Change and continuity are constants in every city – but a good city is one that balances the two adeptly. It ensures that while developing and absorbing change, there is enough space for memories to persist, for the preservation of iconic heritage monuments. In a good city, the deep structures, the buildings that provide a continuum, are not built upon.
Delhi has several deep structures, not least among them the historic Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion at Pragati Maidan – which the government is hell-bent on demolishing, despite opposition from heritage conservation groups and architects.
The Hall of Nations Complex’s significance is deeper than the sum of its architectural magnificence and iconic image. In its structure is embedded a typological persistence that builds upon our rich heritage and, at the same time, accommodates the future.
Back in 1972, when the buildings were first opened, they showed the world that modernity could be achieved even with minimal resources. The austere structures were different from the message preached in the rest of the world then – they announced that modernity in India was set in rich traditions, a value that the world today recognises as the basis for distinct places.
The Hall of Nations and Industries Complex, along with the Nehru Pavilion, at Pragati Maidan were planned to commemorate 25 years of India’s independence. Designed by architect Raj Rewal and engineered by Mahendra Raj, both selected from an architecture competition, the three structures were built between the years 1969 and 1972.
From the very inception, they reflected structural ingenuity, and richness and complexity in spatial and formal character. They evoked memories of lattices, imbibed the shape of the mandala and provided an ingenious spatial configuration that appeared new every time you visited them. A play between a geometrical order and fluid reading offered them an inventive and accommodative character.
The structures shared abstracted elements from India’s rich cultural heritage. The Hall of Nations, for instance, drew from the plan of Humayun’s tomb, and the Nehru Pavilion was built low scaled and humble in character, like the ancient stupas. Embedded in a mound of earth, the Nehru Pavilion’s original displays included personal belongings of Nehru, his vision for modern India and the struggle for freedom. (Today it houses one of the few museums in Delhi relating to our freedom struggle.)
Both the Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion represented a period in the Indian architectural history where the new was developed rooted in cultural traditions albeit with modern materials. It was this cultural rootedness – along with the monumental scale of the buildings, their place-making technique, and austere character – that made them a design inspiration.
Within decades, the Hall of Nations Complex – like Jantar Mantar, Humayun’s tomb and the Purana Quila before it – became part of Delhi’s memory. Carefully sited in relation to the central vista, the Purana Quila and the Supreme Court, the complex contributed as a landmark to the positive image of the city and provided a rare public exhibiting space, where millions of memories were formed.
The buildings were acclaimed as an image of Progress, Modernity in India, and finally Indian Architecture. Acknowledged as icons, they found a place in the annals of architecture and Indian cultural history: models or drawings have been displayed or form a part of permanent collection of museums and galleries, including at the Pompidou Museum in Paris, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.
It is no wonder then that today architects worldwide are questioning their destruction.
Can anyone imagine a similar challenge to the Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower, or the Guggenheim Museum that transformed Bilbao in Spain? How can we as a nation morally accept that these monuments – which offer architectural inspiration, are portrayed on stamps, depicted in popular cinema and on the smart city banners of the Delhi Development Authority – are being condemned? What does this say about a state where the institutions meant to safeguard our shared heritage are destroying them instead? These monuments are emblems of modern India which can easily be upgraded and fitted with services to provide contemporary comfort levels.
The government claims that it wants to build a convention centre in place of the complex in Pragati Maidan, but architects and planners have questioned the wisdom of this choice. A convention center is already being built near the Indira Gandhi International Airport close to the hotels in Gurgaon and Delhi, and another is planned in Dwarka. Yet another is slated for up-gradation in Greater Noida. Planners say that even if the authorities were to overlook the international model of building convention centres near airports and hotels, the secured edge of Safdarjung Airport provides a more viable option than Pragati Maidan – above all, it would not further clog Delhi.
The proposed project has clearly not been thought through. The motive to tear down buildings becomes more questionable if one was to consider the empty tracts of land to the east of the railway tracks and to the south across Bhairon Road, characterised by makeshift parking areas and inefficient use of land.
It is also apparent that the area around for Pragati Maidan will be choked with traffic. The issue is not just about providing parking but one of congestion at the point of access tunnels and ramps connecting to the city. The area around Supreme Court, High Court, Central Vista, Mathura Road and the Ring Road will be compromised, once there is a convention centre. Other consequences too will haunt all.
The future will show how our heritage is being compromised to carve gains for private interest groups. There is strong support internationally to condemn such efforts – the Union of Architects, the design leadership in the US as well as nations in Asia and Europe, apart from concerned citizens, have initiated campaigns to conserve the Hall of Nations, Hall of Industry and the Nehru Pavilion. It is time we too stand up to protect our shared rich architectural and cultural heritage from demolition or abuse. These buildings must be upgraded and put to active public use.
Arun Rewal is an architect, planner and urban designer.