Dystopia’s Ghost

The remaking of New Delhi’s Central Vista provokes troubling questions about colonialism and nationalism, and about the already fraught relationship between architecture and power.

Central Vista, looking towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, ca. 2015.
Central Vista, looking towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi; photographed in 2015. [Chaitanya Bhagwat, via Wikimedia under License CC 3.0]

In the spring of last year, the New York Times published a story on India’s Covid-19 crisis, suddenly out of control after what was billed by the government as a successful containment in 2020. 1 Against World Health Organization guidelines and recommendations, the Kumbh Mela had taken place as usual, as had large political rallies ahead of elections in West Bengal. Predictably, they became super-spreading events, and bodies were now being buried and cremated in horrific conditions. Yet a small detail in the story stood out: a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nearly unrecognizable in his pandemic beard and ponytail, arms raised like a Hindu sage imparting some ancient wisdom to the masses, and standing behind, I kid you not, a lectern draped in saffron cloth held together with packing tape, the lotus icon of the Bharatiya Janata Party hanging off-center on the front. (My husband, never one to miss an opportunity, described the misbegotten tableau as “a symbol of his administration.”) The leader of the world’s largest democracy, removed from the people as ever, reduced to stagecraft behind a sloppy set.

But for Modi — as for Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Victor Orbán, other supposed strongmen of our modern age — the stagecraft is the point. What is of increasing concern at this volatile moment is that Modi’s posturing, ineptitude, and megalomania are being materialized in a series of design proposals for the nation’s capital city, several of which are already under construction. Pragati Maidan, Delhi’s major exhibition and convention center complex, appears to be the testing ground for this administration’s urban design atrocities. In 2017, one of the city’s modernist treasures, the Hall of Nations, was demolished overnight, supposedly because it lacked air conditioning. At the time of its construction in 1972, the Hall was the world’s longest-spanning concrete space frame and India’s first column-free public building. It was situated alongside the Hall of Industries, an interconnected three-building complex designed in the same architectural idiom, which was also destroyed on the same night.

Hall of Nations, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, designed by Raj Rewal and opened in 1972; demolished in 2017.
Hall of Nations, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, designed by Raj Rewal, constructed in 1972, and demolished in 2017. [Raj Rewal via Wikimedia under License CC 4.0]

Nehru Pavilion, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, designed by Raj Rewal, constructed in 1972, and demolished in 2017.
Nehru Pavilion, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, designed by Raj Rewal, constructed in 1972, and demolished in 2017. [Courtesy Raj Rewal]

These buildings were rightly celebrated for their iconic forms; just as important, they had also become sites of popular annual events like the Delhi Book Fair and Auto Expo. (I experienced that popularity first-hand when I lived in the city years ago.) And more: the neighboring Nehru Pavilion, an exhibition venue named for India’s first prime minister, was also wiped out. Given the scale of this destruction and Modi’s conspicuous indifference to modernism, it is possible that this latter building, honoring a secular predecessor, was the real target, and the others merely collateral damage. Historians and architects petitioned aggressively to save these invaluable buildings, described in a Change.org petition as being “derived from our collective traditions and reinterpreted in a modern manner”; but to no avail. 2 The new complex that is now under construction on Pragati Maidan is the work of a corporate team with predictably bland aesthetics. It is being promoted in popular media as “Bigger, Better, Techno-Savvy” and the “Link Between Past and Future,” superficial readings of a master plan based on reckless disregard for history, memory, and culture. 3

The Central Vista is, literally and symbolically, the heart of Indian democracy. Now Modi is planning to demolish multiple historic structures.

The activities at Pragati Maidan are disturbing enough. Yet an even larger and more forceful violation is taking place in the Central Vista — New Delhi’s major east-west axis and its zone of government administration. Located at the center of greater Delhi, New Delhi was designed in the early 20th century as the seat of British colonial power; the Central Vista connects India Gate, a memorial to Indian soldiers in the British Army who perished in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, and Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the president of India. Defined by the intersection of Rajpath (King’s Road) and Janpath (People’s Road), the Central Vista is, both literally and symbolically, the heart of Indian democracy. Located along Rajpath are India’s government buildings, including the Parliament, the North and South Blocks, the National Archives, the National Museum, and numerous “bhavans,” or large houses, headquartering various ministries. Since the 1947 Partition and independence of India, this spacious boulevard has become a popular leisure spot, where children paddle boats in the long shallow pools that line the road while adults enjoy ice cream and watch the setting sun. Importantly, the three-kilometer boulevard and its lawns and monuments are publicly accessible. Now, the Modi administration plans to demolish multiple historic structures along Rajpath and replace them with a series of uniform, muscular buildings, and at the same time to reprogram the outdoor spaces as only semi-public, with new regulations and security for the tens of thousands of government officials who work there every day. The entire project, set to be completed by 2024, is estimated to cost $2.6 billion, or 20,000 crore Indian rupees. As of December 2021, the project was ongoing with just under $172 million already spent. 4

Central Vista area of New Delhi, as seen on Google Earth, with diagram by Aneesha Dharwadker.
Central Vista area of New Delhi, as seen on Google Earth, with diagram by Aneesha Dharwadker.

