Future of the Past

August, 2018


Architect Manish Chakraborti from Kolkata recently revived an old, Dutch Tavern in West Bengal. He talks to us about his work in the field of urban conservation and the need to build on our past.

Q Tell us about your journey as an architect.
I did my Masters in Conservation from the University of York, UK, before which I studied Architecture from the Department of Architecture, Jadavpur University, Kolkata in 1991. But to be honest, initially, I was not quite decided that I wanted to study architecture.And in the first year of my college days, I remember spending more time in the Arts faculty, instead of my own, the engineering department.

 This is also when I travelled across various parts of my own city, Kolkata, particularly North Kolkata.

Thereafter, I went for a training to Delhi, which was a part of my course. That is where I got the opportunity to observe Architect Ranjit Siddiqui and Architect Ajay Chowdhury keenly. I could see that they, particularly, Chowdhury, really enjoy their work. As I worked for them I tried to emulate him. I started realising that spaces
that exist are equally important. I decided to do a thesis on ‘How architecture can be responsive to the immediate environment’. I wanted to find out possibilities that are in-sync with the environment instead of standing out.

Q You initiated the Visakha Festival. Tell us how it all began.
Soon after I shifted to Visakhapatnam where I taught for a year and a half at Andhra University. I started exploring more and studied a very old Dutch settlement along with my students. We managed to do a wonderful exhibition and initiate the idea of a festival, which continues today as the Visakha Festival. My extensive work was noticed and I received a scholarship to the University of York, UK.

Q What is the Dalhousie Square Revitalisation Project?
After UK, I came back to Kolkata and decided to start a conscious mapping of the historic centre of Dalhousie Square in the city. The result was a walking tour in 1995-96, which became tremendously popular. I named it Footsteps. My quote: “Dalhousie Square revitalisation is an art of the possible”, became quite popular as well. The popularity of the walk grew and this enabled me to connect to not only the physical city but also the human resources available. Through an exchange of ideas and dialogues, a common agenda emerged: Dalhousie Square deserves to be protected.

As a result of my fight for the conservation of the architectural heritage of Kolkata, the buildings of Dalhousie Square were rated as one of the ‘100 most threatened architectures worldwide’ by World Monuments Fund in 2004 and 2006. I had founded ARCH (Action Research in Conservation of Heritage) to promote awareness and research on Kolkata and West Bengal’s heritage. Indian Foundation of Arts (IFA) awarded ARCH a grant for the conservation of Dalhousie Square. This was a huge sucesss for us.

Q Tell us a little more about your other projects.
My projects encompasses regional and urban conservation of monuments and individual buildings. Among these are the House of Vidyasagar, Churches namely St Paul’s Cathedral, St Johns Church and St James Church in Kolkata; the house of Jagadish Bose in Darjeeling, and temples at Pathra in Midnapore and Tipu Sultan Mosques in Kolkata. I have also worked on the Nomination Dossier of Santiniketan to UNESCO and have been consultant to international agencies such as the World Monuments Fund. I also restored Akbar Fort & Museum in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Q So, you are working with the National Museum of Denmark? Tell us more.
I have been working with the National Museum of Denmark for eight years now, and we recently restored The Denmark Tavern and Hotel in Serampore, West Bengal. The tavern, built in 1786 alongside the bank of the river, now has a cafe and private luxurious rooms for lodging. You should see how stunning it looks now!

Q Where do you see the architecture space heading?
Sadly, regionalism is losing out to this huge influx of manufactured products that dictate either your design or your process. It is important to work with craftsmen who know their material and know how they can be played with in order to build something of value. There is an equal amount of joy, if not more, in preserving a building as it is in creating a new one.