Afflicted with bureaucratic hurdles and unsettling realities, the condition of living heritage in the country is grave. At a time when the practice of urban heritage conservation has seen a paradigm shift to ‘beautification’, the meticulous restoration of St John the Baptist Church by Mumbai-based Vikas Dilawari Architects resurfaces the need for patronage in conservation.

With the onset of economic liberalisation, the early 1990s witnessed generous patronage from the private sector for the Conservation of Arts and Culture. Inheriting a rich legacy of architectural heritage, Mumbai was among the pioneering cities to acquire heritage legislation in India. More than two and a half decades on, inadvertent conservation practices have defamed an illustrious past and endangered the built heritage.

In 1995, Vikas Dilawari Architects was among the first to break ground in restoring historic building interiors in India with the American Express Bank in Fort, Mumbai. For the past 26 years, Dilawari has been conserving some of Mumbai’s grandest structures, resisting complacent approaches and focusing on dignified restoration of a formidable architecture. The recently restored St John the Baptist Church in Thane presents a unique case in the holistic conservation of a cultural heritage.

Situated by the Masunda Lake (locally referred to a Talao Pali), the 400-year-old Church is among the oldest churches of Mumbai. Built in late 16th century – an era when Renaissance was reinvented with dynamism and grandeur, and the architecture of the Church strived for divine absolution. While grappling with multi-layered and constantly evolving meanings often the process of restoration and conservation of socio-cultural spaces requires critical imagination and an adequate historic preface.

Possibly the only surviving Baroque-style Church in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, the church clearly holds unparalleled historical and architectural significance. In the absence of any evident traces, an informed study of sites from a similar time period in India established that the church had a Portuguese influence. A hidden doorway, floral motifs gilded with gold, coffered stone concealed under an existing teak-wood vault and beautiful baroque carving on a door masked with hundreds of coats of oil paint were among the other incidental findings. The roof, the main wooden altar and side altars were the few intact elements.

In 2009, a detailed Fabric Status Report elaborating major repair, restoration and refurbishment work was submitted. After thorough inspection and clearances from the Archdiocese, and Heritage and Finance Committees, a proposal was prepared for approval from Thana Heritage Conservation Committee. The architect and his team commenced work in early 2014.

In an attempt to salvage as much of the original and to undertake repairs only wherever necessary, the main challenge posed was the refurbishment of the church to a historically appropriate state within the limitations of past ad-hoc alterations. In a forlorn attempt of repairing, the existing exterior walls were found plastered to a thickness of 3” to 4” while an RCC Baroque extension had altered the original fabric and interior spaces. Balancing between conservation techniques and revival of craftsmanship, the approach arbitrates a mutual exchange of social capital between community, practitioners, and craftspeople.

A specialised team undertook the restoration of the lime-plastered walls, marble flooring, and wooden coffered ceiling to its original state. The Sequeira brothers from Vasai, a family that has been specialising in wood carving since three generations, remodelled the missing carved doors of the church, made new statues, restored missing details in the wooden altar, completed gilding work in the main altar, side altars and helped restore the missing pulpit canopy. The completed restoration is a conscious layering of identity, tradition, and necessity within the ethos of a contemporary culture. Retrofitted with an energy efficient 20-feet blade fan, ambient LED lights, ramps, and railings; nearly a thousand people gather for mass every Sunday ever since the church reopened in September 2015. The richness and meanings of interiors past and present resonate visually, materially, technologically, spatially and socio-culturally.

The work of Vikas Dilawari Architects presents a critique of the pedagogical models for design education, manoeuvring complexities in sustaining the built as opposed to building anew. Patronage for commissions in the past have enabled the architects to conserve the less prominent structures that are part of the quotidian fabric of the city. The restoration of St John the Baptist Church and its historic building interiors is foregrounded in the understanding that these structures are constructed with finesse, positioned seemingly well in a planned urban scheme or sometimes just organically fit in. Beyond the physical attributes of the architecture, townscape, roof-scape, mass and scale, it is the conjoined quality of a space and its cultural integrity that reaffirms the significance of heritage structures to a continued way of life ♦

Image Credits: ©VDA; Allan Fernandez and Jervis Alvares
Drawings: ©VDA
Text: Hrushita Davey

VIKAS DILAWARI ARCHITECTS is a firm of dedicated professionals offering consultancy in the field of Architecture, Conservation, Heritage Management and Urban design for the past twenty-six years. The firm’s work has been awarded with 12 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Preservation in South East Asia. The firm has successfully worked on varied range of projects from historic homes, palaces, residential buildings, educational buildings, hostels, churches, dharamshalas, museums, banks, fountains and hospitals. Several of their projects have received national as well as international recognition. This project was executed with active participation from the then Parish Priest, Bishop Allwyn D’Silva, the Parish Committee of St John the Baptist Church and the Church Finance Committee.

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