New Delhi 2: new compound, 1946-62

New Delhi 1: 1946-62

Diplomatic enclave

The Government of India first proposed the designation and development of a diplomatic colony, or enclave, for the permanent accommodation of diplomatic missions in 1946. By 1950, a large area at Chanakyapuri, just south of Government House (the former Viceroy’s House), had been selected. Sites would be available to missions on perpetual leasehold terms with annual ground rent payable, and the Government of India would build all the infrastructure. General Sir Archibald Nye, who had succeeded Shone as high commissioner in 1948, argued to the Commonwealth Relations Office that, distasteful – even repugnant – as such an enclave would be for all diplomats, and expensive for all governments, there was in practice no alternative to ‘putting in our stake while we may’. His arguments were accepted in London.

The Secretary of Works, Mines and Power convened a meeting of diplomats in April 1947 to explain Indian thinking. Twenty acres was proposed as a maximum for any country. Nothing much happened for a few years after that, during which the high commission and the local office of the Ministry of Works followed up various leads to no avail. Frustrations mounted among the missions as the inadequacies of most of the temporary arrangements took their toll. Alexander Symon, the deputy high commissioner, told the Ministry of Works officers on his staff that ‘I cannot impress upon you too much the importance of putting every ounce of energy into the question of securing adequate accommodation for members of the High Commission and its associated agencies.’

Eventually, in January 1950 and at four days’ notice, the Ministry of External Affairs convened another meeting, which was attended by about thirty representatives of missions. A model of the proposed diplomatic enclave at Chanakyapuri was presented and a layout drawing distributed: about 200 acres were designated as building sites, with sixteen plots of two acres and thirteen large sites, on which missions could build what they wished, provided the arrangements were generally agreed by the government and the buildings conformed to the by-laws: there would be no attempt to insist upon uniformity of approach. The tenure would be perpetual leasehold, since the government had decided that no land would be sold freehold in New Delhi: the terms would be for a capital premium per acre to cover land and infrastructure costs and an annual ground rent at the rate of 2½% of the premium. The government would provide all the necessary infrastructure. The Ministry of Works, Mines and Power wanted, totally unrealistically, to receive firm bids from missions for sites by the end of the following month. The British high commissioner, Nye, speculated to London that his high commission would need 24 acres and that the necessary accommodation would cost about half a million pounds, but he thought this could all be stretched out over a period. He recommended including the necessary deposit monies in the estimates for 1950/51, and wanted approval to tell the diplomatic corps in Delhi, who were bound to look to Britain for a lead as the largest mission, ‘that we agree in principle to participation in the scheme within the next seven years, subject to satisfactory negotiations with the Government of India on the best possible terms.’

Nye’s arguments were accepted in London, including by the Treasury who made a £75,000 provision in the estimates. The high commission earmarked two possible sites ‘on the strict understanding that such earmarking must not be interpreted as a definite undertaking to acquire land.’ The Indians proceeded surprisingly rapidly with the infrastructure, and introduced a slightly more favourable commuted ground rent formula. The estimated UK requirement for 24 acres for offices for the 115 UK-based and 200 locally engaged staff, and residential accommodation for the UK staff and their domestic servants, was substantiated. In September 1950 the newly-arrived Ministry of Works architect, Alex Tough, proposed the selection of a site lying along the central vista that he thought was better than either of the provisionally earmarked sites: it comprised 29 acres but he thought that its northernmost 5 acres could be lopped off, leaving the high commission with four increments of six acres. The Indians agreed in principle, and suddenly the pace hotted up because the high commission was desperate to make a start on building junior staff accommodation on the site. In October, the Treasury authorised taking up to 20 acres of the now-preferred site while accepting that, if the Indians refused to deal in less than six acre increments (which everyone knew they would), 24 acres would, reluctantly, be permitted. And so it was. Treasury also preferred the commuted rent formula, which eventually worked out at a capital premium payable of £156,650 for 24.11 acres of land, and a nominal annual ground rent. The address of the site was (and remains) Plot 3, Block 50C, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.

Planning of the compound

The Indians proceeded rapidly with the infrastructure. Nye pressed for 16 junior flats to be ready by the end of 1952 but the Ministry of Works architects pointed out that some idea of a master plan was a pre-requisite to siting any such block. The Commonwealth Relations Office was only lukewarm in support: it had sympathy ‘with the wishes of the Architects to do things properly by planning the site first. We should prefer it that way ourselves, other things being equal, but the time factor is a decisive objection.’  The Ministry of Works, unprepared to delegate the design work to its New Delhi office or to a local architect in India, and too stretched in London to undertake it, decided to employ an ‘outside’ or nominated architect. The choice fell on the distinguished Herbert Rowse, who accepted the commission at the end of February 1951. Among his works were the British pavilion at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938 and the Liverpool Philharmonic Concert Hall, completed in 1939. Rowse arrived in Delhi with his assistant, Donald Bradshaw, in early April 1951 but fell seriously ill with typhoid in early May, was in hospital for six weeks, and was back in England in mid-June with little accomplished. Rowse evidently continued his thoughts because a pencil sketch of his exists, dated August 1951, of the preliminary elevation of a thoroughly unsuitable monolithic development which was estimated to cost an impossible £2m. Expenditure cuts that autumn put the project into further delay, which gave the Ministry of Works the opportunity to terminate Rowse’s commission and instead to undertake the work itself in London, when it re-started,

By mid-1952, the Indian government was pressing missions for progress in developing their sites because it in turn was under pressure to release requisitioned premises, a programme that had itself been delayed.

