by Anavil Ahluwalia
“Every political debate from the eighteenth century onwards included discussions on urbanism, architecture and facilities of common life.” (Foucault, 1976)
From Gauis Caligula (the ‘mad’ emperor of Rome) to Draco (the harsh Athenian lawgiver), from Ivan IV (the ‘terrible’ Tzar) to Aurangzeb, the world has seen some of the harshest and tyrannical monarchs. The emperors claimed divinity and used godhood as a political device to strengthen their claim on the throne. The monarch’s word was the word of God – the Supreme Law, and no citizen could question it. The cities they built were based on this value system and represented the social hierarchy, spatially. Ancient cities were a concentration of political power and they were centred on the power dynamics of the ruling elite and the monarch, who enjoyed the highest authority in the nation-state or city-state. The monarch’s castle was built on the most important location (both strategically and geographically), the ruling elite resided closest to the emperor and the common man was placed on the periphery.
The last planned city of the Mughal Empire constructed in the seventeenth century, Shahjahanabad was built along an axis, with the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid at either end. The words attributed to Amir Khusro, “gar firdaus bar rū-yi zamīn ast: hamīn ast, hamīn ast, hamīn ast!” (“If there is paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!”) are inscribed on the walls of the throne room of the fort and reveal the king’s intent to portray himself as no less than God. An extensive, spatial and hierarchical (caste or occupation-based) organisation can be observed in the city. The city placed groups of ‘high-ranking’ trades close to the core/fort, and the ‘less-esteemed’ trades and professions farther away from it (Malik, 2003). Within the city, there are separate spaces for the ‘common people’ such as the Jama Masjid and distinctive spaces for the ‘powerful’ such as the Red Fort and Begum Samru’s palace.
The harsh realities of absolutist monarchy and the failure of non-democratic systems (fascist, communist regimes, etc.) paved the way for a political revolution. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the rise of nationalism, decolonization and globalization resulting in territorial changes across the globe ensuing the birth of sovereign states and countries. The Guinness World Records list confirms that in the twentieth century, sixty-five countries gained independence from the United Kingdom, followed by France with twenty-eight, Spain with seventeen, The Soviet Union with sixteen, Portugal with seven and the USA with five. The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words that mean people (demos) and rule/power (kratos), so democracy can be thought of as ‘power of the people’ (Democracy, n.d.). The birth of the idea of sovereign people is at the heart of Democracy. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The new political system brought with it a new spatial order and configuration. The government was no longer superior to the people. This system of governance advocated equality. One of the few cities, carefully designed and planned to reflect democratic ideals is Washington DC. George Washington himself decided the site for the new capital, post the American Revolution of 1775. The need for a new city came up after emancipating from the British Empire and choosing a ‘Democratic government’ as the way forward. In 1791, French-American engineer Pierre L’Enfant set out to create a “magnificent city, worthy of the nation, free of its colonial origins, and bold in its assertion of a new identity.” (Gutheim et al., 2006). Spatially, the grid system works well with diagonals and broad avenues, highlighting architectural features and important public buildings at intersections. The plan also integrates large open spaces to facilitate interaction between citizens and the government, symbolizing a democratic society (Al-Kodmany, 2016). The McMillan Plan emphasized the National Mall and ‘monumental core’ at the heart of the city, used by a diverse user group for a variety of purposes; presidential inaugurations, a popular picnic spot for kids, celebrate national events, exercise political rights, etc. The Mall has widely been referred to as the “stage of democracy” (Benton, 2016) owing to its diverse usage, publicness and accessibility.
Approximately a hundred and seventy years later on the other side of the globe, at the stroke of the midnight hour, India awoke to life and freedom on 15th August 1947. The country adopted a constitution that promised equality and justice to all her citizens. The country’s first Prime Minister, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru’s choice of capital did not go well with Gandhi (Gupta, 1994). Lutyens Delhi, designed to be the capital of the British Empire, was essentially an expression of power and means to assert their dominance. However, Mr Nehru intended to represent India as a strong, modern and independent country on the international stage and thought that a planned city would be better suited (Gupta, 1994). Thus, democratic India inherited a colonial and imperial capital.
“A capital creates or enhances the national ideology, political values, or common political beliefs of a state….Through its architecture and urban design, it provides constructed spaces which serve as instruments and offer a language of representation for the entire nation.” (Minkenberg, 2014). Capitals are important sites for various reasons; they are the concentration of government power and thus an important destination for foreign dignitaries, a place to celebrate national festivals and events, thereby strengthening national identity and increasing association, sites to express dissent and discontentment, etc. With the recent developments and proposals in the Indian capital, it is of utmost importance to decode the hidden messages they carry.
