By Savitha Hira
Photography: Courtesy Ar. Minakshi Jain
Ar. Minakshi Jain, recognized as a leading authority on architectural conservation in India talks to IAnD exploring the tenets and career options in the niche field that celebrates historical influences in contemporary times…
As an architect and teacher for over three decades, Ar. Minakshi Jain is highly recognized as the most prominent conservation architect in India.
Her contribution to conserving our heritage has been commendable to say the least. She has been highly applauded for architectural conservation of the Nagaur Fort (UNESCO – Asia Pacific Award of excellence), Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Gagraun Fort and many other heritage sites in Rajasthan. Incidentally, Nagaur Fort was recently shortlisted for the Aga Khan Awards.
Having worked under stalwarts like Charles & Eames Ray and Louis Kahn during the early years of her career, Minakshi went on to lead projects ranging from low cost housing, earthquake relief building work, to highly technical architectural conservation of heritage structures.
Apart from her practice, Minakshi has been a visiting faculty at CEPT, in Architecture and Urban Design for the last 30 years. Alongside husband Prof. Kulbhushan Jain, she also runs the AADI centre - an NGO for research in conservation studies, located in Ahmedabad.
IAnD in conversation with Ar. Minakshi Jain - architect, urbanist, educator and writer …
What prompted you to pursue a career in conservation architecture?
My first bachelor degree in Architecture was from M.S.University, Baroda, in 1964. And my master’s degree in Architecture was from University of Pennsylvania in 1966. I worked under Architect Louis Kahn and Charles and Ray Eames between 1964 and 1965 at the National Institute of Design. I have no formal education in conservation. Many architectural projects of schools and residences were done between 1972 and 1985.
In early 1980s, I was involved in documentation and research projects of the vernacular housing of India’s western arid zone and Gujarat’s coastal area, around that same time we (along with Prof. K.B. Jain) also did lokshtra report for the old city of Jodhpur. So there was an architectural and research base.
Since there was a background of documentation and research, my first document on Fort of Nagaur for Getty foundation was well received in 1993. From there started the architectural conservation career. My own interest was inspired and sustained by Mr. Gajsingh, MD of MMT, Mr. Mahendra Singh ,CEO of MMT( now retired) and Mr. Kulbhushan Jain, my husband. My career in architectural conservation is self taught and helped by above mentors.
What in your opinion is the difference in ‘thinking/ visualization’ between conservation architecture and conventional architecture? What are the challenges?
The main difference, I think, in conservation, is the unwinding of architectural understanding. A conventional architect has many options for design in open free ground to create the form, volume, the surfaces, the spaces according to the demands of time, clients’ brief, location etc., while the conservation architect has the building in front of his eyes. He has to fully understand the character, read the architectural language, style, history, construction methods, availability of historic materials, and need for crafts persons, if any, for the conserved, differed use.
Often a historic building’s use has to change with the program of conservation. Private historic master pieces are now open to public. For example, historic buildings are often converted into museums, resorts, etc. This will be considered as changed use. For the present and for the future, historic buildings have to be integrated with all possible infrastructures very subtly without changing historic ambiance. The challenge of a conservation architect is to simultaneously convey the past and future in the present.
Two do’s that you could share with a student aspiring to pursue conservation architecture?
a. To concentrate on the construction and material details of buildings to be conserved.
b. To understand life style of the historic time.
c. In practice, investigating on the site and to find clues from literature and paintings is important.
Two don’ts that you could share with a student aspiring to pursue conservation architecture?
a. Students should keep in mind, that architectural conservation is not a fully developed practice in India. Often high costing tests of soil, materials and research in history are not built into the estimate costs.
b. Details that are prescribed in western books may not be totally applicable to our conservation practice. Instead, local methods and materials should be observed keenly.