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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Preservation vs a clean break

What we do with Parliament building to cope with the future will powerfully signify who we are, how we view our past, where we see ourselves going

Written by Bimal Patel |
Updated: January 27, 2016 12:00:44 am
out of my mind, india, india independence, india new parliament, india british raj, congress, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Sumitra Mahajan, lok sabha, rajya sabha, China National Assembly The Parliament House.

Parliament building is a symbol of our republic. But last month, the Lok Sabha speaker requested the urban development minister to consider constructing a new Parliament building. A similar request was also made during the UPA regime.

There are reportedly several reasons why the building is presently inadequate: It is too small to accommodate Parliament’s increasing number of committees and personnel; its security arrangements are wanting; it will not be possible to seat more members in the Lok Sabha chamber when, on account of expanding population, it will be legally necessary to do so; its infrastructure and equipment are technologically outdated; and the building is not earthquake safe.

The claim that more capacious, technologically advanced and safer facilities are urgently needed seems well justified. Therefore, the recent moves to address this need should be welcomed. But how should the need for better facilities be addressed? This is quintessentially an architectural question, worthy of careful consideration and judgement.

We measure the adequacy of buildings by objective as well as subjective assessments of their worth. Both are equally important. Buildings have to fulfil our prosaic needs, which can be objectively measured and listed. But this is not enough. For buildings to be adequate, they must also, simultaneously, be of subjective worth. They must convey the right meanings and be appropriate for their purpose.

Think of how we decide what to wear. We want our clothes to meet prosaic, measurable needs — for example, keeping us warm, cool or dry. But this is not enough. We also want our clothes to correctly convey our self-identity. We want them to be appropriate for the occasion. Therefore, when deciding whether a piece of clothing is adequate, we make objectively verifiable assessments. We also make subjective assessments. We decipher what message a piece of clothing is likely to convey and judge whether that message is appropriate in the context in which it is to be used.

Most people would agree that inadequate as Parliament building might be for meeting objectively measurable functions, as a symbolic structure, it is robust. The memories it evokes, the hopes it kindles and the meanings it embodies, could not be better suited for its function.

Parliament building was built in 1927. Its circular plan refers to the Ashok Chakra. Originally, it housed the Central Legislative Assembly. The transfer of colonial power took place in its central hall. Our Constitution was framed there. Its power as a national symbol can be judged by the prime minister’s gesture when he first entered Parliament. At its steps, he bowed and touched his forehead to this “temple
of democracy”.

This is why the proposal to build a brand new building is a bit jolting. It makes one immediately wonder if it is really not possible to upgrade facilities while preserving the present building in its old form.

But facts have a way of confounding desires. For many sound reasons, it may simply not be possible to upgrade the building while retaining its original form. It may, in fact, be too small to house all necessary functions. It may be impossible to elegantly expand its seating capacity. It may be technically impossible to retrofit it with modern infrastructure. But then, is it not possible to modify the present structure or perhaps add to it in a way that a considerable portion of the old structure remains in use? Doing this could help retain the evocative power of the old structure.

An argument that has already been advanced against such a strategy is that Parliament building is a heritage Grade-I structure and, therefore, it cannot be significantly modified. This is a valid but legalistic argument that misses the point. It makes little sense to fetishise Parliament building in this way. Does it make more sense to modify the present building and have it be a vital monument or to perfectly preserve the building’s form, eviscerate it of its main function and have it be an embalmed monument? Heritage regulations can be overwritten, by Parliament if necessary, to facilitate this.

Many examples attest to the fact that it is possible to sensitively transform buildings so that the architecture of the new building retains the evocative power of the old. The Palace of Westminster, the United States Capitol and the Reichstag were all built well over a century ago and have been considerably transformed along the way. All of them are brilliant examples of how buildings can be modernised without losing their power to evoke the past.

Perhaps, I am wrong. Perhaps we need to make a clean break, untether ourselves from the past and more fully embrace the future. I can imagine a case being made that the energies and narratives of the 20th century are now spent, that our Parliament has become truly dysfunctional and that it is time to embalm the symbols of the past and create new ones. Therefore, we should build a brand new Parliament building. Personally, I am not an enthusiastic supporter either of fetishistic preservation or of clean breaks. I am more for sensitively building on what exists.
But then, this article is not meant to advocate a particular upgrading strategy for Parliament building. It is meant to argue that deciding upon the best upgrading strategy is quintessentially an architectural question with deep political significance. What we do with our Parliament building will powerfully signify who we are, how we view our past and where we see ourselves going.

The writer, an architect and urban planner, is president, Cept University, Ahmedabad

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