PWD Classic on Rajpath
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A recent decision to award the work of designing and constructing the new headquarters for the ministry of external affairs to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has raked up questions on the state of public architecture in India. Does the responsibility of creating monumental buildings of merit rest with the government or with building professionals or architects? Is the state even concerned about quality in matters of architecture or transparency in the award of large projects?
It is a matter of some concern to the professional architectural community that a legitimate competition for the design of the new external affairs ministry headquarters was scrapped for no reason at all. Held six years ago under the auspices of the Council of Architecture, the competition had invited entries from 14 well-known architects, among them Raj Rewal, Anant Raje, Charles Correa and others. Jaswant Singh, then foreign minister, had rejected the entries on the grounds that none amongst them was 'suitably grand' for a site as prominent as Rajpath. This, despite the recommendations of the architectural committee appointed specifically to select an architect.
A minister's tenure is limited to a few years between elections; a building's life, by contrast, almost limitless. That the serious work of 14 of India's most senior professionals can be dismissed as superfluous, suggests something of the unfortunate position of the Indian architect, and consequently, the dismal state of public architecture in the country. Moreover, entrusting the design and execution of a monumental structure that lies in Lutyens Delhi's most hallowed architectural zone to the CPWD is like asking a Bollywood scriptwriter to make suitable amendments to the Indian Constitution. Though the CPWD has a fine record in general maintenance and building upkeep, it is not known for innovation and originality.
Rajpath is an arena of great urban significance, equal to the Mall in Washington D.C. and the Champs Elysees in Paris. In the 70-year history of the site, since its original conception by Lutyens, there have been many additions, as would be expected of any important public arena in the capital of a newly independent country. Most of the ministry structures built along the adjacent flanks date back to the 1950s and 1960s. Without exception, each is a poor cousin of its antecedent on Raisina Hill, each a step away from the monumental tradition of design quality and construction workmanship set up by Lutyens. Phrases like PWD Classic, Government Moderne and Cement Baroque have often been used to describe their dreary monotony, mediocre design and poor craft.
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