Right of passage | Society

Designs for Delhi Vista: Monumental but not noble

Hafeez Contractor’s proposal converts the metaphor of India as a rising star into a large structure.  

Strangely shaped towers, weird symbols, large icons, and architectural-bill boards: the shortlisted and winning proposals for New Delhi’s Central Vista and new Parliament are out in public, and most of them reflect an uncomfortable architectural jingoism, each outdoing the other.

Rather than herald a new civic design and enrich public spaces, the proposed architectural theatrics focus on exhibiting a strident nationalism. It appears as if a strange cult, obsessed with totems and obelisks, has descended on Delhi to build a contemporary capital. Fortunately, many of these ideas might not see the light of day, but if this is the best that Indian architecture can offer, then there is a lot to worry about.

Pharaonic structures

At a time when civic buildings around the world are putting people at their centre and eschewing triumphalism, the Central Vista proposals embody archaic notions of monumentality and are obsessed with portraying an overpowering state. As a result, pharaonic structures and domineering images depressingly fill the site.

Among the proposals, the one by Hafeez Contractor takes the cake. It converts the metaphor of India as a rising star into a large star-shaped structure. Jumping straight out of the Baahubali movie sets, the structure soars many storeys high, with each petal of the star meant to stand for the quintessential characteristics of new India such as ‘superpower’ and ‘global icon’.

Under the monument is a pond filled with lotus sculptures. And more lotuses adorn the axis leading towards Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is an apparent attempt to fuse political and religious symbols to depict the Hindutva version of nationalism. In specific ways, the proposal is reminiscent of early designs for Indian flags that carried 108 jyotis with vajra and the thunderbolt weapon of god Indra at the centre.

The proposed design returns to divisive symbols the country has long discarded. In front of the monstrous star-shaped monument are a series of cheesecake buildings aligned along the central axis — a pathetic attempt to juxtapose past and present.

Axis of new India

Another shortlisted firm, Sikka Associates Architects, proposes a toothpick-like tower overlooking the vista. It is located between North and South blocks fronting Rashtrapati Bhavan. This tall tower is washed with the tricolour and wants to look like an unfurled flag.

Competing with this idea, the proposal by INI Design Studio brings the new Parliament building closer to the centre, and brings the president’s palace, legislature and India Gate in one line, dubbing it the axis of new India. The design puts the Parliament on a raised platform unmindful of how it could disrupt the public spaces all around. The facades of the proposed Parliament buildings will function as digital billboards and splash tricolour flags and triumphal events.

Sikka associates architects presents a tall tricolour tower.

Sikka associates architects presents a tall tricolour tower.  

The design submitted by CP Kukreja Architects has a few ideas similar to the winning one by HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd, but its highlight is how it tries to outdo its rivals by building a new ‘iconic beacon’ — a structure more than 100 metres high and located behind India Gate. The architect’s video presentation describes the tower as the jewel of its vision and describes it as an abstract form of ‘namaste’ — a tower symbolising folded hands. The viewing deck at the top looks like a desi version of the ‘Eye of Sauron’, the symbol of Tolkien’s dark lord. The design notes also proudly point out how the secretariat buildings have been suffused with grills designed like the chakra, and claim that such elements will give ‘a sense of security and national pride’.

The winning design by HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd shows restraint and stays away from any such visual gimmicks. However, the sigh of relief is short-lived. News reports already indicate that a tower rising heavenward, though not a part of the original design, might be added. It is not clear where on Central Vista such a colossal tower and its viewing deck will be placed, but it is certain that the government desperately wants this architectural logo. The purpose, as Otto Neurath, a political scientist, explained about pictures is to communicate a new ‘order at work’ by collapsing seeing and reading. The full details of the winning design are yet to emerge, and when they do they will call for closer scrutiny.

Architectural history is littered with buildings designed as or with political symbols such as William Delano’s proposal for a government building in the form of an American flag; Eero Saarinen’s 40-ft wingspread eagle atop an embassy building; the Lenin statue on top of the place of Soviets, and closer home, Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar built in the form of a salt mound. All of them, in historian Lewis Mumford’s words, are ‘at best hollow and at worst mockery’. The proposals for Central Vista tread a similar failed path.

Evoking authority

How should the seat of government be imagined and built? Should it evoke awe, power, and authority? Srirupa Roy, a professor of political science, discussing issues of nationalism, points out that when institutional authority is imagined differently, the relationship between people, institutions, nation and state can be reconstituted for the better. Architecture has the agency to enable this. Unfortunately, this concept seems alien to New Delhi.

There a few lessons to learn from artists and architects who have engaged with the idea of counter monuments. They clearly show that one must come to terms with Lewis Mumford’s assessment that monuments are hopelessly incompatible with current times.

Second, eschew design strategies and structures that tend to gather power, and instead do what James Young, a scholar of memorial art, suggests: take designs that disperse authority. Central Vista must be about people and not about the state. It is certainly not impossible to design buildings that appear noble without their having to be monumental.

The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 5:53:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/designs-for-delhi-vista-monumental-but-not-noble/article30213566.ece

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