Bimal Patel’s plan for a revamped Central Vista in New Delhi is glaringly unimaginative and bound to find a place in chronicles listing urban banalities and missed opportunities. Impositions that appear in the ‘evolving plan’ created by the much ‘Favoured Architect’ seem to let down even the colluding Central Authority that plotted its possibility. The conspiracy with deeper roots, builds on an earlier Planning Commission report advocated quietly by the powers then. Eager to push individual agendas at the nation’s collective expense, the shoddy resultant articulated recently emerges from tactical misadventures in both programme and design. The stiff ‘napkin sketch’ pressured and bankrupt without ideas and skills remains qualitatively inelastic and underdeveloped. Perhaps it could be best used to wipe the proposed design slate. All this requires serious introspection that charts starting all over.
Against the backdrop of an environmental and financial crisis, this new distraction is driven by old formulas of power, legacy, empirical ideas of governance and financial gain. The intent carries a pattern of continuities established by the "sense of a maverick that can simply solve all problems" identified in a priority list of the establishment that have nothing to do with the nation’s pressing concerns. The reformatory indulgence here involves dragging bureaucrats and politicos down Raisaina Hill into repetitive shells rubber stamped in a ready and available outright ugly aesthetic complete with mousey subterranean connectivity, all to put everyone in place. It mediates clumsy disproportionate NBCC like building forms with the fascist looking parts of Habitat Centre, hoping to put Chrchillean clichés into reality. In this day and age can bureaucrats and politicos be reformed by space and buildings that shape them?
The product is undesirable and accompanied with its fair share of mindless and harmful intrusions. The poor design and the resultant compromise in values masked and marketed as ‘restrained’ are set to deny a number of critical future opportunities, usurp others and destroy some of what is available. Labeled as ‘conservative’ and ‘passive’, it will replace urban constructs and shared values long taken for granted. Inventive interventions required have clearly been overlooked to provide for a lot more of less than mediocre of what has now become so acceptable and common.
The song and dance charade of the “exclusionary process” leading to the selection was compromised by a cosy familiarity that even shook the immovable CPWD. In a system created to work around the selection, the government appropriating in its tender the voice of the ‘bidder’, it bowed only to his ‘almost last minute suggestion’ to change conditions set the stage to select his design as we know now that didn’t quite exist!
The rushed, impatient and impulsive urges to stamp markings have denied public and professional debates on the nature of transformations. Competing Urban Visions created through an open competition would save the nation from infructuous expenditure. Based on a consensus that follows, different architects should be allowed to compete to produce the best designs for each of the sites. A government that takes pride in its rootedness to ordinary origins should wake up to the possibility, of making selections based not on earnings and ready computer licences available in an office cupboard but solely on the merit of the product that is created!
The design of the Central Vista as a function of the setting also belongs to the nation and the world. The project that is on the table unfortunately is an array of the outright undesirable. A more democratic process should be followed to create a product that protects democratic ideals. Designing the national parliament and its environs should have a focus on ‘for the people, by the people, of the people’, and be enshrined in values listed in the Preamble of our Constitution. Entrenched between mediating statistical empiricism and a desperate search for a paradigm, the project thinking here is at best tilted in favour of replacing vintage low quality work spaces with more of it, in a newer avatar. Its heart is far from users of the magnificent public space and complex urban framework. In not recognizing the cohesive civic layer that should have been reinforced, the project misses out on being creative.
Recent presentations give away the author’s inside-out gaze that handicaps his abilities. His initial design moves driven by dimension threshold fixities within individual buildings are conveniently “traded-off” while omitting conjuring up any idea of the urban. To tackle numbers that disturb his obsession with repetitive rigid envelopes and the banal resultant forms that simply follow hollow moves, he finds refuge in models determined by abstract reformatory stances. The genesis of problems he creates arise from this outlook in the project. And it leads the project to many more problems, magnified many times over.
By introducing residences for the Prime Minister and the Vice President at the two eastern corners of Rashtrapati Bhawan flanked by Ministries laid down along the vista, the project risks cordoning off a vast part of the heart of Delhi used actively by everyone. This strategic introduction of the components, not a part of the original brief, also raises questions about other agendas and new portrayal of power equations. Usurping public space, it also pushes out any possibility of use of these areas by the people. Not too far long ago, one could walk through under the cupolas of North and South Blocks to spaces across. An administrative diktat that put an end to all this could do much the same in the future! Museums placed on the Hill, readapting the South and North Blocks appear as ‘stop gaps’. A more imaginative effort would result from inventing new institutions weaving through a structured urban linkage that could provide a reflective interface between the state and its people. Even as the plan proposes new public space and an arboretum within Rashtrapati Bhawan where the secured ‘envelope sanitaire’ should have found place for residences demanding high security, the project effectively eats up the public space south of Raisina Hill. The plan conveniently destroys the National Museum and the IGNCA to be overrun by more of rubber stamp Ministries imported from the defunct Eastern Block oeuvres. In the process it takes away cultural spots along Janpath, Man Singh Road and the zone that runs across the Vijay Chowk that was originally conceived to accommodate institutions to enable mediation between the state and the public! Even Lutyens had considered the National Theatre at the time to allow for mixing of diverse groupings of individuals. Architecture in a democracy can at best share political space which can over times develop new meanings. The agency to invent opportunities which for some appear as conflicts is Architecture. For all this often new institutions have to be invented where people are the focus and the architectural oeuvre is structured to overcome abstract mono programming of uses and blindness to opportunities of sensitive place-making.
