Architect Bimal Patel is the man behind most urban planning projects of note in the country, including redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi now. In 2011, his firm HCP Design, Planning & Management designed the new office space, Swarnim Sankul, for Gujarat CM (then or Narendra Modi) and his Cabinet. More recently, the Padma Shri awardee has been associated with the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, expected to be ready by 2021, and the Mumbai Port Trust development, aimed at revamping the eastern seafront of the city. He started his architectural career in the mid-’80s and made his mark with revamp of the Kankaria Lake Waterfront (2006) and the Sabarmati Riverfront (2002)
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: The Central Vista is part of our national architectural history and iconography. Does it really need to change? In the way that you are planning it — tearing down some buildings, replacing it with other buildings — will we lose some of our history with such a change?
As we go around making this major change, we will try to do it in a way that it is not a rupture with the past. What we are trying to do is to respect history, perhaps even strengthen the original intent by using architecture to strengthen the original diagram… There’s nothing we are doing that doesn’t say, listen, this is exactly what (Sir Edwin) Lutyens would have done. It might be a radical change but certainly not something that breaks with the past — it’s taking the past and working with it.
On whether facilities need to be modernised or not, my personal views are not that important… One big motivation for Parliament’s modernisation is the expansion needs. Milan Vaishnav did a nice article on the crisis of representation, on how the number of people MPs are representing is rising with rising population. Second, there are imbalances country-wide due to population changes. All these issues will have to be tackled, which will need expansion. If you need expansion, you are going to have to make a new facility. That’s what our conclusion was.
Anybody who’s trying to make administration work more efficiently will see the need for having appropriate infrastructure. Personally, if you ask me, I’m not surprised by the government’s or the Prime Minister’s decision to do it. The way he used to work in Gandhinagar, where you have the Central Secretariat with everybody sitting… the kind of synergies that you get from everybody being in one place, from having a standardised infrastructure… anybody who has run large organisations knows that you need the infrastructure. I see it very much as a part of modernising administration. This is not to build new buildings; the buildings are the means of modernising administration and making it more efficient. The government’s objective is to synergise functioning. That is driving the whole idea.
As for the Central Vista, the avenue would have been refurbished… in any case… and there’s no radical change here. To move people from the ministry, from North and South Blocks… gladdens my heart as an individual. When I go there, I can gape at the buildings, at the mysterious things that go on inside… Essentially, even when Lutyens and (Herbert) Baker built them, these were meant to be architectural instruments of intimidation. They were going to be on a high hill and government was going to be up there… It’s about time, I would say, that we truly appropriated these buildings. These are just personal views.
Sometimes, hesitation paralyses us. I operate in the public realm in different places, and I see that paralysis everywhere because people are so worried about unthoughtful development that they want to see no change at all. I think we have to be cheerful about how we make the change. Change is inevitable because things change, technology changes, population changes, and life changes.
RAVISH TIWARI: But why are we trying to create something, that took two decades to build, in five-seven years. Why the rush?
The first building I did in my life was the Gujarat High Court, measuring 1 lakh sq ft. This (the Central Vista) is 100 lakh sq ft. It took seven years to build at the time. That was India then with 2% growth, flyovers and infrastructure took forever to be built… If it can be done faster, then why not do it? It saves money, time of disruption etc. Everywhere we go, all of us Indians say why do we take so long to build our infrastructure? I have read many articles which talk about why our infrastructure takes so long to be built. So could it be done faster? Can we do it in three shifts? Many people come back with stories on how in China, they build one floor a day… Maybe you could see this is as a symbol, a desire to do things fast?… I have worked with many industrialists who have wanted their factories to be up and running by a certain day… If you are going to do it at the expense of quality, then I would say hold on… I think there’s a very clear message to us saying minimise the disruption in whatever way you can; not just in terms of construction or moving offices… I would rather see it this way.
SOMYA LAKHANI: How will you ensure that Lutyens’s symmetry — with no building interrupting another building’s view — is maintained?
You cannot come to Central Vista, design something and not be respectful of the symmetry that exists. I believe that if someone looks at it, they will not complain about at least that dimension. I’m being very careful in wanting to continuously reinforce the essential diagram of Lutyens, rather than work against it… When you are doing additions, you have to be respectful. You don’t have to mimic it completely — there are new requirements, new technology… You find me one building where I have not been respectful.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: What kind of expenses will be involved?
The numbers are being worked on. I still have no idea of the facilities the PMO etc will have. Parliament is a very special building, but the office buildings are at office building costs. I can’t give you a full number because it doesn’t exist. These figures will be available in a couple of months. The office buildings will be a picture of rationality and efficiency. As Parliament has a more significant function, we might do a little more there. (But) the office buildings are the big chunk of it. Refurbishment costs, pavings, I doubt it will be anything more than what paving work costs in Delhi at the moment… Maybe we will spend on better light fittings, signages. Every time you make an expense, the real question is what are you making it for. Is it to increase the life or functionality of the structure, to improve its look and feel? I’m from Ahmedabad where clients are very demanding. So that becomes part of the DNA of any Ahmedabad architect, I’m not special in that regard… I think we are careful about costs here also.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: While you say that if things can move faster, let them, the 2024 deadline seems to be politically motivated — it’s the election year.
You are asking the wrong person. I have no way of answering that question. I am a professional and we get these sort of demands — sometimes they are doable, sometimes they are not. If it is doable, I will help them do it. If it isn’t doable, I will respectfully say it can’t be done. I can’t blame that person for wanting it.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Your client is the government of India. Who are you actually building for? Are you making this in the image of the individual or individuals who occupy the offices of the Government of India right now, or are you building it for all time, for all the people?
