Why are open design competitions not held for drastic changes to national capital’s heart?

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Pavan K Varma

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I am not an admirer of Edwin Lutyens, the person. He was an incorrigible racist, who looked down with unconcealed disgust at the ‘natives’ and their culture. This is amply brought out in his copious letters to his wife, ‘immortalised’ in the book The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to His Wife Lady Emily. While rubbishing almost everything Indian, he had a special disdain for Indian architecture. “Personally I do not believe that there is any real Indian architecture or any great tradition,” he wrote. “They are just spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect in them as any other art nouveau.” Even the Taj Mahal was to him “small but very costly beer, and alongside the Egyptians evanescent.”

However, while we may have reason to dislike Lutyens’ views about us, Lutyens’ Delhi, the city he created, has become a central part of the architectural landscape of the capital of India. The majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, flanked by the stately North and South Blocks, and the imposing Parliament, leading to the three-kilometre long Central Vista to India Gate, is by now part of our heritage, a hugely recognisable symbol of the Republic, sanctified by over 70 years of usage. Why then is the government in such unseemly haste to alter this collective historical memory?

The government’s project brief for these sweeping changes is worryingly opaque. The new Master Plan should “represent the values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability and Equity, and be rooted in the Indian Culture and Social milieu.” In architectural terms, what actually corresponds with ‘New India’? How do we define what is rooted in the “Indian Culture and Social milieu”?

Illustration: Anirban

In a public statement Hardeep Puri, Union minister of state for housing and urban affairs, said that what is being proposed is in keeping with the PM’s “vision”. What is this “vision”? And, can one man’s “vision” of the new remain uninterrogated even as it seeks to demolish or render redundant much of the old?

It is important to internalise the degree of change that is on the anvil. As per reports, the venerable Parliament House will be junked to become a Museum of Democracy. Apparently, North Block will become another museum called The Making of India, and South Block a third museum called India at 75. A new Parliament House will be built, along with a new office building that will be – hold your breath – a common Secretariat for all ministries! A new residence for the PM will be built on Rajpath.  Vigyan Bhavan will be replaced by a Central Conference Centre. It is a wonder that Rashtrapati Bhavan has escaped this demolition squad.

Moreover, a great deal is not known about this mutilating new plan. Which buildings on the Central Vista are to be demolished? How will the Parliament building be expanded? Will there be separate buildings for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and if so why? Puri merely commented that matters of such vital import “will be decided as the process moves forward”.

While so much remains vague, the government is in a tearing hurry to proceed. Deadlines have already been announced. Work will start in just a few months from now – May 2020. The new Parliament is to be completed by March 2022, the 75th year of India’s independence. The revamped Central Vista is to be in place by November 2021. And, the new Central Secretariat by March 2024, just before the next general elections.

There are questions too about the process. For a project involving such monumental changes, why was an open design competition not held? This was, for instance, the process followed for the building of the World Trade Centre in New York, the redesigning of the Notre Dame in Paris, and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi.

Even if the competitive bidding process was on the subjective criteria of Quality and Cost Based Selection, why did the Gujarat based HCP Design, Planning and Management firm get the contract even when its bid was the highest among the four shortlisted firms? 80% of the weightage was given to the technical scores of bidders. Why were these scores not disclosed before the contract was awarded? Why was a public jury of eminent architects not involved in the selection process? Why did the brief not specifically mandate consultations with conservation and landscape architects, and transport planners?

Cities cannot remain fossilised and must change. But, where heritage is concerned, this change must be very, very carefully thought out, for emotional and functional reasons. For instance, if the current – and iconic – Parliament building is short of office space, why not build another annexe adjacent to it, rather than junk the original building built especially to house Parliament, throwing a much loved baby out with the bath water?

It is almost as though an act of partisan architectural appropriation is being somehow sought to be completed before the next general elections. This must stop. What is needed is much greater transparency, much wider public consultations, a bi-partisan jury of eminent architects, and more time to reflect, before what exists is destroyed.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.



via TOI Blog

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