It’s a mid-August morning in 2021, and Bimal Patel is showing another small group of journalists and public intellectuals around the Central Vista redevelopment project. “Have you seen these tiles?” she asked, pointing to the sidewalk where workers were fixing rectangular pink tiles. “Each of them has to be fixed so that they form a straight line from here to India Gate. Getting straight lines is really hard. But this is the kind of craftsmanship I am trying to ensure,” says Patel.
After more than a year, Central Vista Avenue has opened, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8. Patel — designer, urban planner, architect — is not only satisfied with straight lines, but the results are now admired or at least recognized by even his critics and detractors.
On the evening before the inauguration, HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd, 61-year-old Patel’s Ahmedabad-based company, there was not a moment’s pause. It’s well past sunset, but on at least three floors of an eight-story building on the Sabarmati riverfront — one of Patel’s earliest urban renewal projects — teams are at work.
Some study images of the central vista on their computer screens, while others work on the next phase of the project — the new Parliament building and the Central Secretariat building in Delhi, which will come up on either side of the eponymous Karti Way.
One section displays 3-D prints of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha with miniature human models. A nearby 7-foot wall bears a print of the master plan while the floor is strewn with samples of materials to be used in the new Parliament building, for which the countdown clock is set to October 10, 2022 — pink incised Dholpur sandstone, a brass filigree motif, Prototypes of other decorations.
Dressed in his trademark black, the lanky Patel is a bundle of nervous energy, restless for the belated virtual conference. “I’m the face of the design effort at Central Vista but there’s a huge team that pulls a project like this together,” Patel told The Sunday Express, crediting and describing Niki Shah at the design studio and Sunil Patel at the site. Young colleagues as “war veterans”.
Also, Patel thanks the “indomitable will of the Prime Minister”, the CPWD (his client technically), the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and contractor Shapoorji Palonji.
Since his firm won the design competition for the Central Vista project, Patel has been under fire for its opposition. The project has been variously described as Modi’s vanity project, his way of erasing his past and putting his personal stamp on Delhi, his projection of absolute power. As an architect, designer and urban planner who has been associated with Modi for more than two decades, Patel’s credentials for the most prolific urban projects since 1947 have come under public scrutiny.
Central Vista Avenue was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8 September. (express)
“He is some architect from Gujarat who knows Modi. What does he know about Delhi or its history? News of digging up the former highway, felling hundreds of trees, and replacing pre-independence streetlights led to some backlash.
A graduate of CEPT, Ahmedabad (which he now heads) and the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his doctoral thesis under the Marxist urban geographer Richard Walker, Patel is unfazed by the “Modi architect” tag, especially by liberals.
But this was not his first brush with such opposition — he had faced similar pushback earlier in the Sabarmati canal project and earlier in 1995 during the reconstruction of CG Road in Ahmedabad’s central business district. He wanted to convince his opponents, while Mayor Bhavna Dave, welcomed their input.
Those who have worked with him say this is one of Patel’s greatest strengths – engaging with opposition and striving for consensus. So, even as the Center dismissed opposition to the Central Vista project as carping from the “Khan Market gang,” Patel held quiet meetings in Delhi — with architects, historians, public intellectuals, the media, students — and later, organized tours of the site for at least 50 “diverse ” Man, declaring that there was no question that he would not take on the project.
It is not clear how many people he convinced, but he persuaded one of his most vocal critics, naturalist-writer Pradeep Kishen, who was among the petitioners against the project in the Supreme Court, to take on the role of tree advisor. Central Vista should be planted in lawns.
“No other project in recent memory has seen such controversy. And he is involved in all this,” says Aravamutham Srivathsan, architect-urban designer/planner and head of CEPT Research and Development Foundation.
Srivathsan said the project was a demonstration of two other strengths of Patel. “He is able to break down a complex project into manageable parts, which is a great asset in urban projects that are more complex than architecture. Secondly, he is a unique combination of designer, planner and a great manager.”
For Central Vista, Patel has been meticulous about the design of the officials, even the type of grass for the lawn. “Though Delhi’s bureaucratic system annoyed him, he made his way,” said a source close to Patel, noting HCP’s final touch of using technology to preview finished projects in public presentations, exhibitions.
However, there is no denying that Patel’s rise has coincided with that of Modi, first when the latter was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and later the Prime Minister. The 1995 CG Road project landed in Patel’s lap when it was cleared by senior BJP leader and then Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority Chairman Surendra Patel in the pre-Modi years. Patel then brought Bimal Patel on board for the Sabarmati riverfront project. Impressed by his work, Modi commissioned him to rebuild the Kankaria lake front.
