Every City Deserves a Vocal Art Commission to Ensure the Aesthetic of Public Spaces

As Delhiites question the undisclosed grandiose rebuilding plans for their city, it’s time for the Delhi Urban Art Commission to stop behaving like an official body routinely sanctioning building plans and reinvent itself.

For starters, what is urban art? Is it a reference to the arts – surely it should be in the plural – or to street art, or ‘heritage buildings’?  The Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), the only one in the country, includes none of these meanings, when it should encompass all. Somewhat unfortunate, considering that the carefully worded brief of the Commission, set up in 1974 following an Act of parliament, makes it possible to include all these meanings – the DUAC was expected to “advise the Government of India in the matter of preserving, developing and maintaining the aesthetic quality of urban and environmental design within Delhi”.

What an exciting opportunity! But why is it that today hardly anyone knows of its existence, and it remains the sole art commission in the country (the only other one, in Bangalore, was dismantled in 2002)?

Patwant Singh. Credit: Youtube

Patwant Singh. Credit: Youtube

The DUAC was established during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, on the initiative of Patwant Singh (1925-2009), architect and public intellectual, who raised the alarm about the assault that had begun on Lutyens’ low-rise garden city. Barakhamba Road and Curzon (later Kasturba Gandhi) Marg had started sprouting towers, and Janpath and Sansad Marg would have followed. This is not unlike what is now happening in Kidwai, Netaji and Sarojini Nagar. But with such a difference. This time the protest has come not from a solitary Patwant Singh but from hundreds of people of all ages. And – wonder of wonders, it worked. (In contrast, in 2013, the DUAC had stipulated that 50% of the trees in the East Kidwai redevelopment area should be retained. In 2017, did anyone bother to check that this was done? So much money spent on tea and kaju biscuits, so many person-hours wasted, to issue farmans only to have them ignored.)

Dwarfed by a mundane existence

In India, many institutions atrophy over time. They function as depressing caricatures of their older selves. The DUAC is no exception.

The DUAC has a small permanent office, and a large hall, like a court of justice. The (honorary) members meet as frequently/rarely as the chairman and secretary decide. In the large and gloomy conference room, the clock stands at ten to three, and there are kaju biscuits still for tea (with apologies to Rupert Brooke).

Some things have changed. Technology, they will point out eagerly, has moved on. The little dollhouse models and ammonia blueprints have been replaced by Powerpoint presentations. The language, too, has changed. Phrases like ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘footfalls’ are used in a throwaway fashion.

The real nuggets are again throwaway comments – by  chairmen or members whose long innings have made them reflective or, as with Charles Correa, whose charisma lay in their effortlessly drawing upon their knowledge of literature, philosophy, film and design. The tragedy is that these are lost in a situation where the person addressed is impatiently waiting to know the decision. A less daunting setting would help, and so would a viewing gallery, where visitors can watch the proceedings.

Charles Correa, chairman of the DUAC from 2005 to 2008. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Charles Correa, chairman of the DUAC from 2005 to 2008. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The DUAC has over the decades become yet another body which ‘approves’ plans, and has no time for reflection or to “advise the government”. Through the last 44 years, five wise men (later also some women) have sat through long afternoons scrutinising plans for public buildings and large housing projects. This is in two stages: first, when proposed; then some months later, when they arrived more confidently, having been approved by a host of other committees. It will be immediately obvious that stage one is where intervention is possible. At stage two, all that can be done is to suggest some twiddly little modifications.

Discussions are long but the actual impact on the city’s form is often quite forgettable and, sometimes, unattractive. Much gets lost between the discussion and its reduction to ‘minutes’. The time-lags between the submission of proposals and the discussion on them, and from then to the actual approval/rejection, make it difficult to track them. The tactics of delay resemble those of a government department.

Nobody loves an art commission. Architects and planners get impatient, the people at large are not particularly interested, and the general sense is that its existence does not make much difference to the city.

