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Outrage: ‘To destroy India’s Hall of Nations is an attack on society’

Hall of Nations 1

The preservation of buildings of historic importance needs awareness in India, where many still struggle with basic needs

Cultural cleansing of historically rich regions is one of the most devastating actions taken in any contemporary civilised society where culture and history are intrinsic to the social fabric of society. Radicalism can lead to the eradication of history, that history whose traces reveal the cultural identity of the place and the symbols of power. Contrary to the theory of radicalism, today India – among many other developing nations – is struggling with a vague idea of development, smartness and modernisation and in many cases historical facts are erased by the demolition and destruction of culturally rich monuments and iconic structures in the name of utopia. Iconic structures and monuments represent not just cultural identity but also a statement in power, a symbol of dominance and supremacy.

The Indian subcontinent is full of such examples where structures came to represent the portrayal of strength. From Qutub Minar of the slave dynasty in Delhi to Asafi Imambara of the Nawabs in Lucknow and the structures and gateways of British colonial architecture, whatever emerged on the ground gave a strong message of the arrival of a superpower and cast a shadow of strength over resistance. These are the structural examples from a pre-Independence India. But post-Independence, Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, set the precedent of a Modernist theory and hence India, a newly born independent state, saw its first modern structure in Chandigarh designed by Le Corbusier. Since then, architecture has been a tool to demonstrate the supremacy of this growing independent nation. Out of many such examples, the Hall of Nations – an agglomeration of exhibition spaces designed to celebrate the 25th year of Indian Independence – became a prominent symbol of Delhi’s skyline in 1972.

‘A space-framed built form poured in concrete, with column-free exhibition halls of spans of around 82m, was constructed probably for the first time in India and the world’

An AA-trained architect Raj Rewal, associate of the RIBA, along with a Minnesota and Columbia-trained civil engineer Mahendra Raj, strove to define architectural liberation in India. The duo worked on a masterpiece to portray India’s strength and growing power with limited resources. The end result became an architectural marvel, a landmark in the country and is seen as a symbol of Modernism reflecting Nehruvian modern theory. A space-framed built form poured in concrete, with column-free exhibition halls of spans of around 82m, was constructed probably for the first time in India and the world. The criss-cross ribbed structure portrays a strong bond shared between the diverse communities of the nation and its pyramidal form is the definition of Nehru’s idea of economic prosperity of a developing nation.

hall of nations interior

hall of nations interior

The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to host an International Trade Fair under the roof of a structure that would epitomise the power of a young independent state: the Hall of Nations. Incorporating the Hall of Industries and a memorial to Nehru, the Hall of Nations, conceived by the architectural and structural genius of its time, is a remarkable architectural achievement with minimal resources. The design of the complex displays passive cooling devices with the use of perforated patterns known as traditional jaalis, and ribs work as sun-breakers providing shade from Delhi’s harsh sun, allowing the circulation of air and natural ventilation. With huge exhibition halls, since its construction the Hall of Nations has played host to enormous exhibitions, performances and related activities, including a World Trade Fair, Auto Expo and World Book Fair. The memorial is a display of Nehru’s personality showcasing his Modernist theories and strong leadership abilities.

‘The structure, seen as the symbol of Modernism and architectural liberation in India, today faces a threat of destruction in the name of facelift and world-class facilities’

In contemporary India, the Hall of Nations’ architectural form and structural beauty is studied by architecture and structural engineering students. But at the same time, the structure, seen as the symbol of Modernism and architectural liberation in India, today faces a threat of destruction in the name of facelift and world-class facilities. The India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which looks after the Hall of Nations’ affairs, has suggested a makeover for the Hall of Nations, Halls of Industries and the Nehru memorial, making way for a world-class convention centre, exhibition halls and underground parking facilities. The proposal is with the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) and the final call for the demolition of these iconic structures lies with the heritage conservation committee of the ministry.

So several campaigns to save the Hall of Nations are being carried out online and on the ground by architects, thinkers and activists who see the destruction of a landmark in the name of facelift as a theft of ideas and thoughts. Last year on 31 March 2015, a similar event was organised by the faculty of architecture, Jamia Millia Islamia, in Delhi. In the seminar, Ram Rahman, a renowned architectural photographer, suggested movements to make the society aware of the cultural thefts happening in the name of facelifts. Recently, SAHMAT, an NGO working for the cause of arts, literature and culture, organised a talk at the India International Center, Delhi in which the architecture–structure duo sat together and discussed the hardships and challenges they faced while coming up with such a design. It concluded with an emotional statement from engineer Mahendra Raj: ‘Destruction of a building designed by me in front of my eyes will be like seeing my child getting hacked in front of me.’

India is a nation where the masses still struggle for their physiological needs. With that as a backdrop, the idea of the preservation of iconic structures and buildings of historic importance needs awareness at the grassroots and campaigns need to be organised to let people know that history is the part of a civilisation which reveals the struggle, strength and supremacy. Eradication of history should be seen as an attack on society. Destruction can raze a structure, but a landmark can never be erased from the social fabric of a progressive nation.