Losing A Heritage: A History of Pragati Maidan’s ‘Hall of Nations’

“It was built to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Independence – a symbol of what we could achieve on our own in India.”

On the evening of 25 April 2017, hours after his life’s most notable work was demolished by the India Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO), architect Raj Rewal speaking to The Quint, remembered the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan fondly.

In 1972, the Hall of Nations and Industries was symbolic of an achievement by young architects in a newly-independent India, creating a style which could be constructed with limited means, yet be uniquely Indian.

Aerial view of the exhibition hall complex with the larger Hall of Nations and four smaller Halls of Industries built for the 1972 International Trade Fair. (Photo: Copyright Mahendra Raj Archive via Architexturez.net)

Inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Hall of Nations soon became a cultural landmark in Delhi with its imposing ‘jaali’ like structure being a backdrop to the dynamic evolution of a city.

After its construction, the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan was one of the first of large-span cast-in-situ-concrete space frames to be constructed in the world. An architectural marvel, and one which heralded India’s entry on the world stage.

But despite worldwide fame, when the time came forty-five years later, the Halls weren’t ‘heritage’ enough.

Ruins of Hall of Nations after its demolition. (Photo: Abhilash Mallick/The Quint)

An Architectural Challenge, Met With Home-Grown Innovation

In 1972, India was a different country.

(Photo: Copyright Raj Rewal via Architexturez.net)

Twenty-five years after Independence, the country was heavily reliant on man-made labour, with machines playing a negligible role. So, while constructing Hall of Nations, the challenge was to create a new idiom of modern aesthetic in architecture, while expressing a fidelity to basic constructing materials like reinforced concrete.

In a documentary called Indian Modernity’ directed by Manu Rewal, architect Raju Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj — an iconic duo responsible for shaping most of India’s modern buildings — talk of the optimism and adversity they faced while designing the Hall of Nations.

(Source: "Indian Modernity", co-produced by Duniya Vision India, Karma productions France and Centre Pompidou, Paris)

After the Hall of Nations was constructed in twenty-two months and within budget, it was the venue for the 1972 International Trade Fair.

The Museum of Modern Art heralded the Hall of Nations as a structure “built in a time of great optimism for the future, both structures were seminal in forging a new, modern identity for Indian society and architecture. They are architectural masterpieces and important witnesses of an important chapter of Indian history.”

Plans, Elevation, Section (Hall of Nations) dated 16 August 1971. (Photo: Copyright Mahendra Raj Archive via Architexturez.net)

How To Destroy A Modern Indian Heritage Symbol

The Hall of Nations and Hall of Industries were demolished by the ITPO as a part of a plan to redevelop Pragati Maidan complex, with the iconic buildings making way for a state-of-the-art convention centre and exhibