Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ms.Kalpana - Restoring Madras University Senate Hall

She spoke at the Accord Metropolitan on August 25 - it was arranged by the Public Relations Society of India. I hadnt heard of them until now :-)

Kalpana is an architect with degrees from India and UK. She was assigned to work on the restoration of the Univ of Madras Senate Hall, which has been declared a heritage building. Larsen & Tourbo, has granted Rs.6 crores to restore it; L&T is collecting donations from other orgs and people to help tide the cost.

Several Madras landmarks are gone forever because of neglect, indifference, ignorance and the commercial potential of the land they are on. The Senate Hall got a reprieve, due to some concerted action from several groups including INTACH.

The roof of the Senate Hall is built with Mangalore tiles which are 180 years old, 80% of which are being reused as they are STILL in good condition. After some analysis the walls and roof were found to have several layers of lime-based coating called Chettinad plaster.

It turns out that Chettinad was known as Madras plaster; it was basically a comlicated layering of several coats of lime on the wall according to a well-planned timetable based on the speed of drying of lime. Then earth oxides based paints were mixed with other ingredients and coated over the fine lime coating. The material used has to mix well with the basic layer but not suffer from the caustic action of the lime. This technique of applying Madras plaster was considered unmatched in the world by British engineers. The final coating gave walls a fine clear sheen so superb you could see your reflection on the walls.

Similar techniques were applied on the ceiling also with some sparkling colours and interesting patterns, that you can see in the restored Senate Hall soon.

The earth oxides were hard to hunt. Nothing could be found anywhere in the surrounds of Madras in over a six month search. The masons were wondering what was so special about it and why the architect was making such a fuss. Then somebody in Madurai was contacted and he informed Kalpana that the stones were available perhaps from illegal quarries.

The workers showed great interest and enthusiasm. the They tried several recipes of earth-oxide stone mixtures; two cups this, one cup that; half cup z. Grinding the stone was difficult. When a rice mill was used, the subsequent rice milled there came out black in color at which point they withdrew their services.

Etching ; sgraffito? Sometime 2 square feet would take a day of etching and coating. I have forgotten what she said on this.

Madras developed under the English after the defeat of Tipu. The English felt safe enough to come out of fort St. George only after Tipu sultan was vanquished. They obivously had a poor opinion of the remaining kingdoms. Their basic plan for early Madras was simple - Businesses on Mount Road; Government offices on Poonamallee High Road (Ripon Building, General Hospital, Madras Central, Victoria Public Hall); and Educational institutions (Presidency College, Lady Willingdon College, Queen Mary's College, University of Madras) on Beach road.

In later years such planned city building collapsed and gave way to a very random and chaotic growth of the city. The filling up of practically all Madras lakes, the deforestation, the North Madras neglect, etc. are sad illustrations of money and power and ignorance over aesthetics and planning.


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