Viceroy's House, now Rashtrapati Bhavan, designed by Edwin Lutyens, photographed soon after construction, ca. 1920.
Viceroy’s House, now Rashtrapati Bhavan, designed by Edwin Lutyens, constructed 1913–30; here photographed soon after construction. [via Wikimedia Commons, public domain]

Rashtrapati Bhavan, Central Vista, designed by Edwin Lutyens; photographed in 2008.
Rashtrapati Bhavan, Central Vista, designed by Edwin Lutyens, constructed 1913–30; photographed in 2008. [Scott Dexter via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

North Block, Central Vista, designed by Herbert Baker, ca. 2008.
North Block, Central Vista, designed by Herbert Baker and opened in 1931; photographed in 2008. [Laura Jones via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

Similar efforts to deploy architecture and urban design in the service of ethno-nationalistic campaigns are, of course, happening around the world. In North America and Europe, right-wing rallies continue to play out in major streets and prominent parks. In Budapest, Orbán has sought to use classical building styles to recall the pre-communist history of the kingdom of Hungary; likewise, Donald Trump issued his infamous executive order (since revoked) mandating neoclassical design, or, as the official document put it, “beautiful federal civic architecture.” 5 But what is happening in New Delhi, in scope and scale, is more alarming. Not only is the redesign of the Central Vista a genuine proposal with a high likelihood of full realization; it is also the most consequential remaking of the historic center of a world capital in recent memory. In this light the project underscores troubling questions that define our present moment — questions about colonialism and nationalism, and about democracy and design. It is an important case study in the already fraught relationship between architecture and power, revealing the ease with which 21st-century design methods and technologies can be appropriated and subverted by an authoritarian regime, and in turn how these subversions can be amplified by digital media.

The Central Vista redesign is the most consequential remaking of the historic center of a world capital in recent memory.

One of the Modi administration’s putative goals in remaking this area is to dismantle monuments and symbols of colonialism in favor an architecture that is more “Indian,” though what that exactly means is never quite clear; as in the U.S., vehement appeals to authenticity demonstrate little more than contempt for the complexities of history. Delhi has been the capital of the subcontinent, both formally and informally, for centuries. It is strategically located in the center of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, easily accessible over land and along the Yamuna River. There is evidence of habitation in the region as far back as 1500 BCE, two millennia before the city was consolidated as a seat of power. The historic settlements of Delhi — fortresses, walled complexes, and monumental sluice gates built between the 11th and 17th centuries — are situated between the river and the Delhi Ridge, a modest plateau forming the city’s western edge.

The earliest of these constructs, Lal Kot (Red Fort), was built under the Tomar Rajputs in 1060 CE and taken over by the Chauhan Rajputs in 1151; both dynasties were Hindu. After 1192, when the Ghurids, from Persia, defeated the army of Prithviraj Chauhan, several more walled cities were built under successive Muslim rulers. As these dynasties rose and fell, the epicenter of Delhi shifted again and again, and the architectures that emerged are some of the most distinctive and intricate in South Asia. Hindu artisans contributed to the creation of Islamic edifices, and Hindu and Muslim populations lived together within large urban complexes that merged planning and construction concepts from both cultures. The Mughal Period, which lasted from 1526 to 1857, is widely extolled as the height of India’s artistic and cultural production; it was during this opulent Islamic empire that sites like Shahjahanabad (a walled city now known as Old Delhi), Fatehpur Sikri, and the Taj Mahal were built. (“Mughal” gave rise to the term “mogul,” which entered the English lexicon in the 17th century to describe powerful and charismatic individuals.)

Painting by Ghulam Ali Khan (active 1817–1855) showing the Red Fort with the Shah Burj, the Saman Burj and Asad Burj.
Painting by Ghulam Ali Khan (ca. 1852) showing Lal Kot (Red Fort) with the Shah Burj, the Saman Burj and Asad Burj. [via Wikimedia, public domain]

Jama Masjid Mosque, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
Jama Masjid Mosque, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, constructed 1571–74; photographed in 2016. [Claudio, via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Alongside these fluctuations in power, economy, and culture, the Europeans arrived. Vasco da Gama completed the first sea route between Europe and India in 1498, catalyzing Portuguese colonies along the west and south coasts of the subcontinent. As European ship-building technologies advanced, the French, Dutch, and British established coastal ports, and soon the Dutch and the British chartered East India Companies, escalating the movement of tea, coffee, spices, opium, and handicrafts between Europe, South Asia, and East Asia. Although we use the term “trade” to describe these activities, this was the beginning of a comprehensive European monopolization of India’s natural resources, an economic asymmetry from which the modern nation has yet to fully recover.

The British were the most zealous and successful in these efforts, expanding the administrative reach of the British East India Company to command the interior of the subcontinent. Calcutta (now Kolkata, in the eastern state of Bengal) was the base of the trading company and capital of the British Raj, a governing system created in 1857 as a response to anti-colonial uprisings by Indian soldiers. The Raj was a direct extension of Queen Victoria’s rule, and it coordinated a full imperial takeover of India, commandeering the economy, infrastructure, land use, and peoples, with particular impact in the north. The urban architecture that was produced during this era — monumental, finely decorated administrative and public buildings such as the Victoria Memorial, in Calcutta, and Victoria Terminus, in Bombay — epitomized colonial aesthetics and self-representation, allowing for no ambiguity about who was in charge. 6

Victoria Memorial, built in 1906 in Calcutta, now Kolkata; undated photograph. [via Google Life Archives]

Victoria Terminus, Bombay, circa 1910.
Victoria Terminus, Bombay (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Mumbai), constructed 1878–88; photograph ca. 1910. [via Wikimedia, public domain]

New Delhi was not only capital of the British Raj; it was also one of Delhi’s successive historic cities, where displays of power were complicated by the superimposition of myriad cultural influences.