The first requirement for the high commission remained staff accommodation and associated infrastructure. Reginald Mills, the Ministry of Works senior architect of the embassy offices in Bonn and elsewhere, produced an overall compound plan and designs for the first few buildings, for which a model was ready by September 1953. By and large, this was the scheme that came to be built. A north-south avenue connected the offices at its south end with the residence at its north. Three houses for the most senior staff lay along the west side of the avenue and all the other staff accommodation, amenities and domestic staff quarters were relatively evenly spread across the rest of the site to the east. Mills was careful to orientate the blocks of flats to avoid the low sun and to catch as much breeze as possible, not least by raising them on stilts.

Model of final sketch plan for compound layout, 1953.

The scheme was criticised on various counts, seriously enough to merit a visit to New Delhi in November 1954 by Edward Muir, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Works, and Richard Turner, assistant chief architect: ‘We found that [the Post] were in a state of very great apprehension as a result of looking with an uninformed eye at the plans and layout which had been sent to them. … Basically, the High Commissioner’s [Sir Alexander Clutterbuck] objection is to the whole concept of building a housing estate for the staff ’. More realistic were complaints that the layouts of both the compound and the flats were too cramped: leaving out the residence would be an obvious way of freeing up some space. By 1955, however, more flats were becoming available to rent on the Delhi market, though their quality was poor, and so the housing pressure on the compound was easing. In early 1955, the final scheme was presented to Ministers, who professed to like it, and to the Royal Fine Art Commission, which was lukewarm but could be politely ignored.

Construction of the compound

There were no UK contractors working in India, nor Indian contractors who could be sufficiently relied upon, so the Ministry of Works opted to build the compound with a large directly-employed labour force under its own supervision and to accept full financial responsibility.

The compound was built in three phases. The first phase started on site in December 1955, under the managerial control of a senior Ministry of Works site control officer, A Watson, and comprised the boundary wall, roads and services infrastructure with plant house, 54 flats for middle and junior grade UK staff in three five-storey blocks, and sick bay, community centre, swimming pool and servants’ quarters. This phase was completed and occupied by the time that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, laid the foundation stone for the office block in the second phase in January 1958. This phase, which took until 1960, included all the offices, workshops and garages. The third phase began in 1960 and included the fourth block of flats and six houses for senior staff: it was completed in 1962. Full occupation of the compound was achieved in the same year, fifteen years after independence.

Recently completed compound, from Ashok Hotel, 1962.

The compound was designed to include the residence, upon which the Commonwealth Relations Office had insisted at the outset. Several considerations, however, argued during the 1950s for its exclusion: the widespread feeling that the designs for the compound were trying to pack too much in; the leased residence was more than adequate; skilful lobbying by the high commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald, on behalf of all his successors who could be reliably predicted to prefer living off-compound; and a distinct wish for the development of the compound to be polished off as quickly and cheaply as possible. London bit the bullet in 1960 and renewed the residence lease on 2 King George Avenue for a further term of thirty years. The site at the compound that was earmarked for a new residence was left as open space. A small Moghul pool was built in the centre of what was intended to become the vehicular turning circle in front of an eventual residence: the open area was later referred to as the Moghul Pool site, until that was grassed over and it became the Moghul Green. It has never been developed for fear of losing a bolthole residence site in case of need. [Still the position?]

New Delhi 3: since 1962

Diplomatic enclave plan, with final UK site selection, 1950.

Diplomatic enclave plan, with final UK site selection, 1950.

Staff flats block, under construction, 1957.

Staff flats block, under construction, 1957.

Services building, under construction, 1957.

Services building, under construction, 1957.

Staff block, just completed, 1957.

Staff block, just completed, 1957.

View north from offices, towards residence site, with Lutyens and Baker domes in the distance, 1960.

View north from offices, towards residence site, with Lutyens and Baker domes in the distance, 1960.

One of four less than gracious domestic staff blocks, 1960.

One of four less than gracious domestic staff blocks, 1960.

The offices, from Dorset House (from north-east), 1959.

The offices, from Dorset House (from north-east), 1959.

Offices, from the south-west , with library, 1959.

Offices, from the south-west , with library, 1959.

Turning circle outside offices, at night, 1959.

Turning circle outside offices, at night, 1959.

Head pool, with Dorset House behind, 1961.

Head pool, with Dorset House behind, 1961.

Stream, as it nears Antrim House, 1961.

Stream, as it nears Antrim House, 1961.

The stream, 1961.

The stream, 1961.

Bottom pool, with local staff block beyond, 1961.

Bottom pool, with local staff block beyond, 1961.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………