Lutyens' New Delhi bungalows may be bulldozed to make way for tower blocks

Done well, a project to sweep away the domestic architecture of the Raj could save the city, reports Peter Popham. But will it be done well?
Click to follow
IF INDIA'S new minister of Urban Affairs has his way, one of the greatest architectural monuments of the British Raj could disappear under millions of tons of concrete. And if it were done with sufficient flair and conviction, it could be Delhi's salvation.

The residential heart of New Delhi, the Indian capital built by the British in the 1920s and 1930s, is known as Lutyens's Bungalow Zone (LBZ) after Sir Edwin Lutyens, New Delhi's master architect. Inspired by the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Lutyens' own work in Hampstead Garden Suburb, it consists of many broad boulevards lined with tall, mature trees. Behind low brick walls and screening hedges are the plain, handsome, whitewashed bungalows, set amid rolling lawns and herbaceous borders, which housed the colonial administrators.

"In England, the word 'bungalow' is the complete expression of architectural sin," wrote the critic Robert Byron, introducing New Delhi in the Architectural Review in 1931. "In India it has been transformed into something solid and spacious ... Each house is set in a compound of two or three acres ... so that a road containing 20 houses on either side would stretch from Marble Arch to the British Museum."

It is this extravagant use of space for the benefit of a tiny elite - politicians and senior bureaucrats - that is the heart of the problem with the Bungalow Zone.

As Professor Satish Grover, head of the Department of Architecture in Delhi's School of Planning and Architecture puts it, "In the Bungalow Zone the population density is 12 to 15 people per acre; in the old walled city of Delhi it is 1,500 people per acre. To maintain this kind of cruel imbalance does not behove a city."

Ram Jethmalani, the veteran lawyer who is the new Minister of Urban Affairs in India's coalition government, made the same point in May, soon after taking office.

"While the rest of the city lives in misery, a few thousand live in luxury in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone," he said. Mr Jethmalani speaks with authority, being himself one of the lucky few thousand. "I personally feel we cannot continue with such luxury," he went on. "The LBZ is a low-density area ... It has excellent infrastructure to take additional load. Therefore the existing bungalows should be demolished and converted into high-rises, with excellent living amenities. Even ministers should move into high- quality, multi-storied residential complexes ... "

Mr Jethmalani has appointed a six-member committee of architects and planners "to examine the entire issue ... in view of the historical character of the area, optimum utilisation of land resources and to plan for the coming century". He has instructed the committee to report back with its findings within two months.

When the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the latter was, in the words of the former viceroy Lord Curzon (who disapproved of the move) "a cemetery of dead monuments and forgotten dynasties". On the broken, rocky, sun-baked plain, dotted with crumbling forts and mausoleums, Lutyens built his city, dominated by the fabulous Viceroy's Palace and the vast ceremonial avenue, Kingsway, which leads up to it, for a projected population of 70,000.

The ceremonial part of the city was quintessentially imperial, redolent equally of the Mughal Emperors and of Napoleon. The Bungalow Zone, by contrast, was pure Home Counties, pure Ebenezer Howard, with both the virtues and the faults of later versions such as Milton Keynes.

It is wonderfully verdant - seen from above it resembles a great forest - but with endless roundabouts and nearly identical streets leading off them, one section looks just like another, and the scale is so enormous that it is impossible to negotiate on foot, despite the generous pavements.

Professor Grover's verdict is damning. "Lutyens made a total hash of this city," he said, "and we are living with the consequences. The Bungalow Zone is very disorientating - I've lived here all my life and I still get lost. Every street looks like every other one. And the bungalows, although a terrific status symbol, are horrible to live in, cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. The British thought that if you put the houses in huge compounds with grass and trees, this would make them cool. But it was wishful thinking. It doesn't. The zone has got the garden city feel - but look at how few people enjoy it. The whole thing needs to be re-studied."

Aside from the intrinsic faults of the Bungalow Zone itself, Delhi's chief problem lies in its explosive growth since independence, which has seen the city's population balloon to well over 10 million.

This growth has been largely haphazard, without accompanying provision of public transport or other services. Plans to channel development into satellite towns have come to nothing. Talk of providing a mass transit rail network has been going on so long that it has become a bad joke.

While the roads are increasingly choked with cars, the abysmally polluting three-wheeled autorickshaw is still Delhi's commonest conveyance. Fully 40 per cent of Delhi's population lives in illegal shanty towns, lacking even the most basic amenities.

The visual impact of the shift from the Bungalow Zone to the area immediately beyond makes for a startling contrast. Milton Keynes suddenly gives way to parades of unplanned, jerry-built shops, pitch-black open sewers bordered by tight-packed squatters' shacks and huts made of tin and plastic and cardboard, and the hulking stadiums and expo facilities that are the modern monuments to the vanity of rulers.

As Mr Jethmalani points out, within the modern city the Bungalow Zone is an offensively luxurious anomaly. The challenge for Delhi is to produce a development plan which leaves the greenery of the Bungalow Zone intact, and exploits this huge area not to undermine but to enhance Delhi's urban character; and to take at least one resolute step towards improving the city for the population as a whole.

It is a huge architectural challenge. Will it be met? The big question is whether India possesses the political will and the aesthetic discernment to initiate a plan bold yet sensitive enough to do the job.

Professor Grover, for one, is pessimistic. "Nothing will happen," he says bleakly. "It will be very difficult to persuade the politicians and administrators who live in the zone to give up this utterly extraordinary luxury and live in flats. Yet, as an architect and a resident of Delhi, I feel things have got to change."