A little visibility would help. In 2006, the DUAC held a series of lecture-discussions on different features of the city, and the auditorium was packed with excited audiences hungry to listen. Architects must be known by what they have to say, not only by the facades of what they build.

Generosity never hurts. Why can’t the Commission applaud original contributions to urban art, even if it is outside their jurisdiction – the Dastakar Haat, the reborn Sundar Nursery, the street art that is making Lodi Colony look so dramatic, the sudden transformation of the canal-front in Nizamuddin Basti following its brave rainbow makeover?

The precursor

In the early 1970s when Patwant Singh suggested an independent Commission, he was drawing on a very successful precedent, namely the setting up of the New York City Art Commission in 1898. The initiative was inspired by the City Beautiful Fair held in Chicago in 1893 (for Indians, the Chicago Fair means something else – the World Congress of Religions where Swami Vivekananda addressed the “Sisters and Brothers of America”). The Fair highlighted the belief that good architecture and public art could make cities beautiful.

Court of Honour at the 1893 Chicago World Fair's Columbian Exposition. Credit: ACME Company/Wikimedia Commons

Court of Honour at the 1893 Chicago World Fair’s Columbian Exposition. Credit: ACME Company/Wikimedia Commons

Chicago and New York were rivals for the title of the First City of the US, and before Daniel Burnham completed his Chicago Plan in 1909, the New York Art Commission had listed 50 buildings of historic importance, and had begun to discuss designs for street signage, fire hydrants and other elements of what architects call “street furniture”.

The New York Art Commission was created at the ideal moment – when New York, with Chicago, was building the first skyscrapers, when the nature of urban transport was being changed by the motor car, when the Muckrakers were writing scathing critiques of the urban slums that were the flip side of big business, when the US, under Theodore Roosevelt, was flexing its muscles. The Commission, with a modified name, still plays an important role in the development of New York.

Not long after the Chicago exhibition, the British began building their ‘cities beautiful’ – a new Delhi and Canberra.

DDA headquarters (Vikas Minar) at ITO in New Delhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

DDA headquarters (Vikas Minar) at ITO in New Delhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A half-century passed, and then, post independence, Delhi plunged into an urban crisis the like of which New York did not have to suffer. The government in Delhi not only had to grapple with the influx of lakhs of displaced people but also build institutions for a country far larger than British India had been. When it could pause to draw breath, the government decided to establish not an Art Commission but a super-zamindar, namely the Delhi Development Authority, which would plan for the future, with the help of American planners experienced in designing large cities for motor-car transport. Perhaps a better model would have been London, a historic patchwork city like Delhi, where an efficient underground rail network had been put in place decades before motor cars were manufactured.

The pitfalls of being an Art Commission in Delhi

Patwant Singh was anxious that British New Delhi should not lose its low-rise character or its green cover. This immediately appears an elitist concern. But the open-ended manner in which the functions of the Commission were enumerated left room to take it in the direction of a less hierarchical form.

In 2004, a major change was initiated by chairman Correa when he included public spaces within the purview of the Commission. But the Commission could never become the independent body Singh had visualised, because most public buildings are by or for a government agency. It is easy to see that there is pressure to rush certain proposals and to delay others. Much time was given to working out how to improve the quality of life in Delhi’s villages, and in Shajahanabad. But then, “Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow”.

An unsatisfactory feature is that issues of ‘heritage’ areas or buildings are sublet to a humbler entity called the Heritage Conservation Committee. This meets even less frequently, and its agenda is dealt with in a perfunctory manner, squeezed into the short spells of time that can be spared by its chairman (an official of the Ministry of Urban Development, which understandably has little or no interest in ‘heritage’). This meets in the same room as the DUAC, and the same individual is secretary for both bodies. Its work goes unnoticed, but it is useful as a whipping-boy when it comes to controversial decisions like that on allowing the iconic Hall of Nations in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan to be demolished last summer.

