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Art-Driven Adaptive Reuse in Several Indian Cities

Preservation and reuse drive the art-driven adaptation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in cities across India, including Kochi, Goa, Mumbai. This essay explores how such sites can be spaces not just of preservation but of alternative making and institutional critique.


Tobias laurie lambrecht

Jennifer Tobias

Librarian, Reader Services MoMA Jennifer Tobias is the Reader Services Librarian at the Museum of Modern Art. She is a graduate of the City University of New York's Art History program. Her 2012 doctoral... Read more »
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Art-Driven Adaptive Reuse in Several Indian Cities

Preservation and reuse drive the art-driven adaptation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in cities across India, including Kochi, Goa, Mumbai. This essay explores how such sites can be spaces not just of preservation but of alternative making and institutional critique.

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Preservation and reuse drive the art-driven adaptation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in cities across India, including Kochi, Goa, Mumbai. This essay explores how such sites can be spaces not just of preservation but of alternative making and institutional critique.

Bangalore 2016. Photo: Jennifer Tobias.

From the 1960s revival of SoHo in downtown Manhattan to the 2009 opening of the Sharjah Art Foundation Spaces, artists and gallerists have long sought out neglected and abandoned structures and adapted them for use as studio, exhibition, and performance spaces. During recent C-MAP visits to Mumbai, Delhi, Goa, Bangalore, and Kochi, I noticed similar art-driven adaptive reuse of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture. This caused me to wonder about preservation of such structures in India, and what it signifies in a vast, diverse country experiencing rapid growth amid centuries of architectural heritage.

In India, various public and private institutions address preservation, but there’s no national mandate for relatively recent works. Nationally the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Architecture Heritage Division of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) monitor sites that are more than one hundred years old.1 The internationally oriented advocacy group Docomomo International (“Docomomo” stands for “documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement”) follows developments in India but lacks a national chapter.2 At the city level, initiatives vary. One promising development is the 2006 creation of the Indian Heritage Cities Network (IHCN), which is affiliated with UNESCO New Delhi.3 The thirty-two member cities (including Bangalore and Kochi, discussed below) have agreed to take on a lengthy list of responsibilities related to preservation and adaptive reuse.

In Delhi, preservation of works less than one hundred years old is limited to municipal initiatives that influence alterations to selected works built before 1950,4 and recently INTACH proposed a program called Modern Architectural Heritage of Delhi to address post-1947 architecture.5 In Mumbai, the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay Act of 1995 established graded protections for different types of built environments,6 the first law in India to protect a precinct (in this case, the Fort District).7 Two other groups—the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) and the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC)—also have influence. In addition, the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) acts as a think tank and advocacy group.8 But given the city’s size, deep history, and architectural complexity, preservation of relatively new works is only beginning. As one writer notes, Mumbai, “whose boom took off in the 1860s, is simply too new by the standards of a country that groans under its staggering wealth of historic buildings.”9

In Goa, according to one source, current obstacles to preservation include rent control as a disincentive for upkeep, the difficulty of dividing houses in inheritance resolutions, and increased land values motivating demolition.10 On the other hand, as a major tourist spot and home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, there’s evidence that sensitivity to architectural heritage is becoming a factor in local development initiatives. In Kochi, as in Goa, heritage initiatives are influenced by the local tourism industry. For example, the Cochin Heritage Zone Conservation Society (CHZCS) is charged with planning and maintenance (though it’s ineffective, according to several sources),11 and some property owners in the heritage zone complain of marketing difficulties due to maintenance requirements and alteration restrictions.12 But preservation also figures into infrastructure planning, as seen in initiatives such as the Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project (KSUDP). The state, in the form of the Kerala Art and Heritage Commission, also has some influence.13 As a result of these varied conditions, preservation and adaptive reuse in India are often the result of enlightened self-interest as much as organized planning. And that’s where the art community comes in. Several examples encountered during 2015 and 2016 C-MAP visits are discussed here.

In Mumbai, the group visited a revived Victorian-era museum and encountered an Art Deco district in need of attention. The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL) exemplifies a public-private partnership. A striking Victorian structure in the heart of Mumbai constructed in response to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the BDL opened in 1872 as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Bombay. By the late 1990s the museum was neglected, but Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (managing trustee, honorary director, and MoMA International Council member) committed to restoring and revitalizing the institution, which reopened in 2008.

A key element of the new program is commissioned artist interventions, creating a platform for artists to enliven the space and to introduce new audiences to contemporary art. The museum’s visitors tend to be residents interested in Mumbai history, and so interventions that critically engage local culture are especially apt. A recent example is Games People Play, in which the artists known as Thukral and Tagra created interactive environments inspired by games in the collection.

