Fall of the hall: losing a part of India’s history

  • Namrata Kohli
  • Updated: Apr 18, 2016 12:14 IST
The Hall of Nations provides an uninterrupted exhibition area of approximately 6,700 sq m in a pyramid supported on eight points

The only structure in the world made with concrete space frames (the roof is made of concrete unlike regular structures that have steel frames for support), it will be demolished by ITPO (Indian Trade Promotion Organisation) for a makeover of Pragati Maidan as a world-class convention centre. Other buildings to be razed include the Hall of Industries and the Nehru Pavilion.

These structures occupy less than 2% of Pragati Maidan and can be integrated in any redevelopment effort. The buildings can be refurbished easily and provided with modern services like air conditioning at economical costs to accommodate new functions, architects say.

A vast section of the intelligentsia, including architects BV Doshi, AGK Menon, Gautam Bhatia, KT Ravindran, JR Bhalla, Satish Gujral, Rahul Mehrotra, Divya Kush (president of Indian Institute of Architects) and others, in signed appeals to prime minister Narendra Modi, have said the Hall of Nations should not be destroyed as it is “a vital part of India’s contemporary heritage.”

“Like the Jantar Mantar, Humayun’s tomb and Purana Quila, the Hall of Nations and Industries as well as the Nehru Pavilion are all part of the city’s memory. For many around the world, Delhi is represented by its buildings,” says urban planner Arun Rewal, who started the petitions to save the structures.

The Hall of Nations and Industries constitute the largest span (a huge hall without pillars) in a public building and public structures in Delhi . These buildings are acclaimed as images of progress, modernity in India and Indian architecture.

Hall of Nations

Nehru pavilion

Outside view of Nehru pavilion

Inside view of Hall of Nations

Designed and built between 1969 -1972 by architect Raj Rewal, structural engineer Mahendra Raj and project site engineer Dorai Raj, the Hall of Nations complex has been internationally acclaimed as an important structure of the last century. The Nehru Pavilion museum exhibits events in India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s life which are related to the country’s freedom struggle. The exterior is inspired by Buddhist stupas containing relics of the Buddha, and is built under a grassy mound. For Rewal, the mound is symbolic of Nehru’s simplicity.

How was the design for the Hall of Nations chosen? Rewal says he had submitted it in an architectural contest. “We were part of a competition to celebrate 25 years of India’s independence and won the prize. The idea was to symbolise the last 25 years and yet look forward to change. It was in a different league altogether as the project was labour-intensive, there was use of concrete as against metals.”

Interestingly, the architect had to contend with shortage of steel which had been used up for manufacture of weapons after the 1971 Indo-Pak war. A decision was taken to then use concrete and the man who made it possible was Mahendra Raj, the structural engineer.

The Hall of Nations provides an uninterrupted exhibition area of approximately 6,700 sqm in a pyramid supported on eight points.

According to a spokesperson from Mahendra Raj Consultants Pvt Ltd, “A special nine-member joint was evolved for precast construction but the builder preferred in-situ construction. The joint was modified to suit the adopted technique. The hall is supported on pile foundations tied together with post tensioned plinth beams stressed in stages. The Hall of Industries rests on spread footings tied together with high tensile steel bars. The entire complex was analysed, designed and built in a period of 15 months.”

In many ways these buildings are reminders of the country’s ability to innovate with limited resources and clever use of manpower. The architectural forms have a value beyond their building constructs. Most experts feel that the Hall of Nations, Hall of Industries and the Nehru Pavilion reflect structural ingenuity, layering of space and an architectural character that is derived from the country’s collective traditions and reinterpreted in a modern context. “The project is widely published and referred to as textbook material by students of architecture and civil engineering,” says Divya Kush, president, Indian Institute of Architects. It may not be a heritage structure in the strictest sense but certainly is a piece of architecture which is heritage in the making, he adds.

A Delhi High Court verdict has not been in favour of preserving these structures. In response to a public interest litigation (PIL) along with a request from Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) to stop the demolitions, the high court ruling was: “Mere pendency of representation to declare the buildings as ‘Heritage Buildings’ cannot be the basis to stall the redevelopment of the Pragati Maidan Complex.” The matter is under the purview of the Heritage Conservation Committee under the Ministry of Urban Development to give a final recommendation. And that for many is the ‘last ray of hope.’

Technically, says Mahendra Raj, even the Rashtrapati Bhavan is not a 100-year-old building. But we consider it heritage because it has been notified as a heritage building. Surely, the Taj Mahal, the Qutub Minar are not ‘replaceable’ for their part in history; likewise the structures celebrating contemporary heritage of India are not replaceable too.

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