Senate House, Chennai (An INTACH Chennai Project)

Client: University of Madras Role: Support to INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage)

The first step in restoration of this Colonial Era building was to remove all the unwanted interventions made earlier and to make the building water tight. Apart from having to remove and refurbish the roofing and glazing, decisions had to be taken on how to tackle the major cracks in the arches, domes and towers that were more than an inch wide in certain places. Studies showed that the cracks were not widening and that they had gone through a ‘stress relieving’ process, attaining a state of total equilibrium, though with a marginally deformed geometry. Trying to rectify the geometry, it was felt, would only result in new stresses being induced that were not predictable.

Therefore it was decided to accept the deformation which is hardly visible to the naked eye and fill the cracks in with lime mortar of the same composition as the original. Additional precautions had to be taken as far as the domes atop the four towers were concerned as the stresses from this had affected the towers below and being very tall elements any minor change in subsoil conditions would have a multiplier effect at the top. The bases of the domes were therefore strapped with stainless steel to prevent any further distortion, discreetly merging it with the moulding.

Similarly several unique solutions were found for a variety of problems starting from the discovery of Sgraffito frescoes beneath the white paint in the main hall to repair & replacement of collapsed stone balconies – the brackets of which were found partially buried in the ground below.

The project was funded through donations from University alumni, major business and industrial houses in Madras and the public at large. It was the intention of the University, on suggestions from the business houses and INTACH, to set up the Senate House Maintenance Trust which would be responsible for this exquisite building after its restoration. However this was not to be. What happened after the successful completion and inauguration by the President of India HE Abdul Kalam, opened our eyes for the first time to the politics of conservation. With the change of government at the State level, coinciding with a change in the vice-chancellorship of the University all efforts were made to suppress this success story of the previous regime and obliterate it from the minds of the public. The building was summarily locked up citing security reasons and has remained so ever since.