September 14, 2004
The recent redesigning of a Lutyens Zone bungalow by Samajwadi MP Amar Singh will doubtless create some ruffles among the closed minds of the capital’s architectural community, obsessed with preserving a past that has little relevance today.
In its original incarnation, the bungalow represented a colonial life suited to the difficulties of being English in an alien land. With a hostile climate and strange people, the building had to perform the dual task of keeping its new residents comfortable and the natives at bay. To this effect, the structure worked admirably. With high ceilings and roof-top vents, the design did what the courtyard had done for the traditional north Indian house, the haveli, venting the hot air and keeping the memsahib cool and rested enough to function like a true memsahib — teaching a pudding recipe to cook, germinating a fresh batch of winter seedlings for the garden. Verandahs and porches further protected her, enveloping the building in shadow, and in turn opening it up towards the garden. Sahib and memsahib sat there, raised on a high plinth, a little aloof, watching the mali as he waddled on his haunches in the chrysanthemum patch; sometimes they became a little teary-eyed, taking sundowners and reminiscing of the old cottage in Sussex or Wessex or Middlesex. The bungalow suggested a country life in the city as no building ever did. It belonged to its own age.
Consider, if you will, a day in the life of an Indian bureaucrat or minister in the same setting. It is a life so different that it makes a complete mockery of the original. What Singh has done in a single stroke has been carried out piecemeal and as a continuous process in numerous bungalows throughout the hallowed Lutyens Zone. Over several decades, internal walls have been demolished, new ones added, new kitchen blocks built, verandahs enclosed, false ceilings dropped below old ventilators, air conditioning plants fitted, old neem trees cut, security guard cabins erected — these among several other architectural, cosmetic and horticultural changes. What then remains of the original house, other than an empty colonial shell to be reworked into a modern lifestyle?
What indeed is worth preserving in the bungalow — the building, or the lifestyle for which it was specifically built? I am no friend of politician or bureaucrat; I have not been asked to make a case for the demolition of bungalows by Amar Singh. I write merely out of a desire to salvage the actual heritage of Delhi, and not save sentimental reminders of a type of house long since disappeared.
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By the same token, this can hardly be seen as an endorsement of an MP’s actions, all of which violate the strict guidelines of the preservation zone. Creating a bungalow for himself, styled to suit his needs and suggest something of his architectural ancestry, Singh sends a dangerous message to people in temporary occupation of public property? And yet in bringing the situation to a head, Singh has done the architectural community a big favour. He has brought to the fore the need to revise archaic by-laws (no construction higher than three storeys on a road width of… why?), preservation guidelines (a 200 m arc of no construction around a monument… why?), and outdated zoning regulations (no mixing of commerce in residential areas where there are… why?), besides numerous other heritage issues — all in a single strike by his demolition ball.
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