Do you imagine built heritage as dead monuments of a distant past? As we move deeper into the 21st century, the perception of built heritage will need a more practical angle for the betterment of not only our cities but also the people who populate them.

Consider the recent case of the Osmania General Hospital in the city of Hyderabad, India. A 20th Century first quarter construction of ‘monumental’ Indo-Saracenic proportions, the structure is a beautiful and imposing edifice on the banks of Musi river. One of the many such structures built on either banks of the river as part of a major urban design program, after major floods created unprecedented devastation to life and property. This set of iconic architecture lining the riverfront has, for almost a 100 years now, provided the city and its people with an view of their city as they cross over from the older part to the new on the many bridges that span the river.

Hyderabad Riverfront
Hyderabad Riverfront
Though the more important aspect of this architecture apart from its imageability, is the fact that all these structures still retain the use they were originally built for. These public buildings are till date the AP State High Court, the AP State Central Library, the City Government College, the Salarjung Museum, and the Osmania General Government Hospital. All structures have had annexes built around them, sometimes in mimicry of traditional architecture style, but at other times, the style of the annexes disregards the style of the original buildings. But with the switch from autocracy to democracy, the rapid advancement of technology and the urban population explosion, these structures have been strained for want of space and infrastructure to such an extent that their very relevance, and even existence, is under debate.  

The Osmania General Hospital sits in the heart of the old city-new city transition. It is surrounded by dense low-rise mixed-use neighbourhoods, narrow congested streets and an expanse of open space in the form of the river. Being the sole government hospital of some repulation, it is the ‘go-to’ point for the ailing poor, the stretched middle-class and also the rich running out of options. The heritage building has long been inadequate to cater to this demand, and one really wonders whether the piece-meal annexes over the years have really bettered the situation or created further inconvenience through bad planning.

The government has been working on a major infrastructure development plan, and after years of bureaucratic processing the proposal was finally underway with financial aid sanctioned, when the issue of the protection of built heritage has stalled proceedings. The proposed new annexe is a huge development of almost 1 million sq.ft. rising 8 floors i.e. rising 4 floors above the heritage structure, which is a protected building accorded Grade II-B status deserving ‘intelligent conservation and additions’. This obviously is expected to have a major effect on the prized riverfront image of the city, and threatens more than just this heritage building since it will be an unprecedented development of this scale.

The situation raises some very important questions regarding the perceptions of living built heritage. The matter is very different from when one is trying to utilize existing resource through adaptive reuse of old buildings, or when one is preserving monuments for posterity. What course does one take when trying to augment an existing heritage building resource? Does one put a cap on the augmentation scale, does one take the infrastructure out of the heritage building to a new location altogether and put another use in, or does one ignore the heritage issue in favour of developing much-needed infrastructure.

It is a rare situation when a building belonging to a different era of architectural style, construction technology and material continues to be used for the purpose it was originally built for. More than anything else the building is an image and embodiment of the value that the institution it houses stands for. It has been so for a number years and the population that surrounds it has an association with it, be it emotional, economic, social or cultural. It is unimaginable to think of such an institution being shifted to another location far away from the people that it has served for so long. It is equally unimaginable to think of such an institution stagnate out of service. This makes putting a cap on the development scale as the only viable option.

Osmania Hospital Heritage Building representing a dichotomy of extremes