“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill once declared … Crisis offers, of course, an opportunity for draconian governments to hide their deeper purpose.
Just such deeper purpose is hidden in India’s fascist government’s decision to push forward now in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis with the redevelopment of the so-called central vista in Delhi.
The high court of India has been coerced into giving the go ahead to this hair-brained scheme in the last few weeks without consultation or due process. The central vista is Edwin Lutyens’ design for the parliament buildings and the grand avenue of Janpath (People’s Road) which were built between 1912 and 1931. Lutyens’ buildings are laid out in grand style with great wide avenues befitting the late British fantasy of imperial colonial power.
The buildings are made with the red stone used by the Mughal emperors of India to build their forts and palaces such as the great Red Fort on the other side of Delhi. Lutyens and his fellow architects used quotations from all the architectural styles of India: Hindu temples, Mughal forts, Jain and Buddhist edifices to festoon his buildings and give a theatrical sense of pomp and glory. Lutyens fashioned the central vista as a Greek ceremonial path of glory with the parliament building sitting at the top of the grand avenue as if a temple to the power of the state. Undoubtedly this is Lutyens’ masterpiece. Love it or hate it it is a grand vision of governmental power and the so called will of the people. In my view perhaps the grandest government buildings in the world.
Modi and his fascist government have commissioned architect Bimal Patel to redesign this central vista. This without consultation or any understanding or regard to the importance of Lutyens design. One would have at least hoped for due process in Mr Patel’s appointment to such an important task. Mr Patel’s talent is not up to the task. Mr Patel has destroyed the city of Ahmedabad by cementing over the banks of the Sabarmati river that runs through it, he is in the process of ruining Varanasi by building roads through it and covering it in concrete with no regard to it’s people or it’s history. All this of course under Modi’s BJP government’s direction.
Architecture is an effective propagandist tool. All over the world our capitals are decorated with buildings that proudly claim to display our victories or parade our national pride or show off our monuments to our glorious dead.
To cite a few recent examples: French presidents to a man have used symbolic architecture to stamp their cultural and political hold on the nation, from the Pompidou Centre in Paris to Jacques Chirac’s museum on the Quai Branly.
The Chinese even managed to get the Swiss architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron to design their Olympic stadium for the 2008 Olympics and effectively used it to divert attention from their criminal human rights record. The architect Zaha Hadid was persuaded to design a showpiece museum in Baku, Azerbaijan. Once again to give good face to a fascist regime. The list is long.
Modi’s agenda is the dismantling of the Nehru legacy of a secular India. Nehru commissioned Corbusier in 1950 to build Chandigarh, the new capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana. It was seen as a gesture both of India’s modernity and as symbolically healing the wounds of colonialism and the horrors of the partition of India and Pakistan. Today Modi uses every opportunity to discredit Nehru. Modi fully understands that a new parliament designed by an Indian architect will further his Hindu India agenda and take a further step away from Nehru’s secular India.
Perhaps there is genuine need for a modern parliament building to represent India’s 1.4 billion people but this attempt to push forward without due process is shameful and then to give the job to Mr Patel is to underestimate and under value the architects working in India today. Delhi is a city in crisis – it is perhaps the most polluted city in the world. This rethinking of the centre of Indian power could and should be an opportunity to take on the power of architectural imagination and rethinking of Delhi as the capital of modern India. The destruction of Lutyens’ Delhi is deeply misguided and comes out of Modi’s political fanaticism. This is not the redesign of buildings, it is instead Modi’s way of placing himself at the centre and cementing his legacy as the maker of a new Hindu India.
Architecture, we are reminded, is power in stone. These are not just buildings, they are homes to our souls.