“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The name Lutyens conjures up images of imposing, magnificent buildings, with high roofs and manicured gardens, perfected by simplicity of design and great aesthetic appeal. Look closely and you can see fissures, peeling plaster, loud interruptions in design, with brick and mortar being replaced by reinforced concrete.
Lutyens’ New Delhi is being neglected and slowly but surely vandalised.
The concerns regarding Parliament building’s structural stability have compelled attention and a call for action.
‘We told you so…’ is the cry from conservationists, who caution that a significant part of the country’s heritage is being eaten up by decadence. The clamour for shiny, swank, skyscrapers standing together, resembling a bold montage, has paved way for the dilapidation of the old, the conservative, and the classic. And Parliament building, they say, is just an illustration of the malaise.
Malavika Singh, publisher of Seminar and co-editor of the book Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina, is angry with the improper maintenance and restoration of heritage buildings, and the work that has been carried out in the name of preserving our heritage.
“The government of India, post-1947, has taken no care of buildings; there has been no restoration, preservation, conservation and maintenance of buildings like Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament, North and South Blocks, and bungalows in the Lutyens’ zone.
The Central Public Works Department [responsible for the upkeep of these buildings] has allowed illegal partitioning, construction in all the buildings built in the 1920s. They have allowed blatant encroachment of properties, and if they are saying that these need to be relooked at in terms of engineering, they should realise that they are the ones who are actually responsible for adding deadweight to these buildings.”
Ms. Singh says even Rashtrapati Bhavan isn’t properly maintained. “Additions have continually been made without any consideration of age when the building was built; it is all random and callous. Furniture has been replaced, and the old stuffed away into some warehouse, because someone thought Formica is better than Burma Teak. The CPWD should hence have nothing to do with any building that has heritage legacy value. There should be a proper team of experts and conservation architects to do the job.”
Conservation architect, Ratish Nanda, says the deteriorated condition of heritage buildings should foster a need for their preservation.
Using the Parliament building as an example, he says, there is a need to draw up a fresh plan for the preservation of buildings, and also make them accessible to the common man.
“This is an exciting opportunity to set standards for renovation and architectural design, for building extensions to iconic historic buildings of India. The long-term preservation and use of Parliament, almost 100 years old, as well as setting up a museum to India’s democracy, which welcomes the public to New Delhi, must be prioritised as part of the proposal,” he says.
On Parliament, he says: “It’s not only a heritage building of international significance, but also has future potential as a heritage site of New Delhi — the only complete city from the British period in India, and the only new city built anywhere during the war years.
The foresight of the architects in designing, using traditional materials, keeping in mind Indian conditions, has allowed the structure to easily adapt to changing needs. Careful thought and engagement with civil society will make sure this reflects India’s present global standing.”
Maintenance of the Lutyens’ zone and Grade I heritage buildings needs a holistic approach. It’s not taking care of the façade and neglecting the backyards, says renowned architect and town planner, Prof. K. T. Ravindran. “It is like a house with a well-maintained living room and neglected kitchen and washrooms. There are several buildings that have Ministers and senior officials, which have well-maintained facades, but neglected backyards.”
Enforcement, he says, isn’t an issue, but agencies involved in the upkeep of these buildings need to pull their weight. “There is a watchdog called the Central Vista Committee, with sufficient teeth. Sometimes, they have manpower and capacity insufficiency to deal with the problem, but it can be done.”
A good reason to step up efforts to protect Parliament building and to make sure business is conducted within the historic structure? “The value of the place is in its function, not in the fabric. It is the nation’s pride.”