Delhi watches silently as its contemporary heritage disappears
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Delhi watches silently as its contemporary heritage disappears

The Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries at Pragati Maidan was demolished last week and except for a group of city historians, artists and architects, no one raised their voices as the city lost one of its architectural marvels.

columns Updated: May 01, 2017 11:07 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Pragati Maidan,Hall of Nations,Hall of Industries
Built in 1972, the iconic Hall of Nations a permanent exhibition venue and a 20th-century heritage site at Pragati Maidan was demolished on April 23. This was the country’s first pillar-less building.(PTI Photo)

Last week, Delhi lost a part of its identity. The Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries at Pragati Maidan that had for four decades hosted the International Trade and Book Fairs, the national capital’s most popular public dos, were razed to make way for a “world class” convention centre.

Except for a group of city historians, artists and architects, the otherwise protest-ready Delhi showed no outrage at losing an architectural marvel of modern India. The demolition became fait accompli when the high court ruled that the two buildings did not qualify as “heritage” because they were not 60 years or older.

The Indian Trade Promotion Organisation will now spend Rs 2,254 crore to build a complex complete with a hotel, a mall, a multilevel food court, exhibition halls, parking and helipads to showcase “the technological, scientific, economic, and intellectual prowess of a resurgent India”. In the bargain, Delhi lost a symbol of architectural ingenuity and enterprise demonstrated so brilliantly 45 years ago, when India was still struggling to make its mark as a new nation.

In 1972, the 25th year of our Independence, India was to host the ‘Asia 72’ Trade Fair. The country needed a modern convention centre but was low on money, resources, and even building material. But architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj, who built the two exhibition halls, were not short of ideas. They used reinforced concrete, which was less expensive than steel and iron, for construction. To save on power consumption, they introduced ‘jali’ or latticed screens, inspired by the Mughal architecture, in a way that they blocked the heat but not the light while allowing ample ventilation.

Japan Pavilion at Pragati Maidan during the first exhibition named , Asia ‘72 ( HT Photo )

The demolition of these two structures is not just a one-off blow. Delhi’s many iconic buildings with rich architectural and aesthetic value will not qualify as heritage under the “60 years or older” clause applied by the court to the two Pragati Maidan marvels. The tearing down of the two buildings has set a precedent that makes Delhi’s contemporary heritage vulnerable.

In 2013, the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage prepared and submitted to the Delhi Urban Art Commission a list of 62 buildings built from 1955 onwards to be designated as heritage structures and protected legally. The authorities sat on the proposal even as the Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries, which were on the list, were torn down.

But there is still time for a course correction and providing a safety net to Delhi’s other contemporary landmarks. After all, the iconic structure that had inspired the New York City to rally in its support and in a way led to the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, was only in its fifth decade, when it faced bulldozers.

In 1962, NYC authorities decided to replace the 53-year-old Pennsylvania Station with a new one, a Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden. Architects, city planners and prominent citizens such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, urbanist Jane Jacobs and writer Norman Mailer fought the move. They could not stop the demolition — termed “the single greatest act of architectural vandalism the city has ever seen” by the New York Times — but made the fellow New Yorkers value their living heritage.

A group of visitors posing for a photograph at Pragati Maidan during Asia ‘72 Exhibition. (Virendra Prabhaka. ( HT Photo )

Three years later, the Landmark Commission, now globally considered a template for built heritage conservation, saved the Grand Central Terminal, successfully defending it all the way to the US Supreme Court. Today, NYC buildings as ‘new’ as 30 years old qualify to be on the list for preservation. In 1990, then 31-year-old Guggenheim Museum building became the youngest to become a designated landmark.

It is time Delhi also recognised its living heritage. Had the Mughals demolished the structures built by the Turks, or the British razed Shahjahanabad, Delhi would have none of its famed layers of built history to flaunt today.

Every bit of what is historical today was very much contemporary once.

It is for the authorities — as always multiple in Delhi — to look beyond whimsical heritage-by dates and appreciate what makes the national capital unique. It is for the Delhiites to mobilise and hit the streets, if necessary, to save their city’s built heritage for future generations. Or history will not be too kind to us.

First Published: May 01, 2017 09:01 IST