50 Years of planning and architecture in Delhi: 1912-1962

Hans Schenk

Two momentous years have been chosen by Pilar Maria Guerrieri to delimit her research on Delhi’s socio-spatial development: 1912 and 1962. In 1912 a Town Planning Committee for New Delhi was formed and the design and building of the new capital of British India started. In 1962 a first Master Plan for the whole of Delhi – including its component part New Delhi – became effective. The 50 years in-between these dates form a period of transition that has been described and analysed in her book.

New Delhi: The birth of a hybrid city

Guerrieri traces the transition from Delhi before 1912 to the city in 1962 in a number of chapters, in which she gradually scales down her focus from city level planning to planning and architecture of its component parts: neighbourhoods, and further down to individual buildings. In an early chapter (Chapter 2), she introduces the traditional Mughal city Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), compact, overpopulated and unhealthy according to the British and not suited to become the capital city of British India after the 1911 decision to move the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Guerrieri describes in some detail the designs for a new city – New Delhi – by the British architects Lutyens and Baker, nearby Shahjahanabad but clearly separated from it. New Delhi was to become the grandiose centre of the colony government, an imperial city, but also with a hybrid character. This character should express on the one hand the unity of the colony through the incorporation of Indian architectural elements in its major buildings, and on the other hand the superiority of the colonizers through the monumental and spacious lay out of the new city and the classicist styled public palaces and offices. Following tracks set by authors such as Sten Nilsson and Robert Irving, Guerrieri questions, however, the assumed hybrid character of New Delhi, as the Indian contribution to the hybridity is minimal: there were only some ornaments in a few major public buildings (p. 24).[i] As she had promised in her introduction, Guerrieri continues to analyse the concept of Delhi following the formal inauguration of Edwin Lutyens’ and Herbert Baker’s Imperial New Delhi, ‘inaugurated’ in 1931. The author claims rightly that an asset of the book is that it ‘supplements and integrates the studies already undertaken by other scholars’ (p. 6), since she bridges the gap between the well documented 1912 plan for New Delhi and the equally well described and analysed Master Plan of 1962. She describes the gradual growth of the city, without any public institution trying to work on some sort of a lay-out. This was accelerated by Independence and the following partition with Pakistan in 1947 leading to a massive inflow of refugees, and forms the core of the period between – say – 1931 and 1962. Hence, the urbanised area grew casually while land ‘was steadily falling into the hand of speculators’ (p. 29). The 1962 Master Plan –  prepared under guidance of the US urban planner Albert Mayer and the Ford Foundation – sought to control this by introducing land use planning, zoning, and spatial segregation of urban functions (notably residential and industrial ones).

From havelis and bungalows finally to slums
Guerrieri zooms in Chapters 3 and 4 in on component areas of New Delhi: neighbourhoods. First, in Chapter 3, she accentuates the enormous variety in types of residential neighbourhoods, in terms of class, caste and ethnicity, density, lay-out, functional zoning, heterogeneity versus homogeneity of their respective populations, etc. In Chapter 4, however, she tries to bring some order in this variety by contrasting the congested parts (mohallahs) of Shahjahanabad with the planned neighbourhoods of New Delhi. The so-called ‘colonies’ – self-contained neighbourhoods – were designed and built for the Indian public servants. The British public servants were provided with plots in pay-scale related bungalow neighbourhoods, characterised by a lavish use of space, and ‘planned for car traffic’ (p. 49). Furthermore, Guerrieri pays quite some attention to the differences between the respective forms and functions of residential buildings – notably those of the better off – in Old Delhi and New Delhi. The larger houses (havelis) accommodated extended families, servants, and craftsmen, often around inner (semi-)public courtyards, also called – as she writes – ‘introverted gardens’.[ii] She writes with much understanding for life in these ‘mini towns’. In contrast to the internally-directed living worlds of the havelis stands the upper segment of housing activities under guidance by the colonial rulers: bungalows. Verandahs and open spaces surround the externally-oriented bungalows of New Delhi. Visually, New Delhi was hence supposed to look like an English garden city: open, airy, green. However, Guerrieri unfortunately describes the New Delhi bungalows in a short-sighted way  as a: ‘manner of living similar to that of British garden cities such as Hampstead and Welwyn’ (p. 112).[iii] The author in this chapter also briefly follows the developments in other – more modest – types of residential areas from the 1930s to the effectuation of the 1962 Master Plan. Among the array of public and private organisations that provided housing in a variety of forms, sizes and prices, housing for the 1947 post-Partition refugees from Pakistan has been given attentions, as well as ‘state-subsidized’ housing for civil servants (p. 119), although it remains completely unclear whether and to whom there was any subsidy at stake. Finally, slums are discussed. Guerrieri surprisingly states that: ‘slums were actually non-existent before the shift of the capital’ (p. 131),[iv] and she observes that the initial attempts of resettlement, followed by endeavours to improve slums in-situ have not been very successful. The ‘lack of effective planning, or the incapacity of the planners to appropriately respond to the city’s needs’ are held responsible by Guerrieri to this stage of affair (p. 131), but she regrettably does not elucidate this statement.

