We all have a general idea of what architects do, but few have an understanding of the art, science, and the role of architects behind the restoration and conservation of heritage properties.
Making the past relevant to the future by using design as a tool, is how conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis describes the work that she does.
Having worked on restoring private havelis (mansions) to reviving an entire town with her work, Aishwarya is a champion of conservation architecture in India.
While conversing with her, we discuss why she decided to work in conservation architecture, the projects she has undertaken, and how she sees sustainability being a part of the work she does.
Having completed her architecture degree from the School of Planning and Architecture in 2003, Aishwarya says that the choice of working with heritage buildings and structures was made rather early on in life.
“I was clear even when I was studying that I wanted to spend my working years undertaking projects that had a cultural and heritage value to them. Even the projects that I undertook in college were all about conserving heritage buildings.”
Once Aishwarya graduated, she moved to Mumbai where she worked on urban heritage conservation with Abha Narain Lambah, an established conservation architect, before going to Scotland to pursue a Master’s Degree in Urban Heritage Conservation in 2006. “I started Aishwarya Tipnis Architects in 2007 and have been very lucky to have been trained under the very best in both India and the UK.”
Aishwarya believes that conservation is not something that is a new concept for us, as Indians. “We are taught from childhood not to waste things, to recycle and use things again in a unique manner whenever possible. These are things that are ingrained in us. What happens is we start giving this process new names – going green, sustainability etc. and that is when it starts getting distant from our everyday lives.”
This is exactly what Aishwarya tries to do with her work as well, “We try as much as possible to go back to our roots and work with those principles in mind.”
Can a home be heritage? Aishwarya answers:
One of the early projects that Aishwarya took up was on the behest of her college professor. She recollects driving with the client to his home in Kashemere Gate and what follows is truly interesting. “I remember how my client explained how this was where his family lived and now that it was time to get his sons married, he was looking at sprucing things around the home to give it a good look.”
“Beneath all the falling paint was an architectural gem” is how Aishwarya describes her first impression on seeing Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli. She spent almost eight and a half years converting the 150-year-old structure in Old Delhi into a 21st-century residence for her client and his family.
In 2010, the Delhi government had declared the haveli as a heritage building and according to law, they had to ensure that the original contours of the building remained intact.
The same year, the Archaeological Survey of India made it a rule that prior permission was mandatory for any work within 300 metres of a protected monument and the haveli was merely 292 metres from Kashmere Gate.
With no map of the building or any sort of blueprint to go by, Aishwarya recalls how difficult it was to put things together for this project. “The idea was to provide all modern facilities like a modular kitchen, western-styled toilets etc., without, in any way, changing the existing structure.” The point that Aishwarya makes is that for most people the word heritage signifies forts, palaces, and monuments. One doesn’t look at a home as a heritage property.
“In this particular case it was a change in mind-set – during all my conversations with my client I kept reiterating that what he had in his home was something special and he ought to value it,” says Aishwarya.
Today, after the restoration of this mansion, there are media houses from across the globe that come to interview the homeowners trying to understand how they retained the essence of their haveli. Surprisingly, this was also the first private restoration project in the entire Old Delhi area. This project acted as a catalyst as many homeowners saw the potential in getting their homes redone.
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When asked how the government can help retain and restore such properties, Aishwarya gives the example of Ahmedabad, and says, “With Ahmedabad getting a tag of World Heritage Site, we saw many soft loans being given out to people to restore their properties. Some cities have nostalgia attached to their properties and the fundamental point is to try and make them as relevant as possible for its occupants today.”
The tale of reviving a sleepy town – Chandernagore
Speaking about one of her longest and most cherished projects, Aishwarya speaks about the restoration work she undertook in Chandernagore, a town close to Kolkata. In 2010, the French Consulate approached Aishwarya to conduct a survey of the town post which, she compiled a list of 99 buildings in the town, both public and private, that needed restoration.
“My work there was to bring attention to the almost forgotten town, in fact, I can safely say that the work we did there helped put this town back on the map.”
Having completed the work, Aishwarya says it was a frustrating period because nothing was happening with all the research that she had put in. “Buildings were getting demolished and I saw nothing happening. With no funds to really drive the project, I decided to put all my research out in the public domain by building a website. We worked with some young students from the town and slowly, it started becoming a people’s movement with many more joining us and taking up the cause of preserving Chandernagore’s heritage on their own as well.”
What Aishwarya was able to generate with respect to Chandernagore was curiosity and that was the first step toward bringing about a change.
When the architect looks back at the work she has done she says that the number of young architects who are looking at conservation architecture as a career choice is heartening. Fifteen years ago, when she set out to do this, there weren’t any takers, so in that sense, she feels that the journey has been fulfilling.
Given that most of the projects that Aishwarya undertakes span across many years, when asked how she manages to stay motivated, she says, “I feel like the tortoise in the story ‘Tortoise and Hare’. I saw many of my batch mates zoom past me but now some of them feel burnt out and somewhere bored with the work they do.
I, on the other hand, am inching forward one step at a time, still very much in love with what I do.
It’s wonderful to be at work each morning. It’s been 17 years now and the enthusiasm remains what it was on day one.”
In January 2018, the French government conferred on her the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her work for the preservation of French heritage in India and, in particular, Chandernagore.
Aishwarya truly believes that conservation has the power to change lives and that is something she takes very seriously.
If you would like to know more about the work that she does, you can reach out to her via her website here.
Picture Courtesy: Aishwarya Tipnis Architects
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)