In 1911, the British moved the capital of the Raj to Delhi as a response to anti-colonial agitations in Bengal. Once again, Delhi’s central location on the subcontinent proved useful for the governing authority, and again, architecture was deployed to express political power. The design of major districts of the new capital city was entrusted to English architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. The results were a hybrid of British planning and architectural ideas, including long axial roads allowing for both ceremonies and surveillance, with local materials and ornamental motifs referencing both Islamic and Hindu antecedents. In this light, New Delhi was not only the capital of the British Raj; it was also one of Delhi’s many successive historic cities, where displays of singular political power were complicated by the superimposition of myriad cultural influences. The Modi regime might claim to view the architecture of the Central Vista as a colonial stain on India’s history, but numerous architects, historians, and preservationists, as well as members of the public, consider it to be emphatically Indian. In 2012, the city of Delhi applied to UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage City; the application emphasized the city’s “hybrid architectural styles and the syncretism of intangible heritage.” 7 New Delhi’s buildings have taken on manifold new meanings in the many decades since Partition, reclaimed and reinvented by a population seeking to establish a new national narrative.

All of which is to say that Modi’s definition of Indian architecture is light on historic substance and heavy on symbolic meaning. On one hand, we could argue that an authentically Indian architecture has not existed for several centuries; on the other, that the sweep of India’s history has produced a wide range of architectures rooted in multiple cultures, all of which can be considered Indian in different respects. Thus, to justify the destruction and reconstruction of the Central Vista as a return to architectural or historical “authenticity” is utterly disingenuous. Buildings may indeed be symbols, but they are much more than that; now, in New Delhi, the problem is that the nationalist bluster that usually evaporates in the fast shuffle of a news cycle is taking audacious physical form.

Old and New Delhi, ca. 1860.
Old and New Delhi, ca. 1860. [via Wikimedia, public domain]

To justify the destruction and reconstruction of the Central Vista as a return to historical ‘authenticity’ is utterly disingenuous.

The Central Vista Redevelopment Project was announced in 2019 and since then has progressed speedily from a request for proposals to project review to winner selection. The rushed timeline suggests the degree to which this new architecture is motivated not by urbanistic or environmental goals but rather by political calculations. The driving motivations appear to be the Prime Minister’s self-importance, coupled with insecurity about his legacy, and a fear that his reputation — and political future — will be defined by the incompetent response to Covid. It also reflects what the Delhi-based architect A.G. Krishna Menon has described to me as the government’s overall “architectural illiteracy,” which he sees as an inability and unwillingness to use architecture in humane or sensitive ways. In fact, soon after coming to power, Modi abruptly withdrew the UNESCO application. Menon, who was on the professional committee that prepared the bid, has attributed this shocking decision to “base” political considerations. Certainly, had the designation become official, the Central Vista and its architectural legacy would have been better protected from the depredations of the redevelopment project. 8

The Central Vista Redevelopment brief was issued in October 2019. Applicants were given 25 days to assemble interdisciplinary teams and produce concept designs for the 86-acre site. Six firms qualified to submit, and four were short-listed. The design review took place over another week, and the winner was announced in early December 2019; the entire process took a mere 35 days. Tellingly, the published brief was not the traditional request for proposals that would announce an open competition. Instead, it was a “Notice Inviting Bids for Appointment of a Consultant.” 9 This 79-page document contained no language about architectural or urban history or about the political and symbolic meanings of the site. Rather, it was packed with tables and grading spreadsheets, with technical and torturous language that would likely overwhelm all but specialist readers — which may well have been the point. (Likewise, the amount of “earnest money” required of all bidders — more than $65,000 — effectively disqualified all but large corporate firms.) The result was a selection process, as architect Gautam Bhatia wrote in The Hindu, “cloaked in a veil of secrecy and mired in opaque processes,” from start to finish.

The government felt it owed no explanation to the public for either the process followed, or the criteria for selection. No exhibition of the proposed buildings was held, no data revealed, no models or drawings displayed so that citizens may comprehend the full scope of such a monumental change proposed in the city’s most visible public space. 10

The monumental scope makes the speed of the redevelopment all the more frightening. As the bid notice asserted, “These new iconic structures shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least.” This administration, though not constrained by term limits, is thus seeking to perpetuate its memory far beyond its scope by obliterating the legacies of earlier eras. Imagine an American president proposing to raze much of the National Mall and to construct new monuments in an effort to overwrite historical record and cultural memory — even in a time of partisanship and fraying social norms, it is unthinkable. Architecture has long been one of the most potent media for ambitious leaders like Modi seeking to substantiate their political ambitions; especially now, in the digital era, when attention spans and memories are short, buildings offer reassurance through their comparative permanence and longevity.

