Urban Planner Aishwarya Tipnis Is Restoring India’s Heritage Architectural Structures | Verve Magazine
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June 17, 2019

Urban Planner Aishwarya Tipnis Is Restoring India’s Heritage Architectural Structures

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Driven by a deep-rooted fondness for historical structures, Aishwarya Tipnis has built a career in urban conservation and planning, consistently adding to her impressive portfolio of projects that span the country. In an interaction with Verve, the ‘cultural diplomat’ talks about reconciling an appreciation of the past with her vision of the future

The Delhi-based founder of the eponymous Aishwarya Tipnis Architects (ATA) has devoted a large chunk of her time to restoring architectural structures that are in need of a facelift. It is no wonder then, that she meets Verve’s team for the photo-shoot in Chhota Bazaar, Kashmere Gate — at what is locally known as Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli, the privately-owned home that she worked on for over eight years in a first-of-its-kind restoration project. Aishwarya Tipnis converted this over 150-year-old structure in Old Delhi into a 21st-century residence for the family (while they were still living in it), and the successful execution inspired other homeowners to refurbish their ancestral properties. The walled city of Delhi had been prosperous before it was beset with problems of overcrowding, poor infrastructure and commercialisation during the Partition, and many of its original inhabitants moved out to find a better quality of life. The restoration of this haveli proved to the current residents that, with careful planning and design, it is quite possible to have a very comfortable modern home in a heritage property.

The 39-year-old conservation architect’s efforts have been acknowledged with many awards and accolades over the years. In 2016, she received an Award of Merit at UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation for her work on Mahidpur Fort in Madhya Pradesh. As she tells us, “The fort was vulnerable due to structural distress as well as the construction activity for the largest Jain temple in the region. The project involved the structural stabilisation and restoration of its walls and bastions. But its success really lies in the fact that members of the local community, who were initially not fully aware of the significance of the fort and thereby did not value its heritage, have now become its active custodians.”

Tipnis received another commendation at the UNESCO Awards that year — an Honourable Mention for her conservation strategy for The Doon School in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. More recently, last year, she was conferred the top French cultural award — Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) — for taking the lead in bringing attention to and preserving the shared built heritage of France and Chandernagore, West Bengal.

Fighting stereotypes — for conservation architects tend to be looked upon more as activists — and battling the gender bias that still exists in her field, Tipnis has forged ahead, building sturdy bridges between tradition and modernity.

Excerpts from the Q and A….

What sparked your interest in design and architecture?
From a very young age, I have been interested in design. I think it’s great that we grew up at a time when there were no gadgets to distract us; we often had to keep ourselves busy. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, we went to the Qutb Minar and Lodhi Garden for Sunday picnics, shopped in the arcades of Connaught Place and lived in well-designed communities with lots of green open spaces. Everything was within walkable distances. Space — both built and open — was something we took for granted. Art was also an intrinsic part of my life; I had been drawing, painting, playing with Lego and crafting all sorts of things to keep myself occupied. When I grew older, I realised that I was interested in a variety of subjects like history, geography, economics, mathematics, chemistry and languages, and design as well; architecture seemed like the most obvious choice because I got to study everything I liked through one profession.

Could you tell us a little about your background and training?
My parents were both professionals; my mother was a paediatrician and my father was an engineer, so we grew up in a liberal and encouraging environment. I studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and received a master’s degree in European Urban Conservation from the University of Dundee, Scotland, and both experiences have enabled me to develop solutions that are global in approach and local in practice.

I have trained as a conservation architect, but call myself a ‘cultural diplomat negotiating change between the past and the future’. I head an architectural practice that focuses on the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic properties. The work is based on the ethos of fearless experimentation, wherein we develop bespoke methodologies because each of the projects we choose is unique — there are no precedents or templates. For example, restoring the haveli in Kashmere Gate was challenging, there was not much space to work in. So all the construction activity took place within one courtyard, and we had to improvise and do jugaad in order to make that happen. When we were putting together an oral history archive for Chandernagore, we devised a technology for people to post their stories but soon realised that it wasn’t working out in the way we had imagined. We then came up with the idea of citizen historians who went from home to home to collect stories and uploaded them as blogs.

What made you focus on urban conservation?
Most architects want to leave their stamps on the built environment. I chose to study architecture because I was fascinated by historic cities and their character — my motivation came from growing up in the capital. I feel most at home in old neighbourhoods in any city in the world, and working with existing heritage structures was the natural choice for me, rather than starting with a blank slate.

How did you manage to confront the stereotypical notion that a conservation architect is first considered an activist and then an architect?
Sometimes, the only way to battle a stereotype is to prove it wrong in practice. It took me almost eight to ten years of work to demonstrate that to be a conservation architect, one first has to be a very good architect.

One thing I would like to highlight is that both the Heritage Committee and the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) require that restoration projects are entrusted to specialised conservation architects, who are slightly different from regular architects. Just like you would go to a cardiologist, not a general practitioner, for your heart problems, you should ideally go to a conservation architect for the health of your heritage building.

Do you believe that sustainability has always been a factor in our built environment?
I feel that architecture is inherently sustainable. Vernacular architecture is proof of our creative genius, and local materials, technology, climate and culture have led to built forms that are responsive and adaptable to changing needs. It is only in the last century that we have moved away from that and constructed artificial environments. I would say that we need to be conscious practitioners who are mindful of ecology and environment, as well as the economy, when we create new buildings and habitats. And the state of the current environment is proof enough. Lessons from the past should be reinterpreted to make our contemporary environments better.

