Bimal Patel, Ahmedabad-based architect and urban planner, proposed the making of a new Parliament building three years ago in an article for The Indian Express, one that would “powerfully signify who we are, how we view our past and where we see ourselves going”. It appears as if his sentiment dovetailed with Narendra Modi’s re-imagining India narrative, which could be simply because Patel is the PM’s favoured architect since his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat.
Patel, a 58-year-old doctorate in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, designed Swarnim Sankul in 2011, a new complex of office blocks flanking the north and south side of the Central Vista of the legislative assembly building in Gandhinagar for Modi, then-Chief Minister of Gujarat. That’s why it was no surprise when in October, his firm, HCP Design, Planning and Management, bagged the contract for Modi’s ambitious Rs 25,000 crore-plus plan to reinvent the heart of Delhi – Parliament building, common Central Secretariat and Central Vista, a three-km-plus expanse from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. Incidentally, the Gujarat legislative assembly’s central vista is similar to the Delhi project.
Patel is new India’s go-to architect. He has given shape to many of Modi’s grand dream projects. His ongoing work include the construction of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor in Varanasi, the development of the Mumbai Port Trust, aimed at revamping the eastern seafront of the coastal city, and the restoration of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram spread over 32 acres of land, which includes repairing 62 heritage structures and the removal of constructions that have no relevance to Gandhi.
“It is Modi’s idea is to turn the ashram into a world-class memorial,” a trustee told ThePrint.
And Patel is the facilitator of Modi’s dreams. His peers say Patel is highly skilled, but he has compromised his independent thinking to fulfil the whims and grandiose vision of Modi. Patronage is important for the kind of success Patel has achieved, but he wears his success lightly. He isn’t flashy or larger-than-life but more like an affable next-door neighbour. With a short stature and a lean physique, Bimal Patel is soft-spoken and has a slight Gujarati accent. He is open to criticism but follows his own mind. His office is in the upscale Usmanpura locality overlooking the Sabarmati Riverfront, his grand creation that was the centrepiece of Modi’s Gujarat Model in 2014.
Bimal Patel started his career in the mid-1980s with his father Hasmukh Patel who built the Gujarat High Court in 1992. The same year, he became the youngest recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for designing the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India in Bhat, on the northwestern edge of Ahmedabad. The campus, conceived as an ensemble of buildings with simple yet strong geometrical forms in exposed brick and concrete set in a lush landscape, attempted to create an indigenous Indian vocabulary referencing vernacular, Islamic and colonial buildings. Patel also went on to design and build the new Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad campus in 2001, an extension of the old premises designed by American architect Louis Kahn in 1974.
“Other than the fact that Bimal Patel’s father was one of Ahmedabad’s leading architects, his own practice received a big boost from his proximity to Surendra Patel, a former Rajya Sabha BJP MP who was twice the chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) between 1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2005, and a close associate of Narendra Modi,” stated a former AUDA official. “But while community ties, since both are Patels, could have played a small role in giving the prized Sabarmati Riverfront and Kankaria Lake Waterfront projects to Bimal, there is no denying that he is one of the very few architects in the country who has the infrastructure, organisational skills and the ability to deliver on time. One may have differences with his modernist take on architecture or his love for concrete, but for the mega commissions Bimal executes, other factors are perhaps more critical,” he added.
If Bimal Patel’s work is infused with the minimalist grammar of modernism, it’s because his early education and sensibilities were shaped by Ahmedabad. Supported by the city’s business community — particularly the textile magnates — the city welcomed modernism in the 1950s beginning with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier whose projects included the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners’ Association (ATMA) and the Sanskar Kendra that houses the City Museum.
Soon Ahmedabad’s landscape was dotted with modernist architecture: Achyut Kanvinde’s Ahmedabad Textiles Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) and Physical Research Laboratory, Hasmukh C. Patel’s Newman Hall, Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management, Charles Correa’s Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya at the Sabarmati Ashram, Balkrishna Doshi’s LIC housing complex and the Tagore Memorial Hall, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai’s National Institute of Design.
