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Friday, January 21, 2022

Those hallowed halls

No new Parliament building can match the image etched in national memory

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
July 20, 2012 3:36:38 am

The Central Public Works Department announced that the Parliament House will be closed for ten years and Lok Sabha shifted to Shopper’s Paradise,a new mall in Gurgaon. The old colonial structure will be officially leased to MacDonald’s for ten years and handed over within the month.” Three years ago,this piece of satire in a Delhi paper was dismissed as a mocking view of an unshakable institution and its architecture. How could a structure designed,quite literally,to display the pillars of Indian democracy,be equated with commercial trash?

Today,however,there is talk in government circles of plans to construct a new Parliament building. The old structure,says Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar,is “silently weeping” for all the cracks,encroachments and lack of emergency measures that make it uninhabitable.

Of the many landmarks of iconic value,few can match the regal feel of Lutyens’ or Baker’s buildings. Whatever the tragedy of colonial rule,colonial architecture still epitomises for most an urban monumentality and a symbolic vision missing in the structures of free India. The Lutyens legacy surpasses the anonymous history of the more recent city: the smudged lines of government housing blocks that lend a ramshackle air of industrial sameness to the skyline.

Where does the iconic nature of public building end and prosaic usefulness take over? Throughout the world,there are examples of landmarks retrofitted with all the gadgetry and conveniences of modern life — shored up against earthquakes,equipped with electronic security,fire alarms and emergency escapes — all made to guard against manmade and natural threats. The original White House,for example,was commissioned by George Washington in 1792. Porticoes were added by different presidents 30 years later for ceremonial reasons. Subsequently,both Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman renovated the building to suit changing requirements. Security and nuclear threats during the Cold War meant more construction,even the addition of a nuclear bunker. However,throughout its 200-year history,the alterations firmly retained the architectural character of the original. Similar upgrades were carried out on the Capitol building,home of the US Congress. Closer home,derelict forts and palaces in Rajasthan have been recast as luxury hotels — fine-tuned and renovated with air-conditioning,plumbing,security.

In the overall structure of public space,Rajpath is an arena of great urban significance,equal to the Mall in Washington DC and the Champs Elysees in Paris. In the 85-year history of the site,there have been many additions,as would be expected of any important public arena. Most of the ministry structures,built along the adjacent flanks,date back to the 1950s and ’60s. Without exception,each is a poor cousin of its antecedent on Raisina Hill,each a step away from the monumental tradition of design quality and construction workmanship set up by Lutyens.

To say that the government’s approach to public architecture around the central vista is lackadaisical and indifferent is nothing new. The 20-year-old Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is open but incomplete,the classical National Gallery of Modern Art is undeniably shabby with open-faced wiring and a new addition that took 25 years of deliberation.

However,architectural alterations continue to be made freely. How many of the princely houses around India Gate still retain anything of their original design? How many ministers have radically altered their bungalows in the Lutyens zone? Ironically,many parts of the colonial city still retain large sections of “hutments”,classified by the pre-Independence CPWD as temporary structures,which were meant to be demolished after 1947.

How then could the 85-year-old red sandstone masonry of Parliament House be on the verge of crumbling? Part of the problem in not investing value in the old Baker structure lies in the current preference for an international feel to architecture — the glassy malls and offices that suggest a country on the rise.

The fate of Parliament House is unfortunately in mediocre hands,with people whose singular anxiety for personal security,comfort and familiarity far outweighs the larger concerns of architectural and national symbolism. No new structure,however laudable in design,can compete with the old image etched firmly in Indian memory. The proposal to make afresh is,sadly,a serious blow to an iconic landmark that has stood as the visible symbol of Indian democracy.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect,

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