Along Mumbai’s Marine Drive I noticed beautiful Art Deco buildings in various states of repair (Mumbai is said to be second only to Miami, Florida, in its number of Art Deco buildings).14 Regarding local interest in their preservation, it seems that in Mumbai, as in many cities, public initiatives and private developments form a patchy safety net. At the international level, the district was proposed for UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2013 (Delhi’s Old City was chosen instead),15 while on the local level, groups such as the Oval-Cooperage Residents Association (OCRA) are starting to incorporate Deco preservation into their missions.16 Meanwhile, sites such as the Liberty Cinema demonstrate how art-world adaptive reuse helps to fill a gap. The cinema has been open continuously since 1947 and is lovingly cared for by its owner (here’s a vintage brochure showing the interiors).17 Though high operating costs make conventional programming difficult, film festivals and live performance rentals keep the doors open for appreciative visitors.

New Delhi has its own architectural identity, and adaptive reuse patterns reflect it. As the nation’s capital, with its sweeping urban plan, embassy district, and post-Independence state modernism, the city’s sensibility tends toward the monumental. Yet like Mumbai, economic growth and a swelling urban population are driving much demolition and rebuilding, often destroying significant modern architecture in the process. A case in point is the planned demolition of the Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion, the work of architect Raj Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj at Pragati Maidan (1972). Recent efforts to save these endangered icons of Indian modernism demonstrate complex social and legal forces at work.18 As a representative from INTACH put it: “More than the fact that there is difficulty in wrapping one’s head around the idea of modern architectural heritage, it is the bureaucratic apathy that is causing trouble.”19 In that context, it was refreshing to encounter several art-driven preservation efforts in Delhi. One involved an actual structure—a house reinvented as an alternative space—while in others, artists, photographers, and architects are incorporating architectural documentation into their practice.

Gujral House exterior, New Delhi. Photo: Jennifer Tobias.

Gujral House, situated in the upscale Jor Bagh neighborhood, is a residence turned project space, the family property of architect and developer Mohit Gujral and entrepreneur Feroze Gujral. Our visit to the house was my first opportunity to go behind the scenes to see a domestic space. We entered the characteristically walled property to encounter a peaceful, landscaped courtyard in which the freestanding house and an outbuilding are situated. The multistory concrete dwelling has numerous windows, each with a concrete canopy typical of the area. Inside, rooms are organized around a central stairway, which leads to a roof terrace. Though it was difficult to make out the original program or guess at the architect’s intentions, one could get a general sense of the layout and infrastructure, discerning formal and informal spaces along with remnants of kitchen and storage areas.

These remnants of domesticity amplify the boldness of the interventions, in which artists have punched holes, excavated, and otherwise modified the building. I was especially interested in the residue of a work long since de-installed: The House of Everything and Nothing (2013) by the Raqs Media Collective. The original installation visualized data flow between the group’s New Delhi studio and the rest of the world, taking the form of a network of neon mounted in and on the building. The lighting was installed in channels formed by removing the concrete stucco to reveal the brick structure beneath. As if the building had been excavated from the outside in, the remains helped me to understand its underlying structure.

The group encountered other traces of New Delhi modernism in virtual form. Photographer, activist, and C-MAP advisor Ram Rahman, for example, has put great effort into documenting the work of his father, architect Habib Rahman.20 The elder Rahman was a key figure in the development of Nehruvian state modernism in the post-Independence period, but with relatively few institutional archives available, preservation of the architect’s photographs, drawings, and correspondence remains a largely private endeavor. Similarly, architect and artist Saher Shah and her partner, photographer Randhir Singh, integrate architectural documentation into their practices. Shah’s drawings reflect upon the built environment, often incorporating photographs and plans. In Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force (2009), for example, the artist drew upon archival photography of the 1903 Delhi Durbar, a colonial spectacle, to embed alternative spatial—and by extension social—perspectives into her interpretation of the power-laden event.

Addressing more modest but equally symbolic structures, a fascinating series by Singh focuses on contemporary shrines. The photographs celebrate the way that these diverse ancient, transcendental forms are translated into modern industrial materials such as concrete, tile, and ironwork, and how they are integrated into the contemporary landscape. Since these structures are largely private and unofficial compared to more conventional building, simply documenting them is valuable, serving as an informal complement to the national archaeological survey.

Gallery SKE, Bangalore. Photo: Rattanamol Singh Johal.

