a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

Ruined love…

... or why we should(n’t) put the nose back on the Sphinx.

The merits –  or otherwise – of historical conservation was the subject of a splendid debate last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Delhi.

In one corner was Sam Miller, BBC man and author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, who argued in favour of a gentle sort of conservation that quietly shored up picturesque ruins, preserved only what was genuinely historical without replacing lost elements or incorporating new additions, and that paid full regard to the importance of personal memory and nostalgia. In a sentence, his position was perhaps that old places should feel old.

In the other corner was Ratish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who contended that the original intent of the creator was the most important factor in preservation, and that on occasion it was appropriate to use traditional skills and materials to restore a site to its original state. In other words, old places could be best served by becoming new again.

The recently restored Humayun’s Tomb.

The main example both men discussed was the area around Humayun’s Tomb, a sixteenth century world heritage site in Delhi, where Ratish Nanda has been leading a major programme of conservation. His work has been criticised for ‘too much use of the paint pot,’ with formerly crumbling Mughal buildings becoming suddenly dazzling white and red. He showed us a number photos to illustrate the work he has been doing (drawing some gasps of horror from the journalists in the audience):

One of the buildings in the Tomb complex before restoration (left) and after.
Image from the project website.

It was easy to sympathise with those who chorused the restored buildings looked too bright, too new, too like images (as Sam Miller said) on a chocolate box lid.

An archway before restoration…

…and afterwards. Both images from the project website.

But Ratish Nanda explained that years of substandard restoration work to the buildings – often using cement – had led to waterlogging, structural cracks, and corrosion. After extensive research, his team had removed the ill-advised materials, and uncovered and repaired many original features. Nowhere had been painted – the bright whites and reds were coloured plaster which exactly replicated how the Mughals themselves had first decorated the buildings. After two or three monsoons, the colours would soften and start to look more mellow and appropriate. But Ratish had resisted calls for the plaster to be made ‘biscuit’ coloured from day one, as white and red was the authentic scheme.

Sam Miller maintained his position that such extensive restoration was a kind of fakery. At the very least he argued that any new materials or repairs should be clearly marked, so that people knew what was original and what was contemporary work. Ratish Nanda agreed that, in some cases, simply preserving what was left would be the best option. But so much of Humayun’s Tomb had survived the centuries, and it was so significant a site and so well-documented, that full restoration in this case, he argued, was the most appropriate action.

After all this discussion and dispute on Humayun’s Tomb, the two men did agree on one thing: neither of them would put the nose back on the Sphinx.

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12 comments on “Ruined love…

  1. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    March 17, 2012

    Good to hear that we will leave some things alone…I do see where we need to restore buildings to keep them from being in total disrepair, but too much isn’t good either…hard sometimes to decide when to repair and how much.

  2. Elephant's Eye
    March 18, 2012

    It will be interesting to see this after the monsoon has done its work to mellow the colours.

  3. Chris U
    March 18, 2012

    I know so far as maintaining historic plantings go, there is an in between position that suggests using original material, or taxa, when they are available but taking a bit of freedom to make minor changes so long as the “spirit” of the original is maintained. To apply this approach to hardscape/architecture forces a clearer examination of the concept and leaves me unsure.

    I’ve been rereading this post and thinking about it for two days now and still I’m not sure how I feel. I expect that means it must be a good one! Thanks.

    • landscapelover
      March 19, 2012

      Thanks for the comments. It is a fascinating issue I think – how far to conserve and repair, or whether it is better to leave places just to erode gently into oblivion. Poor repairs can sometimes be far more damaging than simple abandonment. It is an issue I find myself returning to again and again on this blog, although usually of course in the context of landscapes rather than buildings.
      For what it’s worth, I sided with Ratish Nanda on this example: Humayun’s Tomb is so important historically, and previous poor repairs were causing major problems. The project team undertook extraordinary work, like chiselling away 40cm [16"] of concrete that had been poured in layers onto the roof during the 20th century, presumably in an attempt to prevent water leaks. Removing it re-exposed original stonework, reduced the load on the structure (that much concrete weighs about 1 million kilos), and allowed better rainwater management. It is hard to argue that it should simply have been left there.
      But Sam Miller’s half-joking question about whether Ratish would put the nose back on the Sphinx is a great reminder of the complexities and challenges of historical preservation.

  4. wanderfool
    March 19, 2012

    Very interesting question, and one that I’ve often pondered and not known which side to take… I love ruins, there is something infinitely romantic about them…but am I not being selfish here? The ruins will disappear in time if not restored fully, and what heritage will then remain for future generations to see?

  5. wanderfool
    March 19, 2012

    Reblogged this on A Date With Delhi and commented:
    Do you love ruins? Do you feel strongly about having them restored to their original grandeur? Landscape Lover explores some of these questions about Humayun’s Tomb in her blog post, which I repost here…Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    • landscapelover
      March 21, 2012

      Thanks for the comment and for reblogging the post. There is something rather British I think about that love of picturesque ruins but, as you say, allowing places gently to crumble away may seem romantic to us yet it means ultimately a complete loss of the physical heritage.

  6. twobitwo
    March 20, 2012

    I have always been one to support restoration of old monuments & saving them for as many next generations as possible but the red & white ‘after’ photo of the Sundar Burj came as a shock and yet the restoration team seems to have done a good job in correcting some of the mistakes from past projects … I must say this leaves me uncertain as to where the line should be drawn.
    Thanks for the post :)

    • landscapelover
      March 21, 2012

      Thanks for calling by. Ratish Nanda was deliberately provocative I think in the ‘before and after’ photos he chose: some were more striking than the one I’ve shown here. He really wanted to do things properly (at least as he saw it), and to force people to think about the issues, rather than fudge things with false biscuitty colours simply as a sop to people’s sensibilities…

  7. Stacy
    April 3, 2012

    Jill, both this post and your next one remind me of the debates about “historically informed performance” in music–using period instruments and practices to try to re-create Mozart’s music, for example, in the way that (we think) his audience would have heard it, without the…gushiness…of later 19th- and 20th-century Romanticism layered on top. There’s much to be said on both sides of that argument, too…

    I think it’s a pity if all old things always look old–they make you think that people in times gone by lived drab, dreary, shabby lives, the way that when I was little I used to think my Mom grew up without colors, because all of her childhood photos were black and white. I would love to see some of the paintwork restored in Medieval cathedrals and smaller churches, for example, because it would give a completely different impression of how people might have perceived celebration and awe and ritual at the time.

    I suppose the goals are contradictory in a way: in any reconstruction/preservation site, do you want to foster some sort of empathetic awareness of what the former inhabitants’ lives might have been like? Or do you want to show the weight of history and all the years of experience that a site has been through? It’s hard to use a microscope and a telescope at the same time…

  8. Stacy
    April 17, 2012

    Jill, you might find Noel Kingsbury’s post at Gardening Gone Wild of interest: http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=20243#more-20243

  9. landscapelover
    May 6, 2012

    Stacey, many thanks for both your posts. The Kingsbury piece is interesting, and your thoughts on the various objectives of preservation – and the music analogy – are quite splendid. I am sure Ratish Nanda would appreciate the notion that we need to represent the past as it was really lived, not in some pleasingly romantic, nostalgia-filled fantasy.

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