Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Delhi, Old and New

Delhi, January 29, 2013

Not so long ago we were having a conversation with my friend Peter Tagiuri about the notion of "the new city."  It wasn't about new cities like Brasilia or Chandigarh (or Canberra, or Washington or Palmanova for that matter) that are conceived from scratch, so to speak, but about large, city-scale extensions of existing cities.  I'm not exactly sure what Peter had in mind, but Delhi should certainly fit the bill.

Actually, what is now called Old Delhi was rather new not so long ago.  It was established as a walled city by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (also the builder of the Taj Mahal) in 1639.  At the end of the 19th century maps still labeled it "Modern Delhi", in contrast with earlier settlements in the area.

The British took Delhi in 1857.  When it replaced Calcutta as the capital of the British Raj (the colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent) in 1911, Sir Edwin Lutyens--the leading architect of the empire--set out to work on a scheme for the new capital, Imperial Delhi, to the south of the existing city.  Old an New Delhi can be seen as an exercise in contrasts.  If the old city was a web of narrow streets cutting through a dense fabric, Lutyens conceived the new city as an axial composition of expansive views, a network of diagonals and circles with monumental buildings far apart from each other either framing or terminating the lines in the plan.

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