Recent reports about the proposed reconstruction of Pragati Maidan, a venue for large exhibitions and conventions in New Delhi, into a world-class exhibition-cum-convention centre have scarcely raised eyebrows even though it would necessitate the demolition of iconic buildings built in the 1970s.
But at the same time, many were surprised when the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), which advises the government in the matters of preserving, developing and maintaining the aesthetic quality of urban and environmental design within Delhi, said the original architects must be consulted before making changes to their buildings.
All over the world, the conservation of architectural heritage is about managing change to ensure a society's sense of place in a globalising world. It is a civilisational imperative. In India, however, it is a contested field - why else is conservation viewed as antithetical to development? As a result, there is a steady attrition of historic buildings. While the growing perception of this loss is fueling a fledgling conservation movement in India, its focus is primarily on protecting our ancient architectural heritage. To conserve modern architectural heritage appears quixotic, but it is a concept that is slowly gaining credence in many parts of the world.
Conserving modern architecture is a recent phenomenon and it is spearheaded by a movement called Docomomo: documenting the modern movement. It was started in Europe in 1988 to take up the challenges of the protection and conservation of the classics of modern architecture and urbanism, which were being replaced by newer developments. The term 'modern movement' refers to the polemical ideas of architects and city planners who, at the turn of the last century, sought to transform architecture and urban planning to create a 'brave new world'. The premise underpinning Docomomo is that the more people learn about the buildings and concepts behind the modern movement, the less likely it is that they would be destroyed.
The same rationale underpins the case to conserve modern architecture and urbanism in India. After Independence, Indian architects also wanted to create a 'brave new world'. But there was a difference in our narrative which makes it compelling. Whereas in the West, its lineage can be traced to a deep cultural history, in India it was transferred fully developed by the post-Independence generation of architects who had studied at universities in the West and worked under the masters of the modern movement. Thus, in India, it lacked the indigenous traditions that sustained its evolution in the West, but this led to the development of an indigenous brand of modern architecture - the so-called 'Indian' identity - that we are beginning to re-evaluate as our architecture gets globalised. Conserving its exemplary models would be the objective of Docomomo in India.
Our local narrative is also inflected by the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, acknowledged masters of the modern movement who designed important buildings in India. Their influence on Indian architecture was transformed to address local exigencies, which have become one of the several strands of Indian modernism. Historians like Kenneth Frampton have acknowledged their contributions to the global narrative, but we need to do so for ourselves. This underpins the link I referred to between the uncontested proposal to transform Pragati Maidan and the DUAC notification. Both are predicated on the lack of awareness of the value of modern heritage, resulting in the same kind of cultural vandalism that we deplore when ancient buildings are torn down or mutilated.
There are other dimensions to the problem of architectural illiteracy that need to be highlighted. Recently, the government blocked efforts to nominate Chandigarh as a World Heritage City and many are also resisting the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage's (Intach) efforts to nominate colonial New Delhi as a World Heritage City. Both are based on false premises: one, the fear that the nomination will stall further development; two, they are not 'our' heritage. The first is not borne out by the experience of other cities that are on the World Heritage list, while the second reveals an insecurity that does injustice to our complex culture and democratic polity.
So let the proposal to transform Pragati Maidan become the testing ground to conserve India's modern architecture and show that development and conservation can go hand-in-hand to manage change. In the long term, however, we should perhaps build a museum of architecture for the same reasons we have the National Museum of India and the National Gallery of Modern Art.
AG Krishna Menon is Convenor, Intach Delhi Chapter
The views expressed by the author are personal