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India: The disdain for a marvel of architecture - Tearing down of the Hall of Nations in Delhi

18 May 2017

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The Indian Express


Demolition of the Hall of Nations signals a failure to engage with history and public memory.

Written by Rohit Raj Mehndiratta | Published:May 17, 2017

Engineered by Mahendra Raj, the Hall of Nations was a testament to the bravado and sheer genius of a man willing to stick his neck out to design a structure that had no precedent. This was the first attempt, worldwide, to design a building of this size and span, in poured-in-place concrete. Designed and realised in a pre-computer age, with primitive construction methods, when steel was exorbitant, concrete was carried on human ladders by hand, this building rose column-less to form a volume of 73mx73mx30m for India’s first International Trade Fair, Asia 72.

Keeping in mind the constraints of cost and time, tubular steel pipes, structural steel members and concrete were used to build the Hall of Nations. Concrete was economical by over 30 per cent and more readily available.

The building, in all aspects, was a truly remarkable engineering innovation — a crafted hi-tech space that many would have preferred to have left on the drawing board as it required guts and a deep understanding of structure to build. It was an effort by a brilliant engineer who took huge risks to realise an architect’s concept.

The building also resonated important global heroics of the time such as Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic domes that imagined cities within them. It represented a young nation’s optimism and belief in progress through science and innovation. We have demolished that artefact and what is being flaunted in its place are planning efforts by multinational companies in a world of excess and little imagination.

The death of the Hall of Nations may well be the death of the government’s slogan “Made in India” — a hollow promise that engages with history and memory on its own terms. What are also dead are institutions such as the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) and the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that were meant to protect our history, environment and public memory.

The DUAC has let go of its power and belief that an environment can be protected and transformed. Chapter Three of the DUAC Act 1973 clearly describes the commission’s advisory role in preserving Delhi’s aesthetic quality. “It is their duty to scrutinise, approve, reject or modify proposals in respect of the following matters, namely re-development of areas in the vicinity of Old Fort (among other areas); conservation, preservation and beautification of monumental building,” the chapter states. “The commission may suo motu promote and secure the development, re-development or beautification of any areas in Delhi in respect of which no proposals in that behalf have been received from any local body,” it continues.

The proposal it did not receive was a scheme that could have preserved the Hall of Nations while achieving the India Trade Promotion Organisation’s (ITPO’s) ambition of an “integrated exhibition and convention centre”. It seems that the DUAC had the power and opportunity to bring everyone on the same table with the intention of ensuring an amiable outcome.

Raj, at the age of 93, would have happily worked with the government. When it was brought to his attention that tunnelling may be the reason for the demolition of the structure, he immediately drafted a letter to the ITPO, stating that the Hall of Nations was built on pile foundations and a solution to meet the infrastructure needs could be thought of. Alas, it was a bit too late because in the rush to achieve mediocrity, ITPO demolished the structure the next day. As Anand Bhatt, an architect and supporter of finding the middle-ground, once stated, we are missing the fact that tunnelling under the Hall of Nations may be a great engineering feat also.

We, as a society, had an opportunity to show globally that great buildings can be preserved and re-used. Instead, our great modern works are all endangered. The HCC’s proposal is repudiated by the UNESCO’s definition of “heritage” and heritage bodies. To be part of the world heritage list, UNESCO states that, “sites must be of outstanding universal value meeting at least one selected criteria.”

The Hall of Nations meets at least four criteria: “A masterpiece of human creative genius”; “a unique or… exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition”; “an outstanding example of a type of building which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”; “directly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs”. With the Hall of Nations, the idea of nation-building was envisaged through the power of engineering and technology.

What is also mystifying is the government’s apathy to the professional voice, to the Indian architectural and engineering community that stood together to conserve this iconic structure. The government instead continues to welcome the dictates of capital, as our cities are imaged to a misunderstood language of the glass tower urbanity of the West.

But if we have to look to the West, let us hear what technical and cultural institutions such as MoMA, the Pompidou Center, the Swiss Federation of Architects, ETH Zurich, Technical University, Berlin, among many others, had to say for the Hall of Nations — it was a singular piece of engineering providing the world its first concrete space-frame; that it could effectively never be replicated; that it was and will continue to be an unparalleled achievement in the field of engineering and; that it will continue to be exhibited and studied throughout the world.

