An old town clad in the glory of Art Deco architecture

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Leading a group of walkers, historian and author V. Sriram recounts the history and heritage of architecture on different stretches of Chennai

Leading a group of walkers, historian and author V. Sriram recounts the history and heritage of architecture on different stretches of Chennai

As a group of construction workers are busy demolishing a building in George Town on a beautiful Saturday morning, a group of walkers arrive. A more fitting ending to a walk, studying various aspects of the halls, facades and monuments of Art Deco architecture in Chennai, could not even have been so well planned.

Historian and author V. Sriram, an endearing chronicler of the city, led the walk, which ended near the demolition site. Earlier he talked about the loss of Art Deco architecture in Chennai and captured the main themes of the two hour walk, the need to retain existing Art Deco buildings, the importance of knowing the history of the ‘Art Deco – a movement that began in the 1920s in Europe and the United States, heralding the advent of the modern age – the need for an engaged citizenry and the challenges of solving urban planning problems during the development of major infrastructure projects.

At the end of the promenade, a few yards from where a construction worker was loading demolition debris into a lorry, parked along NSC Bose Road, Mr Sriram said: “Sometimes I think the ‘Art Deco is the worst victim of modernization. . It began with modernity, it ended with modernization. Indo-Saracenic architecture has survived because it is considered ancient, because they are all tall buildings and people will rise in arms. But when a movie theater is demolished, they say it’s not that old. We are losing a whole art form. The world woke up. Miami has now been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. Bombay already has the entire Art Deco corridor along Marine Drive as a heritage site. I think it is in the first state of approval. Pointing to the demolition of many heritage buildings in Chennai and the failure of planning agencies to conserve Art Deco structures, Mr Sriram said: “We could have done it. But now it is very late.

At Dare House, one of the finest Art Deco buildings rebuilt in the 1930s at Parrys Corner, Mr Sriram explained how the purchase of this particular piece of land in 1788 by Thomas Parry for the construction of Parry and Company led to the urban development in the northern part of what is called Parry’s Corner.

“It’s probably the most historic business district in the country. There was nothing to the north and the sea came right up to the entrance. Because nobody went further in 1788, it was the end of the world for the city. Now it has lost its meaning. But the term paarimunai is still relevant,” he said, adding, “When Parry and Company managed to come here, the Collectorship moved, the Commissariat of Customs moved, all the trading houses started to move and they built in the classic style. style. Later they built in the Indo-Saracenic style in the 1860s. It was exclusively meant to show British power and to show the natives that a new architectural idiom was coming to the country with elements of Gothic, Islamic architecture and Hindu, brought together in a single amalgam.

In the early 20th century, Art Deco buildings became a sign of protest against the British by Swadeshi business leaders. “They all invested in Art Deco. Art Deco became their protest, to show that they were also capable of building massive structures,” he said.

As the group of walkers exited Dare House and passed other heritage buildings near Madras High Court, Mr. Sriram recounted the history and heritage of Art Deco architecture along several stretches, including the Oriental Buildings, Catholic Center, Chennai House, Tamil Isai Sangam and Ebrahim Currim and Sons. Pointing to the curved verandas of Ebrahim Currim and Sons near the Flower Bazar Police Station, Mr Sriram said the curved verandas were some of the most prominent aspects Chennai residents recognize as Art Deco. “Many of us grew up in homes like these. Look at those thin pillars that hold up the verandas. At the top, it’s almost like the round deck of a ship,” Mr. Sriram said.

When a few walkers asked about heritage conservation during the construction of the metro and the role of NGOs in it, Mr. Sriram explained how a few NGOs have played a successful role in the conservation of heritage buildings along of the Metro Rail Corridor in areas such as George Town. . He said a few NGOs refused to “give up” and demanded the development of structures for the metro without affecting the heritage value of the existing old buildings.

Standing on the footpath near the Flower Bazar police station, he pointed to the loss of good heritage buildings, including the old police station building which was demolished and rebuilt 10 years ago, due to a poor maintenance by the government.

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