The C-MAP group also visited Bangalore, a thriving, tech-driven city. One writer claims that the city has more alternative spaces than traditional galleries, positing that “in the absence of government infrastructure or commercial enterprise, artists and art students have taken on the responsibility of leading Bangalore’s art scene.”21 The group visited an exuberant example: 1 Shanthi Road, a collective founded by artist and historian Suresh Jayaram and designed by architect Meeta Jain. Jarayam argues that such efforts are critical as much as practical endeavors: “Most of these spaces are institutional critiques . . . They are an alternative to established art institutions because there is a disconnect between what is being taught and practiced.”22

In addition to visiting 1 Shanthi Road, we were welcomed to the commercial GallerySKE, which stands out as an example of art-driven adaptive reuse in the midst of rapid urban change. In a recent interview, founder Sunitha Kumar Emmart describes how, seeking to expand from a more conventional gallery space, she found the unusual house: “I came across a ramshackle property on the lane that runs parallel to my home. The roof had caved in, it was all paved and concrete with no garden except for two old mango trees. It became a restoration project. People somehow now think I’m interested in restoring old properties but I’m not. It seemed like a great positioning for me to have this house built in the 1870s: a piece of old Bangalore which is disappearing and a window to show contemporary art in this historical setting.”23 Her sensitive renovation of the house incorporates historical elements, such as the entry vestibule and exposed roof beams, into spacious contemporary gallery and office areas that flow into a gently landscaped courtyard. According to Kumar, the house would have been demolished long ago were it not for the adjacent graveyard (considered inauspicious) and a long, previous property dispute.

Heritage Hotel Art Spaces, Goa.

In Goa, the group visited the Heritage Hotel: Art Spaces, a one-hundred-year-old Portuguese-style villa turned hotel turned artist residency. Founded by artists Romain Loustau, Madhavi Gore, and Nikhil Chopra, Heritage Hotel is intended to be “a space for reflection, inspiration and creation; a place where artists come together, meet, make and share their ideas, processes, experiments and collaborative efforts with each other and the community.”24 Artists from all over the world share seven studios, several bedrooms—and a cat. Pleasant shared spaces have been adapted to facilitate interaction among residents but also with the community beyond, which is invited to visit during the program’s regular open-studio days.

I will end this essay where I began the C-MAP visits to India, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Of all the sites discussed here, the biennale is arguably the most spirited artist-driven force integrating architecture of the past into the city’s present and future.

Kochi is a historical port town on India’s tropical southwest coast. Long a center for international trade (especially of spices), the built environment strongly reflects the city’s heritage, especially in its Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial architecture. The artists and curators who organize the biennale, now in its third iteration, set out to fully engage this history, aspiring to “create a new language of cosmopolitanism and modernity that is rooted in the lived and living experience of this old trading port, which, for more than six centuries, has been a crucible of numerous communal identities” and “to explore and . . . retrieve memories of this past, and its present, in the current global context to posit alternatives to political and cultural discourses emanating from the specific histories of Europe and America. A dialogue for a new aesthetics and politics rooted in the Indian experience, but receptive to the winds blowing in from other worlds, is possible.25” As a result, the biennale is sited within historic venues in or near the Fort Kochi heritage area, from the maritime warehouses known as “godowns” to public parks, to former military barracks, to empty houses.26 To visit is to feel thoroughly oriented to place and time, and to experience art in ways that strongly resonate with it.

As a result, several venues are being sensitively renovated. The Dutch-Colonial-era godown named the Pepper House has been most fully adapted by the biennale’s foundation and is now in year-round use, incorporating a gallery, café, residency program, and even an artist-organized library (Laboratory of Visual Arts, or LaVA, by Bose Krishnamachari).27 Many other biennale sites are minimally renovated, however, creating unique opportunities to experience the buildings and the art placed there. In these spaces one senses their former functions through building orientation, layout, and general style, but also through tile-lined counters, wall wear, old wiring, and utilitarian shelving. Even temperature, light conditions, ambient sound, and smell become part of the experience.

Aspinwall House, the biennale’s anchor space, makes this immediately apparent. The large waterfront property, built in the 1860s for the eponymous English trading firm and later disused, incorporates large, atmospheric warehouses and related spaces. Ironically, this condition makes the property’s future uncertain: owned by a company affiliated with the original trading company, the land is more valuable than the neglected buildings.