To understand Modi’s eagerness to remake the Central Vista, it will help to briefly recall the history of India’s modern political parties and their religious entanglements, before and after independence. Modern India has long been dominated by two large political parties: the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), which is Modi’s party, and the Indian National Congress. Formed in 1885, the Congress Party is the oldest; by the 1920s it was being led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, and was guided by the principal goal of swaraj, or self-rule. In 1942 Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement which, although quickly and violently suppressed, put the campaign on a global stage and clarified the political, economic, and moral necessity of independence, and the end of British rule. Also in those years, a minority party, the All-India Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, grew increasingly concerned about the status of Muslims in the religiously pluralistic India envisioned by the Congress Party. Their advocacy of separate countries for Hindus and Muslims was a critical factor in the Partition of 1947, which dissolved the British Raj and created the Hindu-majority nation of India and the Muslim-majority nations of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). 11

The deep colonization of the subcontinent over centuries has shaped and sometimes thwarted the decolonial aspirations of generations of leaders.

The Congress Party, secular and center-left, led India in the decades after independence. The party’s patriarch, Jawaharlal Nehru, became the nation’s first prime minister, serving for almost two decades while establishing the practices of parliamentary democracy and leading a campaign of national modernization. The legacy of the Brahmin-born, Cambridge-educated leader is complicated, but Nehru is widely revered as a tireless and incorruptible statesman for whom the needs of the new nation were central. As Martha Nussbaum writes in The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future: “His own personal qualities played no small part in holding India together in the early days, and also in winning respect from the other nations of the world. If he was at times annoyingly paternalistic and given to micromanaging, there was no doubt about his selfless devotion to the nation, which he called ‘a fire within me.’” 12 Yet there are no clean lines in Indian history or experience; the deep colonization of the subcontinent over centuries has informed and shaped, and sometimes frustrated and thwarted, the decolonial aspirations and modernizing agendas of several generations of leaders.

From the Illustrated London News, 1861, "Methods of Conveying Cotton in India to the Ports of Shipment."
From the Illustrated London News, 1861, “Methods of Conveying Cotton in India to the Ports of Shipment.” [via Wikimedia, public domain]

There is no better, or worse, example of deep colonization than the notorious appropriation and monopolization of the Indian cotton industry. Before the arrival of Europeans and establishment of the Raj, this industry was robust. Cotton was grown locally, woven by generations of skilled artisans and sold within the subcontinent, west to Persia and North Africa, and east to China via Malaysia. India was accessible from the Silk Road and well-positioned between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, which allowed shipping trades to flourish. Indian woven cotton was traded regionally and then, when the Europeans first arrived, sold to the middle classes of England and the Netherlands. The seeds of globalization were planted here, with cities acting as nodes of culture and commerce connected by transportation infrastructure and supported by the hinterlands.

This industry would not survive the Raj. The British procured from India (and Egypt and, of course, the southern U.S.) the cotton they could not grow themselves, and then built spinning jennies, immense mills, and eventually entire towns in England to process the raw material. They manufactured cloth that could be sold cheaply and globally, all the while imposing substantial import taxes on textiles from India. Although this was a global scheme in which the U.S. was the largest supplier, Indian cotton became crucial during the years of the American Civil War. And as with so many aspects of colonialism, there was an epistemological dimension to this monopoly; it was not just the cotton itself, but also methods of cultivation, processing, and producing that the British extracted. Historian Sven Beckert explicates this issue in Empire of Cotton: “Imperial expansion and the increasing dominance of Europeans in the global cotton trade allowed … for an increasing transfer of Asian knowledge to Europe. … Europe’s movement toward manufacturing cotton textiles was based, in fact, on what might be considered one of history’s most dramatic instances of industrial espionage.” 13

The processes of ‘decolonization’ are too often chaotic, partial, bereft of administrative responsibility. The bloody Partition is evidence of that.

The fabrication of poverty — yet somehow, ludicrously, a commonwealth. The contradictions of the colonial project were both intentional and malicious, and nowhere, ever, has “decolonization” brought about a recovery of the incalculable losses of time, people, resources, labor, economy, or identity. Too often the processes are chaotic, partial, bereft of administrative responsibility. The bloody Partition is evidence of that: one million people died over three days in the summer of 1947, having been given just days to cross an abstract and arbitrary border constructed by a British judge who never visited the partitioned zones. Populations that had lived together in relative peace for centuries were pitted against each other through the creation of designated territories, forged in haste, aligning religious beliefs and cultural practices with statehood. As historian Yasmin Khan writes in The Great Partition, “Partition had become a policy decision to be implemented and the loosely defined nationalistic aspirations of Indian and Pakistani people were now molded into modern countries. Nationalist ambitions had to be squeezed into the prosaic boundaries of sovereign states.” 14

Le Corbusier and Jawaharlal Nehru at the inauguration of the High Court Building, Chandigarh, India, 1955.
Le Corbusier and Jawaharlal Nehru at the inauguration of the High Court Building, Chandigarh, India, 1955. [via Wikimedia, public domain]

Partition set the stage for the most celebrated and controversial architectural project of postcolonial India.

Partition set the stage for what has long been the most celebrated and controversial architectural project of postcolonial India — one that can now be understood as a telling antecedent to the Central Vista redesign. Nehru had a keen understanding of the power of architecture, and he sought to construct monumental buildings and urban centers that would promote his vision of the nation as a fully modern and technologically advanced social democracy. As prime minister, he seized this opportunity in the northern state of Punjab, where the historical capital, Lahore, had landed on the Pakistani side of the partition line, and where a new administrative center was thus needed.

