The Induced Fall of Public Architecture in India

HCP – Master Plan of Central Vista.  Image Credit:

On Friday 18 June 2021, I took part in a panel discussion on how the Indian state commissions public architecture and its impact on the quality of public design.  The event was organised by Zion Exhibitions. This essay is derived from what I said at the discussion.

When I was a student of architecture in the 1970’s, there was a great deal of buzz on public architecture commissioned by the Indian state, and many of the designs that resulted were considered to be pathbreaking milestones. The initial post-independence rush of importing international talent, as in Chandigarh and Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, was over and had given way to a flowering of homegrown talent. Pragati Maidan, with epochal architecture such as the Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion within it, had just come into being. There was also a spate of other building types including housing, commercial complexes, public institutions and hotels, a great deal of which was commissioned through open public competitions. 

Sadly, this is no longer the case, and the state as a patron of architecture is largely perceived as a source of mediocrity rather than inspirational talent. This fall is self-induced and is tied to the changing mores in how the state commissions architects. I seek to define here some dimensions of this fall. Given that it is unquestionably the most significant public project of recent times, I will make my points using the Central Vista Redevelopment as a case study. Many of the concerns articulated here also apply to projects commissioned by State governments.

I focus here on six dimensions of the problem.

Before a project is launched and the services of architects are sought, the project proponent must articulate an aspirational vision for the project. If an educational campus is being built, it should be based on a vision of what education should be. If a museum is being built, it should be based on a vision of what public culture should be and the role a museum plays in defining it.

During the early days of my career in India, where I had the opportunity to work on public projects, I often came across bureaucrats and politicians who embodied a vision to which they would make a public commitment. Unfortunately, such persons are comparatively very rare to find these days. 

The initiation of a redevelopment of the Central Vista precinct should have recognised that the spatial epicentre of our democracy requires a vision on what democracy is, and how the relationship between people and the government serves that vision.  No such vision was articulated, and it was left to the architects to define and project their vision. Democracy is too important a subject to be left to the thinking of an individual architectural firm. This has resulted in all public architectural space being displaced from the core of the precinct, the main vista between Vijay Chowk and the India Gate hexagon, to be replaced almost entirely by the spectacle of government offices and facilities. When the dominating visual spectacle of government takes precedence over vibrant public space, this speaks poorly of our vision of democracy.

When vision is not central to a project in its conceptualisation, projects tend to be transactional rather than visionary in orientation. When that takes root in public architecture, the quality of public space, and consequently public discourse, in the nation suffers.

An example is the huge sums of money being expended across the nation in schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. On the face of it, goals such as housing for all and improved public sanitation are laudable, and the government’s spending and commitment to these schemes looks good. But there is no vision on how these design interventions can help breed community, vibrancy, or resilience.  No vision on how sanitation ties into ecology, how housing ties into economy and society. There is no qualitative feedback loop on how executed construction is performing. There has been no attempt whatsoever to draw cutting edge design talent into the execution of these schemes. We only get quantitative data on aggregate numbers achieved, as though numbers in themselves are great achievements and we need look no further for qualitative or aspirational measures.

Throughout history, we have seen that all vibrant and great cultures produce masterful design. Government, as the major patron of architecture, sets the tone, so it is essential that design be a dominant priority in the commissioning of public architecture.

Sadly, this is not the case. In the absence of any vision, decision making gravitates toward the lowest common denominator of what will carry the least risk of provoking an audit, and a great deal of public architecture gets commissioned purely on financial criteria, such as who bids the lowest fees to execute the work. This breeds corruption in the long run, as it encourages architects to start undercutting each other, incentivising quoting fees that are otherwise unsustainable, but quoted purely to grab the project. The successful architect then searches for other under-the-table ways to earn money besides the receipted fees paid for design services.

In some major public projects, design is made a criterion for selection of the architect. There are two primary ways this can be done: open architectural competitions and the other is a procedure defined in the Union Finance Ministry’s manual “General Financial Rules” as Quality & Cost Based Selection (QCBS).

In an open architectural competition, design is the sole criterion for selection, and any qualified architect can submit an entry. Designs are typically assessed by a panel of assessors under conditions of blind review; that is a code number is assigned to each entry, and the architect’s name cannot be displayed on any part of the design submission. This is to ensure the design is judged purely on its own merit, and no bias creeps in from knowing the name of the architect. In very important public projects, an open competition is the best mode of selection as it serves the significance of the project by casting a wider net for design ideas than is possible through any other selection method. Competitions also breed a dynamic design culture by bringing new ideas into the fold through younger firms; many of the reputed practices of today got their breaks through open competitions for public work during their younger days. Increasing the mix of younger architects also enhances the general level of innovation. A design ecosystem monopolised by large firms tends to be less creative as such firms have habits inculcated over the years and are usually more conservative given the large overheads they are committed to sustaining.

An argument often put forward against open competitions is that a young firm winning the competition may not have the technical skills and experience to execute large scale projects. There is ample precedent on how this obstacle is overcome: a condition of the competition is that if the winning firm does not have the proven capability for executing large projects, then a prerequisite for being awarded the contract to execute the design is that the young firm must collaborate with a larger firm who brings the requisite capabilities to the table.

The incidence of open competitions has declined and most large public projects, including Central Vista, select architects by the QCBS method. A QCBS method is a tender rather than a design competition, seeking to blend qualitative and financial issues by assigning a weightage to each. Firms are first asked to submit Expressions of Interest (EOI) and, based on proving their abilities above a certain threshold, are shortlisted to submit entries to a limited design competition. This inherently biases the shortlisting toward larger firms. 

Shortlisted firms submit their bids in two separate sealed packages. The technical bid contains the design submission plus any other technical information requested. The financial bid contains the fee quotation. Initially, only the technical bid is opened and assessed. Typically, architects are asked to make personal presentations on the design competition, so it is difficult to eliminate bias from knowing the name of the architect. Only those bidders whose technical bids score over a certain threshold have their financial bids opened to enter the final selection stage.

At this stage, a predefined weightage is assigned to both technical and financial scores to determine the end result. Weightage assigned to financial bids is usually restricted to about 20% to 30%; in the case of Central Vista it was 20%. However, in the balance 80%, only half was allocated to the quality of the design submission.  The remaining 40% was given to quantitative scoring on issues such as the financials of the firm, size of projects executed, and staff strength and qualifications. Quality of design was thus relegated to a minority status, affecting only 40% of the overall assessment.

This is not always the method followed: there are precedents in the QCBS method being deployed to select architects for public works where all shortlisted architects are considered technically capable of executing the project, and therefore on an equal footing, and the entire technical score is given to the quality of the design submission. 

The method followed in Central Vista has two major shortcomings:

  1. Design is reduced to a minority status in the selection process. There is no minimum threshold, and this could set a trend where the next project could reduce its stake to 30% or 20%, and design could eventually get reduced to a token measure that has little bearing on the end result. Design gets side-lined, and design professionals get selected on criteria other than design. The precedent set by Central Vista could set off a further decline in the significance granted to design in public architecture.
  2. When a major part of the technical scoring is devoted to quantitative measures such as financials, project size, and staff strength, it not only reduces the weight of qualitative factors, but also makes it possible to deliberately tailor the scoring system in advance to suit the profile of a desired firm. While there is no evidence proving this happened in the case of Central Vista, a public procurement process should eliminate even the possibility of it happening.

The eligibility criteria for the QCBS system at Central Vista kept the net for design ideas as narrow as possible, allowing only the largest of large firms to be eligible to bid for the project. The final selection had to be made from a small handful of six firms. In contrast, the selection process for an earlier project in Central Vista, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, was through an open international competition that attracted 194 entries from 37 countries.

A creative activity requires sufficient time to produce a quality result and is likely to get compromised if it is unduly hurried. In Central Vista, the Notice Inviting Tender (NIT) from architects was advertised on 7 September 2019. The letter awarding the work to the successful bidder (HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd.) was issued on 18 October 2019. In a space of less than six weeks architects prepared and submitted EOI’s, these EOI’s were evaluated, architects were shortlisted for participation in the bids, shortlisted architects prepared designs, those designs were evaluated, and the project awarded.

The NIT states that initial eligibility bids would be opened only on 23 September 2019. This means that within the short space of about three and a half weeks the shortlisted architects prepared designs, and these designs were evaluated to make the final selection.

Such time frames are unrealistically short, and imposing such a rushed schedule is likely to lead to facile solutions oriented toward superficial visual impact instead of deep design thinking and creativity for the long-term enrichment of public space. One is forced to speculate on whether it was this insanely collapsed time frame that induced the winning design into reducing the main vista to a unitary land use of governmental offices produced by a cookie-cutter repetition of identical nondescript office blocks.

One would have expected that a project of this significance and scale would demand being done slowly and carefully to ensure the best possible result. No justification for this tearing hurry has been offered. 

For a quality result, and to ensure proper assessment of submissions, it is necessary to clearly identify the scope of the design. The Central Vista tender called for urban design scope and architectural design scope to be undertaken simultaneously. Assessing issues at an urban scale while simultaneously evaluating designs at the scale of an individual building is not the best way to go. Ideally, urban scale master plan issues are of broader scope and should be examined first for an effective evaluation. 

In the Pre-Bid meeting of architects who planned to submit EOI’s, a couple of firms suggested that a project of this significance, scope and scale warrants being broken into two stages. The first stage should be an urban design competition that would define a master plan vision that also established design guidelines for the individual parcels within this master plan. The second stage would an architectural competition to design the individual parcels within the urban design plan, with the unity of the complex being set up by the urban design guidelines produced in the first stage. This second stage need not even be a single competition; it could be a series of competitions, and architects taking part in one of them need not be the same as those taking part in another. This would increase the depth of talent being brought to bear on the project. This suggestion was rejected without assigning any reason.

