Building blokes

The Modern Architecture of New Delhi ♦

Palika Kendra (1965-1983)
Khanna: Kuldip Singh is known for making buildings that sit there like a sculpture – a piece of work that you look at, whereas other buildings are more inward-looking. Like NIFT [Balkrishna Doshi]. You look at it from the outside and it doesn’t look like much. It’s not a set-piece building, like Palika Kendra. (Photo: Madan Mahatta)
Rahul Khanna, owner of Below8 bar, and Manav Parhawk, a fashion photographer, teamed up to explore Delhi’s modern architecture. Their book, The Modern Architecture of New Delhi: 1928-2007, reads like a series of monographs. Sonal Shah spoke to Khanna and Parhawk about how they came to see their city in a new light – and why they hate palm trees so much.

How long have you been working on this?
Khanna: Manav and I got in touch in April of 2006. We did one building per weekend. Then there were issues with getting  permission to shoot. Ironically, most of the embassies were the easiest to get into. Because they have architecture culture in their  homelands, they understand what you want to do. But the Indian government buildings – it was all “are you guys on drugs or  something?”

Did you ever get chased out?
Parhawk: Well, yes. That’s part of the reason I didn’t really appreciate the architecture of the city before the project, because  you’re simply not allowed to go into buildings. Like the STC – the Cottage Emporium building – we had to lie our way in. The  number of buildings we had to bluff our way into…

Apollo Tyres’ Corporate Office (1997)
Parhawk: Those architects – the Morphogenesis guys – what’s interesting is the way they approach every project. They don’t have a particular style.
Khanna: Considering they are young architects, their approach is very refreshing.
Parhawk: The why and how of it all is the most refreshing part. Their approach is… evolutionary, [like] from an amoeba to a cell to an organism.
Khanna: For a residence they built in Vasant Vihar, there’s a whole analogy of dissecting the building into a human body, in which the lungs are the basement where the air comes through. They researched weather patterns in Delhi for two years. (Photo: Manav Parhawk)
What inspired you to continue?
Khanna: There are so many great stories behind each building. We have living architects who’ve studied under the twentieth century’s greatest architects. If you go to buy a book – it’s almost as if after the British left, architecture died, which is very untrue.  It’s not in our culture to debate architecture, though it’s very much a part of Indian art and its past. Somewhere along the line, that got lost and it’s not considered an art form anymore. Last year, when all these shows went on about 60 years of  Independence, there was not a single mention of architecture. But there are these hidden gems – because Delhi’s not exactly the  most superbly planned city.

How did you decide on certain buildings?
Khanna: At first, we made a conscious effort not to do any research. We’d just drive around and look at what we liked. I was  surprised – out of ten of the buildings that we liked, eight were done by great architects like Charles Correa, Raj Rewal… Because we’re covering a big timespan, we didn’t want to make it a catalogue. We had to have a reason why the building stands out. In the end, we looked at buildings that were the best of their time, in Delhi.

Tomar Residence (1992)
Parhawk: In Delhi, only where places are free-standing can you break the walls of a house down. Otherwise, you can only modify.
Khanna: The Tomar house is an example of having to work within the confines of a plot in Hauz Khas Village. The narrow plan, pointed arches and modern minarets allow it to blend in with the historical surroundings. Architects Vasant and Revathi Kamath do work based on the idea of sensitive building – all mud and brick and very Indian.
(Photo: Vasant Kamath)

Are there definitive styles in Delhi today?
Khanna: Not really, and it’s good in a way. Post-Nehru, in the ’70s onwards, people started building skyscrapers, dealing with  cost-effective materials, mud brick and stuff… but nothing unified.
Parhawk: I think that’s also why we don’t have a definitive pattern that’s built into the city skyline.
Khanna: We just have an exhibition ground of stuff that’s coming out on its own…

You mention colony sprawl as the default development pattern. Can this change?
Khanna: It’s too late now for Delhi.
Parhawk: There can be cosmetic changes. There’s no place to do anything else. That can only happen in the NCR or certain parts of west Delhi.

Would you say development in the NCR very different?
Khanna: Mansingh Rana, who is about 92 and who built Nehru Park, Nehru Library… He studied under Frank Lloyd Wright  and he was there when Chandigarh was being planned. He says that it’s still the best-planned city in India. Years later, why can’t they do the same thing? You have the template, but look what they did in Gurgaon.
Parhawk: And in [the parts of] Noida that came up later.
Khanna: He said that because of this whole “India is rich and growing” thing, architects lose the plot. There are palm trees in the middle of town. It’s like Dubai. [Rana] said before Lutyens made all our neem tree-lined avenues, he went to Agra to see what was around and brought saplings of neem from there.
Parhawk: And jamun.
Khanna: That’s foresight. He planned not only wide roads, but trees that would shade. [Rana] asked why Gurgaon should have palm trees from Abu Dhabi… Why should Delhi have palm trees? It’s not Goa.

Poddar Residence (1990-1997)
Khanna: The Poddar house is a great case of the owner telling the architect, Inni Chatterjee, that you can do what you like. They’re very wealthy and could have hired a more experienced architect – Chatterjee was very young then. It just depends on the client-architect relationship. A lot of clients want the typical Punjabi home with marble and chandeliers – a showpiece, not a home as such. It is very much to do with keeping up with the Joneses. Having said that, if I was an architect, it would be great to get those projects because you can literally just start from scratch.
Parhawk: At least, in these projects, you have some space to plan and work with. (Photo: Manav Parhawk)

But there’s so much talk of urban planning…
Khanna: Urban planning is just left to rhetoric. To be honest, Delhi is not a bad city. Parts of Delhi are beautiful. But parts have just been left to rot. They could have so easily had a heritage fund for Chandni Chowk, for example. Small things like that. Keep certain bylaws. Because of the red tape and the bad synchronisation between the Municipal Corporation Delhi and the government, people are left to their own devices. To say that it’s too late is very defeatist. But no city is perfect. Cities evolve and let it be like that. Whatever you can change, change – there’s no need to do anything radical. Bitching and moaning is just negative.

Still, any buildings you just don’t like?
Parhawk: The police memorial.
Khanna: Yes, though they’ve taken it down. All those tall buildings along Kasturba Gandhi Road. That new BSNL or  whatever it is building opposite Hotel Janpath.
Parhawk: The entire strip of Gurgaon.
Khanna: All of Gurgaon. Hafeez Contractor – we have a personal vendetta against him. His ideology of architecture is: churn it out, like its coming out of a money factory. There’s no soul to it. All these pastiche buildings… It’s like Spain meets India meets a palm tree.

The Modern Architecture of New Delhi, Random House India, ₹495

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2009.