Late last month, the Delhi High Court gave a judgment that an architect of a building, as the author of an artistic work of architecture, does not have the right to restrain the demolition of a building. The ruling dismissed the suit by architect Raj Rewal, who filed the case when the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) proposed the redevelopment of Pragati Maidan, which also brought with it the overnight demolition of the Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion, in 2017.
The suit’s premise was that according to the Copyright Act, 1957, a work of architecture is included in the meaning of the term “artistic work”. The architect is the author of the building because of the architectural drawings rendered by him. He can, therefore, “restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification to the work”.
However, the court ruled that, “The requirements of urban planning outweigh the moral rights of an architect. The architect cannot demand the intangibility of work because it would violate the right of ownership and the principles of freedom of commerce. Similarly, the functionality of the building has to necessarily outweigh the interest of the architect on the preservation of integrity. Thus, the owner of the building has full power to dispose it and to destroy it.”
The challenge of preserving modernist buildings is not new, be it in the UK, the US, Australia, or even Japan, where preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are threatening the life of many landmark structures. Academic and architectural historian Simon Thurley, who has been in the business of English heritage conservation for decades, points to another reason: contemporary buildings are “not native,” he says, to our respective landscapes. Gone are the decorations and details of traditional buildings and, in their place, are the stark forms that don’t win many hearts, despite their innovations in form and experiments with material.
The danger of demolishing modernist buildings, Thurley says, also commits them to an architectural blackhole in a country’s history. While organisations such as Docomomo International act as a watchdog for modern buildings, Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative is throwing its weight (with local organisations) with its “Keeping It Modern” grant behind projects in nearly 29 countries.
In India, there is no such homegrown initiative, law, or political will that can back its need to conserve post-independence buildings more effectively. In an attempt to save the modern heritage of Delhi, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) had presented a list in 2015, of 62 buildings that deserved protection, including Crafts Museum, National Science Centre, and Nehru Memorial Library. That heritage is a convergence of people, place and time, and a shared sense of ownership is something architects forget. People are often obliterated from the debate, and such a battle can’t be won in courtrooms. It has to enter drawing rooms and school textbooks.