When the shortage of time is combined with a lack of clarity on scope of design, the odds of facile solutions and arbitrary selections increases.

To attract the best possible talent to participate in the competition for public architecture, it is necessary to establish public faith that the evaluation of designs submitted is done at the highest standard possible. This is typically done by (a) having a majority of the assessing panel as architects, so competitors are assured that designs will be understood and assessment will not be distorted by visual gimmickry that might fool a person who is not an experienced and highly qualified design professional, and (b) those architects on the panel should embody professional eminence and ethics that establishes them among their peers as creative leaders who represent the cutting edge of talent in the field, usually measured by design awards won, publication of work in reputed professional journals, competitions won, and invitations to lecture or teach at reputed institutions. To attract the best talent, this list of eminent assessors should be publicly declared at the time of announcing the competition or tender.

It is extremely rare to see this followed in the processes of commissioning public architecture in India. The panel of assessors is almost never declared in advance. Often a majority in the panel is made up of senior officials in the organising institution rather than eminent professionals, and it is exceedingly rare to find thought leaders included in the assessment panel.

In the case of Central Vista, the design submission was reviewed by a panel of seven assessors composed mainly of architects and planners. None of these names were revealed in advance, so it would be impossible for an architectural firm bidding for the project to know, in advance, the quality of review that its design would be subjected to. Not one of the members of this panel is a recognised leader in the field, as measured by the criteria noted above.  Their selection seems to have been driven by their seniority and years of service in government rather than any milestones of peer-reviewed excellence. It is safe to say that the thinking and creativity found at the cutting edge of architecture in India is far removed from the kind of review that happened in assessing the designs submitted for Central Vista. 

Moreover, it is customary to lay down an ethical standard that pre-empts any conflict of interest in the assessment process. One commonly established standard is that any employee of the entity organising the competition/tender, and any immediate family member of such employee, is prohibited from either seeking the project or assessing the submissions. The Central Vista project is being executed by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). Two out of the seven-member panel of assessors were senior officials in CPWD.

It would be excellent if a professional body in India, such as the Council of Architecture, constituted a panel of potential assessors in architectural competitions, made up solely of peer-recognised leaders in the field, and made this list available to all governmental entities as one that could be drawn on for assessing architectural competitions. Recognising that this would serve the cause of public design in the country, each architect who agrees to be included in this panel could be asked to commit to serve as an assessor for at least one architectural competition per year.

As the late Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court remarked, in matters of public interest, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is necessary that public processes and products operate under the highest standards of transparency. This is rarely followed, and the selection process in public projects is often highly opaque. On this count, Central Vista has set records on secrecy and opacity, extending this secrecy to not only the selection process, but also its final product.

To make the QCBS process unimpeachable, before opening financial bids, the technical score allocated to each bidder should be revealed to all bidders. This prevents a consequent manipulation of technical marks, after financial bids are known, to skew the selection toward a favour bidder. This procedure of publicly declaring technical scores before opening financial bids is not always done. As little has been revealed, it is not known whether it was followed in Central Vista.

Secrecy in Central Vista has gone to the extent of keeping the cost of the project a secret. It is a recommended procedure in the CPWD Manual, that an estimate of the project cost should be made before launching the project, and this estimated cost publicly declared in the NIT. This was not followed. When questioned on this in court, CPWD stated that the cost could not be known in advance as it would be a function of the master plan prepared by the selected architect. Firstly, this is one more reason why the project should have been split into two competitions: an urban design competition followed by an architecture competition (or set of competitions). More significantly, the absence of an accurate cost estimate renders the process of comparing financial bids under QCBS as untenable. This requires getting into some technicalities, so please bear with me for a minute.

Under the QCBS system, financial bids are compared by giving full marks for this category to the lowest bidder, and then allocating marks to the other bidders on the basis of how much higher they quoted than the original bidder. For example, a bidder who quotes 10% higher than the lowest bidder would have marks for this category reduced by 10%, one who quotes 15% higher would have a 15% reduction, and so on. The architects were asked to quote fees on a percentage of project cost basis.  They were asked to quote in three slabs: X% for the first ₹2500 crores of project cost, Y% for the next ₹2500 crores, and Z% for project cost above ₹5000 crores. The NIT stated that the assumption would be made that the 25% of the project cost would come under the X% category, 25% under Y%, and 50% under Z%. This yields a hypothetical project cost of ₹10,000 crores, but the NIT is specific that this formula is solely for the purpose of comparing financial bids, and the actual estimated cost is not known. 

Table 1: Two Cost Scenarios and Comparison of Two Hypothetical Fee Bids

Table 1 shows two hypothetical bidders and what the total fee works out under two cost scenarios: the hypothetical cost of ₹10,000 crores and the cost widely reported in the media of ₹20,000 crores. As can be seen, Bidder 1 is the lowest bidder in the first scenario, whereas Bidder 2 is the lowest bidder in the second scenario. Without a realistic estimated cost, there is no way the financial bids can be compared under QCBS, which renders the whole comparison of bids as arbitrary. Costs are still being kept a secret as long as possible, but as pieces of the project are put forward for statutory approval, costs have to be mandatorily revealed in these submissions, and cost data is being revealed bit by bit. This total revealed to date has already crossed well over ₹10,000 crores, with more costs yet to be revealed, so we know the hypothetical formula stated in the NIT for comparing bids is decidedly hypothetical rather than realistic.

This issue was raised in one of the petitions against the project submitted to the Supreme Court, but the Court took a narrow technical view and said only an aggrieved unsuccessful bidder had locus standi to challenge the evaluation process. Sadly, the Court did not take the wider view of considering the degree of arbitrariness this precedent of an inherently faulty QCBS evaluation could introduce in public projects in the future.

There has also been overwhelming opacity on the rationale for the project as well as the product of the design process. A new Parliament is justified by saying increased seating capacities are needed, but no data is put forward on how the calculation of increased seats is made (probably because this is a political hot potato). The project has several Grade 1 listed heritage buildings, and the entire Central Vista precinct is also declared as Grade 1. A best practice in heritage projects it to precede the project with a detailed heritage study that documents both tangible and intangible heritage. No such study has been tabled in the public domain. CPWD stated in one of their affidavits to the Supreme Court that a detailed study has been conducted on the existing Parliament building, but no such study has either been submitted to the Court or made publicly available. Although this is a project in which the entire Indian public has a political and cultural interest, no designs or costs on the final design have been placed in the public domain for scrutiny by the citizenry, and there have been no public hearings or consultations on the new design. Major segments of the project have already begun construction or are in the statutory approval process, so if any data is released now it will be a fait accompli devoid of any thoughtful consideration to public interest and opinion.

Secrecy, once established as a precedent in public projects, allows other agendas to take root, some of them not necessarily in the public interest or conducive to good design.

The situation in India for achieving high quality public architecture is already well below the bar of acceptability, and if we look at Central Vista as a precedent, we are going further in the wrong direction toward:

  • Public projects becoming transactional rather than visionary
  • Quality of design being reduced to minority status in selecting architects
  • The net cast for good design growing smaller, allowing a condition to get entrenched where a small handful of larger firms can monopolise public architecture
  • Unrealistic time frames set by political, or other, compulsions with no consideration given to adequate time being allowed for good design, thereby encouraging quick formulaic design with superficial visual imagery rather than deep creativity
  • Reduced clarity on scope of design, thereby muddying the waters to obstruct a clear vision on what design should seek to do
  • Cutting-edge abilities and discernment within the design profession being completely side-lined in assessing competitions for public work
  • Secrecy getting established as a precedent in public projects, rendering the ground fertile for arbitrary procedures of selection and alternative agendas to take root.

If architects do not want to be side-lined any further in public architecture, the profession needs to urgently mobilise on the issue. And it is not just architects who will be affected; a further decline will lead to increasing erosion in the quality of the public realm in Indian settlements.

Does the Central Vista Redevelopment Project Set Undesirable Precedents for the Future?

Construction Barriers at Central Vista. Photo credit: The Economic Times

This op-ed was originally published in The Economic Times on 4 June 2021

In justifying the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, the Government of India has asserted: (1) it enhances India’s democracy, (2) heritage conservation has been incorporated, (3) annual savings in rent of ₹1,000 crore will be realised, (4) the project promotes gainful employment, and (5) all relevant laws have been scrupulously followed. Let’s unpack these claims.

Enhancing democracy: As the spatial epicentre of India’s democracy, the project should embody the highest ideals of democracy and transparency, rather than scraping through by minimum standards. Yet, it is shrouded in secrecy, without public consultation or public disclosure and debate on needs, designs and costs. It appears that enough progress on approvals and construction is being sought in secrecy so that plans, when eventually disclosed, will be a fait accompli.

This project has not been debated in Parliament, and the precedent of parliamentary oversight over such projects goes ignored. Moreover, the land use alterations to the main vista between Vijay Chowk and the India Gate hexagon, which earlier included public institutional space socially and culturally alive at all times, now displaces vibrant public space with a complete encircling of government offices.

Heritage conservation: Redeveloping the Central Vista precinct, officially listed as a Grade-1 heritage space, should follow established best practice of being preceded by a comprehensive heritage audit, documenting tangible and intangible heritage. This has been ignored. No consideration has been given to a legal stipulation that preserving a Grade-1 listed building requires consideration applied to its surroundings, so that its eminence in the urban fabric is undisturbed. Heritage is a matter of public memory that demands public debate, while a veil of secrecy surrounds the project.

