In New Delhi, It’s Back to the Future for a Star Architect

His newest project: India’s Central Park
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Ratish Nanda (left) visits the Arab-Ki-Sarai entrance gate of the Humayun Mausoleum with acting German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.

It's amazing how the accident of life can turn a career—and in this case, perhaps reshape the way a city of more than 16 million looks at both its ruins and some of its future buildings. In the case of Ratish Nanda, it happened when a professor at a New Delhi college asked him and other students to write a paper on urban villages near their homes. During his research, Nanda discovered that he was living amid the ruins of a dynasty but didn't know it.

He fell in love with those ruins, which were in the Kotla Mubarakpur area in South Delhi, a 15th century village dotted with tombs and mosques of the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties—particularly their architecture. "It was something that gave my life a lot of meaning," Nanda said. "As an architect, thinking of what architects before me had built and how finely they had built, and the attention these buildings needed."

That excursion helped launch a remarkable and influential career in conservation architecture, one in which he restores the remains of history to their past glory. As project director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture—a group that works on revitalizing the culture of Muslim cities—in India, Nanda is best known in the country for restoring Humayun's Tomb, the mausoleum of the 16th century Mughal emperor in Delhi, and tombs of the Qutb Shahi dynasty in Hyderabad, as well as a multidisciplinary program to spruce up the neighborhood that houses the tomb of Nizamuddin Aulia, a 14th century Sufi saint.

But Nanda's projects are not just efforts to preserve history. They're part of a larger initiative to create the template for what a modern Indian city should be—one that includes plenty of open public spaces, restored heritage monuments, lush greenery and, most importantly, one that's planned and designed to suit the lifestyles of its residents. It's a much-needed effort in an urban India where builders are transposing Western ideas of architecture without factoring in the unique needs of Indian cities. As a result, tall residential and office buildings with glass and steel facades and shiny shopping malls that guzzle electricity have become rampant in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, among others. "You walk across a modern Indian neighborhood, the windowpanes are so large that you can look through people's bedrooms from the streets. That's not how we live," Nanda said.

When I first spoke to him on the phone, Nanda, a native of New Delhi who is married to a journalist, was a bit hesitant to talk about himself. "I'm known for the work I'm involved in, but it also requires 200 other people full time," he tells me, deferring to his Aga Khan team. In person, 41-year-old Nanda is a soft-spoken, medium-built, bespectacled man with a fondness for photography and a spring in his step. On the day we meet, he tells me that he's been driving across the city, attending meetings since 6 a.m. He is dressed in a pistachio-colored kurta and white pajamas. His answers are sharp, articulate and often punctuated with deferential comments about his employer.

He looks tired but is energetic enough to talk about what is perhaps the most ambitious project of his career—building a public park in the heart of Delhi that will be larger in size than Central Park in New York City. It will house 200 species of trees, 75 species of birds, nursery facilities and a biodiversity park co-existing with heritage monuments. If all goes well (read: bureaucratic red tape doesn't interfere), the park is scheduled to open to the public in late 2015. It's a project that will make the idea of a public space more democratic, to include people from all sections of society, irrespective of class, caste, gender or financial disposition. Nanda won't specify the cost of the project.

This isn't the first time Nanda has created a green oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Between 2003 and 2006, he worked on restoring the Bagh-e Babur, the gardens of Emperor Babur, father of Humayun and founder of the Mughal dynasty, in war-torn Kabul. It was difficult to justify the need to restore a garden at a time when Afghanistan's pressing concerns were health, education, housing, medical facilities and sanitation. So Nanda and his team built housing, constructed sewer lines and provided health care for those living around the gardens. "Today, 40,000 people find solace at the Bagh-e Babur every week," he tells me proudly.

A striking feature of Nanda's work is that he doesn't restore monuments and ruins imaginatively. All of it is done based on evidence. For instance, while restoring Humayun's Tomb, Nanda found that colored tiles of the eight cupolas near the main dome got lost over the years or had fallen off, and he decided to restore them. He researched and discovered that those tiles were made in the 16th century by Uzbeks. So Nanda went to Uzbekistan, got the craftsmen, asked them to make tiles here, trained the locals and used those tiles to retile the cupolas.

Nanda adopted this approach partly because UNESCO stipulates that all restoration be evidence-based and partly because of the sensitivity to ancient architecture that he developed during his undergrad years. "He has the gift of an architect to do things and yet the sensitivity of a conservationist to do it in a way that doesn't tamper with history," said AGK Menon, another professor and mentor to Nanda.

Having restored monuments, created parks and spruced up neighborhoods for two decades, Nanda now wants to restore and create awareness about the art of building with stones. In his opinion, modern-day glass-and-steel architecture has wrecked havoc on the arts of stone carving, stone building and masonry. Nanda is going to produce "a series of publications and films in the hope that somebody will pick it up and say, 'Let me do this.' " Just like Ratish Nanda did with ruins, monuments and parks.

This piece comes from our partner OZY. Aayush Soni is a journalist and glutton living in New Delhi.

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