Heritage on the fringe

The Hall of Nations symbolised what India was capable of. With its demolition, the country has lost one of the layers of its rich past

June 04, 2017 02:00 am | Updated June 05, 2017 01:49 pm IST

The Hall of Nationswas designed by architect Raj Rewal in New Delhi to commemorate 25 years of independence.

The Hall of Nationswas designed by architect Raj Rewal in New Delhi to commemorate 25 years of independence.

On a Sunday night in April, the India Trade Promotion Organisation, the government agency supported by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, demolished two iconic structures in New Delhi—the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industries—along with the Nehru Pavilion. They are now to be replaced by a “world-class” Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre (IECC) at Pragati Maidan.

The proposal for the demolition was met with strong opposition. Various national and international architecture organisations, including the Indian Institute of Architects, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the Pompidou Centre, the Museum of Modern Art, and several others voiced their concerns. But the government’s Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) refused to classify the structures as heritage, which would protect them by law, and went ahead with the demolition.

The reason? The buildings were less than 60 years old.

But is age the only criteria to determine heritage?

“If you think it might be worth saving when it is 60 years, then you don’t have the right to demolish it today,” explains Swapna Liddle, author, historian and convenor with INTACH. “Otherwise, when that date comes, you won’t have that building because you’ve already demolished it.”

Gautam Bhatia, architect and author, agrees. “Sixty years is a joke. You can’t treat buildings like you treat cars. Many landmarks are quite relevant and yet are not considered heritage,” he adds. The Lotus Temple and India Habitat Centre in Delhi illustrate Bhatia’s point.

A.G.K. Menon, former convenor with INTACH, explains why a Taj Mahal won’t meet the same fate. It is because citizens have been educated to understand its significance outside of tourism—something modern architecture is denied. “Also, the Taj Mahal is old, so you believe it cannot be replaced. Modern architecture suffers because it is modern. They think it can be replaced.”

So, while heritage buildings older than 60 years are protected by law, the question of what qualifies a building as “modern heritage” is trickier. And it is to answer this that INTACH’s Delhi chapter has suggested six criteria to identify modern architectural heritage. The Hall of Nations met two of those criteria—it was a building of “exceptional architectural significance” and “representative of the works of a master architect”.

The other four criteria relate to example of building typology, ensemble structures, religious buildings and buildings associated with the lives of persons of great significance. In 2013, the chapter submitted a list of 62 such buildings in Delhi to the HCC, which dismissed it.

But it’s such buildings, the architecture community feels, which hold more than just a functional value in the lives of people. They embody a certain narrative and are, in a very literal sense, ways for people to physically engage with the past.

“If at every stage you change the whole complexion of the city, there won’t be any layers left. Imagine the Mughals destroying every sultanate building in the city to make their own history in the 17th century,” Liddle says.

Rewriting history

To understand the narrative of the Hall of Nations, it is important to get an idea of what led up to its inauguration in 1972. By the time the 70s rolled around, India had fought two wars, resources were scarce, banks were nationalised, and the country would go on to fight a third war with Pakistan in 1971.

At the same time, India was also planning the commemoration of its 25th year of independence. As part of the celebration, the government held a competition to select the best design for permanent exhibition halls for the International Trade Fair. One of the designs was from architect Raj Rewal—a gigantic exhibition hall built entirely of space frames that would act as sun-breakers from all sides. Moreover, the building was meant to be pillar-less. Rewal won the competition.

His design, however, required steel tubes and connectors, both of which, owing to a steel shortage back then, weren’t readily available here. And so, he made the bold decision of using reinforced concrete instead. “I was 36. I had a lot of... bravado. They were all taken aback.”

With the collaboration of engineers Mahinder Raj and Durai Raj, Rewal went on to make what would become the largest cast-in-situ concrete space frame structure in the world and the first of its kind—a structure that truly represented a modern, self-sufficient India.

For Menon, the Hall of Nations symbolised what Indians are capable of. “Americans would have built this structure with all kinds of modern technology. But we had our handicrafts and labour, our skills and imagination. We put it together... and it stood the test of time.”

If the argument was that a convention centre requires modern amenities like air conditioning, these could have been easily installed in the existing structure. “Once you have heritage, you should not preserve it as a museum piece. All the listed buildings you see in Europe, for instance, are pretty modern from the inside,” says Liddle.

Other arguments against the demolition have been made. Menon argues that it wasn’t driven by a lack of space; these buildings didn’t need to go to make space for IECC.

The move, experts also say, was fiscally irresponsible. “The government’s interest in architecture is very marginal. There is no real understanding of what constitutes heritage,” says Bhatia.

For historian and activist Sohail Hashmi, the government’s main target was the Nehru Pavilion (built to exhibit the life and times of Nehru). “If they had just demolished the Nehru Pavilion, their game would have been exposed,” he argues. Menon agrees. “They [present government] want to rewrite history in their own way. They’re going to demolish the Lutyens Bungalow Zone and build multi-storey buildings.”

The word is “philistine”, says Rewal. In Europe, when looking for an architect, people look for someone with a vision, with a philosophy. “If someone tried to do that here, they’d be held up by the Central Vigilance Commission. They’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you take a quotation from him?’”

The demolition of heritage structures disconnects us from our past—the story of how we came to be. It is this narrative that helps us understand ourselves. But people at large remain unaware of the importance of this narrative. Both Liddle and Menon believe it is indeed the failure of the architecture community. “We architects got engaged in our work and forgot we are leaving people behind. We’ve not been able to communicate our problems, our objectives, our goals,” says Menon.

Creating slowness

The problem, as Bhatia explains, is also in how we plan our cities. “In India, everything about architecture is insular. We build in subdivisions, plots and compounds with high boundary walls.” He gives the example of Rome, where it’s not just the Colosseum or the Trajan’s Forum that is recognised, but also the street houses of the 18th and the 19th century. “You walk past them every day. You have a cup of coffee outside a place that’s been converted into a small café. You sip wine outside a church. The familiarity with the church and the streets are part of your daily life. In India, you are not exposed to architecture. So the unfamiliar is not worth saving. Who in Tamil Nadu or Bengaluru knew or cared about Hall of Nations?” he asks.

“The whole point of a city is to create slowness,” says Bhatia, “so that you notice what’s around you. This is completely missed in the Indian landscape.”

This engagement with the city and its architecture affects our behaviour. Liddle says that a badly designed city is likely to encourage further vandalism. A well-designed city, on the other hand, would push you to keep your surroundings the best they can be. “The aesthetic cannot help but affect you,” she explains. In the wake of this demolition, it has become increasingly important to educate people about the importance and the value of modern heritage. “Pride in a city is important,” says Liddle, “because that’s what will ultimately keep it alive.”

When he’s not chasing stories, the writer can be found playing Ultimate Frisbee or endless rounds of Catan.

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