Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

... 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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In our first few weeks in India, we have seen several examples of ancient Hindu or Mughal architecture surrounded by gardens that turn out to be partly or largely twentieth century British. I’ve already posted about the controversial gardens at Lodi, from where two villages were relocated in the 1930s to allow an English-style park to be installed.

Next up, the sixteenth century Humayun’s Tomb, one of the most beautiful and significant sites in Delhi, and an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Arranged symmetrically around the elevated marble tomb, its grounds retain the four-square layout of the traditional paradise garden. But the sandstone of the rills and many of the planting choices, although recently restored, apparently owe much to a British intervention in the first decade of the twentieth century, itself intended to correct an earlier British project that had replaced Mughal water features with Victorian circular flower beds.

The red and white marble of Humayun's garden tomb, with the sandstone rills and planting added later by the British

An aerial photograph of Humayun's Tomb, showing the grid layout of the gardens. Image on display at the site.

At the Agra Fort, a World Heritage Site 200km south of Delhi, we learnt that the lawns and planting around and within the stronghold (which was constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) were again put in place by the Brits, establishing grass and shrubs where formerly had been paved and carpeted gathering spaces.

British shrubs and grass at the Agra Fort

Twentieth century lawn inserted among seventeenth century buildings at the Agra Fort

The Taj Mahal was also influenced by its time under British management. While the exact layout and planting of its original gardens in the seventeenth century are not known, there are early descriptions of the monument surrounded by a profusion of roses, daffodils and fruit trees. As part of a major conservation programme, the gardens were replanted in 1903 in a more Western style, with lawns and clumps of trees.

Irregular clumps of trees and lawn adjacent to the Taj Mahal

English-style grass long established in the grounds of the Taj Mahal

All these horticultural and design changes were part of well-meaning efforts to restore or enhance crumbling historic sites. Some would now argue that much of this work was inappropriate, examples of misguided attempts at restoration by people who did not understand the culture of the country or the history of its landscapes. (It makes me wonder which conservation projects of today will in future years be seen as ill-judged or unwise, introducing incongruous elements or removing historically significant features.)

Yet gardens are always going to change over time. For me, one of their joys is the layers of history that they contain, with designs and planting from different periods jostling and intermingling around the largely static architecture. The British are just one of many influences on Indian landscapes, and there is a certain pleasure in seeing their (our) brief, particular impact.

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Spiral Jetty imageIs it an earthwork, a seascape, an icon of landscape design, a pilgrimage destination, perhaps even a joke at the art world’s expense? In a recent article for the Historic Gardens Review, I explored the meaning of Robert Smithson’s best-known work, Spiral Jetty, a strange, inaccessible mass of boulders, salt and mud, constructed in 1970 on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Issue 22Some saw it as a heroic gesture in the landscape, a modern version of Stonehenge or the pyramids. Remote, unseen except in photographs and film, its size and location meant that it was almost an appeal to the cosmos, a grand gesture best viewed from the heavens. Others interpreted it as essentially bleak, its location threatening and contaminated, its seemingly heroic nature Smithson’s cruel irony: despite its name, the Jetty served no maritime purpose and was artificial, functionless, a hollow legend generating vast amounts of empty metaphor. It was a monument to nothing but the futility of man’s intervention on the land.

The Collected WritingsIn my opinion, Smithson’s purpose was deliberately ambiguous and playful. Known for his sense of humour, he even wrote about laughter as the fourth dimension, and described ways of creating laughter in art, equating different kinds of laughs (guffaws, giggles, etc) to different shapes and structures, unfortunately none of them spirals. The shape of the Jetty could be seen as an elaborate question mark, gently teasing the viewer to try to work out what it meant. The location was neither glorious nor threatening, but a sly joke at the expense of Manhattan gallery owners, who considered themselves the centre of the art world. Now the wilds of Utah were the location of the real artwork and New York became a provincial outpost with access only via photographs and films. Certainly Smithson’s film “Spiral Jetty” was playful: part of its purpose was to allow people to see the sculpture without having to travel to a remote area of Utah, but nevertheless several minutes of the film were taken up with images of a car travelling along the dirt road to the shoreline. The film also made the point that once the viewer finally reached the artwork and walked to the centre of the Jetty, there was nothing there; there was no choice but simply to turn around and go back.

Image courtesy of Ray Boren

Whatever meanings Smithson intended for the Spiral Jetty, its subsequent history has given it an extraordinary iconic status. Within three years of its completion, its creator, still a young man, was dead. Even before then, the water level of the lake had risen to engulf the sculpture completely. It barely emerged for thirty years. Only visible in old films and photographs, but still present under the surface of the lake, the Spiral Jetty became a mythical, almost legendary, work of art.

Sunset 2003

Image courtesy of Ray Boren

By the turn of the twenty-first century, a prolonged drought meant that the water in the lake dropped to its 1970 levels. For the last few years, the Spiral Jetty has again become visible above the water, at least during the drier summer months. Its formerly black rocks emerged from the lake dazzlingly white and salt-encrusted. The media frenzy that has greeted its re-emergence is everywhere on the web, and the Jetty continues to provoke fascinating questions about the nature of aesthetic appeal, the role of landscape art, and the complexities of conservation in a world where change is inevitable and unavoidable.

For more of Ray Boren’s wonderful photographs of the Jetty since its reemergence, see the Utah Hands website.

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