India Habitat Centre is among the buildings symbolic of Delhi’s growth since Independence. (HT archive)
India Habitat Centre is among the buildings symbolic of Delhi’s growth since Independence. (HT archive)

Focus on vertical growth, Delhi needs to protect modern heritage buildings

The buildings figured on the 2013 Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)-Delhi’s list of 62 modern heritage structures submitted to the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), an urban development regulatory body
By Risha Chitlangia
UPDATED ON MAR 02, 2021 02:53 PM IST

What do the Ashok Hotel, Vikas Minar, one of the tallest buildings in Delhi, Dak Tar Bhawan, and Akbar Bhawan have in common? These are some of the buildings that dominated the Capital’s skyline in the mid-50s and 60s and represented the evolution of post-colonial architecture. But with the focus on vertical growth for optimal land utilisation set to alter Delhi’s skyline, experts have called for protecting these post-Independence buildings that are an essential part of the city’s modern architectural heritage.

The buildings figured on the 2013 Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)-Delhi’s list of 62 modern heritage structures submitted to the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), an urban development regulatory body.

The list also included the iconic Hall of Nations, which was razed in 2017 to make way for the Pragati Maidan redevelopment project, Baha’i Temple, Vigyan Bhawan, Asiad Games Village, Nehru Memorial Library, Supreme Court, Garden of Five Senses, India Habitat Centre, National Science Centre, among others. From design and use of technology in their construction, these buildings are symbolic of the city’s growth since Independence.

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Swapna Liddle, the convenor of the INTACH-Delhi, said that they are now working on detailed criteria to identify such modern heritage buildings and also grade them based on a thematic framework. There are rules to protect over 100-year-old structures of historical importance but none to recognise the city’s modern heritage and protect it. The absence of any guidelines defining post-Independence heritage value led to the demolition of the Hall of Nations. The Delhi High Court decided against intervening as only buildings older than 60 years were considered for heritage status.

Constructed in 1972, the Hall of Nations commemorated 25 years of India’s Independence. It symbolically and technologically reflected India’s important place in the modern industrialising community of nations, according to INTACH. The World Health Organisation’s headquarters, another piece of Delhi modern heritage, constructed in 1962 was also demolished in 2019 for redevelopment.

Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad’s decision to demolish 14 of its dormitories designed by architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s was rolled back following widespread opposition. The move revived the debate about the need to protect modern heritage buildings.

“These modern heritage buildings are game-changers, and heralded new trends in architecture post-Independence. For instance, Louis Kahn’s IIM Ahmedabad buildings marked a shift in design for educational institutions,” said KT Ravindran, a former DUAC chairperson.

As the Centre plans to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence, heritage experts say it is about time to put in place a policy to give official recognition to buildings that represented post-Independence, neo-Indian architecture and nation-building efforts.

Annabel Lopez, project consultant, INTACH-Delhi, said they prepared their list of heritage buildings based on six broad themes: architecture, structural ingenuity, typology or function, context, socio-cultural developments and historical events.

“The grading was also undertaken based on the value or significance assigned to the structures, which is a reflection of the number of criteria it satisfies and not the age of the building. These landmarks of the post-Independence period [should] also receive some protection.”

Delhi’s skyline is set to transform dramatically as newer development projects focus on vertical growth. Old residential areas such as Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Kidwai Nagar have given way to new high-rise developments to cater to the growing housing requirement. The new Transit Oriented Development policy, which will be notified by the Centre, allows for skyscrapers with mixed development along with the mass transit hubs.

Experts believe that multi-storey flats in RK Puram have an important place in the city’s architectural history. The eight-storey Y or T shaped buildings, with lifts in the central core, were among the early attempts to provide multi-storey housing in the capital.

Similarly, built in 1988, the Jeevan Bharti building in Connaught Place represents the high-rise development around the British-era market in the 80s and 90s. “Some of the buildings such as the Hall of Nations were recognised for their architectural significance worldwide. But being not protected under the law, it was demolished to make way for new development. Given the current pace of development or redevelopment in the city, soon we may not have any buildings built in the 60s or 70s left,” said Liddle.

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INTACH’S list also includes Vigyan Bhawan, which was constructed in 1955 and is among the buildings that fall in the area surrounding Central Vista that is under redeployment. “It is a modern building with reinterpreted elements from historic architecture such as jaalis and the chaitya window opening,” said Liddle.

The Centre is redeveloping the Central Vista to construct a new common central secretariat, the new Parliament House, Central Conference Centre, residences of the vice-president and the Prime Minister. While the new Parliament is likely to be ready by next year, the rest of the project will be completed by 2024.

There are 1,208 protected monuments in the city wherein any change in structure or renovation has to be approved by the Heritage Conservation Committee. Experts have called for similar regulations for modern heritage buildings. “There is an urgent need to have norms to identify and protect modern heritage,” said AGK Menon, an urban designer who was involved in preparing the INTACH’s list. “Several buildings constructed post-1947 are of great significance. Udyog Bhawan...for example, represents what we were capable of building immediately after Independence.”

Urban designer Abhimanyu Dalal, who also a DUAC member, says efforts have been made globally to protect modern heritage. “These buildings are cultural markers in time, and there is a need to have regulatory mechanisms to protect them. Cities such as Paris, New York, and Chicago have rules to protect modern heritage. Any redevelopment or change in these buildings should be as per some rules.”

With several set to be razed as part of the Central Vista project, Ravindran called for the need to protect buildings such as Krishi Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan. “They might not be architectural masterpieces, but certainly have heritage value, representing... adaptation of Indo-Saracenic style.”

Raj Rewal, the architect of the Hall of Nations, called for an independent committee comprising eminent architects, conservationists, architectural historians, art and architecture critics to protect the post-Independence heritage.

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