New Delhi: If all had gone according to plan, a building in Agra would have been on the list of those designed by British architect Sir David Alan Chipperfield, the 2023 recipient of architecture’s most coveted prize, the Pritzker. But administrative and financial delays, political shifts and changed priorities have meant that currently, there is only an under-construction building and some scaffolding to his name.
In 2015, then Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav commissioned a building for a ‘Mughal Museum’. The museum was supposed to be a place where political and cultural milestones of the Mughal era would be recorded, through both art and architecture. According to the website of Chipperfield’s company, David Chipperfield Architects (DCA), the project was meant to be finished in 2017. Later, this appears to have been changed to 2019.
The site for the project, spread over 20,000 square metres (of which 5,200 square metres was planned as exhibition space), is less than 1.5 km from the biggest tourist draw in Agra – the Taj Mahal.
The Mughal Museum project is a collaboration between DCA and Sourabh Gupta of the Noida-based architecture studio Archohm. According to the DCA website, the design was created by Chipperfield, and Gupta is the lead architect on the project. It is clear from the description given by DCA that the designer took into account what the museum was meant to be – an ode to Mughal history and artefacts:
“With reference to traditional Mughal architecture, the museum adopts principles such as rationality, order and repetition, and reinterprets these in a modern architectural language. Colonnades, composed of slim pillars placed at close intervals, frame the building and interweave interior and exterior space. In addition, a further series of engaged columns imbue the façade with a strong rhythm. Generous external staircases lead to a public roof terrace with an open pavilion where a café and tree-shaded areas provide an inviting environment with views towards the Taj Mahal.”
We’re now in 2023 – eight years after the project was commissioned, and six after DCA initially thought it would be ready for the public. So why is this museum not on the to-do list for any of millions of visitors who go to the Taj every year?
In January 2016, Yadav laid the foundation stone for the museum building. Just about a year later, in March 2017, Yadav and his party lost the state assembly elections. He was replaced by Bharatiya Janata Party’s Adityanath – a leader and a party who have never tried to hide their lack of interest in preserving or promoting Mughal history (in fact, quite the opposite). So perhaps it should have come as no surprise when in 2020, Adityanath announced that no Mughal Museum would be built under his watch – instead, it would be a Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum. “How can our heroes be Mughals?” the chief minister is said to have asked while making this change. Strangely, this announcement came a year after he had set aside Rs 20 crore for the Mughal Museum in the state budget.
One of the major causes for delay in the project is said to be the lack of funds being released. When first imagined, the project was supposed to cost Rs 141 crore. By 2020, this estimate had gone up to more than Rs 170 crore, thanks to the Goods and Services Tax and other added expenses. However, only Rs 90 crore of this had been sanctioned. “Among the reasons for the delay and costs is that all concrete structures for the project have to be carted from Noida, around 200 km away, with such construction barred near the Taj Trapezium Zone,” the Indian Express reported in 2020.
In several reports over the last six years, Archohm has said that the project is 70-75% complete. Years have passed, but that number has not changed. In an interview to the Indian Express after Chipperfield won the Pritzker, Gupta suggested that even now, the building will take a while to be inaugurated.
Perhaps the Pritzker Prize going to Chipperfield this year will lead to a renewed interest in the project from the authorities in Agra. The final outcome though, if we get to see it, will likely be quite different from what Chipperfield had in mind when he designed a space for a ‘Mughal Museum’.