POV: BREAK IN INDIA
Acharacteristic of great cities around the world is the careful preservation of buildings that are not only stylistically representative of a time but also contribute to the public life of the place. Rome, as the eternal city, evokes its history through ancient stone monuments as much as it does through ordinary street architecture built more recently. The evolving fabric provides the citizens with consistent references to its 2,500yearold history. When an insignificant civil war construction was impeding the construction of an apartment complex in Philadelphia, the builder himself proposed a solution, carefully saving the relic within the entrance court of the new apartment block.
It hardly need be said that in comparison to other old cities, Delhi is a wasted derelict pile. Besides serious problems of pollution, overcrowding, insecurity, lack of utilities, its visible structure resembles a ramshackle makeshift encampment—a place perpetually choking, smoking and smouldering. Moreover, its selective preservation and development have left a legacy inconsistent with its real history. While Mughal and colonial examples are allowed to persist as historical markers, little of postindependent life is preserved in public architecture. When the BBC correspondent sends his report, it is usually with a backdrop of India Gate, suggesting clearly to his viewers that little of value is visible after Edwin Lutyens. Pride of building is hard to expect in a place that lives by no particular aesthetic code.
The recent demolition of architect Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations, a concrete structure built to commemorate 25 years of Indian independence, was consistent with the bureaucratic fatigue and indifference visible in the capital. A persistent campaign was waged in support of the country’s modern heritage and indeed the design merits of the demolished building were acknowledged by a wide range of organisations: “a major heritage of postindependent architecture”, said the Centre Pompidou, “the first largescale concrete (spatial) structure in the world”, said the curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA); “one of the most important buildings of the 20th century”, the endorsement, ironically from Intach, an autonomous body set up by the government. Condemnation of the demolition, too, was swift and relentless. “...governments today believe that committing such an act is ‘progress’ when all it is is thinly disguised ignorance on a massive scale.”
The erasure of buildings that are out of sync with government policy is a quick antidote to lengthy democratic processes that all too often yield only a stalemate. Yet the demolition raises larger questions on not just the future of architectural heritage but what constitutes heritage. For too long, architecture has been the victim of political decisions. Nehru brought a French architect to design an Indian state capital; 70 years later the Andhra government chose a Japanese architect for Amaravati; Delhi has awarded the design of the new conference complex at Pragati Maidan to a Singaporean firm. Every decision has been backed by a political ill wind, fanned by megalomaniacal pretensions.
The confusion is compounded by forsaken responsibility. It took a judge, not an environmentalist, to decide on the pollution benchmarks for Delhi; in the case of the BRT similarly, the court—and not a transport planner—made the decision. A judge also takes the call on matters of heritage. When civic decisions are left to the judiciary, architectural conservation can easily fall prey to private prejudices and inconsistencies. Besides, since major monuments all have historic associations, it falls on the political party in power to decide the relevance of that association. Will someone in government propose the demolition of Chandigarh because it was built under Congress rule; as a viceroy’s house, could the Rashtrapati Bhavan not succumb one day to the rage of an irate nationalist? Till civic life remains enmeshed in political process, the future is uncertain.
Selective preservation/ development have left Delhi a legacy inconsistent with its real history