The Hall of Nations. Credit: The Wire

The Hall of Nations. Credit: The Wire

At some point in any discussion someone refers to the MoA – the Multiplicity of Authorities. There is an excited cacophony listing them. Then the energy levels drop, and people look furtively at their watches – how much time for the tea break?

A city let down by the silence of its Commission

There are mortifying instances of silence when it would have been dignified to speak up. Because of the DUAC’s inertia, the one site where anyone could walk in and enjoy a feast of books – the annual Book Fair at Pragati Maidan – has been destroyed forever. Why are the members afraid when, as independent individuals, they should have nothing to fear?

Larger implications are seldom discussed. Each applicant, understandably, is only concerned with his or her own project. But every project approved is going to modify Delhi’s skyline and groundline, and it is more important to reflect on this than on the minutiae of architecture. To give two examples – Saket’s courts and malls, and the Vasant Kunj malls have transformed/buried old landscapes. Wasn’t it possible to make Satpula and Khirki Masjid (showcasing 14th century planning and water management) the centre-piece of the Saket area, or to retain the old Ridge kunj (forest) when sanctioning the Vasant Kunj malls? Think of London, and its Commons and forests (Ealing, Wimbledon, Hampstead and Epping).

The DUAC has made some worthwhile interventions – it insisted on lifts for all the housing complexes in Dwarka in the 1990s, realising that many of them would be inhabited by frail senior citizens. Otherwise the whole sub-city would have had lift-less buildings and drearily uniform four floors. In public buildings, provisions for people with motor disabilities are insisted on.

The Jama Masjid authorities’ attempt to put up a langar khana was checked, a tunnel road under the Sundar Nursery to ferry athletes from the Commonwealth Games Village to Nehru Stadium was vetoed, an arrogant and unattractive police memorial which had been hastily approved by an earlier Commission was dismantled, and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation was persuaded to submit its plans for approval instead of driving its rails merrily forward in blithe disregard of the environment. However, the DUAC’s annual report, for the most part, is about as exciting as the literature on a packet of detergent powder.

Ten years ago, in an independent initiative, a subcommittee was asked to look into the issue of ‘street furniture’. The nightmare of the MoA was obvious here – there are at least 15 different bodies that have a role in designing street furniture. Each functions independently, each digs up the pavement independently.

An additional problem for pedestrians is the interpretation of the term ‘right of way’. ‘Right of way’ width refers to the street and the pavements on both sides, but in Delhi many streets are frequently widened, and therefore pavements narrowed or obliterated.

Habib Rahman, first secretary of the DUAC.

Habib Rahman, first secretary of the DUAC.

Of the various bodies involved, the police enjoy most control. Bus stops, central verges, locations for zebra crossings, the distinctions between Roads and VIP Roads, are all decided by the police. The security of the old and the disabled, or children, does not figure. Benches or seats at bus stops are not allowed, for fear of being appropriated by hobos, but advertising boards near bus stops, which create pavement blocks, are permitted. The municipalities exercise their patronage to install bizarre cement tree-stumps with statues of angelic little children on them, under flyovers – a requiem to trees cut and to the banjara families driven away by not-so-subtle ‘beautification’ measures?

Is it not possible that pleasant and safe public areas will reduce crime? When more people use the roads, they are safer. What our streets and pavements have in plenty are ‘furniture’ of a different kind to make roads unsafe: tilted man-hole lids, the debris of broken pavements, piles of garbage and street signs obscured by hoardings wishing sundry MLAs a happy birthday. And the law of tort is non-functional in India. Imagine a pavement regulatory body to give dignity and comfort to pedestrians, particularly the vulnerable.

We get lyrical about the sidewalk cafes of Paris and the street food of Bangkok, but our tempting outdoor eateries and drinkeries are often at the mercy of the police either stuffing their faces with the eats on offer or whirling dandas over them.

