On May 31, the creator of Dilli Haat, said farewell to us all, after a short illness. He was 62.
Pradeep Sachdeva played a unique role in the history of Independent India as the first architect who rediscovered our roots through village craftspeople and natural, indigenous construction materials.
He did this first at Dilli Haat, where a city – cluttered with colonial ideas, Western socialist Public Works Department architecture and faux modern junk – for the first time saw the Indian ethos formally enter the public realm. Along with crafts expert Jaya Jaitly, he linked the Haat with the craftspeople of India’s villages. This was not a faux “barefoot architects” stunt as we had seen before, but a genuine integration of urban design with a people-centric experience.
With this, he recaptured the urban site – with a sewerage drain running through it and trash strewn all over – and gifted the people of Delhi a new cultural experience.
The day he graduated from IIT-Roorkie in June 1980, he boarded a train and came straight to Pune, not even stopping to see his family in Delhi. I reached my studio early on the morning of his arrival, and none of our other team members had arrived.
I saw a boy, maybe 22 years of age, sitting under a large mango tree in front of my cottage studio.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“Pradeep Sachdeva,” he said. “And I’ve come to work for you.”
“Come into the studio and I’ll show you your desk,” I told him. No more and no fewer words were exchanged. Our first meeting was simple and straightforward – just like the 40 years of friendship that followed.
A lifetime of work and dialogue began that day.
When I was commissioned to design my first building in New Delhi, the Institute of Social Sciences, I asked him to be my associate. It was because of his human touches, earthy colours and detail to design that the building emerged as an architectural experience.
Fifteen years my junior, even now I consider Pradeep a young man, yet a worthy critic, friend and guide. There was such honesty in our relationship that if he was on a design competition jury, I was sure to lose. I knew he would negatively weigh our friendship against any possible favouritism or biases.
A craft like none other
Above all, he was a creator of great international stature, evolving genuine “people places,” like the Dilli Haat, the Garden of the Five Senses and his Chandni Chowk plan to revitalise the old city.
Before these projects emerged, gardens were formal affairs, drawing inspiration from Western geometry or Mughal clichés. His works opened up the Indian mind to new ways of thinking about indigenous materials and learning from master craftsmen.
These traditional builders became his partners, helping him break through conventional thought and evolve specifications from what is possible, not from one’s imagination. He laid aside the “PWD quantities” mindset in favour of working with craftsmen on the sites, evolving shapes and places into human experiences that we had not seen before.
He was truly one of the founders of an Indian urban design, with more than a dozen completed projects across the country. His Chandni Chowk revival programme and his Samode Palace in Rajasthan are examples of this.
In December 2019, I called him from Pune, saying I was coming to Delhi and wanted to drop in to Aya Nagar to see him.
“For what?” he asked.
I said, “I am coming to spend the day with you, to do nothing but just hang out together in your studio. Like old times.”
We spent an enjoyable day at his studio, interacting with his brilliant son Gautham, his associate Madhu, Vidya, Arti and his wonderful team. I am glad I did that, because I had no way of knowing that it was to be our last meeting.
Christopher Charles Benninger is one of India’s most celebrated architects. He is the author of Letters to a Young Architect and six-time winner of the Indian Institute of Architects Annual Award of Excellence.