The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition - Prem Chandavarkar

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition – Prem Chandavarkar

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition - Prem Chandavarkar
The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition - Prem Chandavarkar

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition - Prem Chandavarkar 1


The Government of India recently conducted an urban design competition to redevelop the Central Vista in New Delhi: one of the grand urban axes of the world, compared often with spaces such as The Mall in Washington DC or the Champs-Élysées in Paris.  It was created as a British colonial project, marking the centre of imperial empire in India, with the Viceroy’s Palace at one end and at the other end a triumphal arch called ‘The All India War Memorial’ dedicated to the memory of soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War.  After India’s independence from colonial rule, the vista was appropriated and repurposed by India’s government.  The Viceroy’s Palace became the residence of the President of India, renamed as Rashtrapati Bhavan.  The triumphal arch eventually became India Gate, an Indian war memorial that currently houses the Amar Jawan Jyoti (The Flame of the Immortal Soldier).  The Parliament House, that was designed for the sessions of the Imperial Legislative Council, is now Sansad Bhavan: the seat of India’s parliament.  While some other buildings, such as the National Archives, date back to the original colonial project, many others were added soon after independence to house offices of various ministries.

All the buildings are quite old, needs and demands have changed, and one cannot deny that redevelopment is necessary.  Any redevelopment must be predicated on the fact that Central Vista is the spatial epicentre of India’s government, making it an important emblem to the nation as a whole, one that signifies the status and values of its political ideals.  The way its development is visualised, the manner in which the competition is framed and conducted, directly reflect on how the nation is imagined as a community.  The role of the Central Vista must be more than a space that houses public institutions: it must be a metaphor for the country’s aspirations as a democratic constitutional republic.  It is this aspect of the design competition I focus on here, rather than seeking to comment on the entries that were submitted, or the merits of the prize-winning entry.  To live up to what the Central Vista is meant to be, the design competition should reflect the highest possible standards for (a) Democracy as Space; (b) Democracy as Shared History; and (c) Democracy as a Process.

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition - Prem Chandavarkar 3
Source: Dossier – Imperial Capital Cities of New Delhi; Photo Credit to Sondeep Shankar

Democracy as Space

If it seeks to express democracy in an urban space, the Central Vista has to overcome its own history as an imperial axis.  The idea of an axis establishing an imposing line of sight focusing on buildings and symbols of government as majestic monuments is based on a very different conception of a polity,  casting government as a benevolent senior figure with capacities far greater than ordinary mortals, who must be revered from a distance, respected and obeyed, and in reciprocation to this obedience measures for citizen welfare may be sprinkled upon the masses. In contrast to this is the philosophical ideal of the city as polis (an ideal first articulated in Ancient Greece): an inclusive, public, democratic space where individuals as equals, guided by collective ideals, come together to distinguish themselves in service to the community, where government is servant to the public rather than ruler.

It is the polis that democracy must seek to emulate, recognising the public realm of the city as one that transcends public space to be civic space.  To merely allow space to be public allows the assumption of a politically passive citizen, content with visual spectacle, functional efficiency, consumption opportunity, and recreational relief.  For the urban public realm to be civic means that public access is only the starting point: the primary purpose is to promote engagement between politically active citizens whose vitality, across a wide variety of scales, constitutes the open deliberations and debates that shape a democracy.  The post-independence appropriation of the Central Vista reflected the beginnings of a move from imperialism to polis, with the Boat Club Lawns becoming a popular site for public protests.  The lawns around India Gate became a popular park with a children’s playground and street vendors selling ice-cream and balloons; and this could have been an energy tapped into for a communal culture of street theatre and public art.  One would have hoped that redevelopment would encourage a cross-weave of civic action that would underplay the grandeur of an axis that places government on a pedestal (strangely, all the submissions to the competition seemed to desire a heightening of the axis).  In recent years, there have been greater restrictions on allowing protests on the Boat Club Lawns, and a greater policing of the street vendors around India Gate.  In fact, one of the major urban challenges of the day is how to balance the quest for vibrant civic space with the imperatives of security (often justified by raising the spectre of terrorism).  Where is the public discourse that analyses and debates this balance?  How do we see the future of India’s democracy, and how will the Central Vista, as a national emblem of that democracy, reflect that future?  This should be a key imperative in any redevelopment planned for it.

