Might over Merit in the new Andhra capital

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The termination of Maki and Associates’s contract underscores a disturbing trend in Indian public works.

The splitting of the state of Andhra Pradesh has been rife with controversy from the very beginning. In tandem, the design of the state capital – Amaravati – has faced just as much backlash, the least of which is related to the very idea of its existence.

In the light of appointment of Normal Foster and Hafeez Contractor as the architects responsible for the conceptualization of the city, it is imperative to note that neither of the two had been selected by the competition jury, and have been granted the work after termination of contract with Maki and Associates, who’d been declared the winner and subsequently worked on the project for a little under a year.

When the state had floated this competition, six firms had been invited to submit their proposals, of which only one – Vastu Shilpa architects – was based in India. While this decision had been subject to criticism – especially regarding the importance of cultural perspective in urban design and the need to foster home-grown talent – there was some solace in knowing that the entries would be evaluated objectively, and the selected firm would be categorically qualified for the job, if not wholly familiar with the context. Also, the government’s declaration of involving public opinion in the design process and the enthusiastic publicity of the conceptual renderings by the winning firm’s was commendable.

Amravati Capitoal Complex - Maki and Associates
The conceptual renderings of Maki and Associates were well-publicized at the time of declaring the winner of the contest.

However, this was the end of amiability.

Maki and Associates has related in a letter to the vice president, Council of Architecture, India, the various breaches of protocol and lack of transparency by the AP government, which drew to a head in October when the contract was terminated without a substantial cause.

As the letter says, “Finally, on October 24, APCRDA released a Termination Notice to Maki and Associates citing adverse public reaction following the Competition, “disproportionate” professional fee, “unchanged” manpower proposal, and concerns toward executing the project “in the given time frame”- all of which (other than the adverse public reaction) are demonstrably false. We were never given a proper opportunity to present revisions of our design to the Government in response to the adverse public reaction. The following day, the APCRDA launched an entirely new RFP for the same project which depended largely on fee and staffing calculations, and did not request in-depth design explorations. As an RFP for Architectural Services, this document is highly unusual in many respects and, in our opinion, bears a separate n-depth examination.

Foster and Partners with Hafeez Contractor as very quietly announced as the winner of this “open” selection process in early December. No images of proposed designs have been released for public comment, and no details regarding their fees in relation to scope or staffing have been made available.

A complete disregard for policy, procedure, and even propriety is evident in this state of affairs; Maki’s letter further describes how they’d been made aware of the various meetings between the government representatives and Foster and Partners and Hafeez Contractor, despite the fact that Maki had already commenced on the work. The tacit implication that the winning firm was unsuited to the job is unreasonable at least and insulting at worst.

At various points in this process – starting from a complete override of the recommendations of the expert committee (which advised against the creation of a greenfield capital city and warned against overly ambitious micro-planning of large-scale settlements overlooks their potential organic growth) and appointing empanelled architects to ‘contextualise’ the design without prior discussion with the winning firm – the state government has demonstrated a lack of transparency and accountability, with weighty matters of public policy falling prey to personal fancies. Even now, there is minimal buzz about the change of gears, and the government’s silence on the matter is worrying.

One must ponder what precedent it sets when a prominent architect of international repute is treated in such a way, especially given how India aspires to develop a hundred smart cities and will inevitably require the involvement of the architectural fraternity. Taking into account outlandish decisions such as inviting a film director to weigh in on city planning, it is evident that the AP government is operating solely by their own diktat.

“It bears examination”, reads the letter, “as to how and why a Publicly-funded Competition – judged by an independent jury of experts – can have its results unilaterally overturned by the Government, despite the best efforts of the winning firm to meet the Government’s shifting and somewhat arbitrary demands.”

A process which must be based on equal opportunities and fairplay being clouded with political clout only reinforces a ‘might over merit’ mind-set, and can only ensure professional apathy in the long run.

2 Responses

  1. This article sheds light on the issue quite substantially. I have personally been disturbed by the turn of events, the government is clearly something whose actions are turning vague and unpredictable. Also what attracts me to discuss is that of the firms invited, only one is in India, that too a starchitect firm of BV Doshi! I think there are more than one talented offices in the country to choose from, and giving away such important commissions to foreign conglomerates aint taking things any further! Make in India only seems a far fetched dream! Loved the article!
    Apart from a few missing letters and bits of tweaks here and there, its all in good shape. Thanks.

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