Updated: December 16, 2019 10:09:00 am
In 1913, Edwin Lutyens stood on the crest of Raisina Hill, and in the yellow summer light gazed eastwards, across low scrub and kikar trees, down the long plain that would become the setting for his last major work. He stood long enough to envision the grand scheme that he would undertake over the next few decades, a scheme that would become — for the future inhabitants of his great enterprise — the most sacred ground of the Indian capital.
Almost a century on, a new plan has been unveiled to modify Lutyens’s grand design of this sandstone acropolis — the axial assembly of North and South Block, the crowning Viceroy’s House, the flanking circular Parliament building, the long ceremonial lawn and roadway that ends at India Gate. With radical changes planned, the obvious question is whether they should be altered from their original intent to suit the demands of the 21st century; whether, in fact, Lutyens’s time bears any resemblance to Narendra Modi’s India.
In reality, very little.
To begin with, the Viceroy’s House was designed as a monumental English country house, by an architect specialising in English country houses. Its extensive wings accommodate bedroom suites, interior courts, a grand ballroom, library, state dining halls, a cinema theatre, and quarters for a staff of stewards, valets, housekeepers, barber, tailor, and painter. Not to mention an extensive base floor for the storage of linen, china, glass, carpets and furniture. The architecture reflects the overwhelming formalism of an English country estate and the heightened domesticity of a Mughal palace. Only a minuscule of its formidable space and services are now used by the President. Should then the remaining building be converted into a museum of imperialism?
Flanking its entrance, South and North Block were made as symbolic reminders of the support of the civil service. Structures of no great importance, their architect Baker called them “buildings of dignity that avoided the dreadful Hindoo stuff”. Today, the vast stone offices have the air of an abandoned ruin. Built at a time when space was cheap and cooling was done with high ventilators, the structures are barely adequate for an overgrown bureaucracy, and serve more as a convenient home to local pigeons and monkeys. The proposed design scheme suggests their new use as museums of the Indian republic — a convenient ploy that relegates any and all historic structures to galleries or heritage hotels.
Issues about building inadequacies have been raised by the government primarily because of Parliament House. Yet in the ensemble, this is the only building that continues to serve its function admirably. Other than the niggling demands for security, media, and greater levels of communication, the chambers of both Houses are well equipped and easily accessible, with a wide reach of spillover space for informal discussions and meetings. Verandahs, courtyards, and wide galleries are all in keeping with the view that political decisions happen in “the corridors of power”. What then is all the fuss about? Citing lack of space as the main reason, the old building will become another museum, this time to democracy. And an altogether new structure will be constructed alongside to accommodate the rising number of MPs.
The primary change is in the ceremonial space of Rajpath itself. Designed with long reflecting pools and a spread of flanking trees, the linear space was meant to be a symbolic appropriation of public space for no reason other than the expression of power. It furthered the cause of monumentalism, and made the pink architecture on Raisina Hill grander, more authoritarian. Lutyens never imagined that a century later the place would become a messy daily bazaar, filled with vendors, ice-cream carts, informal boating — a fair ground for all purposes, his beloved India Gate, a noisy playground.
Yet, in the overall structure of public space, Rajpath still remains an arena of great urban significance, equal to the Mall in Washington, DC and the Champs Elyeses in Paris. In the 100-year history of the site, since its original conception, there have been many additions, as would be expected of any important public arena in the capital of a newly-independent country. Most of the other ministry structures built along the adjacent flanks date back to the 1950s and 1960s. Without exception, each is a poor cousin of its antecedent on Raisina Hill, each a step away from the grand tradition of design, quality and construction workmanship set up by Lutyens.
What image should then Rajpath reflect? What should be the new shape of the Parliament House? The answers will emerge soon enough, now that the work has of design has been awarded. In other parts of the world, any major architectural change is carefully considered, opened for discussion, and formulated after a consensus. In France, every civic intervention is selected after an open design competition, as is so in most democracies. Sadly, in a place where transparency is only a vague concept, critical national decisions are still made behind closed doors.
Does architecture — and Lutyens — deserve a place in Indian history? Why should we care about architects who strayed from “the dreadful Hindoo stuff”, but still erected a magnificent sandstone stage set? Perhaps for the same reason that we continue to revere and protect the Purana Qila, the Konarak Sun Temple and the Gateway of India. It is unlikely that such structures can ever be conceived again, let alone, built.
But another school of thought is emerging — one that treats these old buildings like history books, rewritten with fresh untested knowledge. Sometimes it is easier to rewrite or rebuild history, than save it, or learn from it.
Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer
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