Where is the public art, apart from what remains from half-a-century ago – a Satish Gujral on the Baroda House wall, and the Kuber couple holding up the Reserve Bank? Why are New Delhi’s signature roundabouts, so enthusiastically tended by the malis, inaccessible? Why is there no evidence of our bright students from the National Institute of Design transforming our cities? Should they not have a major role in generating urban art? Oh, for a Commission to deal with the hierarchy of lived spaces

Living spaces in cities are hierarchical, many of them ghettoes, as much of the rich as of the poor. To the rich, the homes of the poor who work for them are “eyesores” and their idea of urban art is negative – to remove shanties, which they equate with dirt (dissecting a garbage heap will show that, on the contrary, it is the well-off who generate most of the garbage of the city).

Residential spaces – from ‘gated colonies’ to ‘resettlement colonies’ – all need their share of green, of clean walking surfaces, of drains that function. Roads in the ‘resettlement colonies’ (recognisable by the ‘puri’ suffix, as in Sultanpuri and Kalyanpuri) were built in a way that makes it impossible even to retrofit trees there, whereas Panchshila Colony has a wonderful tree-lined avenue and green verges.

The DUAC should be the equaliser in respect of public spaces. The gap between the snobbery of the rich New Delhi Municipal Council and the floundering of the humungous Municipal Corporations of Delhi can be bridged only by a Commission which can see the wood and is not tangled in the trees (yes, one knows the repartee to that – “If only there were trees in which to get tangled!”).

Imagining the city as a catchy political slogan or as a space to breathe?

Every new political regime comes with a sheaf of glib ideas, encased in the glitter of inaugurations and bouquets. The present one has contributed the idea of Heritage Cities and Smart Cities. Why do governments not build on what they have inherited – after all, only ministers change, the civil servants go on forever. If 30 years ago there were plenty of ideas but no funds, today there are funds aplenty, but few ideas. An audit on the state of our towns is needed.

An exhibition ‘Imagining Delhi’ in 2006 addressed what the Commission should be continuously drawing attention to – the future form of Delhi. I cannot recall whether Patwant Singh was well enough then to view the exhibition, but I suspect he would not have been surprised by the answers to a question put to visitors. They were asked to choose between a view of Shanghai, and one of low-key brick buildings shaded by trees, for the Delhi of the future. Most of them enthusiastically pointed to Shanghai.

I would suggest that each of us makes a list of the features they have seen in cities that make for comfort, happiness, security and visual beauty. And a separate list of things that make for discomfort, loneliness or alienation, and depressing ugliness. Identify areas where people gather – Central Vista (Rajpath) and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Chandni Chowk-Jama Masjid, the bank of the Yamuna, Buddha Jayanti Park, Rajiv Chowk Central Park, the Delhi University Ridge, Mandi House Chowk, popular markets. Like everything, these have changed in appearance over the years, and the pendulum of popularity has swung from one end to the other.

Need for an art commission for every Indian city

I am the frog-in-the-well who knows only Delhi. But I am convinced that there is room for a vibrant, committed art commission for Delhi, and for all Indian cities. The members should not be only tired officials and architects; individuals eager to contribute to the improvement of their towns should also be selected. Time was when visitors could not find words to describe the beauty of Indian cities. Today, as long as all decisions affecting the form of the city are made by officials, and the people remain alienated from the process, we will have less and less features of beauty to rejoice over.

Can’t the views generated by Google Earth or just the use of one’s eyes help us see sections of cities in terms of density, road alignment and green cover, and design pockets of beauty? Can’t good ideas generated in, say, Indore or Kozhikode, be picked up by other towns and applied or modified? Above all, could officials and architects learn to speak in a language that the person-on-the-street can understand? And could the DUAC build up its self-image by not hiding its work in dreary minutes and annual reports distributed to members of parliament?

Most of all, could the DUAC keep in mind that it needs to be attuned to a city of millions of people who have the right to understand what is being done to its built form, and why? Their lives depend on it.

Narayani Gupta is a historian. She was a member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission from 1993-1996, and from 2005-2008.