By the early 1950s, Nehru had commissioned Le Corbusier to lead a group of European and Indian architects in the planning and construction of Chandigarh, on a plain near the Himalayan foothills. In an oft-quoted speech from 1952, on a visit to the rising city surrounded by the Shivalik Hills, Nehru’s rhetoric was grand: “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” 15 As urban designer Vinayak Bharne has written, Chandigarh was to be, for Nehru, “an embodiment of his faith in the modern way of living, from which the future of India was to emerge.” 16

The initial plan for Chandigarh was created by American planner Albert Mayer, who had completed other work for Nehru in the late 1940s; these projects, including a model village in Uttar Pradesh, were intended to set new standards for Indian urbanism that would reflect the new sense of nationhood gained from independence. In seeking to capture the optimistic idealism of Nehru’s vision for Chandigarh, Mayer saw an opportunity to showcase American planning and return to the precepts of the City Beautiful movement, which he believed had been unfortunately superseded by the rules of technocratic functionalism. He assembled a stellar team that included urban designer Clarence Stein and architect Matthew Nowicki, and together they produced a plan that merged modern construction techniques with the experiential qualities and environmental sensitivities of garden cities.

The Chandigarh of Mayer and his collaborators was characterized by “superblocks” softened with lush vegetation, curving roads, and cul-de-sacs; the buildings were to be made from local limestone of a warm reddish hue. 17 Had this plan been realized, the atmosphere of the new city would have recalled the Delhi of Lutyens and Baker, and at the same time it would have challenged the traditional assumption that an administrative block must sit at the center of an urban plan. Instead, Mayer’s layout located the government programs at the northern edge of the city — an allusion to the thinking head rather than the beating heart.

Le Corbusier in India, 1955.
Le Corbusier in India, 1955. [Foto Wim Dussel, Collectie IISG, Amsterdam, via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Mayer resigned from the project after Nowicki’s death in a plane crash in 1950. This leadership void was soon filled when Le Corbusier was charged with the continued planning of the city. This was a fateful turn of events, for in crucial ways Le Corbusier’s urbanistic ideas and instincts harmonized more closely than had Mayer’s with Nehru’s vision of a forward-looking Indian utopia. Not only was Le Corbusier one of the most famous architects of the era; he was also a leading proponent of the modernist — and functionalist — planning principles that had been articulated in the 1930s at the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, or CIAM. As historian Ravi Kalia writes in Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City:

Whereas Mayer looked to India’s past — bustling bazaars and closely-knit village communities — Le Corbusier looked to India’s future, an India with all the paraphernalia of industrialization. This was intrinsically more appealing to Nehru and to the Punjabi officials. 18

Working with his own team of prominent designers — including Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew, and Indian architects Aditya Prakash and M.N. Sharma — Le Corbusier adapted Mayer’s plan, in the process making critical changes. He reduced the scale of the superblocks and, eschewing the curving streets and cul-de-sacs, overlaid a uniform grid. He organized the plan into a sequence of numbered “sectors,” and established a hierarchy for traffic movement. He and his team of architects also designed numerous residential and commercial buildings, and, most significantly, a capitol complex for the Punjabi state government, located in Sector 1.

Palace of Assembly, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photograph in 2006.
Palace of Assembly, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photograph in 2006. [Dave Morris via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

Secretariat, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photographed in 2006.
Secretariat, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photographed in 2006. [Lian Chang via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

High Court, Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photographed in 2012.
High Court, Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s; photographed in 2012. [Fernando Stankuns via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier, constructed in 19xx; photographed in 2016.
Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier, constructed in 1985; photographed in 2016. [NK8595 via Wikimedia under License CC 4.0]

It was for this major sector that Le Corbusier designed three governmental headquarters — the Palace of Assembly, the Secretariat, and the High Court — as well as the Open Hand Monument, which was intended to symbolize the possibilities of the new nation. 19 These now iconic works belong, of course, to the architect’s personal aesthetic evolution, in particular his turn to the style now known as brutalism; the parallels to the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, designed in the mid-1940s, are especially strong. Yet they also resonate with such Mughal forms as the Jama Masjid, the imperial mosque constructed in Delhi in the mid-17th century by Shah Jahan, the arcaded elevation and domed roofline of which are echoed, asymmetrically, in the façade of the Palace of Assembly; and also the Fatehpur Sikri complex, founded in Agra in the late 16th century by emperor Akbar, where a series of linear arcades and buildings surround wide pedestrian plazas and ornamental pools. Chandigarh’s architectural identity is best understood as a superimposition of Indian and European influences, wherein the distinctions between the two are heavily blurred.

Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh resonates with 17th-century Mughal forms. It can also be seen as a counter-vision to Lutyens and Baker’s New Delhi.

But the history is still more complicated. Despite their formal and material differences, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh was inescapably linked to Lutyens and Baker’s New Delhi. Indeed, it was a counter-vision for what the design of a capital city could express and embody. In 2005, while traveling in India on a research grant, I had the opportunity to visit Chandigarh, and to meet Aditya Prakash. During our conversation, Prakash, then in his 80s, described in fascinating detail how the design of the city took shape; how, for example, Le Corbusier would walk into a room without speaking and sketch an entire plan or elevation on a chalkboard, start to finish. Prakash had only positive recollections of his experience as part of the international team, and as he talked, I could sense the political and professional pride that had defined the city as it was taking form in the years following independence.

