Central Vista Redevelopment: An Architectural Perspective, by Samvad Design Studio

In a nation regarded as a palimpsest, how does one build? This is the task ahead of architect Bimal Patel and it is against the backdrop of layered history, we analyse the proposal for the Central Vista Redevelopment. While, much of the opinions in public domain about the project revolve around its politics, this article attempts to analyse the proposal as a polemical as well as a technical exercise in urban design and architecture – where the program, site, client, budget and time-lines prescribed are regarded as a given.

HISTORIC BACKGROUND:

If we read architecture as an expressive instrument of history, two distinctive attitudes emerge from the practices prevalent in Delhi, belonging to the phases broadly referred to as Indo-Islamic and Indo-Saracenic. While architecture from both these phases are often referred to as hybrids, the means of hybridisation are contrasting.

A) The initial phase of Delhi Sultanate’s Indo-Islamic experiments, could be regarded as a context responsive approach towards regional practices – as seen in Qutub Complex in 1190s, the Sultanates employed local technology like trabeated structural systems and corbelling, albeit to create pre-conceived Islamic forms like arches. While one could argue it was making use of available resources and know-how, more for ease of construction, than with an intent to integrate, the fact remains, the Islamic attempts were less literal. Later, Sultanates followed by the Mughals employed arcuated structural systems, introducing true arches, domes and squinches to India.

B) In the British-Raj’s, Indo-Saracenic Style seen in Lutyens’ Delhi of 1900s, the architecture is picturesque – a pastiche of elements rather than techniques, where there is an attempt to ‘invent authenticism’, to borrow a phenomenon described by Romi Khosla[1]. The British were looking to rule over the locals. This otherness is evident in Herbert Baker’s disdain for ‘Indian Architecture’, represented as token visuals like Islamic jali, Mughal Gardens, Buddhist Stupa pasted onto Western Classical Order, as seen in Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament House.

Notwithstanding this imperial disregard for ‘Indian Architecture’ or the original intent of the Central Vista, to serve as the colonial seat of power, the 3 km stretch of the Lutyens-Baker Master Plan has today, come to symbolise India’s vibrant democracy – a monument of great national pride, a classic case of ‘widely shared acculturation’[2]. This is the context inherited by Bimal Patel and it is against this backdrop we will discuss Central Vista at the Urban level, its Architecture and Detailing.

  1. URBAN FORM

Urban forms and their formal ordering principles are not mere planning devices for cities to operate efficiently. They also contribute to what Kevin Lynch terms as ‘Imageability’ of a city. Historically, this concept has been used in urban design to engineering perspectives around seats of power for people to perceptually register complex ideas like faith, nationhood, equality, democracy.

The power center may be religious, like the temple town of Madurai, with a concentric model of urban form around the temple, or political, like Michelangelo’s design of the Capitoline Hill with a trapezoidal geometry focusing on the Senator’s Palace. Delhi’s Central Vista scheme by Lutyens-Baker deploys strategies like symmetry (of North and South Block), axiality (of the Rajpath), elevation (provided by the Raisina Hill) and focus (culminating in Rashtrapati Bhavan) to achieve a highly formalised axis.

Mervyn Miller[3] suggests that while designing the Central Vista, Lutyens was influenced by Raymond Unwin’s deployment of ‘Garden City Movement’ principles, while working alongside on the plan of Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1906; George-Eugene Haussmann’s design of Paris and ‘City Beautiful Movement’ designs of Chicago and Washington. All these examples exhibit a defined central axis, geometrical framework and strategically designed landscape to reinforce the primary geometry – principles which also feature in Delhi’s plan. Thus, design of Central Vista is reflective of not only its grandiose purpose but also of the then contemporary, urban planning theories.

Given this potent urban form, any intervention could either challenge the existing axis for its imperial intent or accept its ‘acculturation’. The new proposal follows the latter polemic in largely maintaining the status quo of the Central Vista, as stated by the architect “respecting history… using architecture to strengthen the original diagram.” [4]

While the redevelopment proposal includes a new Parliament, residences and few other architectural insertions in the precinct, the urban form is primarily impacted by the proposed secretariat. The Secretariat comprises of ten urban blocks in total, divided on either side of the Vista, hosting offices. Each block measures roughly 150m x 150m in plan and rises up to a height of 32m. The controlled, repeating, modular form reinforces the symmetry and axis of the Vista, in plan and street section. While this addition of a considerably large foot-print has altered the built-open ratio, the accessible open space remains unaltered. Even though the proposed buildings are recessed by nearly a quarter of a kilometer from the center of the axis, on either side, it remains to be seen how much of this margin in conjunction with the height and continuity of built form will impact the sense of enclosure of the Central Vista. Will the new order be overwhelming, without any relief owing to the series of built mass? Will this proposal emulate the model of Architect-Planner[5], where large scale architecture is responsive to urban design? Or will the office blocks remain as isolated architecture within the confines of the relegated compound walls? Clarity on this relationship between urban design and architecture will emerge only as the edge sections of the office blocks evolve.

