It was December 1911 and George V at his coronation durbar announced that the imperial capital would shift from Calcutta to Delhi. It sent out a message that they were the worthy successors to the Mughals. The commission to construct the new capital was given to two of England’s most celebrated architects, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. Lutyens laid out the master plan and built the principal building, the Viceroy’s Palace, today’s Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Raisina Hill was chosen for the many monuments that lay along its broad crescent, from Shahjahanabad and Firoz Shah Kotla to Tughlaqabad and the tombs of Safdarjung and Lodhis. “Lutyens’s idea was to keep the domes as part of the visual imagery of the landscape. They were supposed to peep out of trees and be the focal points, in keeping with the imperial tone of his design,” says Madhav Raman, a Delhi-based architect.
Lutyens’s master plan was a network of radial spokes knitted across 85 km, with bungalows for officers distributed across its expanse. Hierarchy was everything — from the kind of bungalows gazetted officers would occupy to the ones for British and Indian officers and their peons. From the size and height of structures to the size of gates and hedges around, each detail was mapped. Even avenues were planned accordingly. The Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ), which covered over 2,800 hectare ran all the way till Connaught Place. So if bungalows on Prithviraj Road are part of LBZ, Kidwai Nagar with its government quarters also belong there.
Last month, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), directed by the Union ministry of urban development, drew out a demarcation for the LBZ. It has been proposed that the LBZ area will be reduced from its present 28.73 sq m to 23.60 sq m. This includes removing areas which do not “resemble the Lutyens Bungalow character”, which were included in 1988.
In an essay he wrote this year, architect Viren Brahmbhatt takes a step back from the power blocs to the narrow bye-lanes of the LBZ and suggests that the super-exclusive area make space for its working class. “It would not be implausible to imagine some parts of the LBZ appropriated for affordable housing, mixed-use and social, cultural and community uses. Newcomers are pushed to the peripheries or live on the margins of society — on or under the road infrastructure and leftover pockets within the city while the low-density LBZ and overtly invested infrastructure of New Delhi remains exclusive and underused. This floating population often provides much-needed services to the affluent communities within LBZ, the government offices and the commercial establishments in and around New Delhi,” he wrote in his essay Decolonizing Delhi | Towards an Equitable City’ in “Reimagining Lutyens’ Delhi”.
While the jury is out on the merits of the proposal by DUAC, architects who have researched and worked in LBZ and those on urban development committees say the proposal requires more rigorous study. “Those who have no access to Lutyens’s Bungalows know the area by its roads. DUAC, which has a design cell, should graphically describe the built form the new buildings will take, both within and abutting the precinct. For instance, tiny details like how the facades will look, what kind of gates and lamp posts should the area have, what kind of materials can be used. They will need to keep the external form aesthetically in line with the rest of the LBZ. When Lutyens planned the area, each detail, including the kerbs and gates, were designed and specified,” says Raman.
The LBZ is not a homogenous zone. Sujan Singh Park built by British architect Walter George and Delhi’s Sobha Singh in 1945 was the city’s first apartment complex, and was part of the Lutyens’s plan. Other architects argue that the trees — some as old as Lutyens’s Delhi — should not come to harm in any restructuring. KT Ravindran, professor, architect and urban designer, says the redefinition of the LBZ has been overdue since 1988 when many areas were included such as Golf Links, Jor Bagh and Panscheel. “This is not a private or real estate space, it is a national space and is in the imagination of the people as the capital of the country. Much of it comes from the street experience and that should be maintained. Therefore, protection of existing trees is important. Lastly, when densities increase, need for services will increase. Its upgradation should be managed before any new structure is built,” he says.
If there is a step in the right direction, it comes from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). The corporation has signed a non-commercial MOU with the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Green Mobility (CGM) to make Lutyens’s Delhi more bicycle friendly. After the organisation studied travel patterns of office-goers in the area, they evolved a plan to have a dense network of bicycle stations, each within 3-5 minutes walking distance from each other. “NDMC will also undertake retrofitting of junctions/ road intersections to make them safe for cyclists and pedestrians. If intersections can be treated with bike boxes and dedicated bicycle signals, it will help increase safety of cyclists at junctions where maximum cycle fatalities may occur,” says Anuj Malhotra, CEO, CGM.
In 2014, students and faculty of the Urban Design Studio, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York, in collaboration with local partners in Delhi embarked on a project called “Reimagining Lutyens’ Delhi”*. They examined the present day Lutyens’s Plan and explored the possibilities for densification and development of the area. Among their four “provocations”, they suggested that Janpath can truly become a “People’s Way” by creating public spaces and increasing social interactions, while another suggestion examined the potential of a vast open landscape, particularly along Rajpath, to re-establish the relationship between the city and the river (water).
Brahmbhatt, adjunct associate professor at GSAPP, Columbia University, who was involved with the project says in his essay, “New Delhi can move towards an integrated and equitable city by undertaking this delayed decolonization…Turn the Capital City and its assets into a ‘shared resource’ for the entire city and truly become a socio-economically and environmentally sustainable green capital for 21st century India.”
* Faculty and Critics: Richard Plunz, Victor Body-Lawson, Viren Brahmbhatt, Michael Conard, Juan Esteban Correa Elejalde, Petra Kempf, Geeta Mehta, Kate Orff