Jama Masjid, the imperial mosque constructed in Delhi in the mid-17th century by Shaj Jahan.
Jama Masjid, Delhi , constructed 1650–56 by Shah Jahan; photographed in 2007  [Dennis Jarvis, via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

Fatehpur Sikri complex, Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
Tomb of Salim Chishti, in the courtyard of the Jami Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri complex, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, constructed 1580–81; photographed in 2016. [Claudio, via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Decades later, however, it was impossible not to discern the tension between the uplifting ambitions of Chandigarh and the dispiriting realities on the ground. In his article “Le Corbusier’s Ruin,” from 2011, Bharne describes the governmental complex as an “ill-maintained expansive concrete hardscape.” “[T]he Capitol in many ways appears to be little more than an abandoned relic of a bygone era,” he writes. “Once laden with patriotic values, it stands neither complete in its envisioned form, nor replete with its founding meanings, looming between the Nehruvian-Corbusian vision that gave it birth and the socio-political vicissitudes of post-colonial India that nurtured it.” 20

My own experience was all too similar. Individual structures were unquestionably works of art, and I enjoyed memorable visits to private homes whose elegance and efficiency affirmed the Indian vision for modern dwelling. But Chandigarh itself, with its over-sized avenues and unyielding concrete, seemed sluggish and hazy, monumental and empty, and it felt more and more oppressive as I toured the famous sites. Sector 1, putatively a public zone, was largely inaccessible, and armed guards forbade any documentation of Le Corbusier’s important buildings.

These troubling and poignant tensions make the Chandigarh of Nehru and Le Corbusier a compelling counterpoint to the Central Vista of Modi and his corporate architects. Viewed together, the two projects underscore the fact that the moral position of a national leader inevitably informs the nation’s urban visions. At Chandigarh, a liberal ideal was translated into modernist planning strategies, and even its subsequent decline cannot conceal the generosity of the initial conception. In the redesign of the Central Vista, an austere and dogmatic conservatism seeks to mask its authoritarian impulses with architecture that is at once superficially soothing and ominously banal.

In a fascinating lecture titled “The New Metropolis: Nehru and the Aftermath,” the Indian architect Romi Khosla encapsulates the charged dynamics of post-Partition politics when he describes “the lavish socialist aspirations of Nehru and our Constitution [and] the poverty of thought of the Congress Party that stuffed those ideals into their pockets.” 21 It was in part the exhaustion of the long-ruling and virtually dynastic Congress Party that enabled the rise of Narendra Modi. Starting in the mid-1960s, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) served three terms as prime minister, most controversially in the mid-1970s when she imposed a suspension of civil liberties that lasted 21 months and became known as the Emergency. Gandhi cited dubious concerns over “national security” to justify numerous illiberal actions — arresting and imprisoning adversaries, banning political organizations and trade unions, postponing elections, censoring the press, and, most infamously, using a cash incentive program to encourage sterilization.

It was in these tumultuous years that the current BJP was formed, with the goal of countering the growing corruption of the Congress Party. But since then the BJP has espoused an increasingly rigid Hindu nationalism, and no matter its growing ranks (it is now the largest party in India), it continues to portray itself in oppositional terms. Modi’s campaign, in 2014, was based, much like Donald Trump’s two years later, on repudiating an establishmentarian status quo. 22 Soon after Modi’s election, Pankaj Mishra astutely diagnosed the political situation:

India’s impeccably liberal constitution has not produced a liberal political culture. On the contrary, a mass politics based on caste and religious solidarities, in which particular groups rather than individuals are the bearers of rights, undermined the liberal vision of secular, self-interested and rational citizens. The electoral triumph of Narendra Modi, and the collapse of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, has infused fresh life into the old Hindu nationalist project of fabricating a modern subject that is assertively Indian in its religious-cultural practices and moral values. 23

India Gate, designed by Edwin Lutyens, is located on the edge of the Central Vista; it was built as a memorial to Indian soldiers who died in the First World War and Third Anglo-Afghan War. Photographed in 2016.
India Gate, designed by Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1921, is located at the eastern edge of the Central Vista; it was built as a memorial to Indian soldiers who died in the First World War and Third Anglo-Afghan War. Photographed in 2016. [Madrishh via Wikimedia under License CC 4.0]

New Delhi can be seen as an incarnation of all the complicated and conflicting legacies of Indian history.

New Delhi can be seen an incarnation of all the complicated and conflicting legacies of Indian history. Its cumulative planning and architectural expressions might, from one perspective, be regarded as a colossal and pervasive monument to centuries of colonial occupation. Alternatively, the capital might be understood as an urbanistic and architectural framework that has been absorbed and metabolized by a newly self-governing people, the meanings of which are ever shifting. Had the Central Vista redesign embraced these inherent (and frankly inescapable) contradictions, the results might have been a rich and inventive architecture that sought to represent a diverse nation. Yet the short-listed proposals are underdeveloped and even cartoonish, with interventions that are out of scale with both site and program, and which translate the bloated self-image of an autocratic administration into an architecture that is big for bigness’ sake.

