Chauburji’s conservation project is far from satisfactory. The chain of events that led to the hasty start of the project is now a part of the history of this monument. History has not been kind to it
Authorities say, the restoration work at Chauburji is near completion. It would seem to passers-by, however, that the work to preserve the building is underway. To a professional, it is a worrying sight. Conservation is a delicate task. It involves many considerations that the general public may not be aware of. The chain of events that led to the hasty start of the project is now a part of the history of this monument. History has not been kind to it.
In early 20th century photographs, agricultural fields can be seen stretching for miles, west of the gateway. The post-independence growth of the city pushed the building into the middle of a roundabout. The building has nearly collapsed twice. This time around, the monument was not earmarked for demolition as some had speculated.
One would think of this as a sad fate for a building commissioned by a princess of the Mughal Empire. City planners could have seized this opportunity to plan the intersection and buildings around it with the gateway as a centre piece like some Triumphant Arches in Europe that occupy roundabouts. As there are virtually no historically significant structures around the monument, the opportunity to create a planned environment around the monument has been missed on several occasions. The latest opportunity was when the intersection was re-planned for the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT).
Now the building has been restored. Or has it?
We arrived at this impasse in the aftermath of the OLMT case in the Supreme Court. The SC’s decision regarding the restoration of monuments along the route was well-meaning, but the political climate at the time left no choice but to start restoration work as quickly as possible. This meant that the protocols and processes that needed to be followed to safeguard the integrity and authenticity of the monument were rushed through.
Conservation is a discipline whereby we slow down the process of decay and prolong the life of the monument. The issues concerning the conservation of this monument are threefold: first, the preservation of the authenticity and artistic value; second, stopping unnecessary additions and alterations; and third, use of compatible materials for repairs.
For the conservation of a building like Chauburji, one of the prime concerns is authenticity. It is imperative to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible as a record of the past. Surface ornamentation on Chauburji is a testament to the artistic achievements of Mughal artisans and craftsmen. The very material of the building is a physical record of artistic traditions and their production methods.
While considering interventions there is a hierarchical order by which the intensity of actions is determined. The first of these is structural integrity. During the British period, the brickwork at the base of the building was repaired to consolidate the structure of the building and prevent its collapse. In 1979, the fourth tower of the building was reconstructed for the same reason. In both interventions only the brickwork structure of the building was replicated by continuing the existing geometry of the building. The reintegrated parts were not ornamented with the kashikari (glazed tile) mosaics.
While reconstructing the fourth tower, the Archeology Department made a conscious effort to differentiate the addition from the original Mughal construction. Their view was that replicating and creating facsimiles of Mughal-period ornamentation would have been deceptive.
As a rule, limited reconstruction is acceptable where complete and accurate information is available about the form, shape and size of the object to be replicated. Even then, it should be clearly distinguishable from the original. The reintroduction of the fourth tower was carried out elegantly in this tradition.
This is the issue of lacunae. The word “lacuna” means a void or gap in Latin. It is a technical term used in the field of conservation to denote an area where a piece of the fabric is missing. The question is whether a lacuna should be filled? And if so, how large a lacuna is permissible to be filled?
Let’s use an example to illustrate this point. If you discover a long-lost notebook containing a handwritten manuscript of a poem by Ghalib, and a part of the notebook is damaged, and the poem is missing several verses, would you ask someone, be it the foremost poet of the day, to complete the missing verses? Or would you respect the literary and artistic integrity of Ghalib, and publish it while preserving the gaps in the poem?
The issues concerning the conservation of this monument are threefold: first, the preservation of the authenticity and artistic value; second, stopping unnecessary additions and alterations; and third, use of compatible materials for repairs.
To the credit of the team carrying out the work on the current project, they have not dismantled any remnants of the kashikari mosaics; though in some parts, they have carried out wholesale replacements where the tiles had completely lost their glaze and only the bodies of the tiles had remained. Some damage and missing kashikari panels have also been completely replaced with shiny new tiles. This could have been carried out in a more nuanced manner, with partial replacements to maintain the feeling of age.
There is also the issue of additions made to the architectural scheme. There are stories about the towers having cupolas in the past, but for this we have no documentary evidence. The four towers do resemble the minarets of Masjid Wazir Khan, but there are no written descriptions, drawings, sketches, or photographs of any kind that attest to this. None of the paintings and photographs from the late 19th century have such evidence either.
The proportions of the building have been distorted by the addition of a frieze (decorative band along the parapet) and sandstone balustrades on top of the towers. These additions have no basis in historical or physical evidence found on site. The restoration of building elements that are lost to history can only be allowed if there is sufficient evidence and information available for their existence, and complete information about their shape and form. The addition to the towers distorts our visual memory of the monument.
The third issue concerns the use of appropriate materials for repairs. This requires extensive research and planning before physical work is carried out. It is inadvisable that we charge ahead and make repairs to a building without understanding the challenges facing the structure and its fabric. Even though it may look like an ordinary brick building, the materials of its construction are not the ones we use today.
The lime mortar-and-brick tile masonry have chemical and microscopic structural differences from the bricks we manufacture today. The low compression and low firing temperatures of historic brick create different pore sizes in the brick tiles as opposed to the higher-compression and high-temperature firing of the bricks today. Historic bricks invariably have a different moisture absorption rate as compared to modern materials. Lime mortar is also porous and lets the building breathe.
The modern bricks are much denser and Portland (or regular grey) cement is non-porous. The cement also contains a large amount of salt. We see this in our daily lives as a powdery deposit on damp walls. These salts dissolve in water and are carried out through the pores of the bricks and mortar when the water evaporates. Some of the salt is deposited in the bricks and crystalises. Once these crystals start exceeding the size of the pore, they disintegrate the brick from the inside. Portland cement is thus poison for historic building materials.
A project of this nature requires a multidisciplinary approach and thus requires the involvement of conservation engineers, material scientists, urban area conservationists, historians, architectural historians and sociologists in addition to conservation architects for the preparation of the conservation project. In this multidisciplinary conservation team, the definition of the composition of repair materials is the responsibility of a materials scientist. And though conservation architects have a basic understanding of these principles, this is a specialised job.
It is strange that where all masonry and plaster repair work has been carried out in lime mortar and lime plaster, the application of the kashikari tiles has been carried out with cement.
The telltale signs of the sources of deterioration are all over the building. These can be seen as rising damp at the base of the building and seepage of water due to inadequate drainage from the top of the building. The roof drainage will probably be fixed as part of this project, but the solution to the rising damp problem lies in the hands of the city planning authorities.
There is an underground trunk sewer flowing 25 feet from the base of the northwest tower. This sewerage line constantly introduces dampness into the foundations of the building, from where it is carried up. The wastewater is also rich in salts. This restoration, which is part of the OLMT project, would have been a great opportunity to redirect the trunk sewer as part of infrastructure works and arrest the constant deterioration being caused by the sewage line.
The silver lining is that not all is lost. Some of the unqualified changes are retreat-able if not reversible, and there is always time to prepare a new project to reroute the sewage works to protect a historic structure.
The writer is an architect and conservationist and an assistant professor at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus. He holds an MSc in Conservation of Cultural Heritage from the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. He has previously taught at the National College of Arts, Lahore and served as in-charge of the NCA Archives