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Heritage preservation

The media spotlight on the demolition of historic houses, most recently the colonial-era Barabari in Old Dhaka’s Farashganj, has left many people aghast at such senseless erasure of what surely are poignant visual histories of our nation. Yet, one wonders whether such blatant acts of cultural violence have at all troubled the nation’s collective conscience. No outrage from newspaper editors or members of the caretaker government or prominent personalities of the civil society was heard, as if this was merely a minor headache of the preservation specialist! Is this symptomatic of a broader lack of heritage awareness? Historic buildings are a nation’s invaluable cultural property; therefore, a country’s heritage preservation policies narrate a crucial story of that country’s aggregate intellectual evolution. As absurd as it may sound, imagine the cultural maelstrom if an Italian real-estate developer tried to tear down the Pantheon to build a swanky hotel in central Rome, or a Greek tycoon wanted to buy out the Acropolis to create a resort overlooking the city of Athens!

The absence of a comprehensive national preservation plan to safeguard cultural patrimony has long been identified, rightly, as the main cause for the fast disappearance of our heritage sites. But part of the problem also has emerged from the ways preservation specialists frame the issue in the media. Their suggestions have mostly oscillated between a simpleminded lament for lost glory and the elitist foibles of a fairy-tale preservation strategy, as if nobody lives in historic buildings and the buildings exist outside of any kind of economic and political conditions. The problem of preservation has often been described on the narrow basis of pure aesthetics and its value to a special group: for instance, beautiful Corinthian columns, Rococo floral motifs, or intricate wrought-iron balustrades can only be of huge educational value to architects and cultural connoisseurs! Neither did the ruling regimes see any real political leverage in heritage preservation (which requires longtime commitments) nor did the owners of historic buildings understand the economic possibilities in saving their buildings from the crushing modernity of high-rise apartment blocks! In other words, the idea that a building of historic significance must be preserved to tell a glorious visual story about the city’s past simply did not resonate with a lot of people, as they were not guided to see the project of preservation within a larger economic and political plan.

The sentimental plea for preservation has often remained entrenched in the elitism and technicality of physical restoration itself. Where is the owner in the equation? Demonising the hapless owner as an uncultured demolisher of history is to misunderstand the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity. A dynamic and practicable action plan for heritage preservation warrants the real engagement of specialists, architects, urban planners, engineers, historians, the community, the municipality, the government, private-sector investors, and the owners. Legislative measures alone will not be enough to stop rampant demolitions because economic incentives to tear down a building often outweigh the “manageable” penalty for breaking the law. A demolition contractor succinctly summarises it: “It is very profitable to demolish old buildings because they contain a great volume of wood and iron.” A preservation strategy without a vision for the economic sustainability of historic buildings is most likely to fail, and will not strike a chord with the public and policy-makers. Public policy and private ownership must intersect with mutual benefits and respect. Lest we are unaware, the question of heritage preservation has long been a serious debate at the very heart of modernity: how does a civilised nation retain the vestiges of its history while incorporating the infrastructures of modern life so that the engines of economic growth can move forward?

From the United States to Italy to Denmark, from France to Turkey to Singapore, many countries around the world have been usefully debating this issue as a national priority, and have come up with various ingenious solutions. As they embrace a grand ambition of building the metropolises of the future, China and Dubai, for instance, are now in the midst of a raucous debate concerning the rehabilitation of heritage properties. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of these countries. A balanced mix of government regulations (without being overtly authoritarian) and market-based incentives based on the economic dynamics of a particular area (such as Old Dhaka) provide a defensible reason for the public to preserve, care for, and invest in historic buildings. Economic incentives for historic preservation may include: income tax deductions and low-interest loans for historic property owners, tax exemptions for heritage organisations and investors, government grants for heritage protection projects, property tax abatements, sales tax rebates for historic property maintenance, and free consultation for developing business models for historic properties. But what is most urgently needed now is a consistent media blitz to build a national consensus for the need to preserve the country’s built heritage. Conference speeches or demonstrations by specialists simply won’t create the buzz necessary to make the idea sink in. How about bringing public figures and celebrities to the heritage sites and have them sing the virtues of preservation? A Runa Laila concert in front of Barabari or a television reality show in the courtyard of Ruplal House would surely make the public curious about heritage properties. It would then not take long to transform curiosity into sensitivity and, eventually, action.
Another approach toward preservation would be to convert historic buildings to economically viable “adaptive reuse” — the process of co-opting old structures for new beneficial functions. Instead of falsely mummifying a historic building by keeping it outside public usage, it could be given new life that enables continued civic participation in the building’s legacy rather than simply inspiring distant admiration.
An iconic skyscraper bank in America — Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (built in 1932) — was converted into a hugely popular hotel in 2001 when community activism saved it from the wrecker’s ball. If an historically conscious investor comes forward with a creative financial plan, Ruplal House in Farashganj could be a fabulous venue for a Dhaka City museum, where the public can witness the city’s history after paying an entrance fee. After successfully relocating the current owners, the museum can reserve thirty percent of the museum jobs for them. If the maddening traffic congestion is controlled, Old Dhaka appears ripe for an intervention of heritage tourism. By converting its historic buildings into museums, boutique hotels, libraries, art galleries, specialised eateries (Haji’s Birani House, for example), and gift shops, the economic health of Old Dhaka could be lifted to new heights, while maintaining current residential and commercial use. The financial benefits of architectural tourism have not been explored in Bangladesh. We can take a clue from New York’s Empire State Building. The original construction cost of the once-the-tallest skyscraper was $25 million in 1930. Now the building generates roughly $100 million annually from tourist entrance fees alone!

While integrating a sound economic plan with heritage preservation practices constitutes a feasible approach, the main goal is, and should be, much loftier than mere financial gains. It is a moral imperative of a country to preserve those physical traces that both reveal and strengthen its complex national identity.

Writer, Adnan Morshed, is Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

This article is quoted from Daily Star originally published on 2008-06-03.

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Posted in Bangladesh, Development, Performance and management, Policy, Sustainability.

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