This is far too important a question to be resolved solely within the confines of a design competition.  In fact, it is far too important to leave its resolution to the deliberations of a small set of individuals, far too important to be tackled within narrow sectors of expertise.  This is a question for the nation as a community.  The government bears a moral responsibility for steering a widespread discourse on the vision for our democracy, and how it should be reflected in the physical space containing the institutions that bear key responsibility for sustaining that vision.  The articulation of such a vision, as the output of a public and participatory process, should have been a key element of the design brief for the urban design competition.

Unfortunately, what transpired is far from this.  There was no public debate on the vision for our democracy.  The competition brief does not seek to put forward any vision of democracy, leaving it to the competing architects to articulate such a vision as a part of their proposals.  Democracy is not a matter to be left to the imagination of architects.  In fact, democracy cannot be left to the expertise of any discipline.  The core issues of democracy can only be tackled by the debates of democracy.  And if democracy is meant to be “government by the people, of the people, for the people”, that requires that those debates be firmly rooted in the public realm.

Democracy as Shared History

In feudal times that preceded the birth of democracy, history was a product of historians appointed by the king.  History was purely ideological, a tool of propaganda meant to prop the regimes of power, and any other possible histories were ruthlessly suppressed.  Your heritage had to be what the king or queen said it was, and to claim otherwise was to put yourself at risk.

But a democracy implies that history is a public matter.  The past is a complex terrain, filled with contradictory impulses, conflicting accounts, containing people who are good as well as bad (plus the many shades in-between).   Any move to disregard this complexity and reduce history to a singular narrative is driven by an ideology of power rather than a democratic ethic.  To a democracy, the cultural heritage we derive from history is not some moment of claimed authenticity pulled out from the past, on which we can rest our foundations today.  History is a contemporary moment where we look at the past, in all its complexity, and critically choose what is worth remembering.  The openness, depth, and inclusiveness of the process by which these choices are made are hugely important if we are to call ourselves a democracy at all.

There is no doubt that Central Vista is a place deeply imbued with history.  One would have expected that a rigorous heritage audit be conducted to assess the impact of any development, analysing the entire precinct, defining what is of value to be preserved, and what should be changed.  One would have been expected that the result of such an audit would be placed in the public domain, widely debated, comments evaluated, and the competition based on a final audit that had passed through democratic scrutiny.

None of this happened.  The competition document mentions that the guidelines in the Delhi Master Plan, which defines this as a heritage precinct, must be followed.  But those guidelines did not take into account the massive scale of redevelopment envisaged in this competition: a scale that should have provoked a rigorous and public heritage impact assessment.  The competition makes no reference to the bid submitted by the Government of India in 2013 to UNESCO to declare this section of New Delhi as a World Heritage City.  This bid is still in the Tentative List under consideration by UNESCO.  The current government’s position on this bid has not been declared, and how this bid relates to the current competition is not clear.

The competition asks the competing architects to interpret the heritage of this precinct in their designs.  It is often said the history is too important a subject to be left to historians.  To leave it to architects is a step further down the ladder.

Democracy as Process

In a prescient statement made over a hundred years ago, former US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.  Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”  Brandeis argues that a democracy cannot depend on the wisdom of politicians and bureaucrats and can sustain its moral compass only by bringing key issues into participatory debates that take place under the public eye.  One would have expected that a design competition of this stature would abide by this standard to the highest level possible.

I have spoken earlier on how debate on visions for democracy and heritage did not enter the public realm as a prerequisite for the competition.  But there are other aspects where this standard fell short:

  • Typically, a competition of such public significance would declare in advance the names of jury members who would judge the competition, demonstrating that the jury was composed of persons whose professional and ethical judgment is at the cutting edge and unimpeachable. It is still not clear who the jury was who judged this competition, and whether it contained sufficient weight of professionals and people with enlightened civic imagination in a position to understand urban design implications in a project of this significance.
  • In keeping with democratic ideals, a project of this significance would seek to cast as wide a net as possible for possible solutions. Many international competitions of equivalent stature have been a two-stage process. The first stage is thrown open to all architects, young and old. Entries are judged in a blind review system, where each architect is assigned a code number that is kept secret from the jury by the competition administrator. The designs visible to the jury are identified only by this code number, so each design is judged purely by its own merits without any bias from knowing the name or experience of the designer. A small number, say half a dozen, schemes are shortlisted at the end of the first stage, and those architects are asked to develop their design in further detail, taking into account the comments made by the jury in the first stage. If it is found that an architect shortlisted for the second stage does not have the requisite experience to execute a project of this scale and complexity, for the second stage of the competition that architect is required to associate with a large firm with the necessary experience and infrastructure, so that technical execution ability is covered. In contrast, this competition was conducted as a single-stage affair, where the defined eligibility criteria ensured that participation would be restricted to a tiny handful of the largest firms in the country. The questions of how urban design and architecture of Central Vista could reflect the nation’s dreams of democracy and heritage was left to the small number of five firms who qualified for the competition.
  • One would expect that the time frame allocated to the competition would be dictated by the requirements of democratic transparency and participation that this significant site would demand. But the project is being pushed through in great haste. The bid conditions state that, counting from the date of appointment, the competition winner must submit a draft master plan within three weeks, a final master plan for the first phase of construction within five weeks, detailed drawings to start the first phase of construction within twenty-six weeks, and the complete master plan for all phases within fifty-four weeks. Regarding construction deadlines, the upgrade of Central Vista to become a world class tourist destination must be achieved by November 2020 (leaving aside for now the question of why the goal must be to make it a “world class tourist destination” rather than a democratic home for the nation’s citizens). The new Parliament Building must be complete by July 2022, and the new Common Central Secretariat (a huge office structure housing offices of all ministries) should be ready by March 2024. This pushes the project at an unrealistically fast phase for one of this scale and significance, and it appears that the deciding imperative is the tenure of this government before the next round of elections, rather than any desire for a high standard of democratic process for developing the spatial order and symbolic significance of the centre of India’s governance. As Gautam Bhatia asked in an essay in India Today, “Should a government with a limited tenure decide the future legacy of a culture?”
  • It has been reported in the media that the government has stated their commitment to hold public consultations on the project. No date for these consultations has been announced so far. The basis for assessment of the schemes (as per the conditions laid out in the bid documents) has not been publicly disclosed so far.

Given the haste with which the competition has been conducted so far, the lack of publicly available information on it, one wonders if the project would have proceeded so far that when the consultations do finally occur the public will wind up being presented with a fait accompli.

Conclusion: Democracy in India’s Urban Century

The twenty-first century is unique to India: by mid-century, it is projected that for the first time in the history of the region the urban population will be larger than the rural population.  This happens at a time when a public imagination of the city in the government’s minds is yet to be constructed.  We tend to locate the authenticity of our culture either in the village or in the past, and we visualise the contemporary city as a technical rather than a cultural entity.  This is evident in the structure of building codes in all cities, where building form is shaped by a mathematical formula derived from plot size, road width and land use.  That sections of a city have a unique topography, neighbourhoods have a unique history, the metric should be quality of life, and the city must be a cultural space that is inclusive and democratic are all notions that find little traction in the way we plan and govern our cities.

Our lack of systemic and integrated thinking on cities has major day-to-day consequences.  We think nothing of pushing through huge infrastructure projects like elevated metros and flyovers with little thought of their impact on the cultural and ecological fabric of the city.  We act perturbed when our disregard for the natural flows of the land in our urban plans and management leads to cities flooding in any heavy rain, or our inability to integrate data and anticipate impacts leads to polluted environments that degrade rapidly.  We push through land-use plans within inefficient, opaque and corrupt land markets that lead to an urban economy whose price thresholds determine that half (or more) of the city’s population cannot afford officially recognised forms of tenure; and the resulting degradation and fragmentation of space leads to huge inefficiencies in urban systems such as traffic, water supply, sewerage and electric power.  The consequent psychological alienation, contestation over land, will only increase, becoming more and more violent, and we are already seeing the initial signs of this increasing violence.

What will happen to this situation as we rapidly urbanise further?  The numbers are mind-numbingly huge: over the next three or four decades, we will add four hundred million new urban citizens to our polity.  We must radically transform our capacity to imagine the Indian city as a cultural, democratic and inclusive space.  The extent to which we affect this transformation will determine whether we sink or swim as a nation.

In this context, the redevelopment of Central Vista is a huge opportunity.  As a symbol of India’s democracy, it offers the chance to propose a new vision of the Indian city.  Should we allow its redevelopment, as proposed by this competition, to proceed unchecked?  Or should ‘we the people’ rise up and demand that the clock be rewound and reset on how this area is to be imagined.  There is far more at stake than the redevelopment of a central precinct in New Delhi.

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