Central Vista Redevelopment: a fait accompli?
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Civilizations have long been asserting their hegemony through architecture. Be it the Roman aqueducts, amphitheaters, and basilicas found as remnants of the Roman Empire in Europe or Islamic mausoleums and mosques of the once Ottoman-ruled regions, or relics of colonial architecture, the constant search for power assertion is telling.
The attempts of British to impose imperial classicism over the Indian subcontinent in the course of their influence in the early 1900s were met with severe criticisms by Indian representatives as well as critically sensitive British Architects emerging as a result of Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts Movements in England. “In India where ingenuity was required more than anything we were forcing purity of style, I was told to make Calcutta Classical, Bombay Gothic, Madras Saracenic, Rangoon was to be Renaissance and English cottages were to be dotted about all over the plains of India,” said James Ransome, the first Consulting Architect appointed by the Indian Government in 1902, summarizing his experience of working in India at a RIBA lecture more than 25 years later. The initiative by Samuel Swinton Jacob, a patron of the Maharaja of Jaipur, had a definitive impact on Indian Architecture. He composed six large volumes of The Jaypore Portfolio of Architecture Details which presents more than 600 large-scale drawings of elements chosen from various buildings in North India dating from twelfth through to seventeenth centuries, to create a ‘composite identity’ along with colonial validation in this complex, layered historical region of India. However, Jacob’s approach of “synthesis” didn’t appeal to Edwin Lutyens (appointed by the government to plan the city of New Delhi in the 1920s) who thought this approach would essentially be Western classical with mere hints of traditional forms. He achieved a sufficient balance between the requirements of a harsh climate and the symbolism demanded by politics through abstractions of details (chhatris, chhajjas, and jaalis) assimilated with his classical language. By cleverly using abstract details and even larger elements like the Stupa from Sanchi for the main dome of the Viceregal Lodge, Lutyens gave an appropriate “expression to the existing colonial ideology of commanding the ruled through the use of their own language and symbols.”
Excerpts from The Jeypore Portfolio, Samuel Swinton Jacob
75 years post-Independence, India wants to rebrand itself as a competing and powerful nation completely free from its colonial ties to comfort and lift the buoyancy of investors in the country. It’s almost essential to reinterpret the seat of power that is the Central Vista of New Delhi comprising The Rashtrapati Bhawan, North and South Block of Central Secretariat, Parliament House, offices of various ministries, the mighty India Gate and its surrounding lawns owing to a lot of reasons; the structures are old, do not fulfill the seismic requirements of Delhi and the government offices in Delhi are too far apart to work efficiently. The axial layout with President’s House at one end, Central Secretariat in the middle and India Gate at the other end might be suggestive of an autocratic regime but the Rajpath and its interaction with the general public in the form of public gatherings and protests makes it essentially democratic in nature.
Nonetheless, the seemingly tearing haste with which the Ministry of Urban Development, Central Public Works Department and the Delhi Development Authority is carrying out this revamp neither conforms to the international standards of project initiation nor seeks to respect democracy in a national project of such scope and significance. DDA hurriedly changes the land-use of the respective area for revamping without much professional consultation and public hearing, some parcels change from “Public and Semi-Public Facilities” to “Restricted Access Government Offices,” and some change from “District Park” to high-security zone for the new parliament building. CPWD calls for bids for “Central Vista Redevelopment” by firms only whose annual turnover is over Rs. 2 Cr and with EDM Rs. 50 Lakh, which not only leaves very few Indian firms in the net but also makes this project of national significance look like one whose takeaway will not be decided by the best value in design but by the lowest bid. A global competition is called for, where only 6 out of 27 architecture firms are shortlisted and Gujarat based HCP Design and Planning (associated with Kashi Vishwanath Corridor and Sabarmati Riverfront projects) wins the bid, against an international standard of two-stage competition. All of this in just a fleeting seven weeks period seems like an eyewash to just make the selection process look democratic. For a project of such significance, the government should take the design fraternity into confidence and fish for as many ideas as possible but the current norms and proceedings suggest otherwise. The timeline for completion of the project is ambitious. A new parliament building is to be constructed by July 2022, a new central secretariat by March 2024, and the Central Vista’s landscape is to be reshaped by November this year, all of which makes it look more like this government’s electoral imperative rather than a fulfillment of national responsibility. The Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Institute of Urban Designers India (IUDI) and the Indian Society of Landscape Architects India (ISOLA) have issued a joint dossier to the concerned ministry as well as HCP Design, Planning And Management Pvt. Ltd. for their due consideration which displays the urgency and gravity of the issue.
Take a look at conceptual designs submitted.
What is drawing flak is not the project per se but the rush with which the government is conducting it. Ideally, a wider net should have been cast to fish out more ideas from the design fraternity and the tasks of planning, architecture and urban design should have been piloted discretely but simultaneously. The dearth of transparency in the process and the haste to get through with it not only suggests a particular political party’s electoral imperative but also a statement of power it wants to put across as a conservative collective. Is spending the taxpayers’ money on this scale for not-a-well-thought-out-project worth it in the current economic slowdown? So, considering that revamping of such standing will be a fait accompli, can we argue what is made in haste is repented at leisure?
Let us bring the gravity of this issue before the government by signing the petition here.