Under my byline

New stone age

Posted in Architecture/Design by Rrishi on 4 July 2009

Upcoming government buildings in Delhi lean on the past

It was Nature who set the pattern, equipping the neighbourhood of this capital with a supply of red Agra and Dholpur sandstone. The rulers of Delhi acquired these rust-red and beige varieties of stone by the cartload and used them to build and decorate temples, forts and palaces.

What Nature enabled, kings happily executed. Recent iterations (since the 11th century, that is) of Delhi have all seen monumental buildings wearing this royal coat of two colours. From Qutb Minar to Lal Qila it’s the same — and when the British came, they took the idiom and recast it in their own imperial theatre.

Minus the intervening blip of Nehruvian socialism and the concrete monoliths it left the capital littered with, the government is now back to building the way Delhi rulers always have. The proof is in the spate of recently completed and ongoing major official building projects, long-awaited new homes for various agencies and ministries.

The latest generation of official, built Delhi starts with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), begun after Indira’s assassination in 1984. The plan was for eight buildings at Rs 100 crore. But the first was inaugurated only in 2001, by which time, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the total cost had ballooned to Rs 829 crore, with a finish date of 2005. The complex is still incomplete.

The IGNCA story is a microcosm of the positive as well as troubling aspects of building for government in Delhi. First, there is the fact of its occupying 21 acres alongside the Central Vista. Gaining access to prime land and the permission to build on it is a terrific hurdle. Then, personal rivalries among the powerful politicians behind the culture bureaucrats wrought havoc. Next, blood was let over financial irregularities. Now that the main building is up, is it well used? This costly asset remains peripheral to the cultural life of city and nation.

From the design perspective, IGNCA is interesting. The full project envisaged a large, enclosed square, reminiscent of the Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan, Iran. The original architect was the American Ralph Lerner, who won an international competition for the assignment, assisted by Jasbir Sawhney. But it appears as if the IGNCA shaped the architectural vocabulary of current official building — specifically, the reluctant verticality, ziggurat-like heaviness, plate-glass windows deeply inset, rectangular play of volumes rather than surface adornment, and of course the use of Agra and Dholpur stone on the façade. Add superfluous pillars and an atrium or courtyard, and the recipe is complete.

That recipe has been tweaked, for better and worse, for use in such structures as Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan, the office of the ministry of external affairs opposite the ponderous National Museum on Janpath (which it echoes) — itself long in gestation but to be completed, engineers on site say, in three or four months, a little behind schedule and over budget; the fine new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at India Gate; a number of armed forces buildings including the headquarters of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) near South Block, officers’ messes like “Akash”, the Air Force officers’ mess behind NGMA; the CAG’s office on the wrong side of Connaught Place; the ugly new BSNL headquarters on Janpath; New Delhi Municipal Committee’s (NDMC) delayed and allegedly ill-constructed City Centre II, a 1970s design; a new ministry of earth sciences near Lodhi Garden; and many, many more.

“I think if we interpret it intelligently,” says architect Dikshu C Kukreja when asked if Lutyens’s style weighs too heavily, “it’s a nice, continuous experience.” His firm, C P Kukreja Associates, has designed several prestigious projects in the city. They also did CAG Bhawan, and Kukreja speaks of the former CAG’s desire for a building with “a very grand feeling” — in fact, with pillars, a dome and classical detailing.

But the building has none of those: “A project can be conceived as grand and breathtaking,” says Kukreja, “but unfortunately when we go through the process of approvals every authority has such archaic perspectives that it eventually leads to architecture being downgraded. We keep hearing about single-window clearance,” but in practice multiple authorities have a say.

Multiple voices — especially those speaking in favour of preserving the low-rise character of Lutyens’s Delhi — threatened to drown the DRDO’s proposed new headquarters. But K N Rai, then chief executive (civil works and estates) of DRDO, is a technocrat who was able to negotiate the tricky shallows and bring his building to fruition. His list of statutory bodies to clear, for this defence project in a sensitive location, included the Central Vista Committee, Delhi Urban Arts Commission, NDMC, Delhi Development Authority (DDA), PMO, Intelligence Bureau, International Airports Authority of India, Delhi Fire Service and Delhi Police (traffic).

Rai, a personable man, says he equipped the employee gym with a punching bag on which could be pasted the name of one’s superior. That did not last, but the element of whimsy is something noteworthy in the new defence buildings — perhaps because the senior officers (and their wives) who have the final say over design and aesthetic decisions have a freer hand than their civilian counterparts. The DRDO Bhawan’s atrium, a soaring space, has a frieze depicting six ages of warfare from stone age to nuclear armageddon (“But DRDO’s work is to prevent war,” says Rai). And the ceremonial spaces of the Air Force officers’ mess are truly entertaining, with, for example, the nosecone of a MIG-21 poking out of the belly of the main staircase.

If only all these public-owned building were also public-access. With hundreds of crores being spent on offices in such pivotal locations, surely we will for generations regret the uniformity of the results. We cannot safeguard Lutyens, but nor have we had the wisdom to fertilise his tremendous cityscape with buildings that rise beyond an old imperial paradigm.

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