“Ahmedabad has always been open to new transformative ideas and it has always supported modernisers in diverse fields: Gandhiji, Vikram Sarabhai, Ravi Mathai, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai and Ela Bhatt. It is a receptive place for people who want to sincerely pursue innovative projects,” says Patel, who since 2012 is also the president and acting director of CEPT University in Ahmedabad, which runs the Schools of Architecture, Planning, Building Science and Technology and Interior Design.
Ironically, the remodelling of the CEPT campus, which is illustrative of Ahmedabad’s experimental spirit, led to serious differences between Patel and architect B.V. Doshi who had designed CEPT in 1962 and was its founder-director. Doshi accused Patel of high-handedness in altering the original concept of the building without consulting him and resigned from the board in 2015.
Patel admires architects like Joseph Allen Stein, Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde and Hasmukh Patel because “they saw themselves as ‘problem-solving’ professionals”.
One of the pre-requisites for ‘problem-solving’ is pragmatism, which defines Bimal Patel’s approach to his practice.
“He never starts with a pre-conceived idea about a new proposal or the client, focusing instead on evolving exclusive strategies for different projects. Bimal’s is a highly negotiated practice, not necessarily collaborative, in that he executes his own design but finalises it only after considering the client’s inputs. And it is this work-attitude that has allowed him to engage so successfully with government agencies,” says a fellow Ahmedabad-based architect.
Bimal Patel’s most successful collaboration has been with Narendra Modi, beginning in 2005 with the controversial Sabarmati Riverfront project.
“The aim is to create a public space for more than seven million people along the river, clean the water and rehabilitate those affected by the project,” Patel said back then. Modi inaugurated the Sabarmati Riverfront in 2012; it would soon become his preferred backdrop for photo-ops – from hosting a dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping to boarding a sea-plane during the 2017 Gujarat assembly election and celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. It also featured in his election campaign resume in 2014.
“His C.G. Road Project in Ahmedabad two decades ago became a benchmark in India for urban design and led to the Sabarmati Riverfront Development project, gifting the people of the city with pedestrian open space on both sides of the river,” says Pune-based architect Christopher Benninger who has designed the IIT Hyderabad and Bhutan’s Supreme Court. “This was especially important for those who lived in the ‘walled city’, where one finds one of the highest urban densities in the world with the lowest area of open space per capita,” he added.
But the riverfront, with its sprawling greens and picnicking families, touted as the symbol of a new and shining Ahmedabad has its share of critics.
“They were able to clean the river bed by displacing nearly 12,000 slum-dwellers who lived in settlements along the Sabarmati and depriving them of their livelihoods to create facilities that typically benefit only middle and upper-class citizens. But a river is defined by freshwater, not by its beautification,” an activist with Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS) said.
The Sabarmati is monsoon-fed and remains dry for most of the year, the water level in the 11.25 km-riverfront stretch has been maintained by pumping in the excess flow from the Narmada canal. A report titled, ‘Disastrous condition of Sabarmati River’, based on a joint investigation by PSS and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), says this water is stagnant and receives nearly 15 per cent of the untreated sewage Ahmedabad produces each day.
But Modi’s endorsement to this project has eclipsed much of the criticism.
Unfazed by criticism
In 2014, after his blockbuster victory in the Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi moved to Delhi via Varanasi with more grand ideas for Bimal Patel to design and implement there.
Just two months before the Lok Sabha election this year, Modi laid the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi, which will link one of the pre-eminent Hindu temples to three main ghats on the Ganga, a distance of about 320 metres by 2021. Modi claimed the new pathway would liberate Shiva’s shrine from the maze of narrow, densely packed alleys and the crush of buildings.
“It seems that God has chosen me,” for this “sacred work on earth,” Modi had said. And to accomplish this holy task, Patel was enlisted again.
A video of the planned 20-metre wide corridor or the ‘Vishwanath Dham’ released on social media shows a large open plaza or mandir chowk fronting the shrine complete with a performance space, library, public conveniences, shops, accommodation for security forces, covered elevators and other amenities. Next to it, visible in obvious relief is the Gyanvapi mosque. The distance on the ground between the mandir and the masjid, which share a boundary wall, is barely 10 metres.
