Unlike other former colonies, India didn’t build a new capital; it made the old its own and continued its program of amalgamation. Modi apparently sees this as a mistake and is on a mission to “liberate ourselves from slavery thinking”. He seems to have been planning to rebuild New Delhi’s city center from the beginning of his tenure as prime minister.The previous government had nominated parts of the capital, including the entire Central Vision Area, to join the unesco World Heritage List, permanent preservation. The application was under consideration when Modi first became prime minister in 2014.According to reports, the following year unescoLater, the Indian government requested a postponement. (A spokesman for India’s housing ministry denied this.)
In 2019, Modi made a sensational re-election. After his re-election, major Indian newspapers published an announcement. It called for “full architectural and engineering planning consultancy services for the ‘development/redevelopment of New Delhi’s Parliament House, Common Central Secretariat and Central Vision'”, specifying that interested companies must transfer to it a “bond” escrow of Rs 50 lakh account. (Funding requests were cut in half after an architect’s backlash.) The timeline was surprisingly short. The British spent years planning the Indian capital. The Modi government has given six weeks to submit proposals for reconstruction. SR Sikka, an architect who fled to Delhi during Partition to train with Le Corbusier and go on to start one of the country’s most commercially successful architecture firms, told I was, “Of course, as an architect, you’d want more time. This is a once-in-a-lifetime project on one of the most important pieces of land in the country.”
That September, an information session turned into a contentious affair. Representatives of interested companies gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table in a conference room at the central Ministry of Public Works. The Central Department of Public Works has overseen civic construction in India since 1854. When the meeting opened for questions, participants took turns expressing their grievances. How could a publicly funded project of this magnitude not be awarded through a more open process? A bond requirement ensures that only renowned architects participate. Some attendees drafted a petition calling for fairer competition. When they canvassed the room for signatures, only one representative of a major company refused to sign: Bobby Desai of HCP in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Ultimately, only six companies were considered—HCP and five others. Their mandate is largely open-ended; the guidelines do not specify whether existing councils should be upgraded or new ones created. (In any case, the old council, like many Raj-era buildings, needs to be preserved under historic preservation laws.) At least two firms have proposed a new council at the center of the central vista. The head of one of the firms, Hafeez Contractor, known for his flamboyant designs, said he had sited the parliament building on the main axis, which would be built in the shape of an abstract lotus flower, “On the main axis, so if you look from all the roads in New Delhi — from anywhere — you’ll see it.” It’s five hundred feet taller than the Governor’s Palace. “People say, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be taller than the presidential palace,'” he told me. “Why not? It should be higher!”
HCP has taken a different tack. Its founder, Bimal Patel, knew Modi from Gujarat and worked on projects with him for nearly two decades. The firm requested a bland sandstone office building lined with unassuming columns. Patel sidelined the council, though he proposed incorporating some of the more subtle multi-faith details of the old central vista, such as stone latticework. At the same time, on a piece of land opposite the central landscape, he proposed a new residential and office complex for the Prime Minister. Under India’s parliamentary system, the prime minister is an equal member of the legislature. Like the British prime minister in a modest townhouse at 10 Downing Street, Modi lives in a bungalow on a modest street in Lutyensderry. Patel called for Modi to be moved to Central Vista, into a huge residence that could house 500 staff. (According to later reports, the complex would be surrounded by twenty-five watchtowers and include a VIP tunnel linking it to the new Parliament.) Building a new house for the prime minister was not part of the design competition mandate, but just five other One of the contestants also included one of them. Patel won.
Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, has long been a center for architecture. Soon after independence, Ahmedabad’s textile magnates and their government allies hired a group of prominent architects, including Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, to build offices, museums and a university campus in the city. These international luminaries influenced a generation of local architects who continued their modernist legacy. One of these locals was Hasmukh C. Patel, whose company HCP has since made its mark on Gujarat with banks, hospitals and academic buildings.
In 1981, Hasmuk’s nineteen-year-old son Bimal traveled across Europe with a rail pass and a Volkswagen van. He was shocked that “the ordinary life of ordinary people can be so comfortable”. The crowded but well-maintained city streets, squares and markets of Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona provided everyday Europeans with a quality of life enjoyed only by the most privileged in India. In 1985, Bimal traveled to the United States to earn a degree in architecture and urban planning from the University of California, Berkeley. He then returned to Ahmedabad to take over the HCP, hoping to transform Indian cities, which he said had a “lack of public space”.
In January, I met Patel on a seven-mile pedestrian promenade that he began building in the early 2000s along the Sabarmati River, which connects Ahmedabad to into two. It was his largest urban regeneration project before the Central Vista commission. I rented us a “water bike” — a Dr. Seuss-like two-person flotation bike with bulbous outboard water wheels. Patel is sixty-two years old, slim and fit, wearing thick black glasses and a canary yellow life jacket over a green Nehru vest. As we rode to the middle of the river, the city skyline appeared above the promenade. We can see a revolving restaurant designed by his father that looks like a concrete flower on a narrow stalk, with newer, taller, shinier buildings rising around it. Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat state from 2001 to 2014, presided over Ahmedabad’s dramatic 21st-century prosperity. He used this narrative of progress in his campaign to propel him to state power.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of Modi during this period, told me that the rising Gujarati politician was inspired by a pattern of development he saw in China, Also very envious. In 1980, China’s and India’s economies were roughly equal in size, but India has since lagged badly behind its neighbors. In 2006, Modi visited Shenzhen for the first time. It has developed from a fishing village to a metropolis with a population of nearly 10 million. He also went to Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district full of skyscrapers. Twenty years ago, this was Shanghai’s financial center. district. A mix of warehouses and rice fields. Modi was “impressed by the Chinese government’s urban development policies,” Mukhopadiya told me, “especially when the government wanted to expropriate land, and there were very few people involved.”