The four shortlisted firms — CP Kukreja Architects (New Delhi); Sikka Associates Architects (New Delhi); INI Design Studio (Ahmedabad); and HCP Design, Planning and Management (Ahmedabad) — each produced slight variations on the same set of limited themes: increasing building density, reinforcing the existing east-west axis, and establishing one or two structures as icons of a “new” India. Each proposal replicates, without irony, obvious British planning strategies, chiefly the deep axial planning that is a hallmark of Western cities. All the projects assume the demolition of the existing National Archives and National Museum, yet offer no clear plan for protecting the artifacts and artworks that would be displaced. The anti-democratic priorities and cultural incongruities of the Modi administration are reflected in these designs, with planning techniques that are at once literal and deceptive, and with images that reveal how easily architectural representations, including diagrams and perspectives, can be co-opted to serve the needs of charismatic autocrats.

National Archives of India, originally Imperial Record Office, designed by Edwin Lutyens and constructed in the 1920s, in an undated photograph.
National Archives of India, originally the Imperial Record Office, designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1926, in an undated photograph. All the proposals for the Central Vista redesign assume that it will be demolished. [via Ministry of Urban Affairs, India]

Sansad Bhavan, originally Parliament House, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, completed in 1927. In the proposed redevelopment, the building would become a museum.
Sansad Bhavan, originally Parliament House, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, constructed 1921–27; undated photograph. In the proposed redevelopment, the building would become a museum. [via Old Indian Photos]

Consider, for instance, the proposal by INI Design Studio. 24 The centerpiece of the design is a new Parliament House between Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate, defined by a forest of slender steel columns that is vaguely reminiscent of the football stadium in Bordeaux by Herzog & de Meuron. The scheme is also conceptually similar to (though volumetrically different from) Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly, in which a truncated hyperboloid that contains the central meeting chamber intersects with a rectangular podium. The zones flanking Rajpath, currently occupied by numerous historic structures, are treated as a tabula rasa to be filled with uniform blocks of new offices. The current Parliament House and Secretariat Blocks become museum and archive spaces. In contrast to the weighty and imposing sandstone structures of Lutyens and Baker, the new Parliament House is rendered as light and transparent, a porous zone within which two egg-like structures house the parliamentary chambers (the lower Lok Sabha and the upper Rajya Sabha). In this predictable and insipid design there is, however, one surprise: the ceilings of the legislative chambers are decorated with geometric motifs that are inspired by Islamic design, a tacit admission that India’s complex and layered history cannot truly be suppressed.

If the INI proposal seems bland and derivative, others verge on the preposterous. The submission by CP Kukreja Architects envisions extending the axis of the Central Vista eastward to the Yamuna River, which would likely involve substantial demolition and the rerouting of major traffic routes. The video presentation depicts a reinvented ground plane and new buildings wrapped in green roofs with interior waterfalls; the voice-over describes the project as sustainable, “smart,” and “eco-friendly,” but these soothing clichés belie a construction that would impose an enormous carbon footprint. 25 Nor can the slick presentation conceal the political detachment of a project that sports decorative waterfalls while many communities in the capital lack adequate plumbing.

Unsurprisingly, the closed-door competition jury selected the proposal by HCP Design, Planning and Management, the 300-person firm led by the Gujarati-born architect Bimal Patel. As Krishna Menon argued in the Delhi-based journal The Wire, HCP was the inside favorite. “In professional circles it is well known that [Patel] enjoys the prime minister’s confidence,” he wrote, “and it came as no surprise to them when he was selected as the consultant to undertake the Central Vista project following a farcical and hastily organized ‘bidding’ process.” 26 Of the shortlisted submissions, the HCP project is the most aesthetically conservative; the new parliament mimics the formal language and colors of Lutyens’s colonnaded parliament, falling into the trap of “fitting in” to a context by mirroring it. The proposal makes a perfunctory effort to engage the modern history of the capital, with a video presentation that offers a series of grainy historical images in which “75 years of Indian democracy” lead, as if inevitably, to the new configuration of the Central Vista, described as a “national icon in the heart of Delhi.” 27

The renderings are specters of a dystopian future in which the political center of New Delhi is reconstructed to erect a monument to autocratic vanity.

The Modi administration’s disdain for India’s multifarious history, and its zeal to define the nation monolithically, as Hindu, has fostered a nationalistic design propaganda that is both familiar and novel. Using architecture to express political power is common enough; now, the banal and narcotizing imagery of contemporary media is being used to obscure the authoritarian underpinnings of the vision. The competition video presentations, created by the firms and available on YouTube, mix animations, fly-throughs, archival photographs, and vintage newsreel footage with diagrammatic plans and simplistic perspectives. Feel-good instrumental music gives way to voice-over narration in a carefully calibrated British-Indian accent. Aerial perspectives convey a mood of order and control, and invariably the sweeping skies above the reconceived Central Vista are shown as bright blue (no matter that Delhi is one of the most polluted cities on the planet). The tone is that of a tourism pitch, as if the Central Vista were not a seat of democratic government but rather a posh corporate retreat. As portrayed in the sort of Photoshopped renderings that are now ubiquitous in design media and on Instagram, the new architecture is made to feel familiar, contemporary, necessary, and harmless.

But images are never neutral. They can both reveal and conceal; they can make arguments, subvert expectations, and delineate politics. Here the glistening, inert images suggest the ease with which architectural representation can be hijacked for political purposes, and how readily designers can become complicit in this camouflage. Despite their soothing surfaces, the renderings are specters of a dystopian future in which the political center of New Delhi is razed and reconstructed to erect a monument, not to national purpose, but rather to autocratic vanity and political expediency.

