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Project Profile


2008 Award of Merit

Vysial Street

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Project TitleVysial Street

LocationCalve Subraya Chetty Street (Vysial Street), Pondicherry, India

CostUS$ 1,031,250

Responsible PartyAjit Koujalgi and Shadish Velu

Heritage ArchitectAjit Koujalgi

ContractorGuedjabady and R.K.Nataraj

Date of CompletionJuly 2004

Project Synopsis

Pondicherry is situated on the Coromandel Coast of India, 160 kilometres south of Chennai (formerly known as Madras). This well-planned former French colonial city possesses a gridiron street pattern with two distinct parts: a French quarter and a Tamil quarter. Pondicherry’s unique ambience is the result of a coalescence of European architecture adapted to a tropical climate and Tamil vernacular architecture. French streets are characterised by large single houses fronted by ornate gateways and featuring garden courts behind. The Tamil streets display long, tiled shed-roofed verandahs (thalvaram) or flat-roofed colonnades with platforms (thinnai). Essentially interactive streetscapes, the streets of the Tamil quarter celebrate social interaction and provide the context for exchanges between residents and shopkeepers and the many daily passers-by. These arrangements convey a strong impression of the Tamil collective culture.

The historic city of Pondicherry has experienced widespread loss of its heritage building stock; about 60 percent of its listed buildings were severely altered or demolished in the decade between 1994 and 2004. This loss has been particularly evident in the Tamil quarter. The overall trend in development, through the removal of existing heritage buildings and the construction of new premises that demonstrate little regard for their historic surroundings, has led to a loss of street character. The unique qualities of Pondicherry were the victim of this pattern, the result of which has been a steady loss of the town’s identity. Pondicherry has reached a critical juncture at which heritage conservation is struggling against insensitive new development to achieve a balance of old and new in the changing context of modern times.

Vysial Street (also known as Rue Calve Subraya Chetty), located between Rue de Mission and Gandhi Street, is one of the few remaining streets that retains the traditional characteristics of the Tamil quarter of Pondicherry. The street is named after Calve Subraya Chettiar, a wealthy banker and philanthropist who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century. Fortunately, Vysial Street has experienced few interruptions in its overall composition and still claims a large number of listed heritage buildings worthy of conservation.

The project to restore Vysial Street was titled the “Model Street and Facade Restoration Project” and was a distinct project within the broader context of the Asia Urbs initiative, a programme conceived by the European Commission to give a new impetus to heritage preservation. The programme’s strategy has been to demonstrate the role of heritage in urban development by highlighting the economic and tourism potential of historic places. Under the guidelines of the programme, the applicant city must partner with two European cities. The Pondicherry municipality took the initiative to apply for funding through the programme, working with the cities of Urbino (Italy) and Villeneuve-sur-Lot (France).

Focused on the living heritage of a streetscape, the principal objective of the Pondicherry project was to preserve one of the very few remaining Tamil streets and to evoke a sense of pride in ownership. The project represented an effort by local residents, heritage advocates and the Asia Urbs Programme to forestall further loss of Pondicherry’s heritage buildings and identity, and to demonstrate an alternative approach to modern development that would call attention to the unique assets of the historic streetscape.

With the aim of achieving an integrated heritage effort, one that benefitted the people who relied on Vysial Street as their home and place of business, the project encompassed façade restoration, improvements to the street and walkways, and general improvements to services.

Conservation Approach

The Model Street and Facade Restoration scheme involved distinct steps in a process of urban revitalization. Documentation incorporated information on incomes, population, housing conditions, as well as individual descriptions of each property along the street. Another key step was to raise awareness among local residents as to the value of their houses and shops, while a further stage involved working with government officials and local agencies to facilitate the implementation of the project. The restoration and rehabilitation work only began after gaining the support of both residents and officials.

The project team selected 16 listed buildings for rehabilitation, together with an additional eight buildings that did not meet heritage criteria. Work focused on the careful restoration and refurbishment of the historic buildings and the redesign of the exteriors of the eight non-historic structures. Actual construction work included the repair and replacement of damaged wood rafters, battens, ceiling panels, and door and window frames; and the refurbishment of masonry surfaces, including wall plaster, cornices, pilasters, parapets, copings, steps and ramps.

All work was accomplished in accordance with approved conservation standards. This meant the use of traditional lime mortars and sensitive repairs to the historic fabric. To restore the walkways, workers installed terracotta tiles and coated concrete floor areas with red oxide cement. They also inserted granite bases beneath the wooden support posts of the verandahs to protect the posts from damp. Workers cleaned and treated the remaining Mangalore roofing tiles and replaced damaged and missing tiles with matching materials. Masonry surfaces received a coating of lime-based paint, the colours of which approximated historic colour schemes. All wood members were painted with enamel paint for further protection. Non-historic buildings were repaired, and features out of keeping with the overall pattern of the street were removed. Workers also painted these buildings to better match the older structures around them.

In addition to the conservation work, workers also resurfaced the road and repaired storm water drains. Technicians also installed new lampposts and consolidated the chaotic assemblage of telephone, electrical and television lines. Another aspect of the project was the planting of trees along the street.

Conservation and the Community

The Vysial street rehabilitation project resulted in a dramatic transformation of a decaying urban neighbourhood, restoring the historic ambience of the street and alerting residents and others to the value of the city’s heritage resources. Vysial Street is now an important tourism destination within Pondicherry. The street’s residents today take pride in their surroundings and benefit from the increased revenue from tourism and greater patronage by city residents.

The improvements have had a profound effect on city-planning ideas in Pondicherry and the project now serves as a role model for other projects in the city and within heritage towns and cities elsewhere in India. For example, local government authorities have noted and appreciated this remarkable effort and proposed a similar project to restore facades along Beach Promenade. The Vysial Street project has also highlighted the significant contribution of the Tamil population to the city’s history and present character, and has significantly lifted the pride of the city’s residents.

Quote from the Project Team

“The heritage streetscape got a face lift and brought back the traditional street character for all to see and experience.”