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. Hall of Nations was designed and evaluated in terms of constraints of cost and time in tubular steel pipes, structural steel members and concrete. Concrete was economical by a margin of over 30 percent and more readily available as a material. Despite the fact there was precedence of space frame structures in steel across the world, paucity of funds and lack of skilled labour resulted in an engineering that let enormous tensile and compressive forces to be efficiently absorbed and transferred with very slender members and joints in reinforced concrete.
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.