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.
(2) WEIGHTAGE TO DESIGN
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:
- 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.
- 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.
(3) ALLOWING SUFFICIENT TIME FOR DESIGN
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.
(4) CLARITY OF SCOPE
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.
(5) JURY/ASSESSMENT PANEL
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.
(6) TRANSPARENCY OF PROCESS AND PRODUCT
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 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.