The project architect selected by the Narendra Modi government for the forthcoming redevelopment of the Central Vista of New Delhi has repeatedly made comparisons between his conception and other great public spaces of the world, especially the National Mall in Washington DC, and sometimes the Champs-Elysees of Paris.
These comparisons have been brought to the fore by him in closed door discussions held with fellow architects and such like, showcasing the much discussed proposal which seeks to demolish most of the existing public buildings on the Central Vista and replace them with larger, contemporary office buildings in an effort to make this psychological centre of both the city and the country more “world class.”
Architects and architecture firms practicing in India will be familiar with the phrase “world class” which often appears in government projects briefs and tender notices. The phrase has come to represent a desire for the contemporary and assumes an invisible standard but is ill-defined and mostly meaningless. There is an implication of aspiration with a simultaneous implication that whatever exists in India today is not “world class.”
In contradiction to that, there is general consensus amongst most urban designers and architects all over the world, that the current Central Vista of New Delhi is certainly world class and inarguably world famous in its current form.
In light of this argument, it is worthwhile to study these famous urban public spaces of the world and compare them. At first glance the National Mall of Washington DC, also called the Washington Mall and the Central Vista of Delhi are comparable in size and formal design. Both are parts of great visions of new capital cities – with large central urban green spaces – their “central vistas.” Both cities were designed to display grandeur and power.
The geometry of their plans, clearly visible on maps, shows that both cities have a large central axis, a cross axis and diagonal avenues meeting each other at roundabouts.
However many aspects of their design are entirely different.
History and origin
The city of Washington was conceived after the American Revolution of 1775. Emancipated from the colonial yoke of the British Empire, a need was perceived for a new national capital for a newly formed nation comprising then the federation of thirteen (united) states.
The land was selected by George Washington himself as he signed the Residence Act which approved its creation. The city was to house what was then called Congress House (now Capitol House) and the President’s House and was to be the permanent seat of the government of the United States comprising democratically elected officials.
The original city was conceived by Pierre Charles L’ Enfant in 1791, its architect, as a city for a democratic government. Thus it is fair to call it a democratic city. The Mall itself found its current form in the 1901 McMillan plan of Washington DC. As the United States expanded its territories to 50 states over the continent of North America and beyond, Washington DC remained its national capital.
In contrast, New Delhi was clearly an imperial city, conceived and designed within the British colonial venture in India. The British, in the face of nascent Indian nationalism, intended to shift their capital from Calcutta to land adjacent to the traditional Mughal seat of power in Shahjahanabad.
The location of the new city allowed them to consolidate power in the Raj at a location which demonstrated “continuum” with the subcontinent’s history. The city was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, known then for his hitherto strong adherence to European classism. Lutyens partnered with Sir Herbert Baker, then already a prominent architect in South Africa. He was assumed to have an understanding of working outside of England.
Many of the buildings of New Delhi are attributed to Baker. A statement attributed to him demonstrated the attitude of the British to Indian cities where he claims that traditional Indian architecture did not have the “constructive and geometric quality necessary to embody the idea of law and order which had been produced out of chaos by the British administration.”
Both partners set out, with some pressure from the forces that be in England, to weave Indian motifs, elements and symbolisms into the architecture of the buildings. Much of the overall conception and layout was influenced by European classicism and the then popular Garden City Principle.
The new city was intended to be, symbolically, the latest seat of power in India, representing the intertwining of British monarchy and its governance with India’s traditional ruling elite in close proximity – in a setting equally derived of the subcontinent well as of the assimilating conqueror. The city was thus both European and Indian in its conception, design and execution.
However, all this changed on August 15, 1947. Powerful and heartwarming photographs of the morning after independence of India at midnight show large crowds of Indians walking on the Central Vista right up the steps of the Viceroy’s House ( Rashtrapati Bhawan).
The people of India had inherited an imperial city and made it their own.
The colonial era buildings of the Central Vista were adapted for Independent India’s needs. The building designed for the assembly – the sessions of the Chamber of Princes, the State Council and the Central Legislative Assembly, was reallocated and repurposed as the Parliament of India. The Viceroy’s House designed by Lutyens was converted into the Presidential Residence ( Rashtrapati Bhawan) and the Secretariat designed by Baker was reassigned to house ministries of the newly formed Indian state.
Over time, the Indian princely estates were returned to the Indian people and their buildings set aside to house public functions, accessible by all. New buildings, both government offices and government owned public institutions were added to the Central Vista. The adaption is most evident in the change in nomenclature of the central axes – from King’s Way and Queen’s Way to Rajpath and Janpath.
Republic Day parades began to be held on Rajpath as a symbol of India’s independence: in stark contrast to the earlier line of chariots of the Indian princes paying obeisance to the King of England’s representative, the Viceroy, on Kingsway. Perhaps, most importantly, the great lawns of the Central Vista began to be used by free Indians in peace and in protest – for walking, kite flying, running, picnicking, or political demonstrations or celebrations, i.e. any activity they chose.
The original design clearly did not envision the common people of India on the lawns of Central Vista but they have been there since the creation of Independent India. The space is theirs.
Thus today, the Central Vista of New Delhi is as much an Indian precinct as it is an Imperial one but still differs intrinsically from the National Mall of Washington DC in its conception and history of use.