While the overall urban form retains the focus, axiality and symmetry of Lutyens’ masterplan, the re-programming or adaptive re-use of existing historic structures, has increased public penetrability across the Vista. According to the original, imperial scheme, at the crossroads of Rajpath and Janpath, four civic institutions were planned – National Library, National Archives, Art Center and a Museum. In the new scheme, there is an extended penetrability along the principal axis, the Vista, which is the most used public space in the precinct. This is achieved by conversion of North and South Blocks into public museums and portioning a part of Rashtrapati Bhavan garden into a public arboretum. The axis is furthered up to the Yamuna River, terminating in a commemorative public garden. The overall proposal demonstrates a conscious negotiation between architecture and program, to reinforce Lutyens’ diagram at an urban level but re-visit publicness through the disposition of the program. The proposal maybe regarded as conciliatory at the urban level.

  1. ARCHITECTURE

In the Central Vista, there are four types of architectural interventions: Institution (Parliament Building), Residence (for Prime Minister and Vice President), Offices (PMO, Central Secretariat Complex with 10 buildings) and Adaptive Reuse (of North and South Block and existing Parliament Building). We will discuss the design for the new Parliament Building. [6]

The proposed Parliament Building is located in a triangular plot next to the existing Parliament Building, erected in 1927, designed by architect Herbert Baker.  While building in a historic context, architects can take various theoretical positions, irrespective of the typology and scale of the project. One is a radical and contentious response to history, where the intervention stands out: like Coop Himmelblau’s deconstructivist loft sitting atop a historic building in Vienna. The second is juxtaposing the contemporary intervention alongside the historic context, without being overwhelmed by the context. For instance, I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid of Louvre Museum, Paris, which brings light underground, while allowing the historic palace to remain as the primary backdrop. The third category is an almost invisible hand of the architect, as seen in Charles Correa’s intervention at Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati. Correa’s pavilions, while contemporary in expression, through the interplay of solid-void, austerity in use of materials and forms, resonate with Gandhian principles and allows the landscape and context to take over.

Interestingly, while the architectural manifestations are different, the goal is the same: to create critically rigorous architecture, true to its time and place, allowing for a clear reading of the past and contemporary interventions. Bimal Patel’s proposal falls between second and third categories. The architectural proposal does not seek to be radical or shock by virtue of design.

The similarity with the existing Parliament plan is in the disposition of functions in a tripartite structure, distinguishing between the major program (triple-height Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and courtyard with lounges) and subordinate program (offices for MP in the periphery). However, the new proposal with its triangular profile has six entrances, with three from the vertices converging at a central space, while omitting the peripheral corridor for lack of function. In fact, Herbert Baker had proposed a plan with triangular geometry, until it got modified at the behest of Lutyen’s inputs. While the previous Parliament accommodates about 545 people in the Lok Sabha, the new proposal is meant to seat an anticipated 900 MPs. At a granular level, a rational, modular geometry, of a 3.6 m grid is evolved, regarding the ergonomics of basic seating as a generator of design. One could perhaps read a Kahnian leitmotif in plan – a tight, compositional rigour, with junctions of the sharp triangle chamfered to relieve mass and resolve awkward corners (Kahn’s resolution is not new to Patel, given that he did the extension for IIM Ahmedabad).

Few other similarities with the existing Parliament, include maintaining the proportions of the plinth, colonnade and the crowning entablature in the new building.  The elevation also resonates with the existing Parliament in principle, wherein the three storied structure appears like a composite whole, lending it an aura of exaggerated scale, rather than three discernable stories.

