Leading Architects Concerned About Central Vista Revamp Plan for New Delhi

The lack of engagement with public discourse and the absence of a guarantee of adherence to guidelines remain major causes of concern.

New Delhi: Leading architects, town planners and curators have reacted strongly to the Centre’s proposal to “re-plan” the Central Vista at the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi by undertaking development and redevelopment works along the heritage zone.

With the proposal including a revamp of the parliament building – or the construction of a new one – and the central secretariat, reactions towards the project ranged from claims about it being a necessary step to arguments about it Prime Minister Narendra Modi foisting grandiose plans so as to leave a lasting mark on Delhi.

However, those who responded to The Wire‘s queries were unanimous in their opinion that the issue should have been discussed with the public and relevant stakeholders before the Central government’s unilateral decision to proceed with such a mega plan.

Architect, urban planner and conservation consultant A.G.K. Menon said that while the need and demand for redevelopment may be genuine, abundant caution was required in dealing with heritage sites.

‘Bid document fails to spell out significance of Central Vista’

Menon pointed out one major weakness in the bid document. “It does not define the significance of this area. All conservation starts with the assessment of the heritage site. After the assessment report is made, the conservation proposal is drafted,” he elaborated.

Menon recalled how when INTACH nominated Delhi as a World Heritage City, it detailed five things of significance about it. But such a process was missing from the bid document for the Central Vista. “So I find the bid document perfectly legitimate as far as the need goes, but it has not defined the significance of the area. It just says what is to be done and calls for following the guidelines. That leaves me with a lot of unsatisfactory loopholes which can be exploited. I am concerned about that,” Menon said.

Also read: Of Icons and Iconoclasts: Saving Delhi’s Modern Heritage

‘Need for space, preservation of heritage should both be addressed’

In the case of redeveloping the parliament building, Menon said that the Centre had made a “case that they need more space in parliament.” Pointing out that “this cannot be disputed because they need more space as the population is growing and there is more need for parliamentarians and so on,” he demanded that “it should be remembered that the parliament building is a heritage building”.

He, however, drew comfort from some of the language used in the bid document. “It states very clearly that the heritage building will be conserved. And there are two alternatives: either internally there will be modifications or they will build a new building nearby. Both the options still maintain the heritage of the city.”

“As far as the central secretariat buildings of North and South Block are concerned,” Menon said, “they are saying that they will retain the buildings as a museum or whatever, and build new secretariat buildings. So again the argument is that there is nothing wrong with it.”

A view of the Central Secretariat. Photo: Mark Danielson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The third part, he said, concerned the Central Vista itself. “It is also a heritage zone. The Central Vista does require a lot of upgrading. For example the trees are dying. You can’t wish away anything, you have to intervene because these trees are already 80-90 years old,” Menon said and added that they would need to be replaced.

“The area also requires upgrading because it was designed in 1911 when they could never have anticipated that 100,000 people would be coming there every day. So the requirements are genuine,” Menon said

‘Adherence to guidelines a must’

Menon said the bid document specified that the bidder would have to adhere to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone guidelines and the Central Vista guidelines. “These are very strong guidelines to preserve the character of the city,” he said.

“Therefore,” Menon added, “I can’t see anything wrong with that [bid document] because the need is genuine. Also, they are saying it is iconic, that its character should not be lost and are explicitly saying that these guidelines need to be followed.”

Also read: In Modi’s Varanasi, the Vishwanath Corridor Is Trampling Kashi’s Soul

Regarding fears around this mega project, Menon said, “What people presume is that new developments will entail multi-storeyed buildings. Why do you want to presume that when it says that the guidelines will have to be followed? There is no need to presume that Nirman Bhawan will be replaced with a 20-storey structure. But yes, things will change.”

Map of the Central Vista. Photo: Google Arts and Culture

‘Conserve heritage by dovetailing it with development’

In this regard, Menon cited examples from around the world. “In Washington, the main heritage place is The Mall – which links the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. They have done a huge amount of work there,” Menon said. “They have added buildings, memorials and museums and yet it remains iconic. So we can’t presume the work will [violate heritage] and say, ‘Don’t do it’,” he added.

As a conservation group, he said, “INTACH has been very conscious of the limitations in a poor country like India. Conservation has to be development-oriented. The idea is to conserve the heritage, by dovetailing it with development.”

‘No organisation left to ensure compliance with guidelines’

Noted photographer and curator Ram Rahman, however, differed with Menon regarding the issue of compliance with the guidelines. He said that “the provision of following guidelines related to Lutyens Bungalow Zone or Central Vista does not assuage any concerns because no one is following these norms.”

Citing the example of Pragati Maidan, Rahman said that “It is within shouting distance of the Old Fort, which is an archaeologically protected site, and yet they are building these huge structures within Pragati Maidan, which are going to loom over the fort. So where are the norms?”

