Brash Abominations or Architectural Evolution?
Institutional buildings epitomize a time and a sensibility and sometimes, an uneasy synthesis
ized” in print with the release last week of Reha’ish: At Home in Lucknow. She has done her mite to preserve not only a period of architecture but a disappearing way of life too.
Institutional buildings do not encapsulate personal and familial histories as homes do – so wonderfully captured by Adity – but they do epitomize a time and a sensibility. They bespeak the urges of those powers who guided the destinies of nations, and are thus invaluable too.
The faux Rajput Hotel Ashok in New Delhi, for instance, captures the uneasy synthesis in the 1950s between the recently-dispossessed Rajput royals and Jawaharlal Nehru’s imperious democratic government, both of which jointly owned the property. Its unease is telling. Similarly, the inef fably ugly Nirman and Shastri Bhavans, built in the 1960s on the razed premises of Lutyens era bungalows, show that the government’s socialist ethos had by then ousted any vestiges of Indian aesthetics- such as they were. They are still eyesores.
What is odd, however, is that while such sarkari blotches are allowed to survive and mar Delhi’s beautifully laid out Central Vista, other contemporary modern buildings in the city are being de- molished. A case in point is the now-obliterated Chanakya cinema hall.
Another one facing the demolition ball is the Raj Rewal-designed set of pyramids called the Hall of Nations at the soon-to-be-repurposed Pragati Maidan. Growing up in a bungalow opposite that exhibition ground, I used to find them as fascinating as the nearby Purana Qila.
Indeed, that juxtaposition of airy concrete triangles and solid stone-and-mortar fort walls is probably what fired my lifelong interest in architecture and history. Both are, after all, very eloquent rep- resentatives of the sweep of Indian history, as told through its rulers and architects.
A court has stayed the demolition order till the Heritage Conservation Committee comes to a decision on it. And that points to the nub of the issue. What is heritage? And how far should that tag be stretched – to include Rewal’s pyramids or Shastri Bhavan? Both? Neither?
There i s a l so t a l k of reduci ng t he Lut yens Bungalow Zone so that coveted residential colonies such as Sundar Nagar, Jor Bagh and Golf Links are excluded from its restrictions. That would, of course, mean certain extinction of those gracious 1950s-1960s residences.
Kolkata has been witnessing the inexorable disappearance of buildings constructed by the beneficiaries of the Bengal renaissance–doctors, barristers, engineers, professors and civil servants. Their demolition coincides with the imminent extinction of the bhadralok.
Architectural ‘evolution’ in every city ref lects India’s changing socio-economic and even political equations. And they are of a piece with what has happened in India for millennia. Very little ancient or merely old architecture has survived as even motifs in the present.
That mindset has to change. Indians must become more empathetic to both old and contemporary architecture, as historical exemplars –even if they are built in our own lifetimes. That of course, should ideally be accompanied by a much-delayed aesthetic re-awakening.
Logically then, Shastri and Nirman Bhavans and all sarkari monstrosities of the 1950s to 1980s should be preserved, not just Rewal’s pyramids. As also the cookie-cutter “builder homes” proliferating in 21st century urban India as much as the gracious residences Adity writes about.
At present only the venerable old residences and whimsical but memorable 20th century Indian architectural aberrations such as the pyramids face annihilation while mediocre or plain ugly ones survive. Is that the sole legacy we want to leave of our times?
Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan (L) & Cover of Adity Chakravarti’s Reha’ish: At Home in Lucknow