Architecture is a well-established profession, well known in the public domain. By virtue of the physical prominence of their creations, master architects, builders and craftsmen over centuries have enjoyed State patronage and have left their indelible mark on urban landscapes. However, recent events unfolding in the redevelopment of the Central Vista Area have created a major flutter in normally staid architectural circles.
While the need for such a project in the most premium real estate in the country is itself debatable, the unseemly haste in first tendering the project and then awarding it to the highest bidder on the basis of technical scores is in itself a major cause of concern. The selection of the architectural firm, in this case HCP Consultants, however, did not come as a surprise to any of the architects who attended the first pre-bid meeting held at the CPWD HQs. Only one firm at that meeting was not in favour of an open design competition and eventually it was this firm which was awarded the project.
As an aside, the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs reportedly made a statement that architectural consultancy fee is normally 3 per cent of the total project cost and this was received with a great deal of scepticism by practicing architects who have seen consultancy for government projects going at almost a tenth of the amount with the NBCC even issuing a letter capping the architectural consultancy fees at 0.5 per cent. This is in spite of guidelines issued by the COA, a statutory body established under the Council of Architects Act 1972, which have been routinely flouted by all government departments.
But first we must look at the larger picture. In the past few years, there has been a sustained attempt to rebuild the national capital of Delhi. It started with the redevelopment of Pragati Maidan, Sarojini Nagar and now Kidwai Nagar wherein low-rise and people-friendly landscaped areas have been systematically converted into glittery high-rise structures far removed from the architectural ethos of India. A not so transparent effort at demolishing and rebuilding New Delhi appears to be on the agenda. Systematic demolition of prominent buildings like the WHO building and the Hall of Nations have been carried out despite public protests. The recent tender issued for the redevelopment of North and South Avenue MPs quarters also shows that there is a grandiose vision to slowly but steadily demolish the capital and rebuild afresh.
Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker may be the architects responsible for New Delhi, but the final product was Indian and has in fact merged into the Indian social mileu and consciousness over the years. To brand all of it as colonial legacy is philistinism, to say the least. To be sure, all cities reinvent and repurpose themselves but evolved democracies make sure that the process which is followed respects the environment and the built heritage. It cannot be left to the ideology of demolishing colonialism and building a New India. Political rhetoric must be distinct from good architectural practice. To obliterate the built environment without considering the cultural, economic, social and urban planning aspects is going to create disastrous results. By this logic, almost all of Delhi will have to be demolished to create what people perceive as the New India and from the results visible on the ground in cases like Pragati Maidan and Kidwai Nagar, that would be disastrous.
While there have been no public consultations on this project, its salient details and animated versions have been making the rounds on social media. The selected proposal, complete with plans, has also been dissected and analysed with financial and other implications in some of the national newspapers. However, the public consultations which are to be carried out as per the statement of the Minister are nowhere in sight. Such measures only serve to reinforce the secret and surreptitious nature of the proceedings.
A fact that has been almost overlooked in the proposal is that the PM’s residence is to be a part of the Central Vista Area. Does this finally mean the end of the most visited and loved public spaces in the capital? Already the exclusion of people from what used to be a children’s park, and is now the War Memorial, is evident. Open spaces, critical to the national capital especially in the context of increasing pollution, are now being done away with. A huge project of this nature involving demolition and construction is also likely to have a huge environmental cost which does not seem to have been factored in. More than the buildings, the open spaces define the environment and it is this quality that the proposed redevelopment seeks to alter.
When we examine the proposal that has been finally accepted for execution it is evident that it has been put together in haste without considering the larger urban planning or even architectural aspects. Fossilizing existing functional and vibrant structures into museums is neither logical nor financially viable. While repurposing areas and adaptive reuse of buildings is the norm worldwide, constructing new buildings ab initio and demolishing existing buildings should be undertaken with a full analysis of the wide-ranging ramifications as this can cause severe environmental damage. For example, buildings like the White House and Buckingham Palace have been remodelled without majorly altering the structure and resorting to largescale demolitions. It is also reported that there is an attempt to pick and choose elements from other proposals received for the Central Vista Area. This, if true, can only result in a piecemeal and fragmented approach which does not augur well for the project as a whole.
A back of the envelope calculation throws up a cost of Rs 25,000 crore for the project though no information is available in the public domain on anything apart from the consultancy amount. Spending public money of this quantum is a definite waste in the present state of the economy keeping in view the fact that this project is poorly thought through in the first place. This doesn’t seem to deter the powers that be from trying to rush this project and others of a similar nature in time for the next general elections. This unseemly haste bodes a gloomy future for a much-loved area of New Delhi.
(The writer is an architect from SPA Delhi and a veteran officer of the Corps of Engineers. He is a practicing architect, Secretary of SPA Alumni Association and an Executive member of the Indian Institute of Architects, Northern Chapter. He has also been a Visiting Professor at SPA Delhi and Amity University.)