The runner-up in the competition to design the building has alleged that the winning entry is plagiarised and violates the brief.
An unseemly battle is underway over the design for the proposed National War Museum in Delhi. As a consequence, construction has been delayed.
Several government agencies have objected to the winning design and a series of complaints have compelled the defence ministry to set up an empowered committee to review “all issues” related to the museum and the design competition. The matter has even reached Delhi’s Patiala Court, where the winning architectural firm has sued the first runner-up for defamation. Muddying the waters further, the chairman of the jury that judged the competition, actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar, has accused the first runner-up of “unethical lobbying” to change the result.
The winning design was submitted by Studio sP+a, a firm in Mumbai headed by the architect Sameep Padora, while Aakaar Design came second. Not satisfied with the result, Aakaar Design, based in Gurgaon, made several complaints against Studio sP+a, starting with letters to the jury on April 12 alleging that its rival had copied the plans from a Japanese firm and a French firm. Aakaar Design also accused Studio sP+a of deliberately undercounting the number of trees that would have to be felled for the museum.
The complaints, made to government advisory bodies, the competition’s organisers, senior Army officers and even the Prime Minister’s Office, have jeopardised Studio sP+a’s chance of winning the contract to construct the museum. The Mumbai firm responded by filing a defamation suit, hearings for which started on April 25.
The winning design has also run into objections from the Delhi Urban Arts Commission and the Heritage Conservation Committee. These bodies are tasked with preserving the aesthetic appeal and heritage value of public structures in Delhi. Their main argument against the design relates to its alleged incongruity with the location – Princes Park on Copernicus Marg just outside the hexagon of roads surrounding India Gate. The area is rich in heritage buildings that once served as residences for rulers of princely states in British India. The proposed museum will have Baroda House across the road, and Hyderabad House, Jaipur House and Patiala House close by. One of the conditions of the competition was that the new museum must be “harmonious” with the style of these structures.
DS Basera, director of the National War Memorial and Museum, declined to provide detailed responses to questions emailed to him about the delay in commissioning the project. “All issues pertaining to the National War Museum design are currently under review by an empowered committee” of the defence ministry, he said.
The Delhi Urban Arts Commission and the Heritage Conservation Committee also failed to respond to questions emailed to them. The arts commission took note of Aakaar Design’s complaint of April 21, 2017 at its August 30 meeting, the minutes of which are public, but decided it had “no role in evaluating the design competition entries”. The firm’s complaints were not mentioned again in the meetings of either body.
Senior architects, however, pointed out that there is occasionally a gap between the design and the actual construction of a building. A client “is not under obligation to get the winning design executed”, said a member of the Council of Architecture, the government regulatory body for architects in India. For design competitions, architects generally follow a “design brief” or a “competition dossier” which are offered by the organiser but are not always detailed enough for a workable plan. “So what you get is a design intent,” he said. “You can have a great design that is not buildable for a range of reasons such as cost. But it remains the first-prize winner.”
Aakaar Design not only claimed that Studio sP+a’s scheme was faulty but also alleged that it was plagiarised from the Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, designed by a Japanese firm. Aakaar Design also alleged that the Mumbai firm had “misrepresented the right size and scale” of trees in its models and images and altered street alignments. By the Gurgaon firm’s estimate, the Studio sP+a design would result in the loss of at least 265 trees, either because the building would be in the way or they would be damaged during construction.
Padora responded to Aakaar Design’s complaints on May 25, 2017. He wrote to the organisers of the competition that the allegation of plagiarism “is like saying that the Lotus Temple, Delhi, is a copy of the Sydney Opera House because both use funicular shells”. As for the loss of trees, he claimed his firm had accounted for the environment data provided in the competition brief, “ascertained the diameters of the tree foliage from Google Earth images”. He also furnished pictures of other designs which he alleged showed more trees on the ground than the plans allowed.
On June 1, Aakar Design made another complaint, this time to the Prime Minister’s Office, accusing Studio sP+a of copying its design from French firm Series et Series’ proposed plan for the Taichung City Cultural Centre in Taiwan. Padora sent his plans to Series et Series and they wrote back on August 11: “Our team took a look at your project and though it shares some of the same architectural language as our Taichung entry, we do not believe they are very similar at all.” Padora forwarded the response to the jury and the organisers.
Following this, one of Aakar Design’s partners complained to Series et Series. In response, the French firm sent it a string of laughter emojis.