The conundrum of continuity and change : The Tribune India

Rajnish Wattas

Former Principal, Chandigarh College of Architecture

The current debate on the most significant urban renewal project of our nation since Independence — the redevelopment of the Central Vista — has, unfortunately, drifted away from substantive issues to the more emotive aspect of the process. Everyone is aghast at the visuals of a sea of dug-up earth of the once beautiful manicured lawns of the Rajpath, bordered by quaint saffron-coloured Badarpur sand, now barricaded with ‘no photography’ and other such prohibitive signage.

The foremost democratic public space of national eminence — sacred to its collective memory — is now suddenly ‘out of bounds’ for the citizens of the Republic, in whose name the annual Republic Day parade is held.

And that too at a time when the pandemic is raging like an inferno, engulfing lives. The inevitable question asked would be: Should the government be saving lives or building new edifices to valorise its political glory?

But if once a project to spruce up a historic landscape project has commenced, it must be completed before the rains come or else the dug-up earth and trenches for services etc will get filled up with water, damaging the services laid there. If the ongoing work is merely a temporary disruption with an urgency to finish the whole operation before January 26 2022, then the commotion can be toned down.

If the attempt here is to provide minor facilities, public convenience and street furniture to the huge throng of people who come there for picnics, airing and other recreational facilities, should they not have proper drinking water, toilets, benches and other minor comforts? Provided the design details are sensitive and in consonance with the heritage idiom pervading there.

With time, all buildings and cities pulsating with human life need constant renewals. That the work of a modern nation, even in the 21st century, should continue from the dimly lit corridors of power of the Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s colonial edifices, is too vacuous an argument.

With India’s Independence and the Partition, Punjab was truncated and lost its beloved capital city of Lahore. Temporarily, the east Punjab government on the Indian side moved to Simla, operating from large colonial buildings vacated by the British. When the Punjab Government began making plans for a new capital city, political bickering and pressures began to mount for picking up an existing old city like Ambala, Jullundur or Kapurthala as the capital, instead of spending huge money on building a new one at Chandigarh.

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s then Health Minister, argued that the British had endowed India with beautiful hill resorts with majestic buildings and it was bounden upon the country to look after them. In an impassioned letter to Jawaharlal Nehru to continue Simla as the permanent new capital of the Punjab, she wrote, “What is needed are a couple of mountain road engineers, who if we hadn’t any experts here … could be got here for a year or two from Switzerland or Italy to widen all the roads and make them wide enough for motor traffic….a railway already exists.”

However, Nehru overruled all such clamour and invited the world’s foremost modernist architect, Le Corbusier, to plan Chandigarh. And, the rest is history.

Regarding the Central Vista project, no one is advocating en masse destruction of architectural heritage — even if it’s colonial. It’s universally agreed that the Central Vista ensemble comprising the three-km avenue of tree-lined, green expanse with water canals is a national landscape and public space of eminence. And the entire composition of the axis between India Gate and Raisina Hill, topped by North and South blocks, and reaching the architectural crescendo with the dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan is an immaculate magnificent conception. And no one is touching the edifices and the landscape they extend into.

But should the thought of putting the edifices to a more compatible contemporary adaptive reuse like museums etc instead of housing bureaucracy and power centres, as at present, be not considered? In fact, it would send the right signals to the world as to who sits on top of the Raisina Hill symbolism — the state or culture? Extending the idea, why should the Rashtrapati Bhavan, too, be not used for some other more critical function, than merely the residence for the President?

World over, even in foremost heritage structures — whether the Greek Parthenon, Louvre Museum or Parisor Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in France — interventions for visitor facilities are made without infringing on the core monuments in whose great shadow they exist.

In the Central Vista project, the real worry is that the new Parliament building is placed too close to the existing historic edifice, which would be very challenging even for the best talents of the world to do justice to. The proposed design of a chamfered triangular form appears to be rather a tentative hybrid, a concoction of modernity laced with Lutyens and Baker’s colonial idiom along with interiors of slick, commercial 21st century amenities. In the limited details available, one can even spot a spire on top of one of the numerous blocks inside. A finial at the top of a spire emerging from a truncated triangular form is not an organic detail but an artificial ornamentation.

The new Central Secretariat will be in the form of 10 uniform cuboid blocks, with courtyards flanking the Central Vista Avenue both on the north and south sides, behind the tree line. It has been assured by the developers that no new building will ‘puncture the existing skyline and won’t go beyond eight floors or be higher than India Gate’. Their architectural expression will be in continuity with Lutyens’ sandstone facades to be similarly clad in Agra and Dholpur stone — though, inside, the use of steel and glass will be fully exploited.

While there is no argument against providing closely knit state-of-the-art Secretariat buildings, one can see an overzealous emphasis to create a rigid symmetry of ‘hollow cuboid’ buildings lined up in rows on both sides of the avenue. The obsession with maintaining bilateral symmetry of Renaissance times, that needs to gobble up even historic buildings like the Annexe of the National Archives and the post-Independence constructed Vigyan Bhavan with its hallmark ‘chaitya arch’, is unfathomable. The whole point about modernism is that it is resilient enough to incorporate diverse elements with more flexible interpretations — what Le Corbusier famously called striking an ‘occult balance’.

A sustained focus and debate on the larger issues of rewriting our national architectural history is most critical. Let it not be lost in din of rhetoric and emotive dramatisation of ground realities and processes. History is neither made nor unmade by noise.

Read More: The conundrum of continuity and change : The Tribune India