I don’t think there is a question in this. Public projects of this sort are successful if they meet the needs of various people. It’s not one person, and they’re fun because there are multiple people and dimensions to their needs. Is it for the tourists who come? Sure, I want tourists to come. Is it for civic users who want to go to the garden on Sunday with their families? Yes, it’s for them too. Is it for the national spectacle that we have, the (Republic Day) parade? Yes, it is for that too. Is it for the office-goers who work there? It is for them too. Is it for the Speaker, the President? Yes, it is for everybody. To say it is for this person or that is out of the question when you’re doing public projects. Also, in public projects these days, the real challenge is to find that common ground as there are such opposing views about things. I am hoping our common sense will make this project work.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Has the Prime Minister seen this presentation? Did he have any particular inputs or demands?
Yes, certainly, and he had demands. One of them was how fast can we finish the project. That was certainly a demand that came from him. I wasn’t surprised as I have worked with him in the past and this is how he operates. He said let’s do this, but let us make sure it’s not an endless immune project. I had a drawing of three halls, joint session hall. He looked at it and said, ‘Do we really need this hall, it’s used only twice a year. Can’t you figure out a way to double the Lok Sabha hall for this?’ That was a specific request… I’m a professional, people make requests to me. I tell them what is and isn’t possible. Sometimes I say this is simply not possible.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: After the public tendering process starts, how will you ensure that both quality and deadlines are met because that is not in your hands at all times?
Yes, it’s certainly not in my hands — project management issues become important at some stage. I can do things now that will help the project go further. We are discussing the designs with contractors, not with the ones who will bid for this, but the ones I’m familiar and have worked with. We do this for many projects. I tell them this is what I’m designing and ask if they see any problems. They may tell me not to use stone, it could create problems as it takes too much time to polish a stone floor… So lots of inputs can be taken at this stage… Otherwise, the problem with the traditional tendering process is that the architect sits in a black box, produces the design and shows it to a contractor, who looks at it and says some things are going to be very costly and some things are going to take a lot of time. Then you are forced to revise the design. So we are trying to crunch all of that.
AMRITH LAL: Was there any discussion about having a smaller place for the President?
No. I think everybody is proud of the fact that that is the President’s House, and that gives meaning to the place… I am quite proud of the fact that something that was constructed at the time has been so fully taken over by us, made part of our bloodstream — it is really heartening to see. I do run into a few stray people who call it a colonial symbol or a vestige but, by and large, everybody looks at it proudly. Therefore, the reasons to keep it the way it is, to strengthen and cherish it, that’s really the objective.
DEVYANI ONIAL: In the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, there has been criticism over the demolition of lanes and homes that are characteristic of Banaras. What were the challenges?
People have a lot of views about Banaras and very little information. Once I do that presentation maybe people will think it’s not as problematic as they thought it was, because they will see the logic behind it… This temple gets a hundred thousand people… you must have visited the place, it’s a security and safety risk. There’s a 1916 speech by Gandhiji at Banaras Hindu University, in which he says, ‘I went to Kashi Vishwanath temple last evening, and I speak as a Hindu. Can’t our temples be more spacious? Can’t they be clean? Why do they have to be like this?’ That’s what Gandhiji had to say. And in some ways these improvements around temples… it’s about saying, listen, there are common pilgrims getting fleeced… The (new) project is a big improvement. They are building toilets, a shaded area in which 3,000 pilgrims can line up, there is a place where they can put their chappals and not get fleeced, it’s a place that can be kept clean and you don’t have to look at the ground while walking. Why do we have open running gutters as part of romantic India? I will show you places where these galis you are talking about are actually encroachment, built on top of heritage structures, on top of temples.
AAKASH JOSHI: Why did you not go in for broader political consultation on the Central Vista project and made your job easy?
I have worked on public projects for the last 25 years. It’s important to have consultation, indeed, and it is at various levels. It is a process. In such a complex process where do you start from and where do you end… My experience with all these projects is that, sadly, one never gets it right, and that is for two reasons. As a society we don’t have that much expertise, and nobody seems to be ready for a mature discussion. As we do more and more projects, I think we will get better. But I agree, we could do the consultation project much better.
SOMYA LAKHANI: One of the concerns about the project is the pollution that its construction would cause. Do you have a plan regarding that?
This vision of one project suddenly engulfing Delhi in a fog of pollution is to be examined. It already has a fog of pollution and it doesn’t come from here… The maximum amount of dust in the air is because of unpaved streets… The vehicles are plying and throwing up dust… Streets constitute at least 20% of the land area of the city. Once we examine the issues, these fears turn out to be false. Everybody is looking at a city growing and is worried about a concrete jungle covering entire India. That is a scare. If all Indians were to be urbanised and they were to consume land, how much of India would be covered by cities? One billion Indians in city, all concrete-paved. How much of India would be concrete?… This fear that you will be engulfed in pollution with one more construction site is a little bit exaggerated.
Nonetheless, we will constantly humidify the site. Most construction sites are wet. Humidifying sites during demolition is easily possible and can be built into the contract. One idea is to house construction workers at the end of the metro line so that they take the metro and come to work like others. The contractor doesn’t have to be given separate land for housing construction workers. Perhaps you need to stagger timings, so that construction workers come like that. We could have noise barriers, like noise protectors. Another thing you could do is crunch construction time before elections.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: How is it that almost all the pet projects of the Prime Minister are bagged by one architect?
Do you think these are the only projects that he is doing? I am not doing the Prime Ministers’ museum. I did not do Statue of Unity. Perhaps, I am a good architect.
It was an open competition. I speak at the risk of being self-interested in this… A project of this scale, size and complexity requires capacity. You look for somebody who has in the past done something equivalent.
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