The writer, an architect, artist and urbanist, is the son of Mahendra Raj. He is also the co-author of ‘The Structure: Works of Mahendra Raj’

o o o

Hindustan Times - May 01, 2017


The Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries at Pragati Maidan was demolished last week and except for a group of city historians, artists and architects, no one raised their voices as the city lost one of its architectural marvels.

Shivani Singh (Hindustan Times, New)

Built in 1972, the iconic Hall of Nations a permanent exhibition venue and a 20th-century heritage site at Pragati Maidan was demolished on April 23. This was the country’s first pillar-less building.(PTI Photo)

Last week, Delhi lost a part of its identity. The Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries at Pragati Maidan that had for four decades hosted the International Trade and Book Fairs, the national capital’s most popular public dos, were razed to make way for a “world class” convention centre.

Except for a group of city historians, artists and architects, the otherwise protest-ready Delhi showed no outrage at losing an architectural marvel of modern India. The demolition became fait accompli when the high court ruled that the two buildings did not qualify as “heritage” because they were not 60 years or older.

The Indian Trade Promotion Organisation will now spend Rs 2,254 crore to build a complex complete with a hotel, a mall, a multilevel food court, exhibition halls, parking and helipads to showcase “the technological, scientific, economic, and intellectual prowess of a resurgent India”. In the bargain, Delhi lost a symbol of architectural ingenuity and enterprise demonstrated so brilliantly 45 years ago, when India was still struggling to make its mark as a new nation.

In 1972, the 25th year of our Independence, India was to host the ‘Asia 72’ Trade Fair. The country needed a modern convention centre but was low on money, resources, and even building material. But architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj, who built the two exhibition halls, were not short of ideas. They used reinforced concrete, which was less expensive than steel and iron, for construction. To save on power consumption, they introduced ‘jali’ or latticed screens, inspired by the Mughal architecture, in a way that they blocked the heat but not the light while allowing ample ventilation.

Japan Pavilion at Pragati Maidan during the first exhibition named , Asia ‘72 (HT Photo)

The demolition of these two structures is not just a one-off blow. Delhi’s many iconic buildings with rich architectural and aesthetic value will not qualify as heritage under the “60 years or older” clause applied by the court to the two Pragati Maidan marvels. The tearing down of the two buildings has set a precedent that makes Delhi’s contemporary heritage vulnerable.

In 2013, the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage prepared and submitted to the Delhi Urban Art Commission a list of 62 buildings built from 1955 onwards to be designated as heritage structures and protected legally. The authorities sat on the proposal even as the Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries, which were on the list, were torn down.

But there is still time for a course correction and providing a safety net to Delhi’s other contemporary landmarks. After all, the iconic structure that had inspired the New York City to rally in its support and in a way led to the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, was only in its fifth decade, when it faced bulldozers.

In 1962, NYC authorities decided to replace the 53-year-old Pennsylvania Station with a new one, a Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden. Architects, city planners and prominent citizens such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, urbanist Jane Jacobs and writer Norman Mailer fought the move. They could not stop the demolition — termed “the single greatest act of architectural vandalism the city has ever seen” by the New York Times — but made the fellow New Yorkers value their living heritage.
A group of visitors posing for a photograph at Pragati Maidan during Asia ‘72 Exhibition. (Virendra Prabhaka. (HT Photo)

Three years later, the Landmark Commission, now globally considered a template for built heritage conservation, saved the Grand Central Terminal, successfully defending it all the way to the US Supreme Court. Today, NYC buildings as ‘new’ as 30 years old qualify to be on the list for preservation. In 1990, then 31-year-old Guggenheim Museum building became the youngest to become a designated landmark.

It is time Delhi also recognised its living heritage. Had the Mughals demolished the structures built by the Turks, or the British razed Shahjahanabad, Delhi would have none of its famed layers of built history to flaunt today.

Every bit of what is historical today was very much contemporary once.

It is for the authorities — as always multiple in Delhi — to look beyond whimsical heritage-by dates and appreciate what makes the national capital unique. It is for the Delhiites to mobilise and hit the streets, if necessary, to save their city’s built heritage for future generations. Or history will not be too kind to us.


The above articles from The Indian Express and Hindustan Times are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use