India Today - - UPFRONT - By Gautam Bhatia Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based ar­chi­tect, writer and artist

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

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