The earliest in the series of urban developments in New Delhi is the All-India War Memorial (India Gate). Situated in the heart of the capital, India Gate is one of the largest urban plazas in the city. The 42 m high “Arc-de-Triomphe” like archway was constructed to commemorate the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. Originally designed to represent the Imperial ideology and cultural supremacy, the ‘Princes’ Park, where India Gate was later built, was intended to house the statue of King George V surrounded by state palaces of Indian kings: “a British attempt to recreate the grand Mughal court in Delhi” (Bhowmick, 2016). Post-independence, events like Republic Day celebrations, protests at Boat Club, the construction of Children’s park as well as the opportunity for boating and the use of large green spaces as picnic spots for school kids, bundled with hawkers selling balloons, toys and chaat, saw scores of Delhiites visit India Gate in the late evenings. It is a popular spot for late-night ice creams and strolls. In the words of distinguished historian Narayani Gupta (1994), “An Indian Champs-Elysées came to life in a way very different from what Lutyens intended.” An important landmark, India Gate is a place to play, celebrate and protest: a truly democratic space. However, the recent construction of the National War Memorial spread across three parks behind the canopy, which led to the fencing of the parks, is quite problematic. It has reduced three public parks to beautifully landscaped gardens, devoid of the urban public and everyday activity. Before this area was fenced, any pedestrian or cyclist passing by could stop and rest under the shade at India Gate, or walk through it (displacement over distance!). However, the fencing robs the civic of this ‘happenstance’. The development advocates controlled accessibility, weakening its public quality and democratic nature.
“More than mere homes for government leaders, they [government buildings] serve as symbols of the state. We can, therefore, learn much about a political regime by observing closely what it builds” (Vale, 2008). The Modi Government has proposed to redevelop the heart of the country: Lutyens Delhi, symbolic of the Indian republic. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project, proposed in August 2019, has faced severe criticism and backlash from the architectural and planning community of the country for its opaque and undemocratic process and nonchalant attitude towards existing buildings and trees (an extremely important part of Lutyens’ Garden city concept). The proposed development aims to monopolise the psychological centre of New Delhi. The land use of seven land pockets, including what is a district park (as per the MPD 2021), spread over 101.1 acres (409,137.2 sq m) has to be changed from public or semi-public buildings to government offices.
In his acclaimed book Life Between Buildings: Using Public Spaces (2011), the celebrated Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl establishes three categories of outdoor activities: necessary activities such as walking to school, buying groceries, etc., optional activities such as sitting outside and social activities such as friends talking to each other, passers-by acknowledging each other, etc. Gehl claims that optional and social activities, the key to good quality urban life, are often spontaneous in nature and are dependent on the physical environment. A good city must offer a wide variety of optional and social activities along with adequate public space to create a lively city. However, if the iconic 3 km stretch is envisioned with administrative offices on either side, it deprives the general public of free accessibility, confines built functions, thus limiting user groups, and reduces it to a mere ‘tourist spot’, encouraging consumerist culture. The beauty of the National Mall (the equivalent of ‘Central Vista’ in Washington DC) is that it is surrounded by public buildings (with free entry to all museums) and the government buildings lie behind them. The proposed development, however, intends to replace existing public buildings with government offices and the prime minister’s residence. This will drastically reduce the public character of the Central Vista, not desirable in a space symbolic of the Indian democracy. The proposal seems to be Colonisation 2.0.
“Space has been shaped and moulded from historical and natural elements, but this has been a political process.” said Henri Lefebvre (1977), “Space is political and ideological.” How cities are planned, designed and built reflects political ideologies. The built environment, the amount of public space that exists, access to urban spaces of power, the allowed activities and behaviours in it, are all indicators of the kind of governance that exists. Cities are a representation of the will of the sovereign. Thus, every new state-funded project or redevelopment in one’s neighbourhood can reveal a hidden agenda. The citizens must be aware of their ‘right to the city’ and proactive in defending it. Edward Soja (2009), a renowned American political geographer warned that the political organization of space is a particularly powerful source of spatial injustice. The civic must demand the city to mirror the constitutional ideology and democratic principles. According to Frank Lloyd Wright (1939), “It is possible that there is an ‘architecture of democracy’, a building and planning style that embodies and embeds democratic values.” This is what the citizens and modern Indian planning must aspire towards, and should settle for no less.
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Anavil Ahluwalia is a recent graduate from the Urban Design Department at School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi. An interdisciplinary approach between political and urban theory fascinates her. Her postgraduate thesis research explored possible connections between the practice of urban design & our aspirations for democracy and spatial justice. Selected illustrations were published in a newspaper article authored by Mr Rajiv Bhakat titled ‘What a Comparison of Great Central Vistas Tells Us About Modi’s Plans for New Delhi’. When not reading, she spends her time listening to Begum Akhtar with her beloved tribe of stray dogs and cats.