Savings in rent: Most governmental facilities in Delhi are owned by the Land and Development Office, where rent is paid by one arm of government to another. What one arm gains, the other arm loses. Annual saving of ₹1,000 crore is a notional saving on paper, and when compared against cost of capital for new construction, will result in a substantive negative balance.

Moreover, this figure of ₹1,000 crore does not match with a public assertion by the project’s architect that the redevelopment allows 10,000 government servants from 29 ministries, currently working from locations outside Central Vista, to move into the precinct to spatially consolidate all ministries. An annual spend of ₹1,000 crore for 10,000 persons would constitute a rental rate higher than that of New Delhi’s most premium real estate.

Gainful employment: It is not enough to merely state it generates employment. Any large project will do that. It is necessary to demonstrate, when compared to other possible employment generators, that this is the most efficient expenditure for generating per rupee the largest quantum of employment.

Abiding by relevant laws: Once again, a project of this significance must offer a role model for the highest possible ideal, not sink to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, this is not the yardstick the majority judgment of the Supreme Court applied in evaluating this case.

Some key concerns:

  • Taking refuge under an old legislation of 1899, Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is acting as both project proponent and local body sanctioning the project, a clear conflict of interest. Two statutory bodies, Delhi Urban Art Commission and Heritage Conservation Committee Delhi, are required by the Acts that constitute them to accept submissions only from three recognised local bodies — CPWD is not in the list. Yet, they have accorded approval to the new Parliament building.
  • For environmental approval, to bypass a stringent process that applies to projects above 1,50,000 square metres in-built area, the Parliament building has been submitted as a stand-alone project. Justification given is that it has no functional linkage with other spaces, even though CPWD has admitted elsewhere that Parliament will depend on surrounding areas for car parking.
  • In his dissenting Supreme Court judgment, Justice Sanjiv Khanna observed that the Notice Inviting Tender from architects calls for ‘a visionary master plan to be drawn up for the entire Central Vista area’, and the consequent changes are significant. In this light, he averred the processes followed for master plan amendment and heritage conservation fall short of the law, specifically with reference to public disclosure, consideration granted to public objections, and prior approvals for heritage conservation.

There is sufficient cause for concern that the Central Vista Redevelopment Project undermines public interest and sets undesirable precedents for the future.

A Second Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Dormitories, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, © Anant Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)

On 26 December 2020, I wrote an open letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) sharing concerns regarding the plan to demolish most of the dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. To my pleasant surprise, the same day, I received an immediate, detailed and courteous reply from the Director of IIMA. However, the positivity of tone did not dispel concerns on substance, and therefore my reply constitutes a second open letter. I share below the reply received from IIMA and my response.

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

Thank you so much for your prompt, detailed and courteous response that shows you have carefully read my letter. I truly appreciate this, particularly the speed of the response during the Christmas weekend.

It is heartening to see from your response that we are on the same page in acknowledging that what Louis Kahn built is a legacy for all of humankind, that IIMA bears the mantle of being the custodian of a significant component of this legacy, and recognition of this should be in the foreground of any evaluation of the future of IIMA’s built environment. To this, I would add that the obligation to a global legacy of this significance demands not only deep consideration and care, but also commitment to the highest standards of public transparency in any decision on the future of the legacy. My remarks below are shaped by this recognition, constituting a second open letter to you.

After reading your reply, I must confess that the thrust of the concerns articulated in my earlier letter still remain. I note:

  • There is still insufficient clarity on the extent to which Somaya & Kalappa (SNK) were involved in this decision on the future of the dormitory blocks. They have been rigorously engaged for the last six years on the conservation of the Kahn buildings, have won international recognition in these efforts, and will know the challenges and possibilities of restoration in far greater depth than anyone else. It would be axiomatic that any call on the future of the dormitory blocks involves them as a key player in the decision. If they have not been able to effectively participate in this decision, this is far too serious a matter to be dismissed as a “communication glitch” and is an absence that demands public explanation; else it is likely to be interpreted as a deliberate exclusion intended to free the final decision from the weight of heritage concerns. I suggest that before taking a final decision, IIMA is duty bound to publicly reveal SNK’s role in this decision to demolish fourteen dormitory blocks and what their specific recommendations are on all of the dormitory blocks. Given the seminal role SNK has played in the conservation effort till date, I would go so far as to say that a decision by IIMA on the demolition of 14 Kahn dormitories, if taken without the agreement of SNK, is an indefensible decision that must be rescinded.
  • I draw your attention to Brinda Somaya’s lecture of 28 November 2020 (referred to in my earlier letter) where she does not raise any irresolvable problems in preserving all the dormitory blocks, mentions that Dorm 15 (along with Dorms 1 and 2) was one of the blocks in worst condition, and Dorm 15 was chosen as a first prototype since a successful restoration here would define the path for restoration of all the other dormitory blocks. I must also point out that the successful restoration of Dorm 15 is acknowledged on the IIMA website. All this adds further weight to the need for full disclosure on SNK’s role in the decision making and the specifics of their recommendations.
  • In the same spirit of full disclosure, it will carry a great deal of weight if you openly reveal which structural engineer’s advice has prevailed in deciding the fate of these fourteen dorm blocks, and also place on the table for public review Dr. Arun Menon’s specific recommendations on the dormitory blocks, given he has been a contributor to the IIMA restoration project with a stature and expertise that would be hard to equal.
  • You correctly observe that “the problems mentioned for the dorm is not one that the expert points out for the Library”. This is not the relevant comparison to be made. IIMA has publicly committed to the preservation and restoration of Dorms 15, 16, 17 and 18, implicitly confirming by this declaration that restoration is feasible in dormitory structures in order to make them safe and usable. The Kahn dormitories 1 to 14 substantively follow the same repetitive design found in Dorm 15 and use the same materials. If Dorms 1 to 14 are claimed to be inherently unsafe and unusable, why did this not apply to Dorm 15?  If seismic and other concerns in Dorm 15 (one of the dorms that was in the worst condition) can be addressed to make the structure safe and usable, why can’t this be done for Dorms 1 to 14? In the interests of transparency demanded by the imperatives of public cultural heritage, these questions must be specifically and openly addressed.
  • I am afraid I must vehemently disagree with your assertion, “I would hesitate to call a set of buildings that are just about half a century old heritage.”  Earlier in your reply, you have agreed with my positing that heritage centres on looking at the past and carefully choosing what is worth remembering as that memory will serve the future as well. The significance of that remembering, with the memory it produces, should be the determining factors, whether what we examine springs from centuries ago or a few years ago. There are precedents on the recognition of recent artistic production as heritage. I draw your attention to the declaration in the late 1970’s, by the Department of Culture, Government of India, that the work of nine artists (Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Raja Ravi Varma, Gaganendranath Tagore, Sailoz Mookherjea and Nicholas Roerich) as “not being antiquities, to be art treasures, having regard to their artistic and aesthetic value.” It is forbidden to destroy any of their work or export work that is within the country. Eight, out of these nine, produced all or a substantive portion of their work within the 20th century, and this Government of India declaration was made when over two decades of the 20th century were still to come. I must also point out the Japanese practice of declaring “Living National Treasures”, identifying, during their lifetime, artists who are “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties,” thereby explicitly recognising their work as possessing cultural value worth conserving. We cannot reduce heritage to a number expressed in years. If we followed such a claim to its logical conclusion, we would be demeaning both culture and heritage as it would lead to the indefensible conclusion that what future generations could call heritage would be restricted to what escaped demolition before reaching a qualifying age.
  • You mention that you are not seeking to assign a lesser value to what lies behind a public façade. But this is not reflected in your letter to alumni where you claim something is achieved by preserving Dorms 16 to 18 because these are the first dorms seen on entering the campus, along with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza, and this would somehow serve to preserve some aspect of Kahn’s legacy. I repeat my words from my earlier letter, “Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.”  This is not a matter that is only perceived by architects.  An IIMA alumnus saw my open letter to you and posted a comment. An excerpt from this comment is extremely revealing, “Some of my best years in IIMA have been spent in the dorms. They were not just entities that housed us but spaces that provided a sense of comfort, balance and community without in any way encroaching on our private spaces. The equilibrium of light and shade and openness is hard to find anywhere let alone a campus.” It is significant that a management student is able to so intuitively, spontaneously and perceptively connect with Kahn’s vision, and demonstrates that the seeds of Kahn’s legacy have borne fruit that far transcend the individual. This “equilibrium of light and shade and openness” that encapsulates a community of learners is sustained by the entire network of built and open spaces that constitute the dormitory complex. This network of dormitory courtyards forms a continuum with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza in the way the diagonal views across dorm courtyards entice the eye and body toward the main buildings, and the way this is echoed in the diagonal walls along the edge of the dorm stairs and the diagonal of the main entrance stairs of the academic complex. The integrity of this continuum would be shattered if the Kahn dormitory complex is reduced to four peripheral blocks.
Site Plan, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad: White, Projects by Louis Kahn, Shaded, Projects by Anant Raje and others. © Anant Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)
  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail publicly tabling a cost assessment of restoring the entire dormitory complex, and if further funds were needed, IIMA should reveal the attempts made or intended to raise such funds leveraging the institution’s standing, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global regard granted to Kahn’s work. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail benchmarking IIMA’s choices against many publicly known global best practices where universities with a long history have been able to balance changing needs with heritage conservation, and where the commitment to conservation has enhanced brand and culture. I had added that following this approach would entail a campus-wide master plan for IIMA by a reputed professional, identifying the best locations for physical change to meet new needs while holding heritage conservation as a core value, and openly disclosing this plan as the framework for addressing conservation of the Kahn legacy. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I am heartened to read your affirmation that IIMA believes physical meeting places are significant and “we do believe in serendipitous interaction and we would very much like such spaces to exist on our campus.” But this does not gel with your assertion in your letter to alumni, where you speak of facing the “difficult questions” around meeting being the core of Kahn’s designs, whereas students today have “gravitated toward virtual modes of interaction.” If you intend to encourage and facilitate physical serendipitous meeting, why is this a “difficult question”? The spaces of the dormitory complex are far more than an abstract geometry that contain meetings to come; they are also a fabric soaked with memories of meetings past. When alumni visit, these spaces are the spark that makes those memories come to life once more. These stories get ingrained in an architecture that transforms over time into a mnemonic aid for retelling stories of even those who are absent. The weaving of stories past and present is how a culture takes root, and the preservation of architectural spaces that significantly facilitate this weave becomes crucial.
Model, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Academic Complex, Dormitories, with Student’s Dining Hall and Kitchen at bottom left, © Anand Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)
  • You have so rightly pointed out that there have been problematic selections of materials and construction techniques in the original construction, and the institution has not established maintenance protocols in its early days. To reject entire structures on this count would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely, the whole point of the restoration effort launched in 2014, and awarded to SNK to implement, is to offer corrective measures for problematic decisions of the past and lay out maintenance protocols for years to come.

