India needs iconic buildings for functional reasons, to reflect new aspirations, and move past the colonial legacy
The Supreme Court, on Tuesday, cleared Delhi’s Central Vista project. A new Parliament building is being built, but it is not just about a single building, or even the upgrading of office buildings along Rajpath.
There are several good reasons why India needs to invest in modernising the physical infrastructure of the government, create iconic new buildings, and renew its inner-cities. This is not a rejection of our past, or an attempt to pull down existing iconic buildings. These should be preserved, but what about the aspirations and needs of our times?
The first and most obvious reason why we need to invest in new buildings is the simplest — the government needs modern buildings and physical infrastructure to better serve 21st century India, but it is difficult to upgrade old buildings in situ while they are also being used. The current Parliament building is undoubtedly beautiful and is part of our history. It should be preserved, but the wide-ranging structural works needed to preserve it will need years and cannot be done while it is also being used for parliamentary sittings. Hence, it is easier to build a new building and redeploy the old building, once renovated, for another purpose.
The same can be done with North and South Block. As someone who works in one of these buildings, let me say that its grand corridors do not make for practical office spaces. While a few senior officers may enjoy large high-ceiling rooms, most of the staff sit between dark partitions with dangling wires and poor ventilation. If the Raisina ministries are relocated, government officials will get modern facilities while the general public will get access to beautiful public spaces including restaurants, cafes, and a world class complex of national museums.
The above buildings should definitely be preserved, but several other buildings along the Central Vista are neither architecturally beautiful nor efficient workplaces. Shastri Bhavan, for instance, houses many key ministries but anyone who has visited it will know that it is a poor workplace. Indeed, this can be said of many government buildings across the country. Rebuilding them is the most practical solution and there is no reason for sentimental attachment.
The second reason for building iconic new buildings is to renew our cities and give it a stamp of our times. When the grand buildings of Raisina Hill were built during British colonialism, India did not lack for grand buildings. There were existing buildings built by the British themselves in Kolkata. Delhi itself had many grand buildings from the Mughal era. Yet, they chose to build a whole new city for their times. With a few exceptions such as the Vidhana Soudha building in Bengaluru, the Indian Republic has made surprisingly few contributions to public architecture. Till a couple of years ago, a structure dedicated to colonial era wars (ie India Gate) was used as the National War Memorial. In short, most Indian cities are still dependent on colonial-era cores to function.
This brings us to the third reason for investing in iconic new buildings. Seventy-three years after Independence, most Indian cities are still defined by colonial-era landmarks — Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, Victoria Terminus in Mumbai and so on (name changes notwithstanding). A leading British newspaper termed the new buildings as “vulgar” but how long will we continue to pay obeisance to Queen Victoria? There is nothing wrong in preserving the best of the past, including those built during a brutal foreign occupation, but what about representing the aspirations and cultural moorings of 1.35 billion Indians? This is why Mumbai will be well served by the gigantic Chhatrapati Shivaji statue build out at sea.
Great cities and societies are not those that unquestioningly preserve everything from the past. They evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past. Even that which is preserved is often repurposed for the needs of the times. This organic process of evolution is what provides the dynamism of a city and a people. This is the underlying thinking behind the Central Vista project.
Ironically, many of those opposing the new buildings are also those who wax eloquent about Paris, London, and Singapore. Yet, today’s Paris is the result of Haussmann’s demolitions in the 19th century. Many of its most loved buildings — including the Eiffel tower and the Louvre pyramid — were radical departures from the past. Today’s London is the result of large-scale rebuilding following the Great Fire of 1666, German bombing during 1940s and, most recently, the Olympics. Singapore, similarly, has completely rebuilt its city-centre. Many of its iconic buildings — the Esplanade theatre domes, Marina Bay Sands and the “super-trees” of Gardens-by-the-Bay — were added in just the last two decades.
In short, it is perfectly all right to have an opinion about the aesthetics or design of a particular building. That is a matter of personal taste. However, there is no case for blanket opposition to the construction of new public buildings and spaces that reflect our aspirations and current needs.