Know Architecture Conservation – Interview with Tappan Mittal Deshpande


Last Updated: September 5, 2022
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It wasn’t all that long ago when the cobblestoned streets of Mumbai, paving their way around Victorian structures, saw quaint horse carts transport people and things from one place to another. The Victorian era may have passed, but it has left behind several relics for historians, architects, students and citizens to understand the sensibilities of that time.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus building and the Flora Fountain, in spite of being more than a century old, look remarkable even today. How, you wonder? All thanks to people known as Conservation Architects. Mentoria brings you excerpts from an interview with Tappan Mittal Deshpande, a conservation architect and Professor at the Balwant Sheth School of Architecture, NMIMS University. The interview is an interesting insight into this unique specialisation in the field of architecture.

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Who Is a Conservation Architect?

A conservation architect is someone who can look at historic architecture as a challenge to either keep going or adapt to something new. Usually, a lot of cultural value is associated with built and unbuilt spaces of the past. A conservation architect is someone who can help protect that for a very long time.

Could you give us a few examples of conservation architecture?

There are different types. If you look at a small house in a village, it is made of traditional materials that are locally available. These materials are usually suited to the climatic conditions of that place – so the mud floors, wooden pillars, sloping roofs, all of it is sustainable, and they do not need too much maintenance or money at one go. On the other hand, there are also the large-scale monuments – the masonry is of such quality that it will need so much more effort to demolish than it would take to adapt them to new kinds of uses. The entire point of conservation is that if you have good material then why create waste, it makes more sense to re-use it. Conservation is also closely associated with zero waste – that is reuse, recycle and reduce.

Do you think there is a high demand for people pursuing a career as Conservation Architects?

Over the last ten years, there has been a slight change in the scene for conservation architects in our country. This concept is quite popular in Europe, but for countries in South Asia, this is a recent phenomenon. We are still in the process of defining what our heritage is. Our society and our culture are such that it is constantly evolving. At the same time, the trend is that people are looking at adapting old structures to new uses and there is soon going to be a time when we will not have enough material left to construct something new. That will be the time when heritage will have a different role than what it has today. It is definitely a growing field though. When I had opted for this as a subject, there were very few of us, but by the time I graduated, the numbers had gone up significantly.The government has also opened up to the idea of hiring conservation architects. That has also definitely helped.

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Do you think there is a scope for conservation architects in Cities, especially metros like Mumbai?

In my initial years, the projects that I got to work on were mostly based outside of the city, like Hampi, Hyderabad and Mysore which are very strongly rooted in their historic past. In a city like Mumbai, most conservation is limited to the Fort area. But interestingly, Mumbai as a city also has several artefacts on the streets like milestones, or gas pipelines. So it’s almost like a museum on the streets. So I think whichever nook or corner you may go to in a city, there is always a story waiting to be told.

Could you tell us about the various projects that you have worked on for the conservation of monuments?

I worked on the historic villages of Hampi which fall within the heritage zone. The houses/communities there practise traditional patterns of living regarding construction material. I began the project by documenting built heritage houses to accommodate larger numbers of families. We then held a workshop with the contractors to discuss the use of new materials that could be adaptable to the place according to its climatic conditions.

Another project that I worked on was in Mysore where we identified 30 sites for the government and prepared a story as to how Mysore could be identified as a heritage city. While documenting the place, we realised how everything around the city fell within a few miles’ radius from the Mysore Palace which was at the heart of the city. These included buildings that had been constructed at different points of time! We also covered markets, streets and other monuments, which gave us a larger understanding of the conservation method.

Lastly, one of the most exciting projects for us has been the milestone project in Mumbai. Milestones were merely markers at one point, but these markers were created 100 years ago and are still accurately defining the extent of the city from the zero point, which was identified as the Saint Thomas Cathedral. What has been exciting about the conservation process is that these milestones do not belong to anyone yet at the same time, we have been able to create a sense of belonging among people who reside next to it.

Any tips for students who would be keen to pursue conservation architecture?

I feel that architecture should have conservation as a compulsory subject at the undergraduate level, so students learn about its intricacies. Interested students can, of course, go on to pursue their post-graduate degree in conservation architecture. Conservation itself is an attitude and mindset; it’s not only about conserving old structures but also about creating new structures which are compatible with an existing fabric.

If you like the sound of recycling and adding value to something old or new, then this just may be the stream for you. If you would like to know whether Conservation Architecture could be the best career path for you, we, at Mentoria, have the perfect solution for you!

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