Shortly after I wrote my earlier letter, a letter addressed to you, dated 22 December 2020, signed by Sue Anne Kahn, Alexandra Tyng and Nathaniel Kahn (the children of Louis Kahn), has come to my attention. The letter conveys their consternation on hearing of the plan to demolish the Kahn dormitories. It refers to the time they met you when you visited the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2018 and toured the Richards Building so that you could “see firsthand how a great Kahn building could be reimagined to suit changing needs.” The letter goes on to state that during that visit you “indicated that you were committed to preserving, at the very least, the area designated by the conservation plan, which included the 18 dormitories.” At the time of your visit in 2018, the conservation effort at IIMA was four years old, the restoration of Vikram Sarabhai Library was close to completion, and most significantly, the successful restoration of Dorm 15 had been completed a year earlier in August 2017, so any challenges in dormitory restoration would have already come to light. It is not clear what has caused the abandonment of the commitment expressed to the Kahn family in 2018.

I urge IIMA to immediately place this project on hold. In the light of all that is stated above, there is much more disclosure and debate needed on the subject before a credible public perception can confidently place IIM Ahmedabad on the right side of history in granting due respect to the significance of built heritage that constitutes the Kahn legacy at IIMA.

Yours sincerely,

Prem Chandavarkar

An Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Photo by Abhishek Donda on Unsplash

This is the text of an open letter to the Director of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, with copies to the Governing Council, written on hearing that the institution plans to demolish fourteen out of eighteen dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. If you wish to use this as the template for your own letter, a Word file of the text, along with all the relevant email addresses, can be downloaded here. A copy of the letter written by the Director to all alumni, referenced here, is also available at the same link.

Dr. Errol D’Souza
Director, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

I am writing this open letter to articulate the deep concern felt by many architects and non-architects, from India and elsewhere in the world, on hearing that Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) plans to demolish most of the dormitory blocks designed by Louis Kahn that form a key part of the historic core of IIMA, and has invited bids from architects to redesign these dormitories, albeit in an architectural language sympathetic to the Kahn idiom.

An article in The Indian Express of 25 December 2020 raises some of these concerns and cites you as stating that you have written a letter on 23 December 2020 to all IIMA alumni, and all queries are answered in the letter. I have been through this letter and feel compelled to state that many concerns still remain.  

At the famous house ‘Fallingwater’ in Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there is a plaque that marks the moment that Edgar Kaufmann Jr. surrendered his ownership to donate the house to a trust that would preserve it as a milestone of architectural heritage accessible to the public.  The plaque cites Kaufmann’s justification of this donation, saying that there are some houses built by one man for another man whereas this is a house built by one man for all of humankind.  The work of Louis Kahn should be seen in the same spirit. Kahn was a seminal figure of 20th century architecture who occupies a unique place in history in the way his built work and writings display mastery of an architecture that is simultaneously modern and timeless. He has left a heritage that carries value to all of humankind, and IIMA has been privileged to act as a custodian of a valuable piece of this heritage.  This is a mantle that must be granted its due and not worn lightly, a fact that is already acknowledged by IIMA in naming the main plaza of the campus after Louis Kahn and acknowledging on the institution’s website that Kahn’s designs at IIMA “instil in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder”. This spirit is infectious and involves more than Kahn: it affected many who collaborated with him on the IIMA project. More significantly, it has had an impact on generations who have inhabited the spaces of IIMA, demonstrated by the fact that there are very few institutions who acknowledge the architect who designed them with the reverence that IIMA shows to Kahn on their website. It is more than the matter of a specific individual; we hold in these buildings a wider legacy the reflects primordial human spirit, and this spirit should provide the light under which the challenge of restoring the dormitories must be evaluated.

You have said in your letter to alumni, “We have grappled with questions as to why we should presume that the past is not changeable and why we should assume that future generations will value things in exactly the same way that past generations have. We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonise future perceptions of living spaces.”  Can awe and wonder colonise the future? Are they not timeless values that sustain the core of the human soul? I urge IIMA to not look at this as a conflict between past, present and future. Heritage is not solely about the preservation of the past.  In its essence, heritage is a contemporary moment of critical discernment where we look at the past and carefully choose what is worth remembering because that memory will serve the future well.  Surely, Kahn’s legacy is a past that does not degrade, and its continued physical presence, in all its authenticity, will serve the future well through the eternal values of awe and wonder that it evokes.

You have stated that Dormitories 16,17,18, along with the restored Dormitory 15, will be retained as “they constitute the periphery of the built campus and are the first buildings that persons who enter the campus see and understand along with the LKP and associated buildings as the grandeur associated with the work of Kahn.”  This reasoning is troubling, as it implies a devaluation of heritage to place more emphasis on a public façade, assigning lesser value to what lies behind the façade. Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.

It is striking that your letter does not cite a specific recommendation from Somaya & Kalappa (SNK), the firm appointed by IIMA in 2014 to steer restoration work of the Kahn designs. The quality of their effort is reflected in their restoration of the Vikram Sarabhai Library at IIMA winning an Award of Distinction in the 2019 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards. As recently as 28 November 2020, Ms. Brinda Somaya, Principal Architect of SNK, delivered an online lecture to CEPT University on the IIMA restoration project. In that lecture, she did not mention a need to abandon any of the Kahn dormitories. She mentioned that Dormitory 15 was selected as a prototype project for restoration as it was one of the dormitories in the worst condition, and if this could be restored, the others would be easier to tackle. In her lecture, she presented the successful restoration of Dormitory 15, a fact that is also affirmed on the IIMA website. In the Indian Express article cited earlier, the reporter mentions contacting Ms. Somaya who responded that she has not been informed about this new bid for architectural services to replace 14 out of 18 Kahn dormitories. It is troubling if this is true and the decision to demolish the Kahn dormitories and invite bids to replace them with new structures was taken without consulting the experts appointed to guide the restoration of the Kahn buildings.

In Ms. Somaya’s lecture she speaks about the seismic vulnerability of the dormitory blocks. She mentioned that while they had a structural consultant to work with them on the project, they realised deeper expertise was needed, and they consulted Dr. Arun Menon of Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Dr. Menon is an internationally recognised expert on seismic design, is one of the primary authors of India’s building codes on seismic design, and one of his specific research interests cited on his CV is “Seismic Response, Assessment and Retrofit of Masonry Structures.” Ms. Somaya spoke on how Dr. Menon’s analysis showed that most of the seismic concerns in the dormitories spring from the height of the masonry drum that encloses the staircase as it rises above terrace level. In the restoration of Dormitory 15, this has been addressed by marginally reducing the height of the drum and adding masonry buttresses that are lower than the parapet height and therefore not visible from outside. It is striking that your letter does not cite any specific recommendation from Dr. Menon, despite the stature of his expertise and his involvement with the restoration project.

Your letter mentions many technical problems that have influenced IIMA’s decision to demolish close to 80% of the Kahn dormitories: seismic risk, poor quality of brickwork, cracking of masonry caused by corrosion of reinforcement rods, a pointing technique used in masonry joints that encourages water seepage, etc.  You state that these make the buildings both impractical and unsafe, and your letter implies they are determining factors. All of these problems are present in the buildings being restored: the Vikram Sarabhai Library, the Classroom Block, the Faculty Block, as well as the four dormitory blocks being restored. Clearly, IIMA would not put people in unsafe and unusable buildings, so the plan to restore these buildings shows these problems have solutions, and Ms. Somaya’s lecture presents many of these solutions.  Clearly, the technical dimensions of these problems cannot be the determining factor.

You state that three imperatives guided IIMA’s decision: (1) functional needs, (2) cultural heritage, and (3) available resources. But your letter throws no light on how you weighted these imperatives in your analysis, especially given the challenge of cultural heritage being the only one of the three whose value is almost wholly intangible. If it is primarily a matter of available resources, a value assigned to heritage would, at the very least, demand tabling an assessment of the resources needed for a complete restoration. And if there is a gap between needed and available resources, the question rises on whether IIMA made an effort to leverage its standing with government, its international reputation, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global respect and affection granted to Louis Kahn and his designs for IIMA in order to raise the required resources. Your letter is silent on these aspects.