This was followed in 2011 by Swarnim Sankula, which housed the Chief Minister’s office and part of the Central Vista project in Gandhinagar; a solar plant observatory; Gujarat High Court; New IIM-A campus; Ahmedabad Airport Terminal; Even EWS housing.
After Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he chose Patel for the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project in his Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi. In 2017, HCP won the Mumbai port redevelopment project — albeit after a design competition. In 2019, Bimal was awarded the Padma Shri.
Currently, even as Patel redesigns the seat of power in Delhi, the HCP is also working on the redevelopment of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, directly overseen by the PMO.
Srivathsan said the connection between him and Modi was not based on any political affiliation but on faith. “Patel knows it’s based on his ability to deliver, his ability,” he says.
Patel himself considers efficient delivery of his projects as his strongest suit. In interviews he has consistently said that today’s complex urban challenges cannot be solved by small boutique designers, who don’t have the resources to scale up their solutions or replicate them quickly. He is proud of building HCPs from a small firm of 40 to a young, multi-disciplinary team of 300, who collaborate with other service providers. His wife Ismet Khambatta, a well-known furniture designer, is one of the directors of HCP.
Patel told friends that architects who want to work in urban design must learn to deal with governments, reluctant politicians or leaders who want to use projects to further their own potential. His approach is to present himself as a solution provider. This, according to him, allows for professional distance and collaboration even with those with ideological differences and allows projects to stand the test of political change.
In these days of self-reliance, the execution of Patel’s Central Vista project is also seen as a confirmation of the capability of Indian architects for a mega urban project. The only comparable post-independence projects in terms of scale, size and outcome are Chandigarh, which was commissioned by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and more recently, the Amaravati project, which was awarded first to a Japanese firm of designers and later to a UK firm. Strong, before being completely abandoned.
“(It is) the first time that someone has said that Indians are also great architects… If Sir Norman Foster (a British architect) had been awarded the project, people would have said it is so great, but not when an Indian is doing it,” said Christopher Benninger, a Pune-based American. the architect
Benninger, who is on the Culture Ministry’s 12-member committee on the project, called the work “more important for civic and nation-building”.
Srivathsan says that after delays, unfinished projects and allegations of corruption surrounding the 2012 Commonwealth Games, a view developed that no Indian professional had the ability or vision to execute urban design. “In that sense, this is an important moment for Indian urban designers and planners.”
Acutely aware of the connection between politics and urban design, Patel will be aware of the legacy he is creating to replace the Lutyens-Baker icon. But he is also aware that the new political reality does not allow for single authorship. Chandigarh was the city that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted, to make up for the loss of Lahore in Partition. The city is now better known for its association with Corbusier. Those close to him say Patel is under no illusion that he is building a “Patel’s Delhi” to replace “Lutyens’ Delhi”.
“The political space is much more contested now,” said a source who knows Patel well.
The hard part, however, is yet to come, and that is the new parliament building. Apart from housing the ‘green’ Lok Sabha and the ‘red’ Rajya Sabha in the 90-year-old Lutyens-Baker building, Patel plans a “grand, elegant and modern” structure.
Already, there has been criticism of the new design in the central hall – a place where MPs cross party lines and mingle with the media and others.
The peacock motif will dominate the Lok Sabha, designed to look like a dancing peacock’s open feathers, with upholstery also reflecting the national bird. The theme of the Rajya Sabha is lotus, the national flower. It is a small detail that the lotus is the symbol of BJP.
The elected parliament is expected to sit in the new building in 2024, marking a historic milestone. Benninger describes it as a “heart transplant.”
Beyond that, architects want to know what “language and vocabulary” he brings to the table. “The sprucing up of Central Vista (Avenue) has been well done, and I congratulate him for that. But that was the soft part. Rajneesh Wattas, former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, said the new parliament.
According to Watts, the triangular shape of Parliament designed by Patel is not consistent with the circular shape of the Lutyens-Baker structure. “When you’re building a national icon like Parliament, what’s the designer’s idiom when building a triangle next to a giant round shape,” Watts said, pointing to a potential clash between the three-cornered Parliament building and the wheel above. building, which will feature the newly sculpted lion capital national emblem.
Patel says his professional stamp will remain the same: “restraint”.