Written by Sonali Dhanpal, Architect & Built Heritage Conservationist; Conservation Studies alumni (2016-17)
Built in 1907, Fort High School (Figure 1) is an unprotected historic building that stands two storeys high next to one of Bengaluru’s prized monuments, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace on one side and a large open ground on the other. Despite its idyllic location, this courtyard building has withstood the test of time and stands as was intended over 110 years ago. At present it is used as a high school and pre-university college run by the government, catering to over 500 students annually. Its present use makes it a unique conservation project that will involve introducing much needed modern amenities to the school, accommodating the public grounds that surround the building while retaining the historicity of a heritage building.
The site on which Fort High School stands is where the Mysore gate of the Bangalore fort once stood. It was the southern gate of the fort and it was here that in 1791 that the British martyred the soldiers of Tipu Sultan in the infamous Third Anglo-Mysore War. The building itself is equally important, as it was the first established government high school in the Mysore Province and was built at a time when the princely state of Mysore, under the administration of Maharaja Krishna Raja Wadiyar, began to develop the state. Opened as the English Vernacular school in 1905 and renamed as Fort High School 1907, the school boasts of associations with many prominent personalities of the Karnataka state.
The building fits the description of an Anglo-Vernacular style with elements of European architecture such as the scale and symmetry of the octagonal projecting bays (Figure 2) seen in the front elevation. The vernacular style is seen from the central courtyard (Figure 3) with rooms on all sides, the Madras terrace and sloping roof with Mangalore tiles (Figure 4). The ornamental features, such as the use of Roman arches with key stones above openings (Figure 5), gable ends with gable windows, and detailing such as cornices and wooden fascia, all give a colonial expression to the building.
Another interesting result of the detailed survey conducted was that more than adequate evidence was found to determine that the school was built in two phases. This evidence ranged from differences in structural treatment, surface treatment, closing of gable windows, addition of new joinery details between the original structure and the later intervention. A few of the other interesting elements are:
i.) A unique timber-steel composite truss is seen supporting 8 primary angular rafters and a series of secondary rafters running along 4 ridges and 4 valleys from a single intersection point (Figure 6). This type of truss is seen in three prominent rooms on the first floor.
ii.) Half-timbered walls with a brick infill are seen in three gable walls of the front elevation (Figure 7). While this is a common element in English Tudor architecture, it is a very unique feature in South India.
Contextual backdrop to conservation policy
Monumental imperial structures that demonstrate grandeur and affluence remain prized by conservationists and politicians alike. However, buildings at the other end of the spectrum, technical and institutional infrastructure that were built to accommodate daily operations of locals, remain yet to be recognized as worthy of conservation. While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the State Authorities protect prominent heritage structures in Bangalore, Fort High School, despite its 117-year history, remains unprotected under either authority. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) listing of heritage precincts in the city includes Fort High School. Nevertheless, it remains a non-governmental organisation, which cannot pass legislation and plays the role of an advisory body to the ASI unless state legislation says differently, or private funding is donated to or raised by the organization to facilitate any conservation process.
Challenges of conserving an unprotected heritage building
The unprotected nature of the heritage building poses many challenges in the conservation of the structure. Does the school require restoration even though it functions as it was intended? What should be the extent of interventions? Do you limit the project to structural restoration? What principles will guide the work? Navigating these questions and finding justifiable solutions has been the crux of the intervention plans. Other challenges are also presented, such as difficulty in retrieving primary literature sources that describe the original plan or offer the name of any architect involved. While this is the case for many buildings of this period, it leaves many proposals to rely only on scientific testing and visually available evidence. Another issue is that a public playground surrounds the Fort High School building. Hence it is often under threat of vandalism, forcing the recommended interventions to be ones that can withstand public use. The school also remains underfunded as it is run by the government, and upkeep and maintenance of the structure after restoration will be limited, hence any recommendations must be done with minimum required maintenance.
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Bengaluru chapter is set to execute the project. The most important step before conservation has been to involve diverse stakeholders in the process. This has included the teachers, alumni, the Horological Society that has adopted the school, and other experts in the field of conservation. The study and assessment of this building began with the documentation and preparation of measured base drawings, followed by assessment of the condition of the structure in detail and mapping of defects on the base drawings. Appropriate interventions and proposals have been recommended for the building after consulting users and experts. The aim of the project is to restore this purpose-built building to its original glory and provide the impetus for further recognition of Fort High School as an integral historical landmark in the city of Bengaluru.