Built heritage is more than just a physical occupation of valuable real estate. It is our inheritance, an indelible footprint in the sands of time, an imprint of the past in the present, a residue of erstwhile power, a conflicting message of conquest and prosperity, a signifier of societal evolution, an indicator of the lives and times that were, a marker that orients and directs, and a source of pride or dismay for many.
Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021
Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Nivea Jain & Roshini Ganesh
As civilizations developed, their architecture told their stories. While the ruins of Mesopotamia and Mohen-jo Daro revealed the nature of the lifestyles of their citizens, the grandeur of Notre Dame and Taj Mahal, speak of the economic and political prowess of the respective authorities.
These monuments have weathered changing dynasties and wars. Some lost the battle, while others still stand tall, placing memories of the past in our very present contexts. Each object of heritage has attached to it, an immaterial meaning which further defines the stories associated with the era.
As is often said, history is written by the victors. And in writing the history, often only selective narratives are passed forward— those which focus on the triumphs and achievements of the conquerors. Heritage structures become a tool of positive image making for those that sanction such projects. However, to say that such monuments only boast of their honour may be inaccurate.
Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996) describe the theory of dissonant heritage as the inherently contested nature of heritage— “heritage always belongs to someone, and logically, therefore not to someone else”. Simply put, if heritage celebrates the victor, it may have the opposite effect on the descendants of the communities that lost. This theory is best exemplified by the recent removal of the many monuments and memorials dedicated to the Confederate States of America which glorified white supremacy and were a constant reminder of Jim Crow laws and segregation policies against the African American population during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many proponents of the Confederacy were against such razing of monuments because to them, these sites depicted the stories of the valiance and courage of the soldiers who fought to uphold the institution of slavery.
Then there are places of heritage that epitomize the adage, “We must remember the past or else be condemned to repeat it”. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, in the then Nazi-occupied Poland, still stands as a reminder of the one of the darkest periods of human history. On first glance, we may not consider concentration camps as a site of heritage value due to their gruesome nature and painful pasts. However, the two camps of Auschwitz-I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau are formally inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List “as evidence of this inhumane, cruel and methodical effort to deny human dignity to groups considered inferior, leading to their systematic murder”. The sites are preserved as close to the original camps since their liberation in 1945.
Some structures can be shocking celebrations of a painful past while others stand as respectful memorials to the victims of horrific criminal activities. Sometimes, works of built heritage (most commonly works of religious built heritage) can widen social differences as is evidenced in the case of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and then the construction of a Ram Mandir to replace the mosque, or in the case of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque.
Structures of heritage are a medium of recounting complex and often untidy stories of the past to the future generations. However, heritage is not just about the past. It is also about who we are. Our objects from the past still carry meaning, still define space within place, and possess the ability to contribute to the present and future community. It is a definite commentary on the journey that a particular village or city has been on but it is also a platform of possibilities and great potential which could be used to serve people and improve lives. These potentials and possibilities can be defined by understanding how built heritage should be preserved for us and our future generations.
The Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) states that conservation practices must “retain meaning for the society in which it exists. This meaning may change over time, but taking it into consideration ensures that conservation will, at all times, have a contemporary logic underpinning its practice.” That is, conservation must be a collective effort of local communities and concerned bureaucratic authorities to assess the overall value of the structure for the present and the future.
Conversely then, how do we determine which parts of our history are not worth preserving? Iconoclasm has historically been a powerful tool of revolution. As regimes change, many structures of heritage value are destroyed to celebrate victories, to erase parts of the erstwhile cultures, or simply to discourage the masses from partaking in any form of memorialising such parts of their heritage. The statue of Napoleon Bonaparte was destroyed and re-erected multiple times as a result of changing governance. The Soviet Union under Marxist-Leninist policies destroyed many Russian Orthodox and Jewish Churches in an attempt to dissuade religious practices. Iconoclasm can be premeditated by authoritative figures or can be spontaneous decisions made by enraged and protesting masses.
Such spontaneous removal of the relics of an unpleasant past by the victimised population, although well-intentioned, can quickly become dangerous. Apart from the physical dangers of destroying heritage property, one can argue that it can become a way of forgetting the past- and thus as stated earlier, increasing the risk of repeating history. Certainly demolishing heritage property cannot be simply left to public discernment. But there is a need to have an open conversation about preservation or removal of such monuments. These conversations must put the victims at the forefront instead of the perpetrators. We can take cue from the German treatment of most works of Nazi architecture that exist even today.
Instead of commemorating the Nazi past of Germany, these structures, which are still prevalent in their urban spaces, are dedicated to the victims of the Nazi crimes. In Berlin, the building that housed the Gestapo and the SS headquarters has now been reimagined into an indoor-outdoor museum with the intent of educating the masses of the horrors perpetrated on the site. Places which were used by the Nazis to gather and ideate ways to push forward their agenda, are now used as positive and productive spaces that contribute to the welfare of the German society. The Nuremberg rally ground, which was an arena for massive Nazi rallies, over the years has been utilised as parklands, housing and a football stadium. The Führerbau in Munich, which Hitler utilised as for entertaining now sits as an unremarkable building that houses the University of Music and Theatre.
Heritage is often presented as an element to be observed from a distance. However our built heritage is not just for display. The space it occupies is as important as the facade that is showcased to the city. While it creates great experiential value and constitutes an important part of a city’s visual identity, its significance need not be relegated simply to its aesthetic appeal. It is important that our preservation efforts go beyond the impressive visual imagery of our monuments, and be used in ways that are sensitive and sensible to the communities who are directly and indirectly affected by its presence.
It is also important for us to consider the built heritage that we are leaving behind for the future generations. Like our ancestors, do we want to leave a legacy exhibiting the extravagant egos of those that govern us as is seen in the case of the Central Vista in Delhi, being constructed at a time of epic humanitarian crisis in our country? Or should we do away with the unnecessary iconography of monuments and construct functional and fruitful spaces that can be enjoyed by our successors for years to come?
In the face of global challenges such as climate emergency, extreme poverty, and healthcare crises, we require better monuments— ones that celebrate the grit and integrity of those that go beyond their call of duty to be of service to humanity. Architecture that only serves the capitalistic pleasure of our society by neglecting the human scale and experience, does not exemplify the grace and humility of the people who work tirelessly to ensure that basic dignity of life is available to all. Our monuments must be celebrations of the people around us who make our lives better, that we see everyday— our educators, our healthcare workers, the people who push for positive climate change actions from our governments, the people who come out to the streets to demand better conditions for the present and the future. Our built heritage can truly become palaces for the people by fostering spaces that are diverse and inclusive of regular people, who by living their truth make this world a better and more interesting place.