“They are traditions, dear”, my mother said, as I rolled my eyes at her the umpteenth time that day. We were at a temple in my town, carrying out a ceremony that would bring peace into our family, allegedly.

Honorable Mention | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Do We Need To Redefine Our Heritage?
Participant: Twinkle Tolani
Profession: Student
University: NDMVP’S Samaj College of Architecture, Nashik

That day as I followed her around the shivling, my mind couldn’t help but wonder why do we follow traditions and carry out each and every ritual directed by the pandits so meticulously? What makes us so rigid at our religious practices? Is it our inherent fear of God, or the greed of the material gain we hope to receive for being such obedient devotees of Him?

It was just then that my phone beeped, and by habit I peeked at the screen, earning glares from the elders of my family. I immediately turned off the screen and sighed sadly at the message I had glanced at, in my notifications bar.

My college mate had sent me a link, to sign a petition to help save the Kala Academy in Goa that is threatened to demolition by the State government. The Kala Academy is a cultural center designed by renowned architect Charles Correa in the late 1970s. Although probably not significantly traditional, it does represent the culture of the people. The Academy is a structure that hosts diverse events, attracting diverse visitors, educators, and learners -effortlessly blending with the people’s lifestyle so much so that its impact has remained unsung.

As others around me seemed to be deeply invested in the ceremony, I began recalling all the recent demolitions of the other such impressive structures.

Although these structures might be not centuries old, and might not have elaborate or drama-rich pasts associated with them, they were still architectural marvels. Not only were they magnificent buildings and left a lasting impression on the visitor’s minds, but they also helped architecture students and practitioners seek inspiration. They were live examples that buildings could not just be, but also breathe. This physical proof of the success of thoughtful designs, inspire people in the field of architecture to go beyond just function, urging them to design an experience instead.

I, for one, vividly remember closely studying the Prentice Women’s Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg, for its unusual form, for a design assignment. While the radical approach to the design enthralled me, its demolition left my spirits in frenzy.

Often architects are inspired by the notion that even after their demise, their buildings will continue to live on, but sadly, today even that cannot be guaranteed.

While these thoughts rapidly raced through my mind, I looked at the ceremonial fire burning in front of me and mused at my stone dominated surroundings. If it weren’t for the thermal properties of the stone, all of us would probably be uncomfortable with heat the ceremonial fire would have generated.

Similarly, if the structural system at the Hall of Nations, Pragati Maidan- was not employed as a sun breaker to obstruct directs sun rays while also facilitating air circulation, the building would not have been as efficient.

These structures-the temple and Hall of Nations- are adaptive to both function and climate, both are living proof of people’s activities, so what makes one structure important than the other to us?

Is it the age or religious relation of the buildings that mattered so much? Or was it the rich historical past it was witness to?

Or was it the fact that these structures are a witness to a time in the past; we can only paint in our imagination?

What were the factor that made temples and other structures- ‘heritage structures’, but not contemporary and modern buildings?

Heritage by definition means, “the history, traditions, buildings, and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character”.

Furthermore, UNESCO defines a world heritage site as, “A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area, selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for having cultural, historical, scientific or another form of significance, which is legally protected by international treaties. The sites are judged to be important for the collective and preservative interests of humanity.”

Humans are social beings that crave identity and connection in their lives. Cultural heritage instills in them a sense of belonging and makes them feel connected to their region. Arguably, people with similar physical features and attributes also might help bring a sense of belonging, but the presence of physical tangible age-old ‘heritage’ makes them feel like a part of something deeper and worthwhile.

The physical presence of such heritage also brings about feelings of pride and patriotism in an individual’s life, inspiring them to live their lives for a higher purpose. It also reminds the countrymen, of the sacrifices and efforts of their ancestors, making them humble and thankful.

There also exist industries, such as- tourism, archeology, and hospitality – that are deeply connected to cultural backgrounds helping people earn their livelihood.

Ironically, in the criteria for being listed a world heritage site, UNESCO states the following-

  • “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and cultural significance”
  • “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”
  • “is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”
  • “is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance”

The above criterion does not once mention age or a religion factor to buildings to classify as heritage structures.

Then why is it that we fail to recognize the potential of our own contemporary and modern structures?

A structure will only be able to tell our story to posterity if we let it live long enough, not only in books and in records, but also physically. How do we expect our future generations to connect to their lineage, with the pieces of our generation missing?

If we are willing to follow age-old traditions and rituals religiously, why aren’t we being celebrated patrons our structures, just like our ancestors were?

To answer the big question regarding the need to redefine ‘heritage’- the term and criteria for being defined as heritage are as apt and ardent, as it can get.

However, we do need to brush up our concepts of heritage structures, and how they came to be known as ‘heritage’, in the first place.

Although, another question that may arise – why should we let these structures and moral responsibility become hurdles in our foreseeable prosperity. The answer lays in the fact that – higher the number of heritage structures in a region, higher the tourism revenue of the state. Along with saving up on demolition and re-construction costs, these structures could be an actual investment!

In recent times of mindless demolitions, we need to pause, introspect, and realize our follies, and more importantly, educate people and make them aware of the loss we incur on losing our cultural heritage.

Since, we do not follow monarchy and cannot do things as per our whims and fancies; the decision to stop these demolitions has to appeal to the masses alike!

Our structures might not always have a dramatic story to tell, but they still have stories to tell. Stories of how we spent our lives, of how we defined our spaces, of how these spaces touched us, of how we expressed art. These humble structures might not be as grand or significant to us now, but years from now the future generations will marvel at how we lead our lives.

This potential can only be realized by educating the general public about these structures, by knowing and understanding the efforts behind the design and details of the spaces, they might be able to recognize and connect to these structures. Another great way to attract and connect crowds is to share positive experiences or vivid memories of people who have already visited these sites.

Here, I am not advocating that every structure made by us should be preserved under heritage preservation, what I am asking is to realize the potential of our character defining structures and give them a chance to be able to pass on our legacy.

Although all these theories and statements might sound pleasant to the ear, these demolitions take place due to certain reasons.

The root cause comes down to the lack of space, hindrance to growth and development, and losing on the potential value of the occupied site. On the bright side, these problems more or less might be tackled.

The Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright, due to revised fire codes, had become redundant but is now being used for public purposes.

As the old saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

Redefining our heritage can be seen as trying to bring about realization about the potential in our structures. With a little thought to our actions, more awareness among the general public, and a lot more scrutiny over the demolition of structures, potential heritage sites can be saved.

So, if you are reading this essay and are enthusiastic about art and architecture, make sure next time you visit a significant structure you drown out your fellow visitors with stories, facts and cultural impact relating to the structure, they might curse you today, but the future generations will thank you tomorrow!


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