In fact, when the architect presents his facade studies, both the old and the new Parliament are rendered similarly, muting ‘distractions’ of material, technology, construction and services, focusing only on elevations, in the Beaux-arts manner. This also makes it difficult to read the relationship between structure-material and form. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, architecturally. Will the proposed Parliament demonstrate a structural-rationalist approach, characteristic of the architect’s oeuvre? Be it the formalised rigour of the plan, brick volumes accentuated by concrete lintels of Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Ahmedabad which won him the Aga Khan Award or the controlled interplay of structure and skin – concrete and brick as seen in Knowledge Consortium of Gujarat in Ahmedabad, the architect’s portfolio has exhibited consistent exploration in structural elements for articulating spaces.

While discussing Bimal Patel’s extension to IIM-Ahmedabad, where he borrows from the geometric grid of Kahn but departs in the choice of material, Rob Gregory describes the extension thus: “choosing to amplify but not mimic the sense of scale and monumentality” [7] of the original scheme. Perhaps this gives a lens to assess the architect’s position, to respect the given context but not be “held hostage”[8] to it.

If one were to compare this with two other important post-independence period parliaments:  Le Corbusier’s Assembly Building of Chandigarh (1950) is an aloof but formally rigorous demonstration of Modernism. While the Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal (1993) by Charles Correa demonstrates a regional interpretation of Modernism with revivalist undertones. In comparison, Bimal Patel’s architectural proposal for the Parliament Building in New Delhi maybe regarded as post-ideological, where he takes cues from Lutyens-Baker’s design in principle but refrains from revivalist tendencies and gives primacy to a rationalist approach, where program and efficacy become principal generators of design.

  1. INTERIOR AND DETAILING

Two predominant attitudes in treating interiors are: the spatial approach of making the internal volume as an extension, even reflection of the overall scheme vs the decorative approach, disconnected from the conceptualisation of space making. The Parliament design by Bimal Patel tends towards the latter.

Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament completed in 1997 is an example of the spatial approach. The consistency in conceptualising a holistic experience is observed in: its architecture growing from the site like a landscape; in structural and material detailing of roof form, abstracting local motifs into dramatic skylight; in a non-literal interpretation of local crafts and use of materials as a technique and not image.

Similarly, there are several examples, where this auteur-like quality of creating architecture renders a haptic experience of moving through interior spaces as opposed to a disconnected, oculo-centric approach. Be it the dramatic interpenetration of light and fuzzy darkness creating an almost cubist way of experiencing space at Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora (8th C.E.) or ambiguity between landform and architecture, experienced inside-out in Doshi’s Sangath in Ahmedabad (1981) or Soulages Museum by RCR architects (2014), where every construction detail to space making strategy resonates the “inner gestalt”, as observed by William Curtis.[9]

This rigour, of ‘part-to-whole and whole-to-part’ logic of designing, is found lacking in the interior of the proposed Parliament Building. The interior is consistently reduced to literal imageries- be it of lotus, peacock or jali patterns, recurring in the false ceiling and vertical panels, as seen in renderings of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Constitution Gallery and Lounges also employ surface treatments disengaged from the overall architecture. Even when the architect discusses acoustics, it is discussed as a “sophisticated technology”[10] and not a tectonic possibility, unlike the ceiling design of Philharmonic Concert Hall in Berlin by Hans Scharoun. This is contrary to the calibrated, functional-rationalist approach of Bimal Patel’s as seen, inside-out, in the design of Ahmedabad Management Association and several of his projects.

However, the Constitutional Hall holds a promise of a spatial exploration with triangulated beams creating a soaring light well and chamfered sections bringing in light from the sides. Perhaps there is a possibility of expanding the scope of such an evocative idea – where the interplay between structure, light and material could create awe- inspiring spaces, across the various volumes in the Parliament. If this disconnect between inside-outside goes unaddressed, there is a lost potential to explore architecture in totality. In its present state, the treatment of the interior is largely, non-spatial and literal.

COCNCLUSION:

 “We have to invent our future, not our past”-Romi Khosla[11]

Where past and present are overlapping continuums in contexts like India, architecture can either be a part of this on-going process or try to momentarily freeze time and place like a distinct chapter in a text book of history.

Crispin Branfoot, in a research about renovations in Tamil Sacred Landscapes [12], argues that the repeated renovations and replacement of the vimana in temples of Tamil Nadu for over 1000 years, stems from the prevalent worldview in the region, attributing value to the site as a sacred landscape (punitha sthalam) and renovations as an ongoing process. This is opposed to the imperial view which regards the sacred monument as a complete, inviolate object, fossilised in time.