I can appreciate that functional needs have changed, enrolment has grown, and buildings designed close to five decades ago will not accommodate current demands. This challenge is not new; it has been successfully faced by many universities across the world, often with a history going back centuries (far longer than that of IIMA). There are multiple case studies available of how these universities have successfully preserved their built heritage yet been able to adjust to changing times, and their built heritage is a key component of the identity, brand and culture of these universities. Has IIMA surveyed these best practices across the world and benchmarked its evaluation against them? Has there been a campus-wide assessment of how to adjust to new needs, looking beyond the historic core of Kahn’s architecture? Just because the Kahn buildings are the oldest, should they be the only ones considered for demolition, especially given their heritage value? A campus-wide master plan to assess and design for long-term needs, that holds heritage conservation as a core value, should be conducted by a reputed and qualified architect, and this plan should be openly tabled and reviewed as the frame that guides the final decisions. This too finds no mention in your letter.

Your letter states, There were even difficult questions around the central theme of Kahn’s work at the campus which was that everything was planned around the idea of meeting. In today’s world our experience is that students hardly use these shared spaces as they have gravitated to virtual modes of interacting.”  It is true that cyberspace is far more significant to the current generation of students than to earlier generations. But this recognition should not be given undue weightage. First, it is not correct to assume that physical meeting spaces are no longer significant as they have been completely appropriated by cyberspace; students still value physical meeting, and a visit to any reasonably priced coffee house or pub is sufficient to demonstrate this.  Second, as the work of scholars such as Tristan HarrisHossein Derakshan, and Zeynep Tufekci shows, there is a growing body of literature that shows virtual fora to be tempting but damaging, for they decrease capacity for concentrated attention and analysis, encourage addictive behaviour, induce psychological alienation, and reduce ability to cope with diversity due to social fragmentation into filter bubbles of like-minded people. Third, there is significant management literature to demonstrate the value of physical and serendipitous interaction; to name a few sources touching on this aspect that come readily to mind, Ettiene Wenger’s work on communities of practice, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s study on how Japanese corporations leverage tacit knowledge, and Peter Senge’s articulations on personal mastery. It would be a shame if a premier institution like IIMA surrenders so readily to the temptations of the virtual, especially given the power of face-to-face interaction is so intrinsically baked into the bricks and mortar of the campus core. While the pandemic may have temporarily put the brakes on physical meetings, they are not lost to us forever. The power of serendipitous physical meetings can easily be revived and leveraged if this is adopted by the institution as an explicit pedagogical goal.

I beseech you to place this issue once more before the Governing Council to be evaluated afresh given the concerns articulated here. I urge the Governing Council to look at the Kahn dormitories heeding the words of the famous economist Kenneth E. Boulding in his classic paper “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, where he says, “….the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. If this kind of identity is recognized as desirable, then posterity has a voice, even if it does not have a vote; and in a sense, if its voice can influence votes, it has votes too. This whole problem is linked up with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale, legitimacy, and nerve of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”

Yours sincerely,

The Architecture of Democracy: Central Vista and a Tale of Three Axes

By Namchop – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https-//

I analyse the proposed Central Vista Redevelopment in New Delhi, which proposes to transform the spatial heart of India’s democracy. The analysis looks at the historical origin of the grand urban axis, a spatial type in urban design that Central Vista represents, examining how architecture and urban design can represent political ideals, and how the proposed redevelopment fits into this history.

This essay was published in The India Forum. For the full essay, as well as a podcast interview, see here.

An Urbanism of Finitude

Photograph by Samiran Chakraborty on Unsplash

In his classic text Being and Time, the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, offers a secular definition of a philosophy established in spiritual traditions of the East for centuries: we are victims of our inability to come to terms with our own finitude.  Unwilling to confront our mortality, we assume our death lies at a point in the future far enough to offer sufficient space between now and then to fulfil our intentions.  We therefore repeatedly defer resolution of conflicting demands, never reaching the point of knowing our authenticity so that we may live it.

What would our urbanism be if we imagined our cities from the viewpoint of their imminent finitude?  This might have been hard to imagine earlier but is a much more tangible proposition in the midst of a pandemic that has caused the death of urban life as we knew it.  We may believe we shall soon have a vaccine and can put the pandemic behind us, but must then consider the imbalances between nature and human life caused by the era of the Anthropocene, which means an increased likelihood of zoonotic viruses with another pandemic following on the heels of Covid-19.  We must also contemplate the spectre of climate change with its increasing frequency of extreme weather events looming before us.  Havoc launched in the city will spread to the countryside, disrupting food and transportation chains, threatening all life.  The potential finitude of urbanism is becoming an unavoidable topic

Cities are complex entities filled with unresolved contradictions we hope to resolve.  We see slums and hope to implement a policy that will solve the housing problem.  We see water shortages, traffic jams, air pollution, power outages, crime, and for each assume that the managerial and technological fixes we are pursuing will one day overcome these problems.  Assuming that a solution to the problem lies in the future, we remain within the world of intentions, failing to adequately recognise the structural barriers that obstruct change.

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, introduced us to the term heterotopia or ‘other place.’  Our cities contain spaces whose institutional and discursive practices are somehow ‘other’, disturbing, and incompatible when viewed from the reference point of the space we have chosen as our own.  To the urban elite, the slum, brothel, prison, and a host of other spaces, are all heterotopias, even though they may be acknowledged as a part of the city.  We do not live in either an ideal unified world of utopia or a disintegrated and fallen world of dystopia, we live in a complex of heterotopias, each following its own logic.

The elite maintain spatial coherence in this complexity through what the Belgian theorist, Lieven De Cauter, calls capsularisation.  I may have a nice home and a nice workplace, each falling under the same spatial logic, and I maintain coherence because each is an introverted capsule and I am able to move between them in a car, another form of capsule that follows the same interiorised spatial logic.

Phenomena such as pandemics and extreme weather events disregard the structure of heterotopian urbanism.  Slums, because of high-density living conditions with poor access to sanitation and public health, are vulnerable to infection, and from this point viruses do not respect boundaries of class or caste and spread through the city. Fractures in spatial continuity are not conducive to efficiency of urban services such as storm water drainage, and these limitations induce lower tipping points that exacerbate systemic collapse during extreme weather events.  Urban services we depend on disintegrate because those who keep them functional are suddenly unavailable, and a class of people hitherto rendered invisible to us by capsularisation suddenly become visible through their absence.  When we increase the capsularisation of inequity in our cities, as we have been doing at a rising rate in recent years, we marginalise heterotopias to such an extent that their inhabitants are driven to feel that violence is the only means of asserting the significance of their presence, and we are seeing this increasingly occurring at a scale that provokes widespread disruption of urban life.

If we seriously contemplate the finitude of our cities, the urgency of building resilience and spatial justice will take on a new hue.  There is an ancient proverb in Bhutan that states it is impossible to be truly happy without contemplating one’s death at least five times a day.  This is a logic that initially appears paradoxical but is actually sensible and should be transferred to our imagination of urbanism.  We can restore vibrancy to our cities only by giving serious consideration to their death.

Regulating Architectural Practice: Thoughts on a Recent Judgment from the Supreme Court of India

Photo Credit: Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

On 17 March 2020, a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi in the Supreme Court of India passed a milestone judgment affecting how architectural practice will be regulated in India.  The Court noted that the Architects Act 1972 created the Council of Architecture (CoA) as the statutory regulator on architecture in India, and only a person registered with CoA is entitled to be called an architect.  In the case before it, the Court passed a judgment focussed on two questions:

  1. Can a person who is not registered with CoA be allowed to practice architecture?
  2. Can a public body, or any legal entity, appoint a person who is not registered with CoA to a post whose prior designation includes the word ‘architect’?

In making this judgment, the Court (as it is constrained to do) noted its role is to uphold the law and not to enforce what is desirable, for to do the latter is to intrude into matters of policy which are the sole prerogative of the legislature and therefore outside the Court’s purview.  Consequently, its judgment must restrict itself to a plain reading of the law, going beyond this only if a plain reading leads to a logically or legally untenable conclusion.  The prevailing clause in this case is Section 37 of the Architects Act 1972 which states, “no person other than a registered architect, or a firm of architects, shall use the title and style of architect.”   The Court remarked that a plain reading of this clause is sufficient as it does not lead to any untenable conclusion, and on the basis of this reading it is very clear that the legal constraint is only to using the title and style of architect and no constraint is imposed on the practice of architecture.  Therefore, on the first question the judgment was that the practice of architecture is not restricted to those persons who are registered with CoA.  Any other person or legal entity can practice architecture as long as they do not claim the title of ‘architect’.  The judgment noted that comparable legislations in the legal and medical professions, which precede the Architects Act 1972, are quite specific in constraining who can practice the profession.  The fact that such constraint was not adopted in the Architects Act suggested to the Court that Parliament in its wisdom believed such a constraint is not applicable to architecture.  On the second question, the Court ruled that since the designation of the post includes the word ‘architect’, such posts are available only to persons who are authorised to use the title of ‘architect’, namely persons registered with CoA.

The judgment has provoked great alarm and consternation among the architectural fraternity in India, the general reaction being concern that opening up architectural practice in this unrestricted manner will undeniably cause a deplorable deterioration in the quality of architecture we can expect in the future, for the production of architecture will now be opened up to people who are not trained for that purpose.  The call is being made by many architects that the profession should unite to demand that the Architects Act 1972 be amended to remove this poorly chosen wording in the original act, replacing it with language that explicitly restricts the practice of architecture to those who are registered with CoA.  However, for clarity in this matter, it is important to recognise that the welfare of architects should not be considered synonymous with the welfare of architecture.  There is no doubt that this judgment is detrimental to the welfare of architects.  The question I wish to examine here is whether it is detrimental to the welfare of architecture.