By adopting a strategy to push out civic institutions to the periphery of vista, the project restricts other future opportunities. Satisfied by the limited gaze of recovering under-utilized space, it closes possible contemplation on enhancements and conveniently utilizes statistical manipulations to make a case for increasing public space which it clearly eats into.
The singular reading of the Colonial Axis not recognizing the ‘mat like armature’ appropriated since it’s construction, the project misses out on reinforcing the cross axes as civic areas connecting to the city. It creates circumstances that worsen conditions from even the weak rhythm created in the post-independent intermittent organization of civic buildings and mono-office blocks that exist now. The staggering of congestive pressure points and distribution of uses across the space will be lost. The project expels the cultural envelope from the centre and conveniently trades it for concentrated stress on the land and mindless congestion. Missed opportunities, will not only be restricted along the north- south vehicular avenues but at the edges that the Ministries and other office buildings share with surrounding areas. More so along the lawns at the Rajpath side. Compromising the environs, the project formalizes existing makeshift car parks between the water bodies and plot edges blocking the remotest of spatial possibilities that include the ordinary citizen or allow multi-use of space. The edge abutting the green lawns along Rajpath should be more porous. Easily secured, with public sensitive programming in buildings and in independent structures new modern meanings to the idea of the government in a new age could have been created. By treating the edges of the ministry buildings along the city avenue side in the same closed and replicated manner the project has laid the foundations of merciless spider like web, set to ignore the environs, and confuse all who will be trapped within.
The proposed New Parliament in the triangular plot across the original building in the ‘Vijay Chowk band’ shall miss possibilities of a public building as a placement response across the Rajpath. The opportunity left to our age to create a new institution imaginatively programmed as architecture actively used by people, perhaps even to reduce obfuscations we always sense or face, and bring them closer to governments should have been one of the principal pieces of the project brief or its interpretation. Inventive architectural typologies to accommodate a sense of participation are clearly not on the agenda. None of these buildings as at present, should be designed as closed bulky envelopes. Openness and active secured interface which invites and channels people through, including that in the proposed new Parliament House would certainly provide for more meaning to the vista. This has been successfully tried in different ways in other adaptations of parliamentary enclosures across the globe.
The plan restricted by its attitude of grabbing up land parcels should instead bring every inch of it in meaningful and ingenious use. In doing so it could scale the ordinary and the monumental in an inventive order, sprinkled with autonomous components allowing the possibility to disperse authority and be more about people. Even the colonial plan in its articulation had utilized domes and other elements sprinkled within the thick foliage to stand out independently in a diverse manner to reinforce individuality within a monumental arena. It offered the possibility of a duality within which individuals and the collective all had equal place. Monumentality created with typological differentiation has richer possibilities and dividends.
The projected unimaginative Architecture is hopeless, closed and apologetic. Lost in numbers and a restrictive mannerism that owes ‘a finality’ to abstracting vulgarities so prevalent, it is set to reinforce dismal camouflaged walls that owe their existence to the faulty patronage and mechanisms to award works. This at hand, now even the dreary Bhawan’s for some seem more attractive. Clad with soulless curtain wall glass in the inner courts the buildings appear to relate to new commercial establishments now common in tier three cities. On the outside, the sense of unsurety that surrounds patchy swaths of stone and large expanses of glass appeal to the sensibilities of nouveau conglomerates. The disproportionate buildings suffer from amnesia that dislocates them from both the sensitivities to the place and the environment. The poor response to the setting does not appeal to any mold that is hoping to find spatial ingenuity or search out for progressive work environments. Presented as inevitable rationality and a ’trade off,’ this clearly is what the nation can do without!
In a time when understanding the Preamble of the Constitution appears fashionable, in this case perhaps it can guide the typological rigor creating urban constructs. Articulated by inventive forms and spaces within the envelope that belong to the Republic, a modern outlook for setting foundations to new layers must not take away from future opportunities. It must make allowances for space for all and be liberating enough to entertain measured change with inventive dimensions. The new Central Vista must enshrine universal values that defy the narcissism of identities to protect the dignity of the individual. It must always enable the creation of elegance responding to multiple uncertainties and complex responsibilities.
Arun Rewal, an alumnus of School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has worked in France, Canada, US and India. He is a leading Architect, Urban Designer and Planner who practices and teaches.