Edwin Lutyen's Designs In New Delhi Re-Evaluated

Roundup: Talking About History

Justin Huggler, The Independent (London), 02 Nov. 2004

Which would you rather live in: a priceless historic monument, or a bland modern apartment block that looks like something in Benidorm? In what may prove among the worst acts of cultural vandalism of modern times, Indian authorities have proposed to demolish entire swaths of Lutyens' Delhi, and replace the city's renowned classical bungalows with apartment blocks.

It has been a bad few weeks for India's cultural heritage. Archaeologists have admitted the minarets of the Taj Mahal have started to tilt dangerously. The famous lakes of Udaipur have dried up. And now the Central Public Works Division (CPWD) is intent on razing the capital's famous bungalows designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Architecture lovers are up in arms. Art historians are in despair. But the CPWD has decided the revered bungalows have"gone beyond their lifespan" and"most of them should be up for demolition". The irony is that India's cultural watchdog, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, is proposing that Lutyens' Delhi be named as a Unesco World Heritage Site, even as the CPWD is planning to demolish large parts of it.

The most famous monuments, India Gate and the great domed Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian President's official residence, designed for the British Viceroy, are not in danger. But if the CPWD gets its way, more than 100 of the houses built across what is known as the Lutyens bungalow zone may be demolished.

Even before the proposals were made public, the World Monuments Fund in New York had named Lutyens' Delhi on its list of world's 100 most endangered heritage sites because of unauthorised alterations made to the bungalows.

Proposing to tear down large parts of Lutyens' Delhi is like levelling Mayfair in central London, or demolishing Edinburgh's New Town. The plan is still subject to the approval of the Prime Minister's Office, and Lutyens' admirers are pinning their hopes on the Indian Premier, Manmohan Singh.

The bungalows are owned by the Indian state and used as residences for ministers and senior government officials. Under the CPWD proposals, they will be replaced with modern condominiums built around swimming pools. Delhi's heritage will be demolished so government ministers can luxuriate in apartments planned to incorporate whirlpool baths.

New Delhi was built between 1911 and 1931 when India's British colonial rulers decided to move their capital from Calcutta back to Delhi, which had been the capital of successive dynasties, including the Moghul emperors, and is believed to have been the site of Indraprastha, the fabled ancient capital of Hindu legend.

Until then, most British colonial architecture in India had been uninspiring attempts to recreate designs from home in India, which led to such oddities as Viceregal Lodge at Shimla, a Scottish baronial sprawl that looks distinctly out of place nestled among the Himalayas.

Brought in as chief architect for New Delhi, Lutyens found himself competing with the monuments of Delhi's past: the Purana Qila, a huge fortress built by the Afghan invader Sher Shah Suri, the Mughal tomb of Shah Jahan's great-grandfather, Humayun - a prototype for the Taj Mahal - and Shah Jahan's own Red Fort.

With the help of his friend and fellow architect Herbert Baker, Lutyens devised a new style for New Delhi. He invented his own order of classical columns, known as Delhi Order, and, unlike the British architects who came before him, he was inspired by and incorporated features from traditional Indian architecture, most notably the great, drum-mounted Buddhist dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

He achieved a successful marriage of European classical and traditional Indian architectural styles that had never been seen before, and ever since, his creation has wowed visitors to Delhi.

There is an old prophecy that anyone who builds a new city at Delhi will surely lose it, and the British were no exception. Within two decades of New Delhi's formal inauguration in 1931, India won its independence. New Delhi had been an expression of British imperial power, and Lutyens' own sentiments were no exception. But the new, independent India took the colonial city to its heart, and moved its government into the buildings vacated by the British.

It is not only misty-eyed colonels, nostalgic for the Raj, who will mourn the destruction of Lutyens' Delhi, if it happens. His creation is admired by architecture-lovers the world over, and it has as many admirers among Indians as it has among Europeans. The Indian press is regularly full of encomiums on the city's grace and beauty. Which makes it all the more astonishing that the CPWD now wants to tear part of it down. The authorities say the bungalows do not meet the requirements of modern ministers and officials.

"Today's politician may not need a big hall but a bigger study, or more room for office space," a CPWD official told the BBC."All these points will be incorporated in the new design. If the CPWD gets its way, no fewer than 1,114 houses built across 1,000 acres of what is known as the Lutyens bungalow zone may be demolished."

But it will come as news to many Indian politicians that they are not happy with the bungalows. Some ministers in the BJP government that was voted out in May's elections were so fond of their bungalows they all but refused to move out, and had to be forced. One even offered to pay commercial rents for the property if he could stay, and commercial rates for the few bungalows in private hands are staggeringly high.

The CPWD says its new apartments would be more environmentally friendly, and incorporate solar heating and water recycling. But the proposal's critics say the plan could have a devastating effect on Delhis' environment.

Lutyens' contribution did not stop at the buildings he designed. He also laid out a street plan for New Delhi of wide, tree-lined avenues. All the bungalows are built in large garden plots, and wide areas of park lie between the public buildings, making Delhi one of the greenest cities in Asia.

[Editor's Note: This is only a short excerpt from a much larger piece.]

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