Demolishing a legacy

Print edition : October 13, 2017

A model of the Hall of Nations, from the exhibition at KNMA. In the background are engineering drawings by Mahendra Raj and photographs of the construction.

IN April this year, the iconic Hall of Nations, said to be the first pillarless building to be built in India, was demolished along with four other structures in Hall of Industries at New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan exhibition complex. It was built in 1972 to celebrate 25 years of Independence and had become a cultural landmark on the city’s skyline. Original drawings by Raj Rewal and photographs of the construction taken by Madan Mahatta remain testimony to its history. Built by the team of Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj, its demolition opened a much-needed discussion on preservation of modern heritage. It underscored the urgent need for conservation of contemporary architecture and the importance of recognising that culturally.

As the Hall of Nations had won praise from all over the world, the government received letters from around the world requesting that the edifice not be demolished. But the entreaties were ignored. The manner in which the demolition was carried out overnight, even as a case was being heard in the Delhi High Court, raised questions about the government’s intention.

The current dispensation’s abhorrence of anything to do with Jawaharlal Nehru is no secret and people wondered if this was one more attack on his legacy. “From Nadir Shah to the Taliban, [dictators] have destroyed heritage and architecture that challenged their beliefs. The Babri Masjid too was demolished to maintain the hegemony of the majoritarian culture. It would be no surprise if the Hall of Nations was also demolished from similar motives,” said an architect.

Architects were also doubtful that financial considerations could have led to the demolition. “It occupied not more than 5 per cent of the total complex,” said the civil engineer Mahendra Raj. He suggested that perhaps the Hall could be rebuilt to send a message. The demolition left architects wondering whether there were more buildings that would meet the same fate and how to prevent such a catastrophe.

For a while now, there has been an attempt to create a list of exceptional architectural edifices built after Independence that can be considered as modern heritage. There are differing viewpoints on whether such a list should be created. The list put out by INTACH has 62 buildings, including buildings of religious significance and those associated with lives of great persons. The LIC building designed by Charles Correa in 1986, Crafts Museum, India International Centre by the American architect Joseph Stein, Akbar Bhavan, Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts and the Baha’i Temple are on the list.

Kuldip Singh says, “We need a little introspection if we have to save a building which is considered to have great value for history or as art heritage. We need to build some kind of environment for positive work on these buildings as the first step and also ensure their maintenance. Take, for example, the NDMC building. It has nine floors that have been converted into a billboard. It is lit up from behind and displayed as LED screens. All this is against the policy laid down by the Supreme Court, which forbids putting advertisements on buildings, especially in the vicinity of ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] monuments. And this is next door to Jantar Mantar. This kind of arbitrariness and [abuse of] bureaucratic power [is unbecoming]. There is nobody to stop it. What can I do? Go to the court? Is this the way? Do we decide these things in the courts now?”

Mahendra Raj said: “A lot of our establishment, the private sector and building promoters are philistine, architecturally illiterate, and that poses a very serious problem. Unless we are able to create an environment where architecture is celebrated and preserved, we are messing up our cities.”

Divya Trivedi