In that context, a work sited at Aspinwall House in the 2012 biennale is especially relevant to the theme of art-driven adaptive reuse: Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz’s Stopover (2012). The pair collected and installed more than one hundred wet-grinding stones in a central, symmetrical room that opens onto a small pier. Such stones were once used domestically to grind spices and other ingredients for cooking. Usually embedded in the floor, they were a standard fixture in Indian homes built well into the early twentieth century. Today they are being replaced by food processors, but it’s hard to discard a four-hundred-pound boulder, and so the stones are often dumped in vacant lots—the artists describe how they would find them in “little cemeteries of grinders.”28 The strong forms are smooth on top, showing their decades of daily use, but rough on the bottom, as if just excavated.

As an installation the stones represent once-unmovable objects set in motion by irresistible global forces. They also evoke gravestones, marking the death of a tradition. Their placement suggests the movement of spices out into the world, but one can also picture the abandoned stones being rolled off the pier and settling back into the land below. One is left to guess at the next site for the stones, the fate of the building, and the future of the biennale as a global force. In this way Stopover and Aspinwall House vividly manifest the spirit of art-driven adaptive reuse we witnessed in our travels, bringing new life to historic but marginalized structures in Indian cities.


Mian Ridge, “Historic buildings lost to India’s urban boom,” Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2008, accessed February 10, 2016.


See Docomomo website, accessed May 23, 2016.


See India Heritage Cities website, accessed May 23, 2016.


Richi Verma, “Intach plans to save Delhi’s ‘modern heritage,’” Times of India online, November 2, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


Richi Verma, “Intach plans to save Delhi’s ‘modern heritage,’” Times of India online, November 2, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


Abha Narain Lambah, “Mumbai: Historic Preservation by Citizens,” in Helmut K. K. Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Raj Isar, Cultures and Globalization: Cities, Cultural Policy and Governance (London: Sage Publications Ltd., 2012), 253.


Elizabeth Gudrais, “Designs for a New India: Rahul Mehrotra’s architecture spans eras and cultural divides, in Harvard Magazine online, May/June 2012, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Urban Design Research Institute website, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Gerard da Cunha, “Report I-3: Preserving Goa’s Residential Heritage,” in Session I: Modern Architecture in Macau conference, Modern Asian Architecture Network website, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Smitha A, "Broken promises on Fort Kochi heritage conservation", Deccan Chronicle, March 12, 2016, accessed June 27, 2016. M K Sunil Kumar, "Sham and a shame: Tale of a clueless heritage society", The Times of India, December 17, 2013, accessed June 27, 2016.


Rochelle DSouza, “Realty bites for heritage homes in Fort Kochi area,” Times of India online, January 21, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


K. R. Ranjith, “Heritage Conservation Norms Flouted in Fort Kochi,” New Indian Express online, December 19, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Naresh Fernandes, “A Guide to Mumbai’s Art Deco Masterpieces,” National Geographic Traveller India online, posted March 24, 2015, accessed May 18, 2016.


See MessyNessy, “Miami of India: The Forgotten Capital of Art Deco," MessyNessyChic (blog), posted February 19, 2014, accessed May 18, 2016.


See “The inauguration of the exhibition ‘Deco on the Oval: Celebrating Bombay’s Best Loved Art Deco Facades,’” Bombaywall (blog), posted July 31, 2015, accessed May 18, 2016.


Bhakti Bapat Mathew, “Mumbai’s art deco heritage a nod to a history of style,” National online, March 29, 2013, accessed May 23, 2016.


Richi Verma, “Call to save Pragati Maidan hall,” Times of India City online, April 14, 2015, accessed May 18, 2016.


Adila Matra, “Engineer behind iconic Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion campaigns against ‘disastrous’ move to demolish them,” Daily Mail India online, published March 16, 2016, accessed May 18, 2016.


S. M. Akhtar, Habib Rahman: The Architect of Independent India (Sahibabad, Distt. Ghaziabad, UP, India: Copal Publishing Group, 2016).


John ML, “Forever Alternative: A Book on the Alternative Art Scene in Bengaluru,” Artehelka (blog), posted November 9, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


The Hindu, “Art addas—local style,” Wiki News, September 30, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


A Chat With: Sunitha Kumar Emmart,” Le Mill (blog), posted October 5, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Heritage Hotel website, accessed May 23, 2016.


See Kochi-Muziris Biennale website, accessed May 23, 2016.


“Biennale Venues,” Kochi-Muziris Biennale online, accessed May 18, 2016.


Esther Elias, “Tryst with art continues,” Hindu online, December 11, 2013, accessed May 23, 2016.


S. Anandan, "Biennale turns Aspinwall House into a mammoth canvas,” Hindu online, accessed May 23, 2016.

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