Ultimately, it was a two-headed demolition crew called Literalism and Alacrity that brought the Hall of Nations to the ground. The Delhi High Court’s April 20 verdict in which it dismissed a plea to preserve the iconic structure did not see beyond the words “not older than 60 years” – a reference to Delhi’s Heritage Conservation Committee rule that only buildings that are 60 years or older would be considered for heritage status. Thus, every possible contemporary Indian construct from living memory, even a monument of national importance, let alone a structure acclaimed worldwide by peers in the architectural and civil engineering fraternity, has potentially been condemned to dust. Within hours of the ruling, in the dead of a Sunday night, the India Trade Promotion Organisation, which is part of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, brought the structure down – like the state executing a freshly convicted terrorist with such haste that better sense is not allowed to prevail. In life, as in the demolition of an edifice, fait accompli is a one-way street.

The loss of the Hall of Nations will always be deeply felt as it marked, when it was built, a point in the history of modernity in our nation state.

Showcasing India’s abilities

Built to celebrate, amongst other events, the 25th year of Indian independence, we can also see it as the culmination of the Nehruvian era in Indian infrastructure building, which started with the Bhakra Nangal dam project in Himachal Pradesh, included the various bhavans in Lutyens’ Delhi, the grand project of Chandigarh, and Pragati Maidan, where the Hall of Nations – the largest uninterrupted covered exhibition space in the country – was built for the Asia 72 Trade Fair.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

The architect of the Hall of Nations, Raj Rewal, in an interview with Shobita Dhar, said that the brief he was given was to showcase India’s self reliance through the use of computer-aided design and its massive labour workforce. Mahendra Raj, the structural designer of this enterprise, who worked closely with Rewal to realise this edifice, has mentioned that the building was designed to be made of precast components but was ultimately retooled to be created by the hands of a thousand-strong workforce. These buildings allowed India to let go of the ballast of the past and position herself shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world with her new state-of-the-art infrastructure, symbolic of Indian production and trade.

Extraordinary building

The Hall of Nations was an extraordinary construction. Both the Hall of Nations and the adjoining Hall of Industries were designed as space frames built of reinforced cement concrete or RCC. This is a choice of structure used to roof long-span spaces (without columns) using interlocking triangles that provide rigidity. Rewal and Raj’s design is special because they used the space frame not only for the roof but also for the inclined anchoring walls, creating an interior uninterrupted space that was 246 x 246 feet in length and breadth, and 81 feet high. In addition to this achievement, the hall was built, not in steel, as is most common but in reinforced cement concrete, of which this was probably the only significant example in the world.

(Photo courtesy: Ram Rahman).

That the halls were designed and analysed using computers, but drawn and detailed by hand, and constructed largely with manual labour, is a testimony to the Make in India spirit of that time, which extended the legacy of Nehruvian progress into the seventies. Exhibition venues in the latter half of the 20th century were the great showcases of innovative architecture, just as the new museums are today. In the annals of modern architecture this building was singular, much in the spirit of the Eiffel Tower (1887) or the Atomium in Brussels (1956). Both these buildings came up as examples of architectural and engineering innovation, both were intended to be temporary, both survived the test of time and were structurally conserved to last well into the future.

In the popular imagination

Under the aegis of the India Trade Promotion Organisation, the halls were a popular venue for nearly half a century, especially for the India International Trade Fair, the Auto Expo and the World Book Fair. Everything from books to airplanes were displayed at the Hall of Nations.

Truly a place for the people, the halls were visited by thousands, and had a place in the popular imagination. The climax of Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), involving several cars, jeeps and much leaping about, was shot amid the halls, in the vastness of Pragati Maidan. Appu the elephant, the official mascot of the 1982 Asian Games was celebrated here with a large statue. Later, Appu Ghar, the amusement park, came up adjoining Pragati Madian, attracting children from Delhi and beyond in the 1980s and 1990s.

By demolishing the single most iconic structure in Pragati Maidan, the memory of Pragati Maidan itself has been dealt a death blow. Other than the halls themselves, the larger redevelopment project envisages the demolition of all the state and central ministry pavilions. It seems now that an inevitable future of Pragati Maidan redevelopment will mean vast edifices of global anonymity.

From unique to unremarkable

It is ironic that the Hall of Nations – India’s architectural ambassador to the world of commerce, and which was built as a demonstration of Indian expertise and construction prowess – is to be replaced by an architectural complex for which the India Trade Promotion Organisation will call for global bids to create “a dream destination for global events”.

Despite having a fairly robust conservation movement in India, the rigour and dedication to the preservation of buildings of contemporary heritage has been lacking. More than a few individuals and organisations have identified and bookmarked buildings from a more recent vintage as heritage-worthy, but little has been done about it. On the other hand, we have several examples of colonial architecture (and in Delhi, of Mughal and Sultanate architecture) that have been well conserved and appreciated internationally.

Delhi’s Indraprastha Bhawan, a government building designed by Habib Rahman. Source: Habib Rahman

But the literalism that is behind the Heritage Conservation Committee rule that buildings must be 60 years old to be considered heritage, allows for a potential turkey shoot of buildings built post-independence. For instance, would we put the buildings of Habib Rehman, Achyut Kanvinde and Joseph Allen Stein on the roster for redevelopment? They all built some of India’s early public buildings after 1947. Will Charles Correa’s Kanchenjunga, on Peddar Road in Mumbai, face the chopping block? Or Durga Bajpai’s Jehangir Art Gallery in South Mumbai? Or Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad?

The preservation of architectural heritage is not restricted to age alone but is a matrix of factors. In its charter, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage describes historic significance as “the importance of a property to the history, architecture, archaeology, engineering or culture of a community, region or nation.” Buildings to be preserved may be chosen (among other things) because their “distinctive physical characteristics of design, construction or form, representing the work of a master craftsperson, have the potential to yield important information on socio-economic history, or are representative of technological innovation”. The Hall of Nations check-marked each of these attributes.

Architecture of impatient capital

What rankles most is the haste and manner with which the Hall of Nations was razed. Petitions to stop and rethink the demolition were made by the Council of Architecture, the Indian Institute of Architecture, the Asian Institute of Architects, the Union of International Architects, the associations of engineers, curators of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris and both the architect and the structural engineer themselves.

But it seems, in the end, only the court order was awaited. Architect Rahul Mehrotra has described this attitude as the architecture of impatient capital. It is only a deeply insecure dispensation that uses speed to supersede a lost moral high ground, this shoot-first-worry-later attitude to make their lack of rational arguments irrelevant. What mattered above all was the grand reclamation, in this case of around 12,81,000 sqft of land, for impatient capital to circulate.