What is the common Indian view on conservation and sustainability?
Our first response to anything being damaged is to get it repaired; we will always look for solutions that save money and essentially ‘make sense’. We have to find our own philosophy of conservation and sustainability instead of looking outside for the solutions, which I believe already exist here. I feel that what come in the way of large-scale implementation are mind blocks; the perceptions that tradition is regressive and modernity is progressive. But over the last decade, there has been a positive change towards better understanding the value of the traditional.

Bringing the past into the present — how do you carry this out successfully? What has proven to be an impediment?
Well, the impediment is usually the nostalgia, the feeling of wanting to hold on to the past, not wanting to change anything. I face that ever so often. The success comes from balancing the needs of the present with the values of the past, and that is also the trickiest part because design is always subjective. There is never a set template. I think every space has a story to tell — the hidden clues are behind the grime and dirt and peeling plasters. I always look for what the space is trying to tell me. The detective in me takes over; it is the most exciting part of my job!

How can we ensure that heritage conservation is taken seriously and implemented?
I feel that heritage conservation has to come from within, and for urban heritage to survive, its conservation must remain relevant to the users. As citizens, we have a very significant role to play — if we value something and come together to protect it, change can be brought about. And there is definitely a significant shift in the way we have been looking at heritage from a policy perspective in the last two decades; we are diverging from the concept of single ‘monuments’ and now thinking of entire ‘historic cities’. However, I personally do not advocate fossilising a place in time. We should work towards recognising what is special and find creative ways of taking that into the future.

Tell us about your involvement in Bonjour India — a cultural festival celebrating the ties between France and India?
I have been associated with Bonjour India since its very first edition in 2011. That year, the Embassy of France in India supported the first inventory of buildings of French heritage value in India. This led to the France Heritage photo exhibition at the 2013 edition of Bonjour India.

Last year, I took this association further with the ‘Know Your Indo-French Heritage’ initiative, as part of the third edition of Bonjour India. It had two components: one was a nation-wide competition between school children in which almost 80 schools from all over India took part. The first round entailed creating a hand-made newspaper about French heritage in India, and the second was to conceptualise a board game around the same theme. Additionally, we curated a seven-day co-creation workshop between French and Indian multidisciplinary students in Chandernagore, who worked closely with the local population to come up with design solutions for the town.

Through a series of academic exercises and pop-up art installations, we were able to articulate the aspirations of the community to the decision-makers. The outcome is the beginning of cooperation between the Government of West Bengal and the Government of France, aimed at restoring and re-appropriating the heritage precinct as a cultural space for its citizens and tourists.

Is there a fundamental process that you follow while executing projects?
A conservation project is largely similar to that of a regular architectural project, though, for the former, a bit more research is required before we move to the design stage. This may include investigations or archival research to put the project in its right context. I believe that the planning stage is critical to success, and the more time we spend on it, the better the end product becomes. Most of my projects started concurrently and were very different from each other, with each one being a unique learning experience. So, while I was restoring a haveli in Old Delhi, I was also mapping out shared cultural heritage in Chandernagore. In both cases, we required innovative solutions to go around critical roadblocks.

Due to the fieldwork involved, often in far-flung locations, what are the challenges that you have faced?
Is it ever easy being a woman in any field in India? We often have to live with the obstacles in our way, and I suppose we should focus on overcoming them creatively. We don’t have gender parity as we belong to a largely patriarchal society. It remains a dream to be treated without any gender bias and as a professional, and beyond caste, creed, race and religion, given our current context. Therefore, I believe in adopting a practical and pragmatic approach. For example, if I have to go to a remote village, I ensure that I am not alone and that there are some men with me in my team, and I also see to it that we behave in a culturally appropriate manner.

The biggest challenge has been conventional mindsets. It is not uncommon to walk into an interview for a prospective job or project and be asked what your husband or father does for a living. How many times do you ask a man what his wife or mother does? There’s the cultural conditioning that says women need to behave in a certain way — the minute you try to be professional and firm, people call you arrogant.

What aspect of your temperament does your work represent?
If you want me to sum it up in one word, it’s ‘resilience’. I never give up. I think my work is a strong reflection of who I am, and my conscientiousness is my core spirit.

What are the key projects that are occupying your time right now?
I am just wrapping up the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan for the first Industrial World Heritage Site in Asia, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway with UNESCO and the Indian Railways. We documented each and every heritage structure belonging to the North-East Frontier Railway and have designed manuals for the heritage conservation of these assets. I have been working with industrial heritage sites for a long time. I’ve also worked on the Rewari Steam Centre and Bandra Station for the Indian Railways.

Come summer, we will be ready for yet another round of work at The Doon School, where we have been working collaboratively to restore and upgrade the heritage buildings to match the needs of the 21st century. The next few months, therefore, are our peak planning time!

How has the field changed since you began your career?
Architecture isn’t just about fancy new buildings anymore; it is about solving social and cultural problems. The significant change is that architecture and design are now being recognised as cross-disciplinary, and there are opportunities to work with professionals who have backgrounds in history, geography, digital media, theatre and art to create something unusual.

I am encouraged by how the field of heritage conservation has grown. Once typecast as simply the preservation of old, dead monuments, it is now an integral part of sustainable development. There are many studies on how heritage environments can make people feel, and the restoration and regeneration of old quarters have proved to have a positive effect on the way people perceive and use spaces. A nice restored building has a psychological impact on the surroundings, and the way people perceive a neighborhood. A grubby building can become a landmark once restored, and that helps restore the pride of the owners, occupants and also the passers-by. There is a huge change in our thinking, from perceiving heritage as ‘pretty and nostalgic’ to understanding that it has the power to change lives!

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