Planning and building a capital city is of great cultural and ecological significance, which calls for enormous patience, long-term vision and due consultation with master architects, experts and other stakeholders.
The recent invitation extended by the Andhra Pradesh government to a leading Telugu film director to participate in the city building process of its new capital Amaravati may be seen as a pointer to the former’s anxious search for a spectacular city that in its appearance and makeup will reflect the rich history and culture of the state. While its benign intentions may not be suspect, and involving artistes, writers, historians or social scientists in the process is much needed and welcome, the trajectory of the government’s current thinking seemingly blurs the distinction between fantastic imagery and architecture. Frequent changes and detours in the government’s decisions are a matter of serious concern. Capital city building calls for an inclusive framework of working with experts guided by mature capabilities for synthesis achieved through dignified architecture. Of immense importance is the very process of capital city building – sound institutional mechanisms right at the inception that are likely to substantially determine its future.
Great cities like Hampi and Fatehpur Sikri, structures of architectural design excellence such as the Nest Stadium built for the Beijing Olympics, Sri Lanka’s beautiful parliament complex and a Reichstag in Germany, are testimonies to the outstanding and lasting contributions of master architects, while also reflecting the breadth of vision, political will and aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of their patrons. The need for the latter and to gain from masterly expertise continues to be pertinent to those at the helm impacting city building across our country and is of utmost relevance to the Andhra Pradesh government aspiring to build its greenfield capital city, Amaravati. After all, masterpieces in art and architecture serve as cultural anchors, icons and symbols of reassuring pride, and hope for the societies that produce them, even as they enrich and ennoble everyday life. The role of master architects, artists and craftsman hence is ever invaluable.
In what perhaps was a glimmer of promise, the state’s Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) had earlier this year invited master architects and Padmashri recipient Balakrishna Doshi, Fumihiko Maki from Japan and Richard Rogers from the UK, both winners of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s Nobel, to participate in an invite-only international competition to develop a master plan for the proposed 900-acre capitol complex precinct and conceptual designs for prestigious structures like the assembly, high court, secretariat and other mission buildings. Doshi, Maki and Rogers have not only had a prolific track record of producing outstanding and dignified works of public architecture but also developed their distinct philosophy and thinking over several decades with significant contributions to the advancement of architecture and urbanism in their respective countries.
Against tight deadlines, the three master architects presented their vision and ideas, large-scale drawings, artist’s impressions and models to an eminent jury team headed by another renowned architect, Christopher Beninger, who is the recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ award, among others, with an accomplished record of having dealt with several prestigious commissions. The jury adjudged Maki’s proposals in the first position and has reportedly presented a detailed technical report to CRDA. All proposals were later made public. But this is now history and seems ever so.
Against this backdrop, the Andhra Pradesh government’s recent decision to call for fresh tenders all over again to appoint a new master architect and not engage Maki and his associates is a matter for review. The move reflects some trepidation in the government’s decision-making processes and may convey an image of the government having relegated due processes. This, in turn, is likely to dent its credibility amongst the professional fraternity, particularly thwarting the prospect of gaining from the expertise of all the master architects who participated in the competition and others of their ilk. It is not clear what technical reasons or predicaments otherwise would have pushed the government to take such a decision. The selection of a new master architect notwithstanding, it would immensely benefit the process and would only be pertinent for the government to make the jury’s report on the international competition entries public, highlighting all the technical merits and demerits of the winning proposal and those submitted by other master architects so as to learn from them, avoid circuitous processes and potential pitfalls, if any.
While certain aspects of Maki’s conceptual proposals (the appearance of the assembly building in particular) did receive public criticism, it is not clear if the state government did solicit improvements in design from the master architect for further evaluation and if the latter responded well. After all, even the designs of an ordinary residence go through much iteration to suit the needs of their owners. This would perhaps have helped in setting a healthy precedent in upholding the integrity of institutional procedures, critical to soliciting long-term good will, confidence and support from many quarters, as also in culling maximum gain from the merits of the shortlisted proposal.
Building an inclusive and collaborative framework
The government could still invite all the master architects and the eminent jury who participated in the international competition process to form a capitol complex advisory or may still choose to forge a unique collaborative engagement amongst them to set high benchmarks in the quality of design and construction of important civic structures right at inception. It could still floated a design ideas competition with inclusive prequalification norms for other mission buildings with these master architects and other eminent experts from our country as jury. While these options may not be exhaustive or the most appropriate, and while it is the prerogative of the state government to call off any tender or to float new ones, given the magnitude, significance and serious technical nature of the work, it will be prudent for the government to build an inclusive model of working with these master architects over a sustained duration and benefit best from their precious expertise instead of losing them. Their rich experience may also be utilised to solicit opinions regarding urban development of the state. The idea is to make the most of some of the leading and best minds in the industry.
Endeavours like capital-city building must be guided by robust and ethically well-grounded institutional processes which are inclusive and make the best of masterly expertise rather than those of exclusion and elimination, transcending dry contractual procedures and norms. While there can be a broad master plan for the precinct that can be agreed upon, which in itself must be deemed to be dynamic and open to modifications and improvements, the complexity of urban issues at hand and the challenges they pose demand collaborative work rendering the idea of a selecting a single architect and a frozen master plan or design almost archaic. Such an approach will only enable the state to benefit from the rich diversity of contemporary ideas in city building pitched against a framework of common design guidelines.
Be that as it may, occasional references earlier in the news of government teams touring cities like Astana perhaps to consider it as a model, a garish and expensive enterprise built with petro dollars and one that’s inappropriate to our cultural and climatic context, is a matter of serious concern. It also seems that the government may be inclined towards proposals imitating ancient Greek or Roman structures, or from the recent events reported in the news, towards fantastic, surreal images of mythical cities which would not only be out of place, but disconnected from ground realities, outdated and anachronistic. One can only hope and pray that an enterprise of such cultural significance which calls for creating structures of stately dignity and poise, elegance and state-of-the-art technical and engineering excellence informed by high sensitivity to the local context is not reduced to commercial and theatrical fetish.
Further, having decided to build its greenfield capital city by the fertile banks of river Krishna and acquired land, the state’s vision in building the city and its region should primarily be informed by contemporary design models in sustainable urbanism. In view of the ensuing rapid urbanisation and transformation of an agrarian landscape this initiative will trigger, the enterprise should aim at minimising its environmental damage and ecological footprint in as much as aiming for visual iconicity. Such a vision should also be guided by concerns pertaining to social inclusion, cultural and climatic appropriateness, and energy conservation, while minimising cost to the public exchequer.
The efforts of the state government notwithstanding, the need of the hour is to pause, set up a master architects expert committee and benefit from meaningful advice and informed strategy while recognising the serious technical nature of the subject and its lasting cultural significance. The decisions should be guided by restraint, introspection of objectives, respecting merit and institutional mechanisms, making best use of the renowned master architects and learning to work with them, while also doing away with impossible and injuriously short time targets which have not been of much avail.
The value of endeavours like building a capital city is also for posterity, built at a great cost to public resources and our commons. This calls for a broader horizon of thinking, unfettered by populist political expediency. Given the far-reaching social, economic, ecological and resource implications such projects trigger, it’s high time that the government of India considers setting up an inclusive expert advisory panel drawn from various domains to support states undertaking projects of such dimensions, for what is of concern is the future of Indian cities and our environment.
P. Venugopal is a senior architect and urban designer based in Hyderabad.