Daring to recast a vision set in stone

A thoughtful plan can convert Delhi’s Central Vista into a truly heroic space of cultural and social participation

Updated - December 31, 2019 01:49 pm IST

Published - December 31, 2019 12:02 am IST

In 1913, a British architect with an undisguised disgust for Hindu architecture was chosen to give the British rulers a clear architectural vision of their power and greatness. The mile-long Central Vista, the triumphal arch of India Gate, and the rise of Raisina Hill that capped his imperial vision displayed in no uncertain terms the greatness of the Empire. Its striking difference from native culture was apparent in the vast emptiness of public space, the stretch of an elongated roadway and reflecting pools that prepared the view of the pink sandstone stage-set shimmering on the rise.

What is the cultural value of such a vision a century later — not just for an independent India, but a secular India, or even a Hindu India? Do architectural visions even matter at a time when democratic institutions are under threat or already extinct, indeed when the focus has shifted from political debate to religious protectionism? Do shapes and styles of architecture even play a role in ensuring the sanctity of places any more?

Changing face of Delhi

At the time of its inception, New Delhi had less than one million inhabitants; the current population is an estimated 22 million. Movement in the city then was on bicycles; cars, buses and the metro now move four million passengers daily. Not to mention increases in population density, the subsequent decline of green space, the influx of migrants, and the raise of parallel slum and tenement cities. In these changed circumstances, what is the future of the Central Vista? Does it make any sense to preserve Lutyens’s work in its original form? At present the government plans to build a new Parliament House adjacent to the present one, convert the Secretariat into museums, demolish and replace a number of buildings along the Central Vista with structures more current and suited to bureaucratic functions. What then is the long-term value of such monumental additions?

The American parallel

Comparisons are often made between the Central Vista and the Mall in Washington DC. Yet the two places could not be more diametrically opposed. Certainly superficial similarities exist: both begin with visible monuments — India Gate and the Washington monument — and end up on hills — Raisina and Capitol Hill; both are conceived with the idea of a monumental open space in between. But where the American site is consciously promoted as a cultural complex of great historic and artistic value, with government departments isolated onto innocuous side streets, the Central Vista remains a spine of officialdom and bureaucracy entirely inessential to civic life.

In its centuries of history, the Mall grew from the emptiness of an urban park into a carefully cultivated civic space, with museums for natural science, American history, African-American art, modern sculpture, etc. A 100 years after Lutyens, the Central Vista stands physically unchanged but culturally transformed incorporating the original Colonial secretariat, Indian bureaucratic office blocks added after Independence, along with a smattering of museums, and now a maidan that functions like a dusty rural bazaar. Squalid, and unsupported by new ideas, the civic purpose of the vista is so confused, that it no longer retains any historic or cultural value.

For the last 70 years a strict preservation regulation has left the enormous arena unchanged and frozen in historic time. Such an artificial adherence to a colonial order was seen as adequate justification to the cause of the status quo, based on the belief that any major alteration would be detrimental to the colonial legacy. To this end, Lutyens committees and heritage conservation groups have done more harm than good, leaving the place a sad reminder of missed architectural opportunities. The piece-meal addition of minor second rate, poorly constructed structures, the various bhavans, the External Affairs headquarters and addition to the National Archives, was further admission that city authorities were unable, and unwilling, to address the site with a comprehensive plan.

Reimagining the space

Should then the current state of the Central Vista as an innocuous assembly of unrelated bureaucratic buildings with the frontage of a featureless maidan merely be formalised, or should the site be tested for its true potential? Other than archaeological, there is today no real value to the original heritage of Lutyens, nor indeed to the new proposal which willingly adds more structures to the area, in accordance with the current political agenda. When buildings do not adequately address the public space of the vista, nor provide any cultural value there is enough reason for their rejection, and case to seek fresh solutions.

Given that any change should be directed at guaranteeing a better life for its citizens over a better life for its bureaucrats, the Central Vista’s transformation becomes more important than outright preservation. Obviously the intrusion of any new function must rely on a careful conservation of all current buildings, including the Soviet-style bhavans slated for demolition. In order to develop a complete cultural vista, it is imperative that buildings with bureaucratic and political functions be moved north of Rajpath in such a way that all government functions can be isolated into an altogether separate and less important non-public zone. This would allow the development of an entirely government-free cultural entity.

In three cultural clusters

In a country with so varied a history, there is no disputing the need for a public place for culture, science and the arts. The sporadic insertion of individual museums needs to be carefully complimented with a wide range of missing facilities. The current representation of art, archaeology and archives randomly dispersed along inaccessible roads requires integration with other equally crucial presences in three cultural clusters.

First, history: If the National Museum covers the arc of Indian history and archaeology, a new sister building, a Museum of Recent History, should present the recent past — events such as Partition, the Emergency, communal riots, Ayodhya, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, etc. to people experiencing these in living and not-so-distant-memory. A Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles displays a vast range of ethnic battles waged in history — the Jewish Holocaust, slavery, black lives and racism. Could a similar structure, an Indian Museum of Tolerance, present the cases of Indian ethnic wrongs, genocides, and other historic injustices? Second, archives and library: While the national archives are well represented in a colonial structure, there is a dire need for a National Library in line with the U.S. Library of Congress, a storehouse for every document or book published or digitised with public access to one and all. Third, arts and sciences: Along the same stretch, today the arts appear dispersed in an incomplete Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts; their complimentary arm in science does not exist. Would a National Science Centre sit comfortably along the multitude of scattered galleries, or should there be a wider linking plan to unify buildings into an all-inclusive plan?

A complete representation of all that India symbolises will obviously never happen in a single stroke — but an attempt to present the country’s truest face to itself and the world must begin with a coherent collection of its best, available to all, and developed according to a comprehensive plan. If made with carefully thought-out purpose and intent, it will serve a wide range of interests and a diverse population. With easy pedestrian access for the millions who make a pilgrimage to Delhi, the plan could convert the all-important Central Vista stretch into a truly heroic space of cultural and social participation — a place unlike any in India? The cohesive nature of a plan that allows the experience of a culture as an uninterrupted arena requires an altogether radical approach — one that may not be composed of single identifiable buildings, but a vast colloidal mass that becomes a calibrated and slow discovery of India. Its thoughtful visualisation requires a rethink beyond bureaucratic regulations, a serious political will and altogether new possibilities of architecture.

Gautam Bhatia is a New Delhi-based architect and sculptor

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