Architecture Art Cities

Concrete Masterworks: New Delhi

Rrishi Raote / Business Standard / New Delhi 

Few speak of Delhi’s architectural heritage beyond what the sultans, badshahs and British built. Architect Rahul Khanna and photographer Manav Parhawk set out to challenge this paradigm, as Khanna tells Rrishi Raote. Many of the 47 masterpieces of Delhi’s modern architecture they describe in this slim handbook are institutional buildings and embassies, but there are also homes, places of worship, and memorials…

You write that Delhi has architecture but no architectural culture. What do you mean?
By that we mean that there is no platform to debate architecture, to understand or appreciate it. When all these magazines were covering 60 years of Independence, there was not a single mention of architecture. There is all this money in art now, which is why there are so many forums on Indian art, but architecture, despite it being the very surroundings of our lives, is ignored.

The work of a handful of architects appears several times each. Why is that?
Many architects seem to be more prolific than others. During the post-Independence building boom, architects close to Nehru, like Habib Rahman and Mansingh Rana, got many commissions. Later, Raj Rewal seemed to be getting many, also perhaps because he was close to government decision-makers and those who commission public buildings. I could be wrong, but thankfully they were great architects.

Not many office buildings make your list (Charles Correa’s Jeevan Bharti and Apollo Tyres’ headquarters, by Morphogenesis, are two). Are Gurgaon and Noida a total washout?
We wanted to keep this book within Delhi borders. Sadly, Gurgaon is not only an architectural nightmare but also a nightmare of urban planning. But if architecture reflects the times, then Gurgaon architecture mirrors India’s sudden hurry to catch up with China and the West and be sold utopian plans of palm trees (in Delhi weather!), and the resultant architecture draws from iconic Western forms since it seems that, architecturally, our way of being self-assured is to blindly ape the West — at least in Noida and Gurgaon.

Many of these buildings have concrete exteriors. Is that a good medium for our climate?
Concrete was more due to various architects like Jugal Kishore Chowdhury and Shiv Nath Prasad working in Chandigarh with Le Corbusier, who was a master in crafting buildings of reinforced concrete. Another reason is it’s labour-intensive and keeps interiors cool. Now, concrete can also be used, provided it’s eco-friendly.

In group housing, you mention only (and as an afterthought), Yamuna Apartments (Ranjit Sabhiki and Ajoy Choudhari), its neighbour Tara Apartments (Correa), and Asiad Village (Rewal). How do DDA colonies compare?
Group housing was a result of the influx of refugees, so it was more about getting it done fast than doing it right. Today, DDA colonies are often rotting refugee colonies. It’s more a case of bad conservation, red tape and lack of surrounding infrastructure than flawed architecture.

Major new official buildings are being planned or built, or have recently been built, in Delhi. Will any qualify for inclusion in a book like this in the future?
I would ignore most of them, but definitely look at some of the more radical designs within the Metro. It is utilitarian, long-lasting and uses everything India can be good at if bureaucracy stays out — i.e., applying technology and engineering applications for the masses whilst being functional and aesthetically futuristic. Unlike Gurgaon and Noida, it does not suffer from a catch-up syndrome or inferiority complex. It is done for India, keeping Indians in mind.