by Narayani gupta
A city does not grow by demolition but by accommodation. The art of building a livable and beautiful city is not imbibed simply by learning by rote the dauntingly unreadable Building Bye-laws and Building Development Control Regulations as per Master Plan for Delhi 2021 but by working out how to adjust (oh that favourite Hinglish word!) the new within the old. The architect is – or should be – also an artist. And his artistic sensibility should not be limited to the building he designs, but to the area around. Truly lovely urbanscapes are ones which have the patina of age as well as the clear gleam of the new. Take a lesson from God’s architecture – every tree is different, and the sum total is beautiful.
There is something mesmerising about the term ‘world-class’. Politicians in India, over the last 15 years or so, have loved using it. When they do, there is invariably an obsession with ‘infrastructure’, particularly ‘parking’. In fact, the proposed demolition of the Pragati Maidan monuments are to accommodate a driveway and underground parking. So is that all there is to it? Does New York qualify as a world-class city? Maybe not, because it is so exuberantly pedestrian. Does Paris? Maybe not, because it is not cars as much as the superb metro that takes people to its museums, and its beauty is best seen if you walk down its boulevards. London? Where people leave their cars behind if they want to spend time in the city. Actually, discussions on world-class cities have for some time now been much more thoughtful, concentrating on ways to make cities more inclusive, with affordable housing, connectivity, safety, and basic services for all inhabitants. The proposed convention centre, to be built at mind-boggling cost, and at the cost of the city’s heritage, is not going to make Delhi a more inclusive city in any way.
Another favourite phrase is ‘state of the art’. This translates as “the highest level of general development, achieved at a particular time”. But given the rate that technology races forward, today’s state-of-the-art will be old-fashioned in a few years. Good architecture and design is timeless, and in this case, my vote will go to whoever can design a workable convention centre in the space available – over 100 acres – and showcase the 7 acres adjacent (which hold the Halls and the Nehru Pavilion), along with the Crafts Museum and the Nehru Science Centre, as a democratic people’s precinct, overlooked by the Purana Qila complex of five centuries earlier.
One person who repeatedly drew attention to the need to recognise deserving buildings of the last 70 years as ‘heritage’ is the architect A.G.K. Menon. In 2013 he submitted to the DUAC and to the HCC a list of 62 ‘iconic’ buildings and precincts. Neither body followed up the matter. At present, therefore, the iconic buildings can be partly or wholly demolished without violating any law (specifically bye-law 23). There is a possibility of many more Mandi Houses (Mandi House, a perfectly good monumental building, was demolished in the 1970s to build the offices of Doordarshan. Only the name survives).
The one way to avert this, in the case of Delhi, is for the DUAC and the HCC working together to quickly compile a list of heritage buildings with a cut-off date of 20 to 30 years before the present. Until such time as the list is finalised and the buildings notified by the municipalities, no proposal to demolish them should be considered.
Commissions, committees, bye-laws, sanctions make sense only if they are backed by an educated and enthusiastic public opinion. The people of Delhi have a very important role to play in the welfare of the city they have inherited. A truly world-class city is not one that destroys to build, but one where icons from different pasts live together happily.