NGT, National Green Tribunal, Pragati Maidan, Pragati Maidan redevelopment, Delhi news, environmental laws, environmental clearance, air pollution, water pollution

The Hall of Nations, Pragati Maidan, which was destroyed to make way for redevelopment. Credit: Kprateek88/CC BY-SA 3.0

Likewise, Rahman said, “there is no body now which is monitoring adherence to these norms. The National War Memorial has been erected on public parks which were earlier used by people for walks or children for playing cricket, etc.”

‘Modi wants to leave a massive mark through this project’

Rahman insisted that this was another one of Modi’s grandiose projects and feared that heritage may fall by the wayside while it is being implemented. “When you see what has been happening in the last four years – with the demolition of the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan and the WHO building, as well as the establishment of the National War Memorial at India Gate between the Canopy there and the National Museum – it is very clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make a massive mark on the city of Delhi.”

Also read: Redevelopment Environment Impact Assessments Are Blind to Delhi’s Heritage

The curator said that Modi is known for such mega projects. “Even when he was chief minister of Gujarat, he undertook the Sabarmati riverfront project. That project was practically aimed at turning the Sabarmati riverfront into a European riverfront,” Rahman said.

He added that this was done despite the fact that the Sabarmati was not a perennial river like the ones in Europe. “Most of our rivers depend on monsoons, so they swell during the season and dry up later. So what Modi did in Ahmedabad was essentially make a giant tank which was like the reservoir of a dam,” he said.

Sabarmati Riverfront. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sabarmati Riverfront. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, he said, “In Benares, a corridor to the Kashi Vishwanath temple from the ghat is being created by tearing down old buildings and temples. The idea is to create a passage. That again is a glorified urban redevelopment project which is being undertaken without any consultation with the local population or stakeholders in the city.”

‘No concern for architecture, heritage’

Rahman argued that the present government has shown scant regard for architecture or heritage. “The Hall of Nations was the most famous structure in Pragati Maidan. It was a modern classic and there was a lot of opposition to demolishing that,” Rahman said.

“There was an international campaign testifying to its cultural, historic and architectural importance. But none of that mattered to the government because they wanted to build, as they say, something which is ‘world class’. So the heritage structures were all pulled down,” he said and pointed out that the Delhi Urban Arts Commission did not step in to save the Hall of Nations.

Also read: Government’s Plan to Demolish Iconic Nehru Pavilion Opposed by Heritage Experts

In the case of the Central Vista, he said, “world class” in all likelihood meant “some glitzy tall building built of glass.” Menon said, “The area was developed by the British as they set about making a grand imperial city. It is regarded as a very important piece of architecture of the first decades of the 20th century.”

“Now to interfere with the Central Vista at this stage by tearing down, say, Shastri Bhawan and making a multi-storeyed glass structure over there – again without any consultation with the public, groups of architects or urban planners – would be ridiculous,” Rahman said.

‘Why pull down buildings for not being earthquake safe’

Rahman also questioned the rationale behind pulling down structures on the grounds that they were not earthquake-proof. The argument, he said, was being applied selectively to some of the Central Secretariat buildings. “This was also the argument furnished for pulling down the WHO building. Are Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb, Jama Masjid and Red Fort earthquake-proof? So do we tear them down too?” Rahman said.

Highlighting the fact that the redevelopment project being executed on a giant scale without taking public opinion into consideration was very wrong, Rahman said, “This is what this government is doing. This is how they have functioned at every level – be it in the case of demonetisation or Kashmir. It is about how they use Parliament by getting an idea or diktat from the top and it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Once the order comes from the top, it is to be carried out.”

‘External façade should be kept intact’

Reacting to the proposal, leading architect Raj Rewal, some of whose widely acclaimed works include the Parliament Library and Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, said while renovating or redeveloping, the internal and external features of those buildings should be maintained as far as possible.

“In particular, the external features should be kept intact,” he said, adding that the rebuilding should be undertaken in a very sensitive manner and there should be no demolitions.

Also read: The Changing Face of Delhi: The Colonial Influence

The four-km stretch from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate will also see changes. Photo: Rajesh_India/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

‘Time to deal with buildings in distress’

Acknowledging that some of these buildings were in a “state of distress”, Rewal said that they needed to be dealt with bearing in mind the Indian “ethos and culture”.

“The major component is that the works should only be granted to local companies and architects. They may allow joint ventures between Indian firms. Also, the works may be distributed among Indian architects,” he said.

Responding to a question on the need for emphasis on local talent, Rewal said, “It is to promote and nurture Indian architects. There are many countries which do not even allow them to operate. So we should promote young talent from our country.”

‘Fee should be decided by the Council of Architecture to prevent malpractices’

Rewal also recommended that the competition should be based on fees recommended by the Council of Architecture of India.

“Often foreign companies or MNCs ask for very low fees upfront and then do a silly job or even abandon the project midway,” he said and added that while foreign companies had money and clout, they lacked creativity. “So adherence to the Council norms would ensure that projects are executed by the best local hands.”