Architects, in general, have a hard time saying a ‘no’. Be it a new commission that is being debated nationally, an excellent proposal that was replaced by a clients’ whims, or anything similar – an architect will nod and move forward. Because, he (or his office) needs (‘wants’ in many cases) the commission, or needs the client to pay up (happily, and in time). While the financials are a necessity, this irritating habit of ours have landed us in trouble more than once, and we have made ourselves comfortable in the trouble, constricting our radii of existence, and accommodating more difficulty with each successive step. When it comes to the building industry, we are nothing more but a tiny, insignificant stakeholder who can be toyed with, played around and passed on with great ease. The entire saga of the “Development/Redevelopment of Parliament Building Common Central Secretariat and Central Vista at New Delhi” shows us this.
For anyone following this issue (most are), it isn’t news that we were majorly sidelined in our own game. Still, for the uninitiated, here it is- part one, part two. The ball was indeed in our court, but, the rules of the game allowed nobody to play. Nobody could even touch the ball! Five amongst a country with 5000+ architecture offices is a ‘nobody’. Take my word for it.
Let us get down to the economics of it. An annual turnover of 20 Cr is not a joke. It’s so high, it isn’t even a high flung dream for 99% of the architecture offices! A typical architecture firm in this country is a small unit, often having humble beginnings in a bedroom, or a garage, which then moved up the ladder to a well-designed basement, a floor in a corporate grid, or if lucky, a standalone property! 20 Cr is a big amount, and for an architecture practice in India to have that turnover, it needs to be concentrating on the number of commissions and square-feet it is designing and building. Volume, or say, quantity over quality. And that precisely happens to be a common thread amongst most of those whose bids were accepted. Also, even if there are more than 5-6 offices with an annual turnover of more than 20 Cr, why didn’t they participate in the bid? Has anyone thought about it?
The initial Earnest Money Deposit was set at 50 lakhs. (What is an EMD?) What job in the realm of design demands an absurd EMD of 50 lakhs? It was reduced to 25 lakhs later in a bid to provide relief. Guess that was a ‘comic relief’ they intended at providing. How does it matter whether the EMD is 25 lakhs or 50 when the annual turnover is set so high, almost nobody will qualify?
The predicted happened. Only 6 out of a nation full of firms bid for the project, and one got disqualified because of the non-fulfillment of the annual turnover clause. The five that have been selected are really big offices with a long list of projects that display the volume business that they are in (which, by no way is wrong). But the one thing that strikes is the sole fact that despite the fraternity being angered at the way this project suddenly took up speed and is racing ahead, we the architects couldn’t stick together.
Ar. Rajesh Advani, Founder, ArchitectureLive! says, “There is nothing democratic about the public architecture of the world’s largest democracy. That’s ironic.”
I’m not deliberating upon the importance of the particular project in question here, this has been already widely discussed by most. I want to focus on why, despite the hushed nature of the project and the almost humiliating treatment meted out to the architects by the CPWD, we have decided to bid for the same. And by focus, I want to ask some questions.
The most important one that crosses my mind is this – “Can’t we, the architects say NO to a project? Or at least to how it is being brought about?” And not any project, the one which specifically aims to unsettle the tip of the balance? A project like this that calls for a company to be eligible for bidding only if the turnover is an absurdly huge amount by Indian Standards? A project whose design is selected not by the prescribed design competition way, but by submitting a bid, not based on design prowess, but based on economic standing? A project, whose very imperfect execution right from the beginning makes it an absurd proposal that is evident not only to the fraternity but to the whole of the nation? As such, couldn’t the architecture fraternity as a united front stand up to the strange manner of architect selection and say a collective NO to such a bid called by the CPWD?
It couldn’t, and it did not. Those select few who had the money did bid for the project, while the rest just cried foul, wrote letters and cribbed.
The next question that comes to my mind is – “Aren’t architects united?” The answer is a bigger NO. You see, the very nature of our work makes us one-for-ourselves. Our friendships are on-the-surface, and pleasantries namesake. Because we are the providers of a service whose demand is low and has a narrow clientele. (Don’t start on socialist architecture please, that’s non-existent in our country.) As such, there is a mad rush, unhinged price compromise and undercutting for that single project which needs to be won, by hook or crook. And that in itself prevents us from being united, stand together and raise our voice. Because, no matter how unfair the manner of awarding of the commission is, there is always someone who fits the bill. And if you are the only eligible amongst, you wouldn’t want to raise your voice. Right?
