CHENNAI: The Great Indian Bungalow is dwindling faster than the Great Indian Bustard. Residences in the architectural style of the mid 19th or early 20th century are either giving themselves over to redevelopment or rot. The former’s fate lies with owners who are chary of having their properties listed on heritage inventories. They worry that it might throw a spanner in their plans for redevelopment, even though a legal mechanism doesn’t currently exist to regulate such action.
However, the financial burden of repair and restoration does weigh heavily on some homeowners who resort to sale. Others have found ways to monetise their assets by leasing them out to commercial establishments, often on the condition that the structure stays unmolested and amenities if added coincide with the original architectural style.
An example is Luz House in Mylapore, built in the 1700s by dubash Moddaverapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu (cricketer Buchi Babu, his grandson, grew up here). The house, built around an 18th century Portuguese barracks, is being restored to accommodate a franchise of a yoga chain.
“We wanted the place, which had fallen into disrepair, to be used by people whose ethos matched the traditional essence of the building,” says Abhimanyu Prakash, proprietor of Luz House, who has recycled wood, bricks and tiles from the original estate.
Architects call it adaptive reuse, the process of reconciling old building stock to new requirements. Conservation architect Sujatha Shankar worked on such a house for Sri Krishna Sweets. “The property in Puruskawalkam was a 100-year-old building called Natana Vilas, and the client wanted to convert it into a sweet shop and restaurant. We agreed on minimal structural intervention,” says Shankar, pointing to examples of heritage buildings that were adapted to accommodate boutiques, spas, stores and restaurants.
Conservation architect K Kalpana agrees that the number of heritage homes adapting to contemporary use has grown in Chennai, and more would have joined the ranks if not for the gulf between owner and buyer/lessee. “The interface between the market and owners is poor,” she says. “Owners don’t know where to find the right clients and businesses don’t know where to look for properties.” No matter what the requirements of a contemporary business, an old house can be retrofitted with the works.
In the end, the toss-up between preserving a heritage house and redeveloping it is hard, given the difference between market value of land and rental value of the house. Only those won over by history will make a choice in favour of preservation.