The Central Vista has seen a change of regime which the Washington Mall has not. One city was designed for imperial power and the other was designed for democracy. The value system of democracy has been imbued in the Central Vista of Delhi over time, not by any act of physical design but through ideas and usage. This value has been imbued to that space by the people of India: a fact critical to accept and understand.
The differences in the value for people in the designs are visible from their origins. In a democracy inclusivity and variety are critical. Independent design competitions were held at the very outset, for various buildings of the Washington Mall and different architects designed different buildings in a variety of styles and materials.
In contrast, Lutyens and Baker, appointed by the British Government took it upon themselves to design the majority of buildings of New Delhi. Inclusivity by allowing more architects to participate and variety in design was not sought.
Symmetry and power
The locations of their most significant buildings are telling. Rashtrapati Bhawan is the clear dominant built form on Rajpath, symmetrically central at one end of the axial road. It is framed by the “ Secretariat” buildings that today house the ministries of finance, home, defence and external affairs. This kind of symmetry, clustering and location in cities usually represents a dominant power system.
The White House in Washington, in contrast, is located to one side of the Mall, while various government departments are scattered asymmetrically elsewhere in the further precinct away from the central green. This kind of asymmetry makes the people on the central greens the most dominant – a democratic ideal.
Publicness: Function and access
The simple graphic study below shows that the immediate buildings located on both sides of the central greens in the Mall in Washington are all public buildings and museums. This implies that they can be accessed by any citizen of the United States or any tourist. People can walk right up to any of the buildings on the Mall. They can enter any of the buildings and access into the majority of them is free. Thus, by design, the Washington Mall is public in terms of access and sense of space for the ordinary citizen. US federal government buildings are located away from the Mall.
A similar study of the Central Vista in New Delhi clearly shows that more than half of the plots on both sides of Rajpath are government office buildings with limited access. People cannot walk right up to most the buildings and certainly cannot enter them freely. There is a clear dominance of government buildings on Rajpath and the surrounding areas with very few completely public buildings. Further, many of the plots immediately beyond the first line along Rajpath too, on both sides, are private and inaccessible.
This aspect is critical in discussing the public nature of urban space. In the realm of urban design, for an open space to be considered public, the function of the adjacent building/s should be public. In simple terms, such buildings should have reasons for a variety of common people to enter the building on a day to day basis. Libraries, museums, cultural centres, eateries and theatres often serve such functions. Government office buildings clearly do not, as they are accessed by only those who work there or those who need to meet government officials. The least public buildings would be those whose access is very limited like the president’s estate.
In this respect, both the Central Vista of New Delhi and the Washington Mall are public spaces but the degree of “publicness” is far higher on the Washington Mall.
For the Central Vista to compare to the Washington Mall, the number of buildings with public functions needs to be increased significantly.
Publicness: Bounding and Access
The Washington Mall and Rajpath differ in another crucial aspect too.
The vast majority of the buildings of Rajpath are designed with “setbacks”, which is to say, located deep within land parcels behind high boundary walls.
In contrast, the dominant built from of the plots of the Washington Mall is “built on edge” meaning that the buildings are built right up to the public street edge or greens with no boundary walls making them immediately visually, tactilely accessible. The only building with boundary walls on the Washington Mall is the White House.
It is worth noting that the central precinct around the Kremlin, a city designs emerging from a state with extremely different principles from the US is similarly structured. Only two or three government complexes are bounded. The rest can be accessed directly from the street.
Accessibility and the ability to touch is powerfully democratising. It is commonly understood amongst experts that urban design guides urban culture. If buildings, especially government buildings are imposing, far away from the street or hidden behind walls, it propagates a culture of people seeing their government as imposing, distant, far from them and even hidden.
It is often argued that boundaries are needed for reasons of security. However, this argument is facetious as the buildings of the Washington Mall are highly securitised without such walls. The argument for boundary walls being the only viable means of security are further reduced in the age of electronic surveillance systems and drones.
Distant buildings cannot be good in a democracy. They would be extremely undesirable in a central public space like the Central Vista of New Delhi, a symbol of Indian democracy.
For the Central Vista of New Delhi to be comparable to the Washington Mall in this regard, more buildings need to be designed in a way that is not imposing or distant for the people, keeping security in mind.
It is clear that comparisons between the Washington Mall and the Central Vista of New Delhi are mostly skin deep. Their origins, nature and degree of publicness, sense of imposition and accessibility are very different.
The Washington Mall by design and many modifications over time has a greater degree of “publicness” than the Central Vista of New Delhi. Buildings are more accessible and the functions are largely public in Washington and there is less focus on the symbols of power – the buildings of state and the leaders.
Correcting the imperial imperatives of the Central Vista of New Delhi would mean increasing the public domain in the space far more than the colonial founders planned for. Government buildings should not be added but subtracted. By increasing government functions, by reinforcing existing boundary walls and designing with dominant symmetry, the new Central Vista plans are pandering to Lutyens’s vision. In other words, the intended design betrays its colonial roots than catering to a forward thinking democracy with global ambitions.
We as a people should be careful about what we compare our cities to and more demanding about what we aspire to.
Rajiv Bhakat is a practicing architect and urban designer with over 20 years of experience. He is the founding partner of Studio CoDe, an award winning multi-disciplinary design firm in New Delhi. He currently also teaches at the undergraduate and graduate programs at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi. He is also the co-creator of Paradiso, a graphic novel series about a post-apocalyptic world.