Delhi’s coveted apartments near Khan Market, Sujan Singh Park (SSP), proved to be a template for many housing projects in Delhi soon after the Independence. Even for modernist architect Habib Rahman, who lived there, its functionality was a model that he could follow in his future apartments. The Delhi Development Authority, (DDA) too, used the idea of four-storey blocks surrounding a park in their colonies. But when English architect Walter Sykes George was designing Delhi’s first apartment complex in the early ’40s, he had brought in a neoclassical style of design, with semi-circular arches and high Mughal inspired-archways, art deco facades and exposed brick masonry.
Sir Sobha Singh, well-known builder-contractor, was actively involved in the making of imperial Delhi. When Edwin Lutyens parcelled land for New Delhi, Singh bought land across the new Capital, from Connaught Place to Karol Bagh. Sujan Singh Park (SSP) was one such. George by then had worked with Singh on numerous buildings, including Modern School. Singh named the apartment complex, which was called Delhi’s “drawing room” after his father, and generations continue to live here, including his late son, well-known writer-journalist Khushwant Singh.
In 2014, when architect Gaurav Sharma, founder of architecture firm, Under Mango Tree, was approached by Sir Sobha Singh & Sons, little did they know that this would pan out into a regeneration process of its kind over a good four years. SSP and its precincts fall under the heritage complex in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone. “Like all heritage properties it is not without its complexities of mixed ownership, changes and encroachments. Our initial surveys helped us realise that the estate was home to multiple stakeholders and home to hundreds of families. Not only did it have the posh red-bricked principal apartments, there were staff quarters blocks, a primary school, the Ambassador Hotel and numerous small enterprises, including the motor market within the precinct,” says Sharma. He chose to adopt Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes’s strategy of ‘conservative surgery’, where the focus is on small interventions as opposed to sweeping comprehensive changes.
Armed with original drawings, they scanned and documented all they saw — from staircases that were encroached to fire places that were walled up — the team mapped the timeline of changes. “Our approach was not necessarily to put the clock back but to understand why changes had taken place and how to manage them,” he says.
Sharma turned a decrepit garage into a working studio on site as he began working on the four distinct apartment typologies in the complex. Besides Sir Sobha Singh & Sons, he was approached by several individual owners. One such owner had acquired an apartment after decades of legal dispute. When Sharma saw it, it was ripped of its door and window frames, and pillars had been knocked down. There was nothing of the original fabric that existed. In other apartments, they were able to retain the original terrazzo flooring and open up original fire places, work on the concrete jaalis that George had initially placed and in doing this reclaim the facade of the building too.
“We were embedded within the community and were able to interact with workers on site more closely — the masons, electricians, plumbers, and thus create a best practices rule book of sorts, so that there was some level of quality control in the estate. By default, we had become the go-to people every time there were basic maintenance issues too, be it a water tank collapse or a door that needed repair,” says Sharma, “Interventions were at different levels and scales from reusing materials to lime wash wall finishes, we tried to keep the basic essence of the building intact,” he adds.
Over the four years, they grew to understand things about the buildings which wouldn’t have revealed itself in a comprehensive demolish-and-rebuild format. They learned about the original mortar mixes and that the sand used in the building came all the way from Badarpur, since there was a rail track that was bringing sand into Lutyens Delhi for the construction of the Capital. The bricks, too, came from a kiln, which possibly belonged to Singh, since they carried the stamp, ‘SSS’.
This area has a vibrant interactive community, between staff, who have lived here for generations, and the owners. The staff quarters, one of the first social housing projects in Delhi, relies heavily on its sense of community. “When you see new redevelopment projects in Delhi such as Kidwai Nagar or Sarojini Nagar, the sense of community has been lost. We have learned through the lessons of modernist housing that today a people-sensitive and bottom-up approach is the need of the hour,” says Sharma.
During his research for the project, he came across an incident that George records in one of his letters. It was the time when Lutyens was nearing his end, and he advised George that he should build for the less privileged and focus on social housing. The staff quarters is possibly George’s tribute to his idol.