Bimal Patel’s Sunday Profile: The architect of grand projects

It is mid-morning on an August day in 2021, and Bimal Patel is showing yet another small group of journalists and public intellectuals around the Central Vista Redevelopment Project. “You see these tiles?” he asks, pointing to the pavement where workers are fixing rectangular pink tiles. “Each of these has to be fixed exactly right so they form straight lines all the way from here to India Gate. Straight lines are really tough to get. But that’s the kind of workmanship I am trying to ensure,” says Patel.

More than a year later, the Central Vista Avenue is open, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8. Patel — designer, urban planner, architect — is more than satisfied at not only the straight lines, but that the result is now being praised or at least acknowledged even by his critics and opponents.

The evening before the inauguration, at HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd, the 61-year-old Patel’s Ahmedabad-based company, there is not a moment to pause. It is well past sundown but at least on three floors of the eight-floor building on the Sabarmati riverfront — one of Patel’s earliest urban renewal projects — teams are at work.

While some study images of the Central Vista on their computer screens, others are working on the next phases of the project — the new Parliament building and the Central Secretariat buildings in Delhi, that will come up on either side of the renamed Kartavya Path.

On display in one section are 3-D prints of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha with miniature human models. The near 7-feet wall wears a print of the master plan while on the floor are strewn samples of material to be used in the new Parliament building, for which the countdown clock is set to October 10, 2022 — pink carved Dholpur sandstone, a brass filigree motif, prototypes of other adornments.

Dressed in his trademark black, the diminutive Patel is a bundle of nervous energy, restless over a delayed virtual conference. “I am the face of the design effort on Central Vista but there is a vast team that together makes such a project happen,” Patel told The Sunday Express, crediting Niki Shah in the design studio and Sunil Patel on the site, and describing his young colleagues as “war veterans”.

Besides, Patel thanks, “the indomitable will of the Prime Minister”, the CPWD (his client technically), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and contractors Shapoorji Pallonji.

Since his firm won the design contest for the Central Vista Project, Patel has been in the eye of the storm of opposition to it. The project has been described variously as Modi’s vanity project, his way of erasing the past and putting his personal stamp over Delhi, his projection of absolute power. As the architect, designer and urban planner who has been associated with Modi for over two decades, Patel’s credentials for the most consequential urban project after 1947 have come under public scrutiny.

“He is just some architect from Gujarat who knows Modi. What does he know about Delhi or its history?” went some of the reactions, amid reports of the erstwhile Rajpath being dug up, hundreds of trees being cut, and pre-Independence street lamps being replaced.

PM Modi travels to the center stage for the inauguration. (Express photo)

A graduate from CEPT, Ahmedabad (which he now heads), and the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his doctoral thesis under Marxist urban geographer Richard Walker, Patel was not unfazed by the tag, particularly from liberals, of “Modi’s architect”.

But this was not his first brush with such opposition — having faced similar pushback earlier on the Sabarmati riverfront project, and before that during the redevelopment of CG Road in Ahmedabad’s Central Business District in 1995. He sought out his opponents to convince them, including then mayor Bhavna Dave, welcoming their inputs.

Those who have worked with him say this is one of Patel’s biggest strengths — to engage with opponents and strive for a consensus. So, even as the Centre dissed the opposition to the Central Vista project as carping from the “Khan Market gang”, Patel held quiet meetings in Delhi — with architects, historians, public intellectuals, media, students — and later, organised tours for at least 50 “diverse” people to the site, declaring there was not a single question that he would not take on the project.

How many he managed to convince is unclear, but he did persuade one of his most vocal critics, naturalist-author Pradip Kishen, who was among the petitioners against the project in the Supreme Court, to take on the role of advisor on the trees that should be planted in the lawns of the Central Vista.

View of the newly-christened Kartavya Path, a stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate, before its inauguration in New Delhi, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. (PTI Photo)

“No other project in recent memory has evinced such debate. And he has engaged with all of it,” says Aravamutham Srivathsan, architect-urban designer/planner and head of the CEPT Research and Development Foundation.

Srivathsan says that the project was the demonstration of two other strengths of Patel. “He is able to divide a complex project into manageable parts, which is a great asset in urban projects that are more complex than architectural. Secondly, he is a unique combination of designer, planner and a great manager.”

For the Central Vista, Patel has also spoken about subtly convincing officials regarding the design, even the type of grass for the lawns. “Although Delhi’s bureaucratic systems annoy him, he has carved his way,” says a source close to Patel, mentioning HCP’s final touch in using technology to give a glimpse of the finished project, at public presentations, exhibitions.

