In fact: Why a landmark’s razing could be Delhi’s Penn Station moment

By the end of June, a redevelopment master plan will be ready for Delhi’s landmark Pragati Maidan. The National Buildings Construction Corporation, the Project Management Consultant, will commission a world-class convention centre, exhibition halls, and underground parking. Ring Road and Mathura Road, which skirt Pragati Maidan, will be decongested using tunnels from within the 130-acre […]

Written by Shiny Varghese | Published: March 9, 2016 12:57 am
The Hall of Nations The Hall of Nations

By the end of June, a redevelopment master plan will be ready for Delhi’s landmark Pragati Maidan. The National Buildings Construction Corporation, the Project Management Consultant, will commission a world-class convention centre, exhibition halls, and underground parking. Ring Road and Mathura Road, which skirt Pragati Maidan, will be decongested using tunnels from within the 130-acre complex. “We have floated a global tender, and we’ll soon select an independent jury, who will select the architect. We should have a design ready by the end of June,” says NBCC CMD Anoop Kumar Mittal.

The three-year project will see the razing of the Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion, considered an inalienable part of the capital’s skyline for over 40 years.

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The Hall of Nations was born from a desire to position India on the world map. It was November 1971, and Indira Gandhi’s government wanted to host an International Trade Fair the following year, the 25th anniversary of Independence. Architect Raj Rewal, trained in London and practised in Paris, designed one of the country’s most iconic buildings — a space-frame structure of large span and minimal internal support, with truncated pyramids and morphed jaalis inspired by Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal.

The original concourse of New York’s Penn railway station (L), and the station as it is today. The original concourse of New York’s Penn railway station (L), and the station as it is today.

Such structures were at the time built only in the US and Europe — with either prefabricated concrete components or in steel and aluminium tubular frames. India had neither the equipment nor the material — so the only alternative was to build in situ, with the concrete cast on site. “Structural engineer Mahendra Raj discussed the idea with Chief Engineer Joseph Durai Raj, who had a pre-fab concrete factory. He made a sample for us before we got started,” says Rewal. The Hall of Nations became the largest space-frame building in reinforced concrete of its time in India, and perhaps the world.

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Asia ’72 was inaugurated in November, and over 47 countries and nearly 55 domestic exhibitors participated. The Hall of Nations, just completed and still very dusty, had become the symbol of a vibrant new India. It melded the vernacular with technology-rich technique to tell the story of new possibilities in the brand new nation.

In the years that followed, the 108-foot high structure, with an internal span of 78 m, would hold many international exhibitions. Its varying height, from 3 m to 21 m, allowed it to be used for everything from books to bulldozers. In 1976, the Youth Congress held a massive convention in the building — it was at this meeting that Sanjay Gandhi was unofficially crowned heir to the dynasty. The Hall of Nations would go on to see many exhibitions of power and intellect, including large aviation and defence trade shows.

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Over the decades, however, the concrete fingers of the building have seen patinas of neglect and inertia coat its façade. The Nehru Pavilion, the “non-building” Rewal designed along with the Hall of Nations, within whose grassy mounds and Buddhist imagery are held three floors of exhibition space dedicated to the freedom movement and Gandhi and Nehru’s contribution, is today an apology of dimly lit panels, its corridors sliced by plyboard partitions to create office spaces. This is a structure that is yet to prove it fits into the new millennium.

Investment Modern has taken over India Modern, and no longer is the stricture that form follows function useful — today, form follows finance. Still, what began in 2013 as a signature campaign to stop the demolition of these buildings has grown steadily since — and lately, at almost every public function on architecture, the way forward has been discussed. The Pompidou Centre, Paris, and Museum of Modern Art, New York, have written to the PMO about the significance of the buildings in 20th century architecture. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has listed the Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion among 62 buildings in the Modern Architectural Heritage of Delhi; a proposal sent to the Heritage Conservation Committee awaits approval.

At the first Cyrus Jhabvala Memorial Lecture in Delhi recently, photographer Ram Rahman spoke of the need to ensure the voice of protest is heard in Parliament.“The richness of modern architecture in Delhi is extraordinary. Few countries have such a wealth of modern buildings in one place,” he said. Rahman spoke of a legal victory won by sculptor Amar Nath Sehgal under the ‘Author’s Special Rights’ provision in Section 57 of the Indian Copyright Act after his mural at Vigyan Bhavan was ripped apart during renovation, and urged architects to lobby to have the copyright law extended to architectural work.

Architect Rohit Raj Mahendiratta of Mahendra Raj Consultants says, “Getting a building heritage status is the only legal way to save it.” A recent PIL against the demolition filed in Delhi High Court by architects and engineers was dismissed on the ground that it was an administrative case, not a legal one.

The corporate world has a different view.

Ajay Khanna, Chief, Strategic and Public Affairs, Jubilant Bhartia Group and co-founder of the Public Forum of India, says, “The Hall of Nations is an amazing hall, and its high ceiling creates a wonderful ambience. But the city needs to move on. We have global ambitions but no global infrastructure. The India-Africa Forum Summit last year was held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium for want of space. Pragati Maidan needs to go vertical and have world-class conference halls, exhibition spaces and hotels to boost commerce and trade. The Hall of Nations currently can’t be used the way exhibitions are held now. We will have to make that sacrifice.”

Walking the fine line between preservation and progress has been every city’s Catch-22. Former architecture critic of The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote of the destruction of Pennsylvania station more than a half century ago: “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-can culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

The Hall of Nations might become our Penn Station moment, in which case, there is hope in better laws being enforced to preserve the country’s architectural heritage.

shiny.varghese@expressindia.com

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