Palladianism and more

Chapter 4, though it has a bias towards the upper side of the housing stock in both Shajahanabad and New Delhi, gives an interesting mix of issues pertaining to architecture and planning at micro-scale, and is, in my view, the best part of the book. In much detail she introduces and describes a large number of Delhi’s neighbourhoods, though the readers who are less familiar with the topographical map and nomenclature of the city may find it not always easy to read, despite the few included maps. In Chapter 5 she zooms in even further up to the level of individual buildings and community spaces. Here again, Guerrieri describes in detail the transitions in the use of urban space from Shahjanabad to New Delhi and subsequent extensions. Thus, markets replace bazars, railway tracts appear, large scale factories are moved to the urban periphery, etc. But also in this chapter, familiarity with Delhi is an asset. Especially those who know Delhi in sufficient detail can fruitfully absorb the torrent of topographical information. The book ends with an architectural appendix on the Palladianism, a classicist- architectural style that has been developed by the Italian architect Palladio.[v] It found its way to England, while subsequently: ‘In India, during British rule, and oriental form of Andrea Palladio’s style was born’ (p. 228). Palladianism – or rather neo-Palladianism – found its Zenith in The Viceroy’s House, designed by Lutyens and now the Presidential Palace (the Rashtrapati Bhavan). It is hard to explain in detail the style and character of Palladian buildings. Indications, such as: ‘using the outline of an ancient temple as a façade’ and hence ‘façadism’ (on page 229 quoting from Werner Oechslin, Palladianesimo: Teoria e prassi, Venezia: Arsenale editrice, 2006, p. 221) mixed with Indo-Saracenic style elements, only have been given in addition to some photographs and house-plans. Quite some public building and bungalows in New Delhi, testify for this façade-architecture, displaying many awe-inspiring front pillars.


In the end, in some sort of conclusion, Guerrieri put to the question to what degree foreign models of town planning and architecture are valid for urban India, and she asks for both fields a quest for an Indian identity and: ‘a new respect for the living heritages of the ancient parts of the town’ (p. 226). Of course, this makes sense. And apart from these remarks, Guerrieri’s book is certainly interesting as it helps those readers who have affinity with India’s capital city to understand the myriad of period-pieces, styles and spatial settings of dwellings and neighbourhoods in quite some of its parts. Moreover, her claim to bridge the two momentous years 1912 and 1962 is valid. The book has its limitations as well. Many detailed paragraphs are hard to appreciate for those readers for whom the city is merely a spot on the map. Moreover, and more importantly, Guerrieri has neglected to tackle some vital aspects of the urban socio-spatial structure, then and now. As I noted above, for example, her dealing with Delhi’ slums will leave many readers with uneasy feelings. The publisher of her book, finally, should certainly have taken more care when presenting the print manuscript to the reader. The book unfortunately contains hundreds of marks of slovenliness, ranging from wrong footnotes, missing references, faulty quotes, lack of in-text references to the many illustrations, etc.

[i] The nature of New Delhi has become a continuous issue among town planners, architects, historians and others. In an ironic mood, B. K. Joshi, reviewing a biography of Edwin Lutyens in The Times of India, 7 December 1980, recalls the suggestion to name the new part of Delhi under construction: ‘Georgebad’ or ‘Marypore’. The American architectural historian Norma Evenson even remarks that: ‘It was not certain in fact, that New Delhi was destined to be a city at all. New Delhi was intended to house the imperial government headquarters, nothing more’. (Norma Evenson, The Indian Metropolis: A View Toward the West, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 145).
[ii] This term, to my knowledge, has been coined by Rory Fonseca, The walled city of Old Delhi, in Paul Oliver (ed.) Shelter and Society, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1969, 111. No less than 25 per cent of the land use in Shahjahanabad was, according to Fonseca, devoted to these introverted gardens.
[iii] The comparison with the British garden cities is a mistake. Garden cities such as Welwyn, advocated and designed by the English planner Ebenezer Howard in the early 20th century, served as overspill cities for the expanding large cities and should create a new mix of social classes. These conditions never applied to New Delhi, as Sten Nilsson already pointed out (Sten Åke Nilsson, The New Capitals of IndiaPakistan and Bangladesh, Lund: Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies, 1973, 79). Even a superficial comparison is hardly valid. Howard aimed at 20 dwellings on an acre, while a single Delhi plot would not be smaller than 1.0 to 1.5 acres and could be as large as 5 acres!
[iv] Guerrieri seems to refer to a quoted sentence from Jagmohan, the (ill-famous) Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority and responsible for massive slum clearances and poorly implemented resettlement projects during the so-called Emergency in India (1975-7). However, Jagmohan clearly writes: ‘Suburbs of the poor, near the Wall or even outside were not very different from the squatter or ‘jhuggi-clusters’ of today’ (Jagmohan, Rebuilding Shahjahanabad: The Walled City of Delhi, New Delhi: Vikas, 1975, 4).
[v] The reviewer wonders when this was developed.