Society

Sandstone skyscrapers, concrete mohallas

Crafts Museum in Delhi

Crafts Museum in Delhi   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Buildings don’t have to be old to have heritage worth. They could have clever architecture or cultural value

Ten years ago, when Delhi’s iconic Chanakya theatre was pulled down, A.G.K. Menon, then convenor of the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), realised there were two things missing in the way we view heritage. “One, we mainly look at architectural heritage as monuments, and two, modern architecture is not protected.”

But modern heritage had no definition back then. And so a team led by Menon and comprising urban planners and designers, conservationist architects, historians and trainees, came up with a list, a few years ago, of 62 buildings, built after independence in Delhi.

Now, propelled by the recent demolition of the Hall of Nations building in Delhi’s Pragati Madan, designed by architect Raj Rewal, Intach is trying to bring the debate surrounding modern heritage into the public sphere. “We are planning various campaigns, getting in touch with colleges, schools for photo competitions, asking people to click and share pictures of their favourite buildings,” says Annabel Lopez, a project consultant with Intach and part of the team that helped form the list. The organisation is also looking to start heritage walks around these modern buildings.

Insuring heritage

The list, which is still under consideration with the Centre’s Heritage Conservation Committee, looks at six criteria: exceptional architectural significance, representative of a building typology, representative of a master architect, outstanding ensemble structures, buildings of religious significance, and those associated with the lives of persons of great significance. The list includes temples and museums, institutions, art galleries and cultural centres.

On the list, and marked as a ‘Grade I’ building of national importance, is the LIC building designed by Charles Correa in 1986: at 12 storeys it towers over Lutyens’ Delhi.

The LIC Building in Delhi

The LIC Building in Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

 

“It was the first building of its kind built in Delhi at that point in time,” says Lopez. “Correa always tried to use local materials, so even in this skyscraper you have the use of red sandstone and cladding.” The facades thus give it an Indian touch, while the iconic metallic pergola and the use of glass, lend it a Western one.

Crafts Museum, another building on the list, bears Correa’s stamp too. He designed the open-to-sky pathways in the heart of the museum with galleries going off the main street — taking a person from “village to temple to palace”.

Rewal’s work also features prominently on the list. He designed the Asian Games Village. Rewal too borrows from Indian tradition. “Correa was very subtle about it but Raj Rewal is more picturesque,” says Menon. Rewal was influenced by Le Corbusier, but also by Pier Luigi Nervi and Michel Ecochard.

The Asian Games Village, initially designed to provide housing for participants in the ninth Asian Games held in 1982, is “very modern, but takes its cues from Rajasthan, particularly Jaisalmer,” Rewal explains. The low-rise, high-density village was designed for community living and draws from the idea of mohallas. Rewal ensured that the materials used were local and durable. And so the structure is made of concrete, the exterior from stone aggregate, the courtyards from Delhi quartzite, and the pathways from red sandstone.

Rewal was the first to draw from Indian traditions for modern buildings. “It was partly because we actually measured stepwells, and layouts of Fatehpur Sikri and Jaisalmer... This was a major urban design study.”

At the Village, houses consisting of 12-13 units are clustered around squares, linked by traditional walkways that are shaded by the projections from the building. The Village qualifies as an “outstanding example and representative of a building typology”.

A popular cultural centre also makes it to the list: India International Centre (IIC) designed by American architect Joseph Allen Stein. In the 50s, Nehru invited Stein to head the Architecture and Planning department of the The Bengal College of Engineering and Technology. Later, Stein moved to Delhi and over the next 40 years created some of the finest works of architecture.

Stein was strongly influenced by architects in California, and championed the regional modern movement that paid attention to local environments — best exemplified in his design of IIC.

India International Centre

India International Centre   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

 

Inspired in 1958 by the then Vice President S. Radhakrishnan and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III’s vision of a dedicated space for the exchange of ideas, IIC remains an important social hub for lectures and cultural activities.

“It’s a no-frills kind of place,” says writer and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil, who worked as assistant editor for IIC Quarterly and later, while doing her Ph.D, rented a cubicle in its library for six months. “One associates it with Nehruvian India. Utilitarian but with aesthetics.”

The building, which adjoins Lodhi Gardens, uses materials such as local stones, reinforced concrete frames, burnt clay and steel jaalis to create harmony with the environment around.

Confluence of cultures

For author Nilanjana Roy, IIC brings memories of “stodgy talks, and tea-and-biscuit conferences, but it was also a place where I interviewed many writers, from Agha Shahid Ali to Mahasweta di, when I was starting out as a journalist.”

She sees IIC and India Habitat Centre as places “where the sometimes insular world of writers, who work chiefly in English, flows into Delhi’s Urdu and Hindi heritage.”

Not all structures on the list are based on modern architectural merit; cultural value also figures large. Lopez cites the example of Garden of Five Senses (also part of the list): “It is an open space that people are drawn to, though here we are not really looking at modern architecture, but the fact that it is a post-independence icon.” The same reasoning applies to Dilli Haat, also on the list.

As Roy says, “It’s a real privilege to live in a city where the centuries surround you in the most casual way.” Buildings shape us and our cultures, and it would be a shame to lose the most iconic ones merely because of short sight.

When he’s not chasing stories, the writer can be found playing Ultimate Frisbee or endless rounds of Catan.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 4:02:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/sandstone-skyscrapers-concrete-mohallas/article19554580.ece

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