To appreciate this important difference, we must begin by acknowledging that the purpose of a regulator is to serve the public interest, and not the interests of the profession.  The two cannot be equated for professionals can be captivated by self-interest.  Their interests are the province of professional forums such as the Indian Institute of Architects, and even professional interests are served by forums staying distinctly separate from regulators.  Serving the public interest is about setting up minimum thresholds of safety and accountability.  Whereas serving the profession should be about provoking and promoting excellence.  If the two are not separated, we will get a minimum standards approach contaminating forums where the intent should be excellence.  This has already happened in India with the Architects Act 1972 placing the licensing of architects and the regulation of architectural education under the same regulator, namely CoA.  This has led to a minimum standards approach being adopted in education, and has led to a deterioration in the average quality of architectural education.  In fact, the reference document produced by CoA that lays out the regulatory system for architectural education is titled “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education.”  There has been critique that the Indian Institute of Architects, with exception of a few regional chapters, has been largely coasting on a minimum standards approach as well.  But that is a discussion for another day, and I will confine myself here to the regulatory system for licensing architects.

The core concern expressed by architects is that once open season has been declared on architectural practice, then unqualified persons who cannot appreciate the technicalities of construction will be allowed to practice architecture.  If a person without the appropriate education practices architecture, then the public is subjected to hazard as such persons do not know the basics of construction and safety, and are not in a position to understand statutory building codes stipulated to protect public welfare.  The Supreme Court acknowledged this problem, but observed that its resolution did not lie within its province.  Statutory approvals for buildings are granted by municipalities or other such jurisdictionally defined entities.  The Court noted that it must be assumed that such entities will apply the appropriate wisdom to stipulate that only people with the necessary technical knowledge be granted the right to sign as the designer of a building on drawings and technical documents that constitute a legal application seeking permission to build.  For the purpose of discussion here, let us assume that these municipalities and other such entities will exercise this appropriate wisdom, and that architectural practice is restricted to architects and civil/structural engineers.  So if an engineer designs a building, we come to an important question that must guide our assessment: How is the building designed by an engineer different from one designed by a professionally trained architect?

In his book An Outline of European Architectureoriginally published in 1943, Nicholas Pevsner made the statement that is probably his most cited quotation, “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.”  If we apply this definition to the question we have defined, it will lead us to conclude that engineers will tend to design buildings, whereas architecture can only be produced by architects.  There is  truth in Pevsner’s declaration that all buildings are not architecture, although I would contest his locating that difference in aesthetic appeal, for that would reduce architecture to a spectacle to be viewed rather than a space to be inhabited and experienced.  The quality of how architecture is differentiated from building is better captured by Juhani Pallasmaa in his seminal classic The Eyes of the Skinwhere he says, “In the experience of art, a peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to the space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts.”   If buildings are the technical means to offer shelter, architecture transcends this mere technicality when it is able to offer an aura that the inhabitant can engage with such that this aura ‘entices and emancipates’ her/him.  Let us use the term ‘aura of architecture’ to describe such an aura.  This brings us to a different form of our original question: Does a professional training in architecture guarantee that qualified architects can always imbue their work with the aura of architecture?

One would have to admit that it does not, and to assume that it does is to confuse cause and effect, where the cause is a professional training in architecture and the effect is the aura of architecture.  The demand that architectural practice must be legally restricted to those who receive a degree in architecture is predicated on the assumption that this cause and effect are inextricably linked such that one will inevitably produce the other.  This assumption is erroneous, and consequently dangerous, on multiple counts:

  • The cause does not necessarily produce the effect: Walk around any modern city and observe the buildings designed by professionally trained architects.  Across the world, one tends to come across the same mix of quality: a dominant majority of banal and ordinary buildings, a few that are downright ugly, some that are admired by architects which their inhabitants either dislike or are indifferent to, and a very small minority imbued with the aura of architecture.  The banal majority remain within Pevsner’s definition of buildings that do not qualify as architecture.  There are many factors that can link the cause and desired effect, foremost among them being the quality of training on offer and the calibre of individuals undergoing the training.  The protocols that aim to ensure that cause and effect be linked lie outside the province of legal regulation.  Therefore, legal regulation cannot make the assumption that the two are linked.  Legal regulation can only focus on basic technical standards of safety; the aura of architecture cannot be produced through law.
  • The effect can be produced without the cause: If we stipulate that you cannot produce the aura of architecture without a degree in architecture, we would have to discard as worthless the contributions of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Buckminster Fuller, Luis Barragan, Carlo Scarpa, Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor, and Didi Contractor.  You may not value the work of all these designers, and some could be critiqued as lacking the aura of architecture.  But the inescapable fact is that all of them produced works of architecture that are highly admired without acquiring a degree in architecture.
  • A precondition of the cause can suppress genuine creativity: This is particularly applicable to a country like India where we have a great deal of valuable built heritage produced by an indigenous wisdom that does not rely on formal professional qualifications.  While we may not have the kind of society today that could produce entire cities like Jaiselmer and Jodhpur, a great deal of this creativity is still alive in a rich and varied network of craft traditions across the country.  A system that is predicated on legal codes and protocols that protect formal professional qualifications pushes the creativity of these indigenous traditions to the margins where it struggles to survive and continues to decline in economic viability.
  • A precondition of the cause can marginalise the poor and vulnerable: In John Turner’s classic essay Housing as a Verbhe argues that we tend to define housing as a noun, thus perceiving it in terms of standardised products produced by professionals.  However, it should be seen as a verb, an ongoing process by which people improve and enrich their lives.  By defining product based standards, we construct thresholds of affordability and marginalise those whose economic circumstances push them below that threshold.  Moreover, product based systems enforce lock-ins to specific lifestyles that are not necessarily appropriate to need.  Consider a migrant who moves from village to city to improve his lot in life.  His first step as a migrant is not necessarily as a nuclear family.  Initially, he may come alone, leaving his wife and children in the village.  As the next step, he facilitates the migration of a brother/male cousins rather than wife and children, because the males together can more effectively build strong economic networks in the city.  Finally, he calls his wife and children.  This entire process can take years, and even after it is achieved, the family moves back and forth between city and village, often going back to the village for extended stays during harvest and festivals.  How can a product-based housing system cater to such a need?  Going through Turner’s data and analysis, we see that for poorer segments of society self-help incremental and flexible housing strategies, receiving state support for land tenure and other infrastructure, are more effective than professionally delivered products.  In fact, when professionals intervene they tend to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
  • The cause can promote destructive tribal fetishes: The challenge in a creative discipline like architecture is that success is hard to quantify or pin down.  Ask an architect who is passionate about design whether the last few years have been successful, it is unlikely that the answer will be sought in quantitative indicators such as a balance sheet, profit and loss statement, or stock price.  It would more likely be sought in a review of work done in that period and assessment on the quality of that work.  Since this quality is intangible, it is natural to turn to social means of validation.  Architects often assess the success of their practice through social validations such as design awards won, publication in respected professional journals and books, invitations the work provokes to be on the lecture circuit, respect with which the work is discussed in architecture schools, or design competitions won.  All these are the product of judgment by one’s professional peers, usually predicated on quick visual impressions rather than extended periods of sensory inhabitation.  While being a perfectly acceptable goal to pursue, once peer review becomes the dominant mode of social validation it breeds a self-absorbed culture where architects are designing for other architects, and the inhabitants of their designs receive inadequate attention.  This is the culture that currently dominates the cutting edge of the profession, producing a personality-centric ecosystem of star architects whose work wins professional acclaim that is often far removed from what its inhabitants feel.   Architecture’s links with the constituencies it is meant to serve remain fragile.

Beyond all these problems listed above, the assumption of an inextricable link between cause and effect produces a culture of mediocrity.  If my position as an architect is legally protected by my formal qualifications, I am offered a degree of security by a system that does not challenge my ability to create the aura of architecture. Consequently, the system does not inherently compel me to pursue what architecture is really meant to be.  If the ultimate effect being sought is the aura of architecture, that alone should be the proof of the pudding.  Architects who have invested effort into the ability to achieve this tend to have little concern regarding legalisms meant to protect them, for the raison d’être and security of their practice lies in the spontaneous recognition of value that inhabitants see in the aura of architecture that their work exudes.  

I must therefore declare myself as a member of that small minority of architects in India who chooses not to resist this recent judgment of the Supreme Court, believing that an amendment of the Architects Act 1972 along the lines currently being articulated would cause more damage than harm.  I wish to escape the minimum standards trap in order to pursue excellence, and desire that the profession as a whole adopt this approach.  Consequently, I would rather devote my attention to expanding the boundaries of my quest to connect with the aura of architecture.

A Pedagogy-Centred Curriculum

Originally published in New Design Ideas, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2019): 124-129

Disconnect between education and practice
In June 2019, students from several architecture schools in Britain published an open letter to the architecture community pleading an urgent case for radical reform of curriculum in architectural education, arguing that the current system is ethically, socially and ecologically dysfunctional (Architecture Education Declares, 2019). The letter has since attracted over 2,100 signatures from students of several countries. Given this is a call for curriculum reform, one must not only look at architecture (the subject being taught) but also education (the means by which it is taught). Professional expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition, and education is a specialised subject in its own right. Therefore, this essay will examine the matter largely from the perspective of education.