Today, the site of Central Vista has acquired this status of being the sacred bedrock of democracy. If we take a thread from our past and view our history as an ongoing, living process, in transition, of building layer upon layer and improving upon it, HCP’s urban gestures do not tamper with this sacredness of the site. The reading of the proposal reveals a conciliatory approach at the urban level, post-ideological position at the architectural level and literal treatment of the interiors. Overall, the proposal is suggestive of architecture in transition rather than architecture as a clean break from the past.


[1] Khosla, Romi. The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2002.pp.59

[2] Vale, Lawrence. Architecture, Power and National Identity. Newyork: Routledge, 2008. Preface to second edition

[3] Miller, Mervyn. “Vistas and Verdure: Lutyen’s plan for New Delhi.” Delhi: A Heritage City . New Delhi: INTACH Delhi Chapter, 2012. 12-37.

[4] Patel, Bimal. Idea Exchange with Bimal Patel. Express News Service. 12 January 2020. The Indian Express.

[5] “Kahn made no distinction between architecture and urban design; thus, he often used the phrase

‘architect planner’ in the 1950s to describe a role of an architect who worked in a city planning

scale.” Arkaraparsertkul, Non. “Towards Modernist Urban Design: Louis Kahn’s Plan for Central Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban Design (2008): 177-194.

[6] The discussion is limited to the material in terms of architectural drawings and renderings available in public domain, as of the date the article was written.

[7]Gregory, Rob. “Indian Institute of Management by HCP Design, Ahmedabad, India.” 23 August 2010. Architectural-review.com. 24 July 2020.

[8] Trivedy, Shikha. “Parliament to Kashi Vishwanath: Why Modi always hires architect Bimal Patel for pet projects.” 4 Dec 2019. theprint.in. 24 July 2020.

[9] Curtis, William J. “Dark Matter: Musée Soulages in Rodez by RCR Arquitectes.” Architectural Review (2014). Architectural-review.com. 24 July 2020.

[10] Patel, Bimal. Presentation: Transforming Central Vista, New Delhi. CEPT University. 24 January 2020.

[11] Khosla, Romi. The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2002.pp.100

[12]Branfoot, Crispin. “Remaking the Past: Tamil Sacred Landscape and Temple Renovations.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 76, no. 1 (2013): 21–47.

AUTHOR

9 Comments
  1. Srihari says

    Excellent read. Highly nuanced take on a topic of national importance. Refreshing to come across a perspective that makes technical rigor and not ideological rhetoric the focal point for a change.

  2. Srihari says

    Excellent read. Highly nuanced take on a topic of national importance. Refreshing to read a perspective that emphasizes technical discourse over political rhetoric.

  3. Sudhakar Murthy says

    Wonderful!
    A very well written article by Samvad. Beautifully explained in a smooth flow of ideas, with one thought following the other seamlessly!
    Very informative & succinct write up with logical and historical reasons supporting the plan. And good to have an insider’s view about what’s soon going to be a mega project for India – Central Vista redevelopment by senior architect Bimal Patel.

  4. Ravindra Pande says

    Excellent Ramalaxmi! As an engineer, who visited Delhi uncountable times and always getting amamzed by its architecture and town planning from Moghul to Lutyen-period, I found your article extremely enlightening! Thank you and keep it up!

  5. Priya choudhary says

    Congratulations for commenting objectively on the pure architectural content of the much debated project. It’s important to voice concerns democratically about the proposed apostal of democracy.
    I too feel the architect has tried to continue the gradual process of evolution as you mention in conclusions…though he had a chance to invent the future of democracy and its architectural expression. The whole proposal could have been more people centric than sacrosanct and sacred.

    The structure, language and the commentary in the article is scholastic.
    Well written.

  6. Arjun Sangamnerkar says

    A well researched and balanced article.

  7. Urvi Varma says

    A very clear depiction of role of the architecture in this very critical project for the Nation. There is a vision that portraits the project which is very well supported by the use of relevant examples from the past and present rigorous architecture.

  8. Roopal Deshpande says

    Very scholastic paper…. the research is very well grounded and it picks up every opportunity to discuss Indian architecture.
    To express your critics on the most debated and such a spectacular project needs courage. Congratulations for possessing it.
    Very engaging read, some illustrations would have complimented it.

  9. Hriday Siddharth says

    In a day where the whole project was evaluated against a Political narrative, and the debate around it has been deafeningly rhetorical, nice to read an article which dissects the project from the various scales of perception – Urban, Architectural & Interior and positions it against the history of the place. The authors veneration for the Art makes for an excellent informative read rather than an opinionated one.

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