Every time my mother visits Delhi, we take time out to visit her favourite haunts. No Delhi visit, however frequent, is complete without its visits to Khan Market, the Craft Museum, a movie at any one of the many cineplexes, a stroll in Connaught Place with a meal at United Coffee House, and a visit to Dilli Haat, both for its colourful shopping and momos at the Naga stall in the foodcourt at the back.
Opened to the public in 1994, this landmark project of the Delhi Tourism Department can almost be singlehandedly credited for being the platform to bring craft centre-stage into consciousness of Dilliwalas and its swish set.
Designed by the famous the architects Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates, Dilli Haat was the centre of South Delhi, and hosted the famous Dastakar Mela, an annual event that brought the best of India’s crafts and craftsmen to Delhi and opened to us a whole world that was otherwise inaccessible and obscure.
Dilli Haat, with its vernacular inspired architecture, very carefully modulated public space and and its unmistakable “sense of place” became and remains a landmark in the collective consciousness of the city. Not to mention that almost no architecture student probably goes through college without case studying it at some point in their course.
There’s a certain earthiness and material language that is unpretentious, real and honest. No fakery, where both the building and its construction are direct and explicit about their nature and purpose. Open-air, pleasant and absorbing, you could spend hours there even on a hot day.
So imagine my surprise when I visited it two weeks ago, and found the cobblestones in the forecourt replaced by large slabs of polished granite and sandstone — rectangular slab after rectangular slab, no platforms to sit on, no planters around which street sellers sold earrings, or bangles or jhal-muri. No circular patterns of cobblestone that made you pause and take in the space as you waited for significant others to show up!
I wish my surprise had ended there. There was more in store — a little further in from the entrance I found ceramic tiles being put in to replace the earlier herringbone pattern brick paving and cobblestones. Not just any tiles, mind you — tiles printed to look like wood; that is, fake wood plank tiles in a space celebrated for handmade craft. The irony!
Surely this could not be the architect’s vision? So I put it on Instagram and tagged the studio. And I was right, they had refused to carry on as architects once these absurd demand were made.
Sadly the destruction doesn’t stop there. The food court in the back looks like one at a bus terminal — the two-level court, with shade-providing trees and stone tables and benches, is gone, replaces by a bus-shelter-like two-storey structure with cheap cafeteria seating.
It was a sad day! And it left me wondering about a lot of things. The first of course being — Why? In the case of a house or a private building I can understand the seemingly unclear or inapparent value of the architecture and place. But at Dilli Haat — an internationally known and architecturally celebrated space — what guides such apathy? How is such architectural disregard made possible?
What is the need for this placeless, namelessness? Like anywhere, like everywhere (and so like nowhere) and often described as world-class architecture?
About 9 km away, at a recently rebuilt and rechristened Pragati Maidan, I think we find some answers. An article in a national daily is headlined “Tradition Meets Modernity at G20 Venue” — a half-page article that wows you with numbers, and records, and glitzy photographs of plazas and fountains and buildings trying very hard be noticeable and important.
To be inaugurated by the PM, a world-class venue etc etc “a design that showcases india confidence and conviction in its past while embracing modern facilties and way of life” to quote the piece.
To architects and enthusiast of Indias modernism, Pragati Maidan, with its collection of exhibition spaces designed by the scions of Indian architecture included buildings by Raj Rewal, Kanvinde, Stein, to name a few. These buildings were iconic and representative of the idealism of post-Independence India and its faith in a modern world.
And to see those replaced by buildings that could be anywhere and anything is quite a comedown. What is this modernity, if it has no place? No belonging? An objectification of modernity — like a mannequin at a fashion store — immaculately dressed but without a face to call its own? Is keeping up with the Joneses everything?
Of course the other question no one is asking, and a far more practical one is — why would you want the country’s larger trade fair, exhibition centre for industry, machine, automotive and commercial technologies at the very centre of an already overcrowded and, infrastructure-wise, overstretched city?
When you have to move in and then take back heavy machinery, trucks, cranes, engines, and industrial product that have to travel the world over? Wouldn’t something close to the airports have been better? Nearer Jewar or IGI?
So what would we do with Pragati Maidan then, you might ask. A series of museums maybe? Preserving for posterity buildings and architectural legacies that paved the way for the liberal, global India we see and live in today — maybe even put the very prestigious Prime Minister’s Museum there. A museum for the Supreme Court too. I personally would have been truly overjoyed to see the Museum of Architecture find its place at the beautiful Hall 18, by the legendary Joseph Allen Stein. I could not think of a more fitting tribute to his contribution to contemporary architecture in India. Maybe a museum of Army or Sports and Athletics? Science? Contemporary Art and Sculpture, maybe even a new campus for the School of Planning and Architecture that was in the news for its most recent flooding?
As I move around Delhi, and see its once familiar landscape and buildings been torn and replaced, I don’t know about you, but to me it looks like everyone is just set on Taking the Dil out of Dilli.
(Henri Fanthome, an architect who trained at the SPA, lives and works out of Mehrauli, Delhi and writes about design and urban spaces.)