This project did hit us right where it needed to – in the glaring financial gaps. Nobody asked how good a designer you are, whether you are capable of redesigning the very seat of democracy of the country, or other assorted quality-driven-stuff. All they did ask was if you make enough money per year. Because if you do, you are eligible to take a shot. And that too within an extremely short time frame. I wonder how any sane architect or his/her office can think of coming up with a proposal within such a short time frame. I would have said “Lord save us”, but even he is tired!
Ar. Suresh Patel’s observations in this regard are as follows: “Here is a lesson for fellow professionals and students, who will become professionals soon. A common denominator exists among all these five, and it isn’t a good design or a project program. But, connections.”
This isn’t democracy by any means. The way the entire process was conducted only feels superficial, an easy back-calculation to make a pre-decided choice legitimate. That this is the PM’s dream project is a fact that has been confirmed by the Union Minister of Housing & Urban Affairs. And the rest is obvious. But because I’m at it, let me take a shot at writing down the speculations that are floating around the industry. The Gujarat-connection is inevitable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently held a mammoth celebration of Gandhi’s 150th Birthday in the Sabarmati Riverfront that has been designed by one amongst the selected five. And this firm is based out of Ahmedabad, run by an experienced and accomplished architect who was awarded the fourth highest civilian award only this year. Connect the dots, please. (This is just me writing down what I have heard from places. The underlying can be different, and we all might not have a clue about it!)
In any case, the government is after bagging big names for this project – it has, after all, an IT cell to run, and much brainwashing to do! In the case that an architect was already decided, the bid conditions were set accordingly so that mass participation could be avoided, thereby sealing chances. It is easier to select the desired out of five proposals, than out of 500! I am not sure about this, but chances of this aren’t zero, right? I hope I am not the only one to see this through?
Do not take the liberty of thinking that I have reservations against any of the shortlisted offices. I am merely disgusted by the way the proceedings are going on. I have a strong tendency to oppose anything that is imposed upon, restricts freedom of expression, and exerts control on the democratic right of participation. Having said that, I would trust the Gujarat-connection the most amongst the five shortlisted firms with the job. This again is personal, and choices will vary.
A bar set so high that nobody could even participate in the design stage – this is a classic case of death of democracy, one amongst the many. And brace yourselves, this is only a start. After all, we are not going to unite. We are not going to stand together and say, “Come what may, no architect will bid for this…” So, let the suffering begin!
Then again, if no Indian Architect turned up, the Govt. would have nabbed a foreign name of bigger fame! If no, it would have picked out someone who isn’t an architect for the design. Say, SS Rajamouli or someone similar? In any case, none of this justifies the turnover barrier, and the EMD amounts at any cost.
We have only thought of ourselves, but we have hardly thought about us. In accepting to bid for this project, architects have yet again widened the cracks that keep us from taking a common stand and raising a united voice against the collective misdoings that we have been facing since long. Regarding the Indian Institute of Architects and the Council of Architecture – well, the letters they wrote to the Ministry weren’t even replied to. Sidelined so easily, it makes me cringe as to how a national body and a Govt. Council can so easily be ignored. We have no power left, have we?
At this stage, there are three things I am looking forward to knowing intently:
1. Which firm receives the final commission?
2. What is the agreed rate of engagement and on what basis?
3. What is the proposed timeline of such a humongous project of international repute and identity?
Much depends on all of the above three, and I won’t elaborate on why.
I don’t think we will be able to earn respect this way. By being a yes-fraternity all the time, we architects have only shown that come what may, we will be up for a job that’s on offer, doesn’t matter how hazy the brief be, or how unfair the selection criteria be. In this case, 5 were eligible, the rest got angry. In the next, when the turnover is 10 Cr, and 50 are eligible, the 45 new firms will be at the top of the world, and the rest will be cribbing. And this will go on. Architects will be fuming when the bar is above, but the moment it gets within reach, they will take the jump. It’s all fair when you’re eligible. It’s unfair when you’re not. That is the singular truth.