Building memories?

Should an iconic structure be replaced if it no longer serves the purpose it once did? In recent months, there has been much discussion around such issues arising out of the proposed renovation (or destruction, depending on who describes it) of the iconic IIM Ahmedabad dorm buildings. The issue seems to have been resolved for the time being, with the management taking a step back after facing a storm of protests over the proposed new buildings.

At one level, it is an issue that only concerns a tiny part of privileged India, but it also does throw up more fundamental questions about our relationship with the past. The idea of dismantling significant signifiers of the past causes us unease, as is evident in this case, where the buildings are in the context of other institutions, quite young.

There is a reason why we are drawn to monuments and architectural landmarks. These structures are the only means we have to be able to experience the past, or at the very least, an aspect of it. Going to a temple built in the 3 rd  century or a palace in the 14 th , soaking in the magnificence of Hampi or even relatively modern structures like the Eiffel Tower link us with the past in a direct way.

The past needs handles. It needs tangible manifestations that remind us of a particular era, of the people that populated it and the achievements it took pride in. Given the difficulty of creating durable memories, there was a strong interest in creating structures that were timeless. Architecture served as a message from the past to the present. For us to lift ourselves from the drenching immersiveness of the now. Without preserving the past, we are left to wallow in a future without context. The present can only exist in relation to the past.

The sign of the past once lost cannot be restored ever again. This lends an edge of urgency to any conversation about conservation. The present on the other hand is never scarce. We may not be able to arrest time, but surely, we can arrest the residue that time leaves behind. Particularly when it is in such an aesthetically powerful form.

‘But is preserving a building in its original form an act of preserving history or is it one of creating a false history?  Decay is an essential fact of life. By freezing the past do we convert buildings into empty aesthetic objects that merely simulate a sense of the past? If monuments look the same today as they did two hundred years ago, because of our excellent restoration efforts, is that an act of rescue of the past or one that congeals it? Do we see no value in ruins at all? Do they not complete the picture of the transience of once great civilisations?

Arguably, structures that no longer serve their original purpose, that exist purely as repositories of memories of an earlier era perhaps need to be maintained in as close to their original condition as possible. For here we are trying to remember a lost time, one that is not accessible to us in any coherent sense through other means. Allowing them to decay in the name of authenticity may not serve any meaningful purpose.

The issue becomes more complicated when it involves buildings that are continuing to serve a functional purpose. How does one balance the needs of conservation while being true to what the users of the building need today? Great strides have been made in finding ways of conserving the spirit of the old while equipping old structures with facilities that make them suitable for contemporary use. But what if that kind of reconciliation is no longer possible, as is being argued by the management of the IIM?

The IIM debate is interesting in many ways. Firstly, do 50-year-old buildings even qualify to be deemed as heritage? It is without doubt a stunning piece of architecture, but is it really about the idea of preserving the past? Are we mistaking the nostalgia of a few for a genuine attempt to preserve an important legacy? Also, as a functioning utility, what is more important- its ability to create memory or its ability to serve the purposes of those who use it today?  Unlike many monuments that exist today only as a record of the past, this building needs to service the needs of a generation with rapidly changing needs.

And yet, there is something indubitably powerful about the architecture, something which would be a shame to lose. The architecture is at once daunting in its use of scale, while being layered and playful. It helps create a sense of significance which is so vital to building a sense of institutional heft.  It is always easy to argue that the needs of today overwhelm the more intangible value of preserving things of beauty and significance. But in doing so, we can erase the timeless in order to serve the seemingly pressing needs of today.

Architecture is at its heart, a form of meaning-making. The IIM building works not only because of its ability to make geometry spectacular but also because of what it means to all those that use it. Apart from connoting a sense of institutional stature, what should a business school represent? Should it represent an iconic and timeless idea of education or should it try and reflect the fluidity of the times and of the need for business schools to morph and moult with time? Or does any great work of art transcend its immediate purpose and become a public good, which owes as much to the future as to the past?

Beyond sentimentalism and a narrowly utilitarian view of the world, these are more complex conceptual questions that need to be debated. The past needs to be remembered, not arrested. And the present needs to make its own share of memories, without overwriting the past.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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