Central Vista, 2019. Central Vista, 2019. [Flashpacker via Flickr under License CC 2.0]
Central Vista, looking east to India Gate; photographed in 2019. [Flashpacker via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Like other global cities with long histories, Delhi’s built form is an intricate palimpsest to which new layers and new narratives are being added all the time. The processes of erasure are certainly present and ongoing: emperors and sultans demolished the fortresses of their predecessors in order to glorify their own regimes, using architecture as a proxy for political and cultural dominance. But the processes of accumulation have always been more potent and more generous. These processes index change, reveal history, nourish memory; they capture the successive superimpositions of an environment constructed over deep time across numerous transitions of power, and they make the many cities of Delhi simultaneous rather than chronological. Premised on the deceit of the tabula rasa, and on the false equivalence between historical demolition and cultural progress, the Central Vista Redevelopment conjures gratuitous ghosts from valuable buildings that might instead have been brilliantly reinvented, and sensitively de-colonized or un-colonized, had the project sought to use the heterogenous design ingenuity that for centuries has shaped India.

  1. Jeffrey Gettleman, Hari Kumar, Karan Deep Singh, and Sameer Yasir, “India’s Covid-19 Crisis Shakes Modi’s Image of Strength,” New York Times, May 1, 2021.
  2. See the Change.org petition.
  3. Avantika Bhuyan, “Pragati Maidan: The revamped design brings to life the largest convention centre in India,” Architectural Digest, June 28, 2018.
  4. Anisha Dutta, “Over 1,200 crore spent on Central Vista project so far, new Parliament building 35% complete: Govt,” The Indian Express, December 3, 2021.
  5. See Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, December 21, 2020. Rick Lyman, “Hungarian Leader’s ‘Edifice Complex’ Has Some in Budapest Rattled,” New York Times, March 9, 2016.
  6. I am using the place and buildings names that were in use at the time of construction. Today, Calcutta is Kolkata, Bombay is Mumbai, and Victoria Terminus is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
  7. See “Delhi: Heritage City,” UNESCO submission from the city of Delhi, May 22, 2012. See also Lynn Meskell, “A Tale of Two Cities: The Fate of Delhi as UNESCO World Heritage,” International Journal of Cultural Property, 28: 1 (2021), 27–42, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0940739121000102.
  8. See A.G. Krishna Menon, “Sacrificing Heritage Conservation at the Altar of Politics,” The Wire, June 22, 2015. My conversation with Menon took place via WhatsApp on May 17, 2021.
  9. “Notice Inviting Bids for Appointment of a Consultant,” Central Public Works Department, Government of India, September 2019. Available here.
  10. Gautam Bhatia, “Beyond the veils of secrecy, the Central Vista project is both the cause and effect of its own multiple failures,” The Hindu, November 1, 2020.
  11. In 1971, after the Bangladesh Liberation War, East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh.
  12. Martha Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 116.
  13. Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 49.
  14. Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (New Haven: Yale University, 2007), 118.
  15. Quoted in Romi Khosla, “The New Metropolis: Nehru and the Aftermath,” Social Scientist, vol. 43, no. 3/4 (March–April 2015), 11–32.
  16. Vinayak Bharne, “Le Corbusier’s Ruin: The Changing Face of Chandigarh’s Capitol,” Journal of Architectural Education, March 2011; https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1531-314X.2010.01134.x.
  17. Ravi Kalia, Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City, updated ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54–58.
  18. Ibid., 88.
  19. For a discussion on the politics and symbolism of the Open Hand, see Vikramaditya Prakash, Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2002), 123–145.
  20. Bharne, “Le Corbusier’s Ruin,” 107, 99. In 2016, the Capitol Complex of Chandigarh was designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thus bringing international attention to the need to rehabilitate and preserve this invaluable legacy.
  21. Romi Khosla, “The New Metropolis: Nehru and the Aftermath.”
  22. The religious fanaticism that Modi displays today at the national scale was foreshadowed two decades ago, when he was elected chief minister of his home state of Gujarat. In February 2002, a train traveling from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat caught fire, killing dozens of Hindu pilgrims. Although the cause of the fire is disputed, Modi claimed it was a Muslim terrorist attack and used the resources and power of the state government to perpetrate horrific violence against Gujarati Muslims. See Ashutosh Varshney, “Gujarat 2002 was independent India’s first full-blooded pogrom. Delhi 1984 was a semi-pogrom,” The Print, February 26, 2020.
  23. Pankaj Mishra, “Bland Fanatics,” London Review of Books, December 2015.
  24. In selecting illustrations, we have chosen to focus on existing building of the Central Vista, and to offer links to the redesign proposals. For more on the INI Design Studio, see here: Proposal for Redevelopment of Central Vista and Parliament Building, November 2019.
  25. National Herald, “Central Vista Redesign, The Runners Up: CP Kukreja Architects,” National Herald, November 3, 2019.
  26. A.G. Krishna Menon, “Behind Modi’s Plans to Redevelop the Central Vista is a Covert Political Agenda,” The Wire, May 23, 2020.
  27. HCP Design, Planning and Management, New Parliament Building, 2019.
Aneesha Dharwadker, “Dystopia’s Ghost,” Places Journal, May 2022. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/051022

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