Of Icons and Iconoclasts: Saving Delhi's Modern Heritage

A truly world-class city is not one that destroys to build, but one where icons from different pasts live together happily.

Dhruva Chaudhuri has described how, one day in 1951, he heard the noise of an explosion and when he looked out of the window of his Kashmiri Gate home, he found the skyline looking different. It took him some minutes to realise that the nearly-century old clock tower in Chandni Chowk had collapsed.

Dilliwalas have just been given advance warning that one day before this year is over,  the skyline near Purana Qila will suddenly look different. The Hall of Nations, the Hall of Industries and the Nehru Pavilion, to which we Dilliwalas have gravitated every winter for over 40 years, as surely as we gravitated to India Gate to eat ice-cream on clear summer nights, will have become things of the past.

Wake up, people! Do we want a convention centre (sorry, a ‘world-class convention centre’) to be built on the rubble of our world-class architecture? The older generation will recall the 1970s, when the Trade Fair complex took shape, and the Hall of Nations soared into the sky. It has worn well.  As we wander through it, it has a quality of elegance and majesty that is unmatched. Are we going to let this go, or are we going to form a human chain around it to save it?

The idea of the human chain was suggested in 1989, when the government announced that they proposed to demolish (they said ‘dismantle’ but it is all the same in the end) the exquisite canopy at India Gate so that a large statue of a seated Gandhiji could sit there comfortably. Architecture students actually  camped there with flasks of coffee to ensure that the CPWD did not quietly take it apart at night. The canopy is still there. The same spirit is  manifest now. The Cassandras who have been saying that no-one is bothered are wrong. Look at the more than 3,000 signatures on the petition sent to the prime minister. Or the letters sent from various national and international architectural bodies, including the Indian Institute of Architects. There is hope. But more is needed.

Letter sent by the Indian Institute of Architects

Letter sent by the Indian Institute of Architects

A city does not grow by demolition but by accommodation. The art of building a livable and beautiful city is not imbibed simply by learning by rote the dauntingly unreadable Building Bye-laws and Building Development Control Regulations as per Master Plan for Delhi 2021 but by working out how to adjust (oh that favourite Hinglish word!) the new within the old. The architect is – or should be – also an artist. And his artistic sensibility should not be limited to the building he designs, but to the area around. Truly lovely urbanscapes are ones which have the patina of age as well as the clear gleam of the new. Take a lesson from God’s architecture – every tree is different, and the sum total is beautiful.

There is something mesmerising about the term ‘world-class’. Politicians in India, over the last 15 years or so, have loved using it. When they do, there is invariably an obsession with ‘infrastructure’, particularly ‘parking’. In fact, the proposed demolition of the Pragati Maidan monuments are to accommodate a driveway and underground parking. So is that all there is to it? Does New York qualify as a world-class city? Maybe not, because it is so exuberantly  pedestrian. Does Paris? Maybe not, because it is not cars as much as the superb metro that takes people to its museums, and its beauty is best seen if you walk down its boulevards. London?  Where people leave their cars behind if they want to spend time in the city. Actually, discussions on world-class cities have for some time now been much more thoughtful, concentrating on ways to make cities more inclusive, with affordable housing, connectivity, safety, and basic services for all inhabitants. The  proposed convention centre, to be built at mind-boggling cost, and at the cost of the city’s heritage, is not going to make Delhi a more inclusive city in any way.

Another favourite phrase is ‘state of the art’. This translates as “the highest level of general development, achieved at a particular time”. But given the rate that technology races forward, today’s state-of-the-art will be old-fashioned in a few years. Good architecture and design is timeless, and in this case, my vote will go to whoever can design a workable convention centre in the space available – over 100 acres – and showcase the 7 acres adjacent (which hold the Halls and the Nehru Pavilion), along with the Crafts Museum and the Nehru Science Centre, as a democratic people’s precinct, overlooked by the Purana Qila complex of five centuries earlier.

Nehru Pavilion

Nehru Pavilion

The Purana Qila is protected by the Archaeological Survey, and therefore not threatened by demolition. A thousand other structures are also, nominally, safe by virtue of Section 23 of the Building Byelaws referred to above. This needs explanation. In 2000, INTACH published 2 volumes listing structures in Delhi built before independence, which deserved the label ‘heritage’. Some 170 were owned and therefore ‘protected’ by the Archaeological Survey, the rest in the list were ‘notified’ by the local municipal bodies in 2010, other than  a few which had been demolished by their owners in the intervening decade.

But architecture did not stop in 1947. Far from it. After independence, India acquired its first home-grown, if foreign-trained, architects. Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker, Walter George, Otto Koenigsberger, Le Corbusier, gave place to Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Mansingh Rana, Cyrus Jhabwala, Charles Correa; they were succeeded by the next generation among whom was architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj (who designed the Hall of Nations). Delhi has been fortunate in that it is home to many landmark buildings designed by the country’s finest architects.

For the sake of convenience and because time was short, the INTACH list stopped short of independence. What should have been done was to continue listing  buildings that came up subsequently. Both official agencies and INTACH did not get around to doing this. This should have been adopted as a continuous process, keeping a distance of, say, 20 years from the present. If this had been done, we would now have a published list of heritage buildings constructed in India before 1996.

Official controls and responsibilities are as tangled as they can possibly be. The Archaeological Survey is a small section of the Ministry of Culture, the Delhi Urban Art Commission is an autonomous body established in 1974 by an act of parliament, and the Heritage Conservation Committee (set up in 2004) is under the Ministry of Urban Development. To put heritage conservation under urban development either suggests a very enlightened frame of mind, or a cynical sense that heritage will never have dedicated champions anyway.

One person who repeatedly drew attention to the need to recognise deserving buildings of the last 70 years as ‘heritage’ is the architect A.G.K. Menon. In  2013 he submitted to the DUAC and to the HCC a list of 62 ‘iconic’ buildings and precincts.  Neither body followed up the matter. At present, therefore, the iconic buildings can be partly or wholly demolished without violating any law (specifically bye-law 23). There is a possibility of many more Mandi Houses (Mandi House, a perfectly good monumental building, was demolished in the 1970s to build the offices of Doordarshan. Only the name survives).

The one way to avert this, in the case of Delhi, is for the DUAC and the HCC working together to quickly compile a list of heritage buildings with a cut-off date of 20 to 30 years before the present. Until such time as the list is finalised and the buildings notified by the municipalities, no proposal to demolish them should be considered.

Commissions, committees, bye-laws, sanctions make sense only if they are backed by an educated and enthusiastic public opinion. The people of Delhi have a very important role to play in the welfare of the city they have inherited. A truly world-class city is not one that destroys to build, but one where icons from different pasts live together happily.