Hall of Nations

Yesterday, the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan was demolished. Built in 1972, it's not old enough to be considered a heritage structure and so, was not considered worth preserving. LC Goyal, Chairman and Managing Director of India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which owns the building, promised all those who were anguished by the building being torn down that good things would replace it. "It is part of the larger plan under the 130-acre Pragati Maidan redevelopment project," he told The Indian Express. "In fact, it goes beyond Pragati Maidan itself. Everything has been done in a fair and transparent manner — not just to decongest traffic but to also bring India in sync with global standards. We changed the land use to also include hotels, which will come up in 3.7 acres of the complex." 

These plans aren't mollifying anyone, least of all Raj Rewal who was one of the architects who designed the Hall of Nations. "We are being ruled by people who are philistines. They have good knowledge about how to make money, but art and culture are their weak points," Rewal told The Hindu back in February and he's hardly likely to feel any different now.

It's a particularly cruel twist that a piece of modernist architecture has been torn down to way way for modernisation, but the Hall of Nations is not the first building to suffer this fate and nor will it be the last. So why the loud laments? Yes, it is a historic building, built in 1972 to commemorate 25 years of Indian independence and its massive, pillar-less structure was an architectural feat at the time. But it isn't the fact that it's from the Indira Gandhi-era that made Hall of Nations significant, though you could argue that this is a rather blatant effort to erase that part of Indian history and build something atop it. However, buildings get torn down and make way for something new all the time. That's just how it is, particularly in young, growing, shape-shifting cities. But the buildings we deem worthy of preservation are indicators of the identity we're forging just as our new monuments will be.  

As an 'ism', modernism is actually old. This philosophy of rejecting the past, establishing a new aesthetic and grounding one's creativity in a sparer, more analytical and severe worldview gained traction in the 20th century. Off with the curlicues of the past, break the walls, throw away the rulebook, and focus on the new. It was a vague, manifesto-less, stirring philosophy that was strikingly embodied in architecture. Modernist architecture redefined our notions of modernity itself. Without it, we wouldn't have the skyline, that visualisation of a city's heart rate through rectangular high rises, that we all associate with a future-forward city today. The cubist shapes, the emphasis on functionality, the open plans were in stark contrast to labyrinthine, palatial buildings of the past.  

Tearing down the Hall of Nations is a decisive break from the past. This "space-age building made with bullock cart technology" (that is reportedly how Buckminster Fuller described the Hall of Nations) is not how the new India wants to be known. The Hall of Nations is a reminder of a poor country, one that didn't have resources, one that had to do jugaad. "Anywhere in the industrialised world, the space-frame is made with steel joints," said Mahendra Raj, the structural engineer of the project, to The Times of India. "In India at the time, we didn't have enough steel. So we improvised, made it in concrete, hand-poured and cast on site."

There's no glory in this for the India of today and so, we shall have a "world-class" convention centre that, if not anything else, can be centrally air-conditioned (one of the reasons for tearing down the Hall of Nations is that it supposedly could not be air-conditioned. Rewal has said this is bunkum). I haven't seen the design of the structure that's supposed to take the Hall of Nations' place, but I'm willing to bet it will be shiny, tightly-shut against the elements and one that is rich with the ornamental Indian-ness that's on display at new Indian airports. Mudras, art, sculpture and detailing that teeters between awkward and kitschy. But for the decorative elements, these buildings could structurally belong to anywhere and consequently, belong nowhere.

The thing is, buildings like the Hall of Nations are public and visible. Without exerting themselves, they influence the way we imagine both ourselves and progress. We know what the Hall of Nations embodied -- a notion of India that was resourceful, hand-crafted and a beehive of activity. It wasn't perfect, but it was distinctive. Those crafting the new Indian identity have decided that distinctive isn't enough. 

Is 'world-class' simply a euphemism for replica of Western design, with glassy surfaces that reflect rather than encourage others to look in? An air-conditioned monument — with hotels! — in the age of global warming; in a city where to breathe clean air, you have to be rich enough to afford to keep the windows shut and an air purifier on; in a country, where farmers are are driven to desperation by drought. The Hall of Nations spoke of a nation and its dreams of building itself despite its limitations. It's fallen down like the house of cards that it formally resembled. What is this new structure that replaces it going to embody? What will it reflect of us and what will it inspire in all those who look upon it?             

Deepanjana Pal