Isamu Noguchi On Gardens as Sculpture
New Delhi and Bangalore are two cities in India which carry an image of “Garden City”. Under the British Empire, the development of New Delhi and Bangalore subscribed to a common framework, with a few differences. In whole or in parts, both cities showcase:
1. Grand Manner Planning as a Metaphor- highlighting the dominant class of society- the British
2. Emphasis on siting, massing and architectural character of new buildings
3. Social engineering- insulation of the European class from the native town
4. Insulation of the administration and ruling class by strategic positioning of the army and the cordon sanitaire/ parade grounds, to counter insurgencies with a free line of fire
5. Establishment of civic and commercial districts with easy access
6. Centralizing of services and related uses to achieve a hierarchical land use structure
7. Establishment of hygienic urban conditions for new residential areas
8. Emphasis on urban open spaces as recreation areas
9. Preservation of historic urban elements
10. Creation of streetscape to unify the city visually- use of focal points, roundabouts and tree-lined roads
This framework can be traced back to the City Beautiful Movement in the United States that developed in response to conditions in American cities at the turn of the 20th century. Its idea of city streetscape was inspired by the tree-lined boulevards, public squares and plazas, and neoclassical architecture of European cities. It is here, on the point of tree-lined streets, that Bangalore and New Delhi share another set of similarities and differences.
In his hugely popular book “Trees of Delhi” (2006), Pradip Krishen sheds some light on the “Avenue Trees of the New Capital” about the preference for certain species by Captain George Swinton (Chairman-Town Planning Committee) and Edwin Lutyens (Chief Architect). It seems that the selection of species was concluded on the basis of visual effects such as crown silhouette, mass, shape and canopy height in order to integrate some near and distant vistas of ancient and new architecture. This need for controlled visual experiences apparently left out robust and long-lived evergreens like the banyan from most streets. Many native trees of Delhi, being summer-deciduous, never made the cut in the quest for nearly verdant cityscape, while the ones chosen for their supposed “evergreen nature” and brought in from elsewhere (e.g. moist places) changed their attributes due to the semi-arid climate of Delhi- ‘an elementary ecological miscalculation’ as Pradip Krishen puts it.
Bangalore, at the turn of the century, did not have the same striking vistas of Lutyens’ Delhi. However, being blessed with better climate, groundwater regime and soil, the tree-lined roads of Bangalore responded to the concept of serial blossoming. Advocated by Gustave Krumbeigel, the concept depended on continuous seasonal blossoms and affected the perception of the city in every season. It is likely that Krumbeigel independently derived his species along the same lines of bias as seen at Lutyens’ Delhi, reinforced with his own professional exposure and training in Europe. Here too, some of the most familiar trees favored by its native inhabitants were rejected by Krumbeigel, resulting in a short list of avenue trees for Bangalore, mostly exotic.
It is likely that, the botanical enterprise of Tipu Sultan would have also played a part in Krumbeigel’s concept. Tipu’s love for horticulture saw the import of many foreign species into Bangalore, especially the Lalbagh gardens, which were curated by Krumbeigel at the turn of the 20th Century. "The Bangalore of Krumbiegel was a fertile lab to experiment with harnessing nature and experimenting with trees that could be imported, acclimatized and nurtured to become part of the local landscape," attests Suresh Jayaram, visual artist and art historian, who curated a multimedia exhibition on Krumbiegel's life and work in 2010, titled 'Whatever he touched, he Adorned'.
Pradeep Krishen leaves us to ponder: “…the people who planned New Delhi’s avenue trees…weeded out candidates they knew to be deciduous. They got it egregiously wrong, and we are living the consequences of their miscalculations. It is this criterion for selection that explains why some of the most familiar avenue trees of the Mughals were rejected (by the British), resulting in a short list of avenue trees for Lutyens’ Delhi”.
Likewise, today, Bangalore grapples with its fair share of elementary ecological miscalculation. The sense of its native landscape is completely eroded not just with absence of trees, but also with associated landscape units like the flat valleys, rain-fed tanks, hillocks and the flora and fauna which once colonized them. Its urban landscape sees an increasing number of trees axed in the name of development.
Both Swinton's and Krumbeigel’s concepts create an irreplaceable loss from an ecological preference point-of-view. Yet, it appears, in today’s aesthetically cleansed landscapes of phoenix and foxtail palms, duranta and plumerias the disregard towards their concepts seem like an irreplaceable loss.
The power of the thought, the elegance of the concept, the simplicity in expression. So simple, it can arguably be termed boring. Perhaps it is being dismissed as such, which is a pity. Indian Cities are full of unassigned voids awaiting a Paley Park-like catalyst.
At one level Paley Park is a pocket garden/ public space. At another level, it is the willingness to accept simple interventions that end up having a profound impact on the way we see cities, nature and people.
I have been looking at it for years, yet it beguiles me.
As Ghalib concluded, "...yun hota toh kya hota..."