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UK experts bat for Mumbai's Esplanade

Updated on: 26 June,2019 08:06 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Arita Sarkar |

Industrial heritage conservation body writes to heritage panel, urging them to intervene and prevent the demolition of Esplanade Mansion

UK experts bat for Mumbai's Esplanade

The Esplanade Mansion was constructed entirely from pre-fabricated cast-iron in 1865

The fight to save the 150-year-old Esplanade Mansion has gone global with the support from UK-based The International Committee on the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). Two weeks after the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) said the iconic structure needs to be preserved, the president of TICCIH wrote to MHCC urging them to prevent the demolition of the Esplanade Mansion.

Ticcih supports UNESCO's advisors, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and its work for the World Heritage Committee, especially with regard to World Heritage nominations and evaluations of sites with industrial components. ICOMOS had written to MHADA, the BMC, the Urban Development Department and the Chief Minister on June 10 offering to give technical guidance for the conservation of the building.

After their last meeting on June 12, members of MHCC unanimously agreed that the Esplanade Mansion should be preserved and simply recommended that a thorough analysis of the possibility of preserving the original structure should be taken up. The committee also suggested that the review should be made by a committee of conservation experts.

In the letter by TICCIH president, Dr Miles Oglethorpe, he has pointed out that Watson's Hotel is an extremely important building in both national and international context.

Highlighting the significance of the structure as part of India's industrial heritage, the letter stated, "Built almost entirely from pre-fabricated cast-iron in 1865 to the design of Rowland Mason Ordish, creator of Crystal Palace (1851) and St Pancras Station (1868) in London, we consider Watson's Hotel to be hugely important, innovative building which openly expresses its industrial origins to great effect."

Oglethorpe's letter mentioned that the construction of the Esplanade Mansion marked the beginning of an era when the Industrial Revolution allowed advances in civic infrastructure which transformed Bombay into a modern metropolitan city.

He referred to the Esplanade Mansion as the birthplace of modern cinema in India and stated that it cannot be overlooked in Mumbai, which houses the world's largest cinema industry. The building was included on the World Monument Fund's list of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2004 and was previously recognised as the "oldest habitable cast-iron building in the world." Despite being listed as Grade II (special architectural importance)by the Mumbai Heritage Board, Oglethorpe pointed out that the building has been allowed to decay over the past decades.

'Industrial heritage' often ignored

Moulshri Joshi, architect and National Correspondent for TICCIH India and member of ICOMOS said that the lack of support to save the Esplanade Mansion is common with industrial heritage structures since they don't "look pretty." The Esplanade Mansion, she said, "is important in the history of structural design and how buildings have transformed."

The building, however, hasn't even been put in the context of industrial heritage. "These structures don't register as a typical heritage. The Union Carbide Factory in Bhopal, for instance, is such an important part of history. But people don't see it that way," she said.

Joshi said that efforts can be taken to warn MHADA. However, she added that if this structure is demolished, the state government would be withdrawing from the commitment they made to UNESCO.

"If a government brings down a building in a core zone (of the ensemble) then they can oversee commitment to other buildings as well. Not only has the government failed to maintain the property, but they are also now proposing to bring it down," she said.

Oglethorpe urged MHCC to explore alternative options for the building. He added that properties made of cast-iron are frequently misunderstood, and contrary to popular belief, can often be repaired and rehabilitated. The letter stated that there is a "real danger that the wider World Heritage listing will be harmed" if the offers of technical support offered by ICOMOS have not been taken up.

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