No need to redo Central Vista; changes possible with sensitive planning, design: Ranjit Sabikhi

May 17, 2020 3:30 AM

Any large-scale development such as this one needs to be sensitively related to adjoining development in urban design terms. This project will be both monotonous and completely out of character with the surroundings.

I consider the Central Vista and the existing buildings an integral part of Lutyens’ Delhi, which is a heritage zone.

By Shriya Roy

Author of A Sense of Space and former HoD, department of urban design, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, Ranjit Sabikhi tells Shriya Roy in an email interview how to deal with challenges of modern cities and how the Central Vista is not only a waste of public money, but an assault to heritage and aesthetics. Edited excerpts:

You write how market forces drive development and restructuring of architecture, as a result of which the organic effect is lost. In this context, what are your thoughts on the Central Vista project? Do you agree with the premise that the existing buildings are flawed and need to be replaced?
I consider the Central Vista and the existing buildings an integral part of Lutyens’ Delhi, which is a heritage zone. It is part of our history after independence, and as such should be retained. Government office buildings like Krishi Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan and others can certainly be refurbished and upgraded. If necessary, additional space can be added within the existing sites. This would call for more sensitive and detailed planning and design, but it can certainly be done.

Buildings like the National Archives, IGNCA, National Museum, ASI, and Vigyan Bhawan are in reasonable condition and can certainly be refurbished and upgraded. The ministry of external affairs complex was completed a few years ago and is in good condition. Apart from the destruction of national assets, the project is a waste of public money.

What I have stated in my book about market forces driving development refers largely to the need for more commercial, residential, community and open spaces because of growing population. If such need is not planned for, it would tend to find a place in the city by a process of organic growth. This, however, does not apply to large office complexes for which proper space has to be assigned. In Delhi, as per the master plans, large offices were to be built mainly in district centres, but as development of these centres did not keep pace with the demand, the office complexes went to Gurgaon and Noida.

The area around the Central Vista is open and aesthetic, with access for public and transport. Are all these negative factors in light of the new project, especially as you talk about the monotony of reducing everything to the same common level?
This is a major public space in the life of the city and is visited by large numbers of people. For over 55% population of the city which lives in congested colonies, the area, as well as Connaught Place, are spaces where they can breathe fresh air. To convert this space into an urban canyon with 10-storey buildings will effectively destroy the free and open character of this major public space. I have mentioned features like proper footpaths, underpasses across roads, public toilets, space for vendors, parking facilities, and a continuous bicycle track that could be implemented at relatively marginal cost to enhance the landscape and open quality of this public space. There is sufficient variety in the area which could be improved, but building a series of identical structures along its entire length will bring about repetitive monotony.

So you agree the new complex will be an eyesore in the middle of Lutyens?
Lutyens’ Delhi has a certain character. Any large-scale development such as this one needs to be sensitively related to adjoining development in urban design terms. This project will be both monotonous and completely out of character with the surroundings.

To adjust the increasing population in Delhi and the need for commercial and office spaces, what according to you is an alternative to high-rises, which you do not favour as per the book?
It is an established fact that low-income migrants require basic minimal housing which can be enlarged, changed and adapted as their financial conditions improve. This is only possible with low-rise housing. Even the five-storey houses currently being built in unauthorised colonies on 25 sq m plots are rigid and inflexible. The constraint is land, which the authorities concerned are not willing to make available in adequate quantity for this section of society.As far as commercial spaces are concerned, these can and should be in concentrated development, which could include high-rise buildings. But it’s important that this needs to be part of designed complexes with adequate parking, restaurants and open spaces. I certainly do not recommend a standard solution that is all high-rise or all low-rise to meet such needs.

If you were to Delhi what Le Corbusier was to Chandigarh, how would you have gone about the restructuring and planning of Delhi?
This is a tricky question. Le Corbusier had to plan a city from scratch on a virgin site, whereas in our context we have to plan for a steadily growing metropolis where large areas are already substantially built up and developed. Development in Delhi has to take note of the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the earlier British settlements in Daryaganj and the Civil Lines, Lutyens’ New Delhi, and the large areas of post-1947 development.

There is also the presence of ruins of several old cities as well as monuments. Planning for future development in such a situation is a complex task. What we can learn from Chandigarh is its basic sense of order, its well-organised and regulated traffic, its wide open public spaces, and its high level of public amenities. Some of its other amenities like its linear local shopping centres and commercial offices are banal and lifeless, in clear contrast to shopping centres and informal markets in our traditional cities.

In your book, you have appreciated the Chandigarh model, but there, too, the satellite towns of Panchkula, Zirakpur and Mohali have been expanding in the same manner as Noida and Gurgaon, with high rises and skyscrapers. Is this then the grim future and reality of most cities that we have to come to terms with?
As mentioned in my book, I have clearly appreciated some aspects of the design of the city. What I have found most striking is the fact that people who have lived in the city of Chandigarh have a strong bond with their city and clearly express the fact that they would not want to live anywhere else. As for the fact that it is gradually being surrounded by a series of satellite settlements, this is a fact of life that we have to live with, in any growing metropolis.

Chandigarh was designed for a much smaller population, which has now more than doubled. With growing demand, the satellite towns were inevitable. It is sad, however, that in the planning and layout of these satellite settlements they have not really learned from, or replicated some of the better elements of Chandigarh. One only hopes that the open space and the background of hills that provide a magnificent setting for Le Corbusier’s Central Secretariat, the Assembly, and the High Court, does not get encroached and built upon, as this would constitute the destruction of a very important feature.

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