However, there is no denying that Patel’s rise has coincided with Modi’s, first when the latter was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and later as PM. The 1995 CG Road project landed in Patel’s lap after it was cleared by senior BJP leader and then chairman of Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority Surendra Patel in pre-Modi years. Patel then brought Bimal Patel on board for the Sabarmati riverfront project. Impressed by his work, Modi got him to redevelop the Kankaria lake front.

This was followed by the Swarnim Sankul in 2011, housing the CM’s office and part of Gandhinagar’s Central Vista project; a solar plant observatory; the Gujarat High Court; the new IIM-A campus; the Ahmedabad airport terminal; and even EWS housing.

After Modi became PM in 2014, he picked Patel for the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project in Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency. In 2017, HCP bagged the Mumbai port redevelopment project — albeit after a design contest. In 2019, Bimal was awarded a Padma Shri.

Currently, even as Patel redesigns the seat of power in Delhi, HCP is also working on the redevelopment of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, directly overseen by the PMO.

The connect between him and Modi, says Srivathsan, is not based on any political affiliation, but trust. “Patel knows it is based on his ability to deliver, his competence,” he says.

Patel himself counts his efficient delivery of projects as one of his strongest suits. In interviews he has constantly said that today’s complex urban challenges cannot be solved by small boutique designers, who may not have the resources to scale up their solutions or rapidly replicate them. He takes pride in having built up HCP 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 has told friends that architects who want to work on urban design have to learn to deal with the government, reluctant politicians, or leaders who want to use the projects to further their own prospects. His approach is to present himself as a solution provider. This, according to him, allows for professional distancing and collaborations with even those one has ideological differences with, and lets projects stand the test of political change.

In these days of atmanirbharta, Patel’s execution of the Central Vista project is also seen as affirmation of the capabilities of Indian architects to deliver on a mega urban project. The only comparable post-Independence projects in scale, size and consequentiality are Chandigarh, which was helmed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and more recently, the Amaravati project, which was first awarded to a Japanese firm of designers, and later to a UK firm, before being abandoned altogether.

“(This is the) first time when someone has said Indians are also great architects… Had Sir Norman Foster (a British architect) been awarded the project, people would have said this is so great, but not when an Indian is doing it,” says Christopher Benninger, the celebrated Pune-based American architect.

Benninger, who is on a 12-member committee of the Ministry of Culture on the project, has called the work one of “greater importance to civic and nation building”.

Srivathsan says that after the delays, unfinished projects and allegations of corruption around the 2012 Commonwealth Games, a view had gained ground that no Indian professional had the capacity or vision to execute urban design. “In that sense, this is a pivotal moment for Indian urban designers and planners.”

Acutely aware of the connection between politics and urban design, Patel would be conscious of the legacy he is creating to replace the  Lutyens-Baker icon. But he is also aware that the new political realities do not allow for single authorship. Chandigarh was the city that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted, to compensate for the loss of Lahore in Partition. The city is now known better 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 now far more contested,” says a source who knows Patel well.

The difficult part however is yet to come, and that is the new Parliament building. Except for retaining the ‘green’ of the Lok Sabha and the ‘red’ of the Rajya Sabha in the 90-year-old Lutyens-Baker building, Patel is planning a “grander, ornamental and modern” structure.

Already, there has been criticism about the new design doing away with the Central Hall — a space where MPs mingle across party lines, and with the media and others.

The peacock motif will dominate the Lok Sabha, which is being designed to look like the open feathers of a dancing peacock, with its upholstery too reflecting the national bird. In the Rajya Sabha, the theme is the lotus, the national flower. That the lotus is the symbol of the BJP is a small detail.

The Parliament that will be elected in 2024 is expected to sit in the new building, marking a historic milestone. Benninger describes it as “heart transplant”.

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Beyond this, architects want to know what “language and vocabulary” he is bringing to the table. “The sprucing up of the Central Vista (avenue) is well done, and I congratulate him for it. But that was the soft part. The tricky part is the new Parliament,” says Rajnish Wattas, former principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture.

According to Wattas, the triangular-shaped Parliament that Patel has designed has no continuity with the circular shape of the Lutyens-Baker structure. “When you are creating a national icon like a Parliament, what is the designer’s idiom while creating a triangle next to a huge circular form,” Wattas says, pointing to a potential clash between the three-cornered Parliament House and the wheel on top of the building, on which will rest the newly sculpted Lion Capital national emblem.

Patel says his professional stamp will remain the same: “restraint”.

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