Reading the letter, I am reminded of an incident that occurred over 20 years ago when I attended an informal lecture at the home of an architect friend in Bangalore. He had a house guest who was giving the lecture, a former college classmate who was teaching at a reputed architecture school in the US. This gentleman also did wonderful watercolour renderings, which were in great demand, given this was an era when photorealistic computer rendering was far from commonplace.

His talk consisted of two independent sections. In the first part, he showed work done by students in a recent design studio he had taught. In the second, he showed his renderings commissioned by commercial practices in the region. The difference in the quality of architecture on display in each part was striking. The student work was full of critical energy (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that energy was correctly directed). The renderings, on the other hand, were wonderful as representative of an artistic craft, but the architecture they depicted was banal, making little effort to go beyond a robotic reproduction of the familiar. I questioned him on this difference, particularly noting that those local practices for which he did the renderings must be inhabited, to a significant extent, by graduates of the university where he was teaching. The fact that the renderings showed a loss of critical energy seemed to indicate that the education system has an inherent and collective capacity for amnesia. 

He did not have a ready answer to my question. Ever since then, I have been thinking about this, and consequent observations in travels across the world have led me to the following conclusion: the quality of architectural education in a region has little to do with the quality of architecture in the same region. Some countries have a reputation for a rigorous high-quality education system. Others do not. Irrespective, in all regions, walk in any city and look at the work done by professionally trained architects and you see the same mix: a dominant majority of banal work, a few examples that are downright ugly, and a small minority of good work.

I believe this is because the education system schools students to think in terms that are external to the self: abstract philosophies, personality cults, established styles, fashions and trends, and appeal of visual form rather than personal empathy to imperatives of inhabitation. Once you are dependent on externalities, you can sustain them only when the context is similarly aligned. Graduate from school, move to a different context like commercial practice, and you have no means to resist being a chameleon, changing colours to suit the environment.

Mindless Conformity and the Failure of Empathy
I had an experience about four years ago that verified this fact. I was visiting an internationally reputed architecture school in the United States of America, and being taken for a tour of the school building which had many double-height spaces and bridges traversing them, so you could stand on a bridge and observe more than one studio. I stood on one such bridge with two different studios to either side, each one taught by a famous star architect. Reviews were in progress, so work was pinned up on the walls. I was struck by the fact that even though there were many students in each studio, each student inherently a unique individual, all the designs within a studio fell into a uniformity that echoed the style and philosophy of the star architect who was the teacher.

Our modern education system holds at its core a systematised suppression of the independent learning self. As Ivan Illich states in his book Deschooling Society, the education system is designed “to confuse process with substance…..the pupil is thereby schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new” (Illich, 1971). This deprives education of what should be its most powerful resource: the sense of wonder with which all children are naturally endowed. Instead of guiding students in constructively channeling this inner energy, we suppress it by intimidating them into feeling worthless if they cannot display a ‘sophistication’ that wraps their heads round externally defined standards of competence and knowledge. 

The products of such a system who go on to become teachers breed a self-perpetuating cycle where teachers can exert their power in the studio or classroom only by suppressing the individuality of their students. This is not to say that every student and every teacher is like this. There are some students who are lucky to be born with an irrepressible inner energy, and such students flourish irrespective of the education they receive. And there are some teachers who are genuinely invested in the inner creativity and well-being of every student. But we must not judge an education system by what the best students and teachers do; we must measure it by the degree to which it empowers the average student and the contribution of the average teacher to this empowerment. 

A self whose consciousness and sense of wonder has been suppressed is a self who has been stripped of the capacity for empathy. Given the consequent ‘empathy vacuum’ in the system, it is not surprising that the open letter from the architecture students is pervaded with dismay over major ethical failures prevalent in the current system. The empathy deficit has another significant consequence: a self-absorbed inward focus within the profession. This begins in architecture school where pedagogic convention always places the student designer next to his/her work while speaking about it; explaining it to a teacher during a studio critique or defending it to a jury in an end-semester review. 

A culture takes root that privileges the designer’s voice and intentions, believing they are the primary source of meaning in the design. Scant recognition is granted to meaning generated by acts and memories of inhabitation or ecological flows: processes of life that silence the architect’s voice because they come into play after the architect has completed the work and stepped away from it. This culture in the profession takes on another accent after graduation and entry into the world of professional design practice. The intangible and unquantifiable dimensions of quality in architecture create a demand for social validation beyond the designer’s own intuitive satisfaction. The validation of academic assessment in college is replaced in professional practice by the validation of peer review, which continues to foreground the architect’s voice and intentions, either directly or reconstructed through critique. 

Practicing architects seek validation of their work through a series of questions focused on their peers. Does the work win design awards? Does it get published in reputed journals? Does it win competitions? Is it discussed with respect by peers and by teachers and students of architecture? Does it lead to invitations on the lecture circuit? These are all valid questions, but when they become the dominant mode of validation they breed a self-referential culture where architects design to satisfy other architects instead of the constituencies and ecologies their designs are meant to serve. Even worse, architects lose the ability to speak to non-architects on the value architecture can offer, becoming prisoners of a self-referential jargon. The sole exception is the need to convince a fee-paying client that the design meets their needs: a benchmark that is not conducive to recognition of wider societal or ecological benefits.

Why We Need to Reform Architectural Pedagogy
In the appeal from architecture students, the call is for reform of curriculum. Curriculum has three components: values, content, and pedagogy. The students’ appeal and the responses so far have focused on the first two. The failure in values where curriculum makes scarce attempt to deal with current and overwhelming crises such as climate change, growing economic inequality and precariousness; where the intentions and desires of the architect are overriding. And the failure of content in the focus on a personality-centric, form-obsessed, jargon-driven architecture resting on first impressions rather than an architecture that adds value over time to life and dwelling. Scarce attention has been granted to pedagogy, the third component of curriculum. This is a significant gap as pedagogy is the core that holds the education system together.

The famous Brazilian educationist, Paolo Freire, argues that mainstream education is designed to make the classroom an unexciting place to be in because the motives for being there lie outside the classroom: the certified competence you can demonstrate at the end of the course, the grades you will receive, the job you can get, etc. In this system, the classroom is a place for transferring knowledge, the student is rendered passive, and the teacher privileged with an expertise the bestows dominant power in the room. Freire argues for an inversion of this system (Freire, 1972). The classroom must be transformed into a place for making knowledge by the teacher relinquishing power through admitting his/her humility before the subject being taught, and deploying a pedagogy that places the subject between student and teacher so that both may explore it within the classroom. The excitement of discovery within the classroom becomes the primary motive for being there. The resultant buzz makes pedagogy the most visible component of curriculum, which is why it must form the core.

In the system that Freire proposes, teaching and learning happen through a pedagogic connection within the classroom where the teacher infects the students with his/her passion for the subject, leading to an excitement where students even infect each other with passion, and learning happens through firing these inner sparks of passion. But passion alone can be aggressive and dominating. For the pedagogic connection that lights the inner spark within others, passion must always be accompanied by her twin sister, compassion. The infection of passion and the empathy of compassion form the pedagogic core of education. Since empathy and humility lie at the core of this pedagogy, consciousness is directed outward to the world rather than inward to the self. This breeds what the philosopher Morris Berman calls participating consciousness, a far cry from the isolating ego-based consciousness that lies at the core of the current system.

Hope and Vision for the Future
Such an empathetic pedagogy would aim to construct the kind of professional defined in Donald Schön’s seminal book The Reflective Practitioner (Schön, 1984). Schön delineates how professional education and practice tend to operate under a false model he terms ‘The Model of Technical Rationality’, where one first acquires a base of knowledge and skills and then applies them in practice. Practice is reduced to applied theory, and the only feedback loop for improvement is tangible experience. But the average professional practice challenge is far too unique, complex and indeterminate to be reducible to applied theory. Schön’s study reveals how effective professionals develop a value system driving how they deploy their professional abilities to contribute to the world, and use each practice task as an opportunity to challenge, critique and expand this value system. In such a mode, practice critiques theory and theory critiques practice. The ‘model of technical rationality’ assumes an operating mode of ‘reflection-and-action’, whereas effective professionals develop a capacity for ‘reflection-in-action’.

A pedagogy-centred curriculum does not rest on standards of content and values; its quest for reflective practice aims to inculcate students with the capacity to seek personal mastery, where content and values are embodied within a learning self who is on a continued quest for expanding excellence. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines personal mastery as a creative tension held between a current personal reality and a hope and vision for the future (Senge, 2006). Effective learners hold this tension at the right level for it to be creative; knowing that stretching it too tight leads to alienation and burnout, whereas allowing it to become too slack leads to a capture by the familiar or habitual. Senge elaborates on the concept of personal mastery:

People with a high level of personal mastery share several basic characteristics. They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their visions and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea. They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy. They have learned how to perceive and work with forces of change rather than resist those forces. They are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately. They feel connected to others and to life itself. Yet they sacrifice none of their uniqueness. They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never “arrive”. Sometimes, language, such as the term “personal mastery”, creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see that “the journey is the reward”.

