The reputation of any place is, in the end, built on specific interactions and specific situations, and each project is a chance to start anew, and to improve. The architectural selection process for the Bihar Museum was overseen by Lord Cultural Resources, a Canada-based consultancy with wide-ranging experience in both museum programming and museum exhibit design. Under the leadership of their Mumbai office, Lord worked carefully with the state government to ensure that they understood the norms and processes of international-grade museums, and the norms and processes of international architectural design practices. They made certain that the competition was fairly run, and that the results of the competition were endorsed at the highest levels (by a group that included the honorable chief minister, Nitish Kumar) prior to releasing the jury report and a full explanation to the public. And Lord has continued their consulting throughout the project, ensuring that the values and goals they initially discussed with the government were protected throughout the process of design and construction.
There were definitely revisions made to our entry, but the revision requests were well defined, compiled in written form, and agreed to by all. The chief minister remained fully informed and aware of the progress, including these revisions—but he did not interfere with the project’s progress, and wisely left the design itself to our office in Tokyo, our local architects Opolis, and the helpful team at Bihar’s Building Construction Department. Even the nodal officer appointed before the competition remains actively involved to this day. In short, the project, though not without hiccups, was professionally managed and controlled. The chief minister had the good sense to allow professionals to do their work.
At Amaravati, the experience was a complete contrast. The competition itself was well organized, and the international jury was chaired by leading architects, design practitioners, and pedagogues like Christopher Charles Benninger, KT Ravindran, Erwin Viray, Süha Özkan, Rajeev Sethi, and Keshav Varma, the ex-municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad. They provided objective results based on stated design criteria, and avoided suspect selection processes. A full day was dedicated to each team’s presentation, and the participants were fairly compensated. But once the competition ended, there were no more checks and balances, just a farcical revolving door of ever-changing opinions to consider. No clear approval processes were in place, the jury disappeared, and the jury report was never released to the public.
The Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (which administers the project on behalf of the government) threw up its hands to follow orders from above—while their employees empathized with us, privately of course, over how unfairly Maki and Associates was being treated. Most shockingly, we were never given the chance to show competition revisions to the government, despite being asked for these revisions by the chief minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, himself.
On 24 October, Maki and Associates was officially terminated for reasons that are demonstrably false. A new RFQ (‘Request for Quotation’: a standard business process used to invite participants in a bidding process) was launched on 25 October—the very next day!—and in early December, Foster and Partners of London, with Architect Hafeez Contractor of Mumbai, were selected. The announcement of this team has been decidedly muted, and no new designs have been presented to the public. It is unclear if designs even exist, though it is known that the winning team spent a good deal of time in Amaravati prior to the RFQ. Having Foster and Contractor do this work was clearly a pre-set priority for the government, though it remains to be seen if—with over 1,000 employees, 11 different offices, and hundreds of projects scattered across the globe—Amaravati will remain a priority for Foster and Partners.
According to the latest news, the chief minister engaged Telugu film director SS Rajamouli and asked Foster’s representatives to discuss the design with him. So the “revolving door” we experienced in Andhra Pradesh seems likely to continue. Foster, an architect of great talent and discipline, will hopefully ignore this noise and keep the work under his own control—assuming he remains involved in the design.
Only time will tell.
Five years is at once a short and a long period, and our contrasting experiences with these two Indian state governments indicate that both hope and caution are in order. There is hope, from our experience in Bihar, that government projects can be well managed; but from our experience in Andhra Pradesh, we also see the possibility of chaos and diminishing returns on substantial investments. This is perhaps not a bad lesson for us, but clearly not the best message for a vibrant and growing nation like India to send.
The bar, in our opinion, can be set much higher.
Twenty-seven other Indian states (and seven territories) remain unknown to us, but thanks to the Bihar Museum, we remain optimistic about India. We wish Architectural Digest India the same optimism as they enter the second half of their first decade.