At the pre-bid meeting of September 12, of the nearly 17 firms that signed a petition to ask for an open competition, one firm did not want to add its name. That firm, HCP Design Planning and Management, has now won the bid for project consultancy to redevelop Parliament, the Central Secretariat and Central Vista.
More than three years ago when its director, Bimal Patel, wrote in this publication about the need for a new Parliament “to make a clean break, untether ourselves from the past and more fully embrace the future”, little did anyone imagine that the same firm would win the redevelopment project.
The firm was always seen as a strong contender, long before the bids were even called, given their past design histories in Gujarat — the Central Vista in Gandhinagar and the Sabarmati Riverfront Development. While Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri would not divulge the overall cost of the project at the press conference last week, approximate calculations suggest it would be around Rs 25,000 crore, given the consultancy fee was marked at Rs 448 crore. If that’s public money that will be spent, how much should people know about the project? The lack of transparency was evident when neither CPWD officials nor Puri would testify to sharing the design details of the shortlisted entries or provide the names of the jury members.The question then, is: Was there any winning design at all? Also, that the grandiose plans to revamp one of the world’s most famous vistas lacked even a proper design brief, should worry everyone.
Regarding the state of the profession, the fact that political patronage appears to be the only way to get projects also means we can comfortably do away with open competitions that is actually the best way to honour innovation and art. For instance, the world would be poorer without some of the best Sophoclean tragedies — like Oedipus Rex, a competition entry, or even the brave Pompidou Centre in Paris, which allowed two unknown architects (Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano) to gain international currency. The word “compete” comes from two Latin words: “Com” which means together and “petere” which means to seek or strive. History tells us that competitions were sacred to the Greeks, who rewarded struggle for the pursuit of perfection. In India, we shy away from competition because mediocrity is celebrated as a virtue. Here, architecture is moving away from becoming an inclusive exercise to being an exclusive space with security-laced entry.
Rhetoric comes free though. The buildings of the redeveloped Central Vista were given life-span extensions, which increased from 150 years to 250 within the hour-long press conference by Puri. For this, they will need to work with a material other than concrete, which only has a longevity of approximately 70 years.
When architecture is seen as a product, it is our cities that take the hit. Examples of these are the East Kidwai Nagar redevelopment project, or the upcoming exhibition-cum-convention centre at Pragati Maidan in Delhi. Ideas of beauty, humanity and design vision blur as shock-and-awe architecture takes over the landscape. Austrian architect-writer Bernard Rudofsky’s book, Architecture Without Architects, critiques the idea of pedigree architecture common in Western history. The latter, by considering only the “full pageant of ‘formal’ architecture”, tends to deride 50 centuries of the art of building.
One can’t fault leaders for vaulted ambition. That’s what humans have defined as development since millennia — this time, this year is no different.
An Amsterdam-based architecture firm, XML had researched the architecture of “spaces of political congregation”, and released a book called Parliament in 2010. Having documented and compared the plenary halls of the parliaments of 193 United Nations member states, they establish five design types — circle, classroom, horseshoe, opposing benches and semi-circle.
It was telling of how the architecture shapes politics. For instance, the semi-circle layout may indicate a “consensus-seeking” leadership, while authoritarian countries have adopted the classroom plan where the leader speaks and the others listen. Case in point: Cuba, China and North Korea. There were only 11 countries that adopted the circle, as a “representation of democratic equality”. It would be interesting to see what the layout plans are for the new Parliament building in Delhi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2019 under the title ‘An opaque plan’. firstname.lastname@example.org