Practical Points for a New Curriculum
Such a curriculum has deep implications for student, teacher, and institution:

  • Implications for the student: The student must learn to trust herself, that her body, the sense of wonder it inherently holds, are sufficient to constitute the foundations of her learning. She leverages the challenges the institution throws at her to expand her personal mastery. She reaches out to the consciousness of other beings, nature, and materials in order to creatively empower her own consciousness to constructively participate in the world. She does not place faith in pure abstractions, but grounds herself in rigorous ego-transcending protocols of practice through which she embodies her own personal mastery.
  • Implications for the teacher: The teacher is humble before the subject she teaches so that she may infect students with her passion for it. She steadfastly deploys her compassion so that she may nurture the inner voice of every student. She herself pursues personal mastery and openly places her mastery on the table so that it can be critiqued and dissected to offer the students a light at the end of the tunnel. Her teaching centres on openly offering tools, concepts and protocols that empower students to independently pursue personal mastery.
  • Implications for the institution: In The Learning Paradigm College, John Tagg poses a fundamental question: Is the college primarily a place for producing learning, or is it primarily a place for delivering instruction? (Tagg, 2003). When this question is posed to college administrators, they tend to answer ‘producing learning’ without hesitation; but when pressed further on how the college is organised, it emerges that everything centres around instruction modules. What goes unaddressed is the fact that significant learning happens in the gaps between instruction modules, in the spaces outside modules, in practices of integration that do not form a part of any module. This gap leaves the system with a tacit assumption that learning is the mere sum of instructional modules.

Strangely, a tool that is being touted as the foundation for a learning paradigm college has been found in design education for eons, but lying largely unused: the portfolio. A portfolio assembles work from multiple modules to constitute an integrated statement of learning and ability. Yet the portfolio is not part of the curriculum, and students are left to their own devices to construct portfolios after they graduate, when they need to seek a job or further education. The portfolio should be a mentored process mainstreamed into the core of curriculum. For this to work, the institution should cast itself as a caring place, emotionally committed to the entire community of learners who constitute it — students, faculty and staff.

A pedagogy-centred curriculum sets out to produce students who are consistently creative selves, lifetime learners with an independent critical and artistic agency rooted in the essence of what it is to be human, whose consciousness participates constructively in the world, whose agency and commitment remain unaffected by superficial changes of context. The challenge is captured in a statement by Richard Shaull (which draws from the philosophy of Paolo Freire): “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Freire, 2019). 

Architecture Education Declares (2019). Open Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change, 5 June 2019.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Freire, P. (2019). Wikipedia entry
Illich, I. (1971, 2000). Deschooling Society. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, London, UK. 
Schön, D. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books, New York. 
Senge, P.M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Doubleday, New York. 
Tagg, J. (2003). The Learning Paradigm College. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.

Discovering Your City

On 24th November 2019, in my home city of Bengaluru (also known as ‘Bangalore’), I was asked to speak at the launch of a book on the city: “Discovering Bengaluru – History, Neighbourhoods, Walks”.  The book is lovingly written largely by Meera Iyer, and she has also edited it to draw in contributions from Krupa Rajangam, Hita Unnikrishnan, B Manjunath, Harini Nagendra, and S Karthikeyan.  The book is rich and rewarding, rigorously researched and elegantly presented, part history and part walking-guide, delineating a physical, cultural and ecological heritage that is still present in Bengaluru.  This is what I said:

In a collection of essays, the British writer Jeanette Winterson remarked, “The question ‘What is your book about?’ has always puzzled me.  It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words, I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did.”  Taking this remark to heart, I will not speak about this book directly, wonderful as it may be, for, as Winterson has observed, to speak directly of it is to be constrained within a form of paraphrase that is distant from authenticity.  And to speak of the author is to be a voyeur of quotation.  The best perspective lies in a focus on the reader, particularly the intimacy of the relationship between reader and book.

Reading is an act of renewal through a form of travel that does not demand physical movement.  When you read you step out of your own skin into another place: the space of the book or the skin of the author.  After reading, when you return to your own skin, you return refreshed.  To read is to rethink oneself.  A reader is like a detective, looking for clues in the book, but returning to interpret those clues to solve one of the greatest mysteries of life: the question “Who am I?”  This book asks you to do more.  It leads you by the hand through the city of Bengaluru, unravelling its history, and asks you what is involved in this journey?

Some clues lie in the French word flâneur, that means “stroller” or “saunterer”.  The word was first popularised by Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, essayist and translator, and was used to describe an idle man of leisure, who can stroll around the city, choosing where to go on the spur of the moment, just watching the city.  The German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, picked up the word and unpacked it in far greater focus and detail.  He argued that the association of the flâneur with idleness must not be misinterpreted to mean laziness or indolence.  It means a freedom from purpose, especially the preoccupation with purpose.  Typically, our movement across the city is subsumed under this preoccupation with purpose.  We scurry across the city thinking thoughts like, “I must get to work by 9:30”, “I must reach home in time for dinner”, “I must reach the multiplex before the movie begins”, or “I promised to meet my friend at 6 o’clock.”  Possessed by these preoccupations, we inhabit the city without really looking at it.  The flâneur, in contrast, being free of purpose, can look at the city with a focused gaze, seeing it on its own terms.  The flâneur, whose idleness is very productive, is like a detective who uncovers what the city is, what it truly means.

The flâneur possesses a second freedom, one identified by another German thinker, Georg Simmel (although he did not specifically focus on the word).  This is a freedom, not just from purpose, but also from tradition.  In the village we are always under the gaze of tradition, and this constrains our behaviour.  The cosmopolitan complexity of the city offers a refuge from this constricting gaze through an anonymity that is liberating.  Simmel identified a kind of person who could be viewed as an urban monk, whose anonymity permits an inward withdrawal into the self in order to think with an unfettered creativity.

The flâneur is not an esoteric European concept we must import into our thinking in India.  We have an indigenous history of the concept, found in the Kannada name given to a spatial typology found in both village and city: the somberikatte, a low sitting-height stone platform, typically around a tree.  “Somberi” means an idle person, “katte” means platform, so the name literally translates as “a platform for idle people.”  One sees the same connotation of idleness here; and I should point out that there are several mentions of the kattes of Bengaluru in Meera Iyer’s book.  The somberikatte sees virtue in a form of idleness, one that pauses in the middle of the city to sit on the katte to focus on a direct engagement that could be with the city itself, a fellow citizen, or even God (for many kattes are also shrines).  In the somberi we see, as in the flâneur, the freedom from a preoccupation with purpose.  What remains unresolved is the second freedom that Simmel spoke of: freedom from tradition. 

This becomes challenging in a book that talks about heritage.  It is a challenge with a pronounced acuity in Bengaluru where one so often hears it categorised under tags such as “the technology capital of India” or “the Silicon Valley of India”; tags which speak as though the city need only be concerned with its future and not its past. To preserve the freedom of the flâneur, which is the freedom of modernity, one has to resolve the question of how to value heritage without invoking the strictures of tradition.  This is the challenge posed to the reader by a book like this, and I would suggest three propositions to navigate this challenge.

First, heritage is not an authenticity handed to us from the past.  It is a contemporary moment, where we look back in time to recognise value, and through that recognition choose what is worth remembering.  Those choices will define who we are today.  This book renders tangible many of the choices that are before us in Bengaluru, so that we, who live in the city, can define ourselves.

Second, there is an immense value in having the tangible presence of memory in our city.  The places described in this book are sites of memory, and memory significantly alters how we inhabit our city.  There is a delightful exposition in Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness” on the links between memory and speed.  Kundera asks us to imagine the everyday situation of a man walking down a street.  He seeks to remember something of which the memory escapes him, and his walk automatically slows down.  Conversely, he remembers something unpleasant that he would rather forget, and his walk automatically speeds up.  Kundera proposes the laws of existential mathematics: the degree of slowness is proportional to the degree of remembering, and the degree of speed is proportional to the degree of forgetting.  Later in the novel, he returns to these laws and inverts them to argue that in contemporary times we have become addicted to speed to avoid confronting the fact that we no longer know how to remember.  To have memory made visible to us, in the way this book does, is to slow down the city to a speed that brings the timeless within reach.

Third, heritage, inherently, tells us stories.  In an interview, the author William Golding remarked that he likes the fact that some people have labelled his work as “mythical”.  Golding says we often believe a myth is something that is not true, reasoning that its foundations lie in faith and superstition rather than in demonstrable evidence; but this is false reasoning for a myth is a kind of truth that can only be told in a story.  To make sense of your life as something that plays out over time, you have to place it into a story.  Myths are a key form of shared stories, and it is the sharing of stories that creates culture.  Benedict Anderson argued that the nation is an imagined community.  It is too complex an entity for any a priori unity, and it is the imagination of its citizens that constructs the sense of unity as a nation.  I would argue that a city is the same.  To imagine itself as a community, the city’s residents have to share stories.  The places described in this book lay out a key set of stories that we can uncover and share.

The book is titled “Discovering Bengaluru”.  I do not read that title as representing a tourist guide for those who are unfamiliar with the city.  It is a book for people who live in Bengaluru, who can use it to step into a far greater degree of intimacy with their city, along with all the fulfilment and joy that intimacy beings.  To have this book placed in front of you is the urban equivalent of being in a family gathering in your home and suddenly your mother pulls out an old album of family photos that none of you had seen before.  Imagine how, in that situation, the family gathers around the album with unbridled excitement, rekindling their heritage, discovering new dimensions of a history they thought they already knew thoroughly.  If this is how you use this book, you will rediscover Bengaluru in the spirit of those immortal lines of T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition

Image from


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 a key outpost of the British Empire, 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.

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 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 the pursuit of 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.  A perspective limited to the criteria of public access 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 energy could have been 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 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 few, 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 pace 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 till the date of this writing.

Given the lack of publicly available information on it, one wonders if the haste with which the project is being conducted would result in it reaching a degree of finalisation 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 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 vibrant 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. 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 large: 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.