But work on the passage had already begun in late 2018, almost 300 structures — mainly homes and shops in the vicinity of the temple — were razed to develop the nearly 12-acre site. A section of the city’s residents believe that Varanasi is a timeless city with timeless memories and that the flattened buildings were part of the living heritage of Varanasi.
“Change is necessary, but that cannot be the reason to destroy history,” says urban conservationist A.G. Krishna Menon. He was among the first architects to work on the development of the ghats in the 1980s and is the former convenor of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “One agrees with Bimal Patel’s analysis that the lanes are narrow, dirty and overcrowded. But instead of negotiating the ‘chaos’, which is part of the Indian landscape and us, he is doing what the British did to our towns when they straightened out the winding roads, for instance, in an attempt to modernise them. I am not being a nativist and saying everything foreign is bad, and everything Indian is good, but we map our cities differently from the West. It would have been better to conserve the tangible and intangible heritage of the place, rather than demolish it,” said Menon.
But A. Srivathsan, a Chennai-based academic who has worked with Patel at CEPT, says the ‘loss of heritage’ argument does not apply. His argument is: “It is not an architectural but a political project to bestow singular privilege on the Kashi Vishwanath temple by giving it unrestricted visual prominence while deliberately overlooking the multicultural ethos of the city. That’s why the demolition was necessary. And that is my biggest problem with the Vishwanath Dham, the government’s shrill political views that undergird the whole exercise”.
Bimal Patel is, however, unfazed by the criticism. “We should be respectful of heritage and tradition, but should not let ourselves be held hostage to them,” Patel says. He believes “research shows that Varanasi is an ancient city that has been continuously built over by successive generations in many different ways. What is important is to have the courage to do what needs to be done”.
The design for Vishwanath Dham “gives tangible shape to Prime Minister Modi’s transformative vision,” he says.
Assessing ‘cost’ involved
And now it’s the same ‘dream team’ of Modi and Patel that is all set to reinvent the national capital — the Central Vista, a heritage precinct with its iconic buildings, pools of water, sculpted fountains and carefully chosen green trees.
The makeover of the historic 90-year-old Parliament building — which will leave its facade untouched — is expected to be completed by August 2022 when India celebrates its 75th Independence Day; the Central Vista will be redeveloped by 2023 and the common Central Secretariat will be ready for occupation by 2024. The fate of existing government buildings — Shastri Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan — is still undecided.
Architect K.T. Ravindran, former chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission, questions the timeline of the project and its impact on Delhi, the world’s most polluted city. He argues: “The given life of cement concrete is 60-80 years, after which it deteriorates. The idea of creating a new legacy for the next 150-200 years using the same materials is unreal”. Ravindran goes on to ask: How will the enormous construction waste, dust and other toxins be managed? Where will the water for building activities come from?”
“There are so many unanswered questions,” he asserts.
No one denies that radical upgrading of the Central Vista designed in 1911 is needed; the present Parliament building constructed in 1927 is, as Bimal Patel had pointed out in the Indian Express article, too small to accommodate all the members and their staff, the security arrangements are inadequate, infrastructure is technologically outdated and the structure is not earthquake-proof. That’s why Patel has insisted that despite its historical importance, a brand-new building is the only solution, since the existing edifice is a heritage Grade-I structure and therefore by law cannot be significantly modified. Although he adds, “Heritage regulations can be overwritten by Parliament if necessary, to facilitate this.”
International protocols dictate that all interventions in a heritage area must be preceded by a Heritage Impact Assessment Report.
But Patel claims “heritage impact assessments attempt to measure highly subjective ‘costs to heritage’ that a project is likely to cause. They neither assess the benefits of a project nor assess the cost to future generations of not undertaking a project. Therefore, while relevant, they provide only limited information for making decisions”.
Perhaps it is time, as Patel says, “to make a clean break, untether ourselves from the past and more fully embrace the future.” But at what cost?
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.