A rumour doing the rounds among architects for some time was confirmed on November 12 by an article in the Economic Times. It was headlined “Iconic Pragati Maidan makeover on anvil; to cost around Rs 3,000 crore."

The article didn’t go into the detail of the proposal but it did note that the existing exhibition halls at Pragati Maidan would be demolished to make way for “modern centres”. Whatever the particulars, the plan seems reflective of the institutional instinct to destroy the old to make way for a bland new that is problematic on many levels: besides being unsustainable, it shows a paucity of imagination and insensitivity towards some of the most iconic buildings in Delhi.

As an architect and permanent citizen of Delhi, it irks me that there is no public discourse in the commissioning and design of public projects of this scale. As the host of book fairs, trade fairs and auto expos, Pragati Maidan is an inextricable part of the collective cultural memory of the city. Any redevelopment that denies or erases this memory disrespects the very nature and process of progress and development.

Significance of Pragati Maidan

Commissioned in 1970 to host the first International Trade Fair in 1972, Pragati Maidan is a sprawling complex of over 150 acres of exhibition grounds. It includes 61,290 sq m of covered exhibition space in 18 halls, 10,000 sq m of open display area, and hosts over 70 national and international exhibitions annually.

Notably, it is also where some of Delhi’s most iconic modernist architecture can be found.

The most prominent cluster of buildings in the complex – the Hall of Nations, the Hall of Industries and the Nehru Pavilion – was designed by architect Raj Rewal and the celebrated engineer Mahendra Raj. They were conceived as a space-frame structure that could allow for vast, unobstructed areas, permitting the display of everything from books to bulldozers.

Significantly, the design decisions that led to the realised buildings were a result of the economic circumstances of a newly independent India. The strength of steel required to execute the space-frame design was hard to come by and formidably expensive. Labour, on the other hand, was inexpensive and aplenty. Given the familiarity of local contractors with reinforced concrete construction technology, the system was conceived, analysed and built in RCC, creating the distinct web of beams overhead.

The buildings had an effective system of environmental control, thanks to the three-dimensional structure, with solid triangular panels at regular intervals providing sunscreens – a modern equivalent of the traditional jail ubiquitous in Indian architecture. In addition, the pavilions had chamfered corners inspired from Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal. This reinterpretation of building elements using contemporary technology set the Pragati Maidan buildings apart as examples of an indigenous modernism unique to India.

Other buildings of architectural significance include the Shakuntalam theatre, with its sharp minimalist profile, and Stein Mani Chowfla’s stunning, luminescent domes over Hall no. 18.

Alternative course of action

The need for Pragati Maidan to develop to accommodate the growing needs of Delhi is undeniable. Over the years, it has started to feel unkempt and empty, and many of the halls are in various stages of decay. The complex is also woefully underutilised for its size and location in the heart of the city. With programming being limited to exhibitions and fairs that run for only a few months, a number of the halls and buildings remain unused through most of the year.

Still, it is disheartening to read of the plan to unilaterally demolish everything that exists in the name of development and pave way for the bland new glass and steel of everywhere. As the conversation around sustainable development grows, an argument must be made for the more innovative approach of rejuvenating and refurbishing the existing fabric, instead of destroying and starting from scratch (a significantly more expensive and energy intensive option). This approach could also allow for a contemporary rethinking and renewal of the more architecturally significant buildings, instead of preserving these structures as relics, which would hardly serve the cause.

One of the most important factors to consider in any redevelopment plan should be to reprogramme the complex to add functions that allow it to remain active and engaged with the larger public throughout the year, while keeping in mind the many commuters and residents that pass by it daily. A well-thought-out master plan that accommodates not only large conventions and exhibitions but also caters to the neighbourhood and its users has the potential to revitalise the entire centre of the city. A prominent example of such a redevelopment is the Louvre in Paris, where IM Pei’s iconic, minimalist intervention, transformed the Louvre Palace, originally conceived as a fortress, into one of the most egalitarian and popular public spaces of all time, while preserving the grandeur of the original buildings and still increasing the exhibition spaces as required.

What we need most urgently is a system of public discourse, and a process of engaging with the community and the larger public on decisions that affect so many of us. Pragati Maidan has been a magnet for many people over the years. For it to remain and grow in our collective memory, it is necessary for us to speak up for it.