosexuals, Jews and Communists; simply because they did not fit in into the larger scheme of things. This is ofcourse not the intention of Armando Gonsalves who has led many a charitable and philanthropic event, but these are the implications of the logic that he has perhaps unwittingly used in making his suggestions.

Mr. Gonsalves also makes the error of assuming that if the buildings are ‘spanking new’ then they will replace the older buildings that he finds ugly, with a more interesting urbanscape. His assumption is that “Architecture was not such a developed art a few decades ago”. The sad truth is that, none of this is true. Architecture was just as developed a few decades ago, as it is today. There were some buildings that were perhaps more provincial or clumsy followers of international trends, and others that manifested international trends interesting. But we would know this only if we developed our understanding of the vocabulary that architects and designers have been using. Furthermore, some of the problems with the built environment in Goa, as in other places, is not simply that they are ugly, but because increasingly, every architect seems to want to make a statement; because street facades are not being maintained, because the skyline (or the roof façade of the city) is increasingly out of control, and the sense of scale is being violently disrupted, the larger sense of order that we experienced is being lost. The answer to our built heritage woes therefore, is not necessarily to pull down anything that is old, but to spend some more time figuring out what exactly is the problem, educating ourselves in larger issues of urban design, management and styling, and once we do that, to address the issue advisedly.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 16 May 2012)

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