Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Doing Conservation: being detective and unraveling a building's many layers

In an earlier blog we had noted about not confusing visible problems with root cause which may not be apparent at first glance. In line with this observation this blog briefly touches on being building detective.

By which I mean trying to find and follow the trail of clues that building(s) leave around for conservation folk like us to find and interpret. The appropriate intervention in terms of structure, construction techniques, material detailing and finish of course depends on the 'right' interpretation.

Let me illustrate with a few examples from a recent project - conservation assessment of Napier Museum, Thiruvananthapuram. An intended monument if ever there was one given its location, setting, architectural style and detailing. See picture below.

We started our inspections:

At first glance from below (ground level) the yazhis that are part of the decorative roofing system looked like they might serve a structural role along with the rest of the timber truss. See picture below.

However when we finally managed to get eye level with the truss we realised they were purely ornamental. For example, see the picture below which clearly shows that the yazhi has become dislodged at some point and tied to the truss member in an attempt to keep it in place.

Getting eye level with the roofing truss might not sound too difficult an enterprise but what if there is no clear access (stairs, ladder) which is pretty much most of the time. In this case we managed to get tall scaffolding erected not to undertake repairs but purely to investigate, which took a certain amount of convincing. See picture below.

Likewise from below the painted ceiling looked like it might be composed of wooden panels but when we finally managed to access it and the roofing void above, with the help of the scaffolding, working with a team of art conservators we realised the ceiling was metal sheets. See picture below.

This also gave us a chance to clarify that the decorative elements on the truss members were indeed ornamental painting, in imitation of wooden inlay, though at first glance it looked like light wood inlay on the dark wood of the truss.

To me the most interesting instance of reading a building 'right' came up in the exteriors. Over the years the building had been repainted many times though it still appeared to retain its "iconic" look. That is, from a distance the pattern of painting made it look like a particular kind of exposed brickwork that originated in England. See picture above. However on closer examination (by carefully peeling back paint layers) and comparing with archival images of the building we realised that over time in certain locations the colours had been inverted, elsewhere the pattern had been altered, till broadly it looked like the original pattern but wasn't.

To our whole team this is part of the joy in engaging in field based conservation - putting our skills, knowledge and experience to the best possible use to peel back a structure(s) chequered history, that may not be visible or apparent at first glance, and hoping that we have indeed managed to read the building(s) right.

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