“We need a new architecture for this new world-(one) more Frank Gehry than formal Greek”
Hillary Clinton’s poetic reference to Gehry in her farewell speech as US Secretary of State to pronounce on her ambitions for the political orders subtly brings to notice what is usually sidelined: Architecture is undeniably political.
Ever since its humble beginnings as a structure envisioned to protect from nature and wildlife, architecture has molded itself into several paradigms. It has built communities, supported civilizations and propagated revolutions. Its power and influence were only realized when mankind began associating to social order and thereafter, the man began exploiting architecture’s role to establish hierarchy and political agenda in the changing socio-political landscape of the world.
Taking the example of the Delhi Sultanate in India; The Qutub Mosque alongside Qutub Minar is said to have incorporated materials ransacked from 27 temples to make their mark as the ruling kingdom. The British Raj, to cite another, established their rule by constructing government buildings in Imperial or Indo-Saracenic styles in major capitals all across the country; Grand structures such as the Gateway of India in Mumbai was intended to appeal to the royalties for the Queen’s arrival and the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta was built as a tribute to her reign in India. The greatest empires are known to us, therefore, they had weaponized architecture to establish law and order. Post-Independent India, too, has long been known for the bureaucracy within its politics and has only recently proved to be mobilizing architecture and the built environment to demonstrate where the power lies. The following list pens down instances that shook the architectural community at large in the last few years:
1. Hall of Nations and The Nehru Pavilion, New Delhi: The architectural community came to a standstill on April 24, 2017, when it was announced that the much-revered Hall of Nations in New Delhi, designed by Ar. Raj Rewal was brought down to dust overnight to accommodate a ‘new, state-of-the-art’ Integrated Exhibition and Convention Centre (IECC) as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan orchestrated by India Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO). The Hall of Nations was unveiled in 1972 to mark 25 years of an Independent India. It was representative of a young India striding forward to make a mark of its own in the contemporary landscape of the world while also presenting the Indian genius, employing a tessellating triangular structure to form a capped pyramid with concrete cast in-situ. It was the world’s first and largest-span space frame structure made in reinforced concrete. However, the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC), which falls under the Ministry of Urban Development, turned a blind eye towards this landmark of India’s post-independence architectural heritage and consequently, Ar. Raj Rewal‘s plea to preserve the building as ‘works of art of national importance’; ruling that only buildings older than 60 years can be considered for Heritage Status- a rule which only came into place in February 2017.
An ITPO official stated, “The layout plan of IECC, which inevitably involves the demolition of these structures, had already been approved by statutory authorities concerned, like the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, and the National Monuments Authority.”
The untimely and unfortunate fall of this iconic building lay in the fact that ITPO and HCC, both part of the ministry, had a greater say and influence in deciding the fate of a heritage building over the nine organizations, including the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and INTACH, which are primarily responsible for upholding the heritage value of such renowned built structures. The clandestine manner in which the demolition was carried out reflected not just an abuse of power, but the sheer apathy towards preserving national heritage, under the glorified tag of ‘progress and development’.
2. Old Kenilworth Hotel, Kolkata: Located near the junction of Middleton Street and Little Russel Street, Old Kenilworth Hotel was considered to be the second oldest building in the city, after the Oberoi Grand. Run by a prominent American family who had bought it from a Christian couple in 1948, it had only recently stopped functioning as a hotel in 2010 due to a lack of funds provided by the government to sustain its Grade II Heritage Building accreditation. Despite low maintenance and its evident weathering, the building stood grandly as a testimony to the city’s rich lineage and architectural heritage. However, in February 2018, it was brought down to the ground to accommodate a 35-storeyed residential tower alongside the upcoming ‘The 42’, the tallest tower to be in Eastern India. Several critics questioned the move as it is prohibited by law to demolish a Grade II Heritage Building. It is believed by the local reporters that the consortium responsible for the development of ‘The 42’ obtained the permit to demolish the building through their influence in the government, who covertly downgraded its status to a Grade III Heritage structure to allow for the upcoming construction.
It is through these gashes left in today’s built fabric that we see the bureaucratic loop of our country and the capitalist agenda of those in power.
3. Kala Academy, Panjim, Goa: Designed by India’s legendary architect Charles Correa in 1970 and managed by the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF), Kala Academy is part of Goa’s Modern Architectural Heritage. It plays an integral role in promoting the cultural unity and values of Goa by providing a platform to inculcate and develop dance, folk arts, literature, and fine arts. It is also well-known for hosting the annual International Film Festival of India.
A wave of disappointment pulsated through the architectural community when a statement by Govind Gaude, Minister of Art and Culture, Goa, was released in The Navhind Times in 2019 about demolishing a part of this iconic building under the pretense of its structural stability, which according to him, “was found to have weakened with time”. Nondita Correa, Director of Charles Correa Foundation, shared that the government did not disclose these interests with them, knowing full well that the Foundation has sufficient resources and knowledge to manage the structural and design concerns related to the building. It was speculated that the government intends to demolish Kala Academy with a claim to rebuild a part of the building. Upon public backlash on account of the several TOI reports and the online petition initiated by CCF, the High Court of Bombay had taken suo-moto cognizance of the matter and sent a notice to the state government, who assured that no hasty decisions were being taken regarding the matter.
Had the community not retaliated under the direction of the Charles Correa Foundation, would Kala Academy have faced the same fate as The Hall of Nations, at the hands of yet another ministry that disregards its own architectural heritage?
4. Central Vista, New Delhi: Recent to be in the limelight is the Central Vista of New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, which is set to be redeveloped to address the current lack of infrastructure for the growing staff. This ambitious project was commissioned by the Prime Minister of India and awarded to Hasmukh C. Patel (HCP) Architects, Ahmedabad for their winning proposal to be completed by 2022. It includes a new residence for the Prime Minister, a new Parliament building next to the existing one, and 10 new eight-storeyed government buildings along Rajpath. The North and South Block is planned to be converted into public museums while many government buildings, including Vigyan Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan, Rail Bhawan, and Vayu Bhawan are to be demolished.
The stretch between and around the vicinity of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate has been symbolic of an Independent India that fought its way out of colonialism and into the largest democracy in the world.
The redevelopment project, therefore, has garnered a severe and controversial retaliation, not only from the architectural community but also from outside the bubble of historians and architects. Several petitions have since then surfaced in order to save these nodes of national importance. “Everyone in the department knew HCP would get it because the proposal they had submitted earlier was not up to the requirement. They were asked to resubmit their proposal and that has been chosen. None of the other firms have suggested the shifting of the Prime Minister’s residence to this area from the current Lok Kalyan Marg. It was not even a part of the CPWD tender to build a new home for the PM. Clearly, there were directives from the PMO. Otherwise, why would this be a part of the chosen plan,” a source in the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) mentioned, which is implementing the project.
Arguably a well-veiled power project, this particular ambition cleverly steers the citizens towards the grand dream of redefining what was originally for the British Raj; But in demolishing the remnants of our shared history and overruling it with the present authority’s enterprise, with its evident abuse of power, one begs to question- is history repeating itself or is the present reclaiming its power from the past?
It is easy to discern patterns in the past as a spectator. With clear timelines, distinct architectural styles and foreign invaders, it only makes sense to put two and two together and decide the wrong to its right. However, it becomes increasingly complex to draw these conclusions when we are woven within the story.
Therefore, it is imperative that we, as an educated and bountiful community, recognize parallels with our past, propagate and navigate through information outside of our knowledge pool and ask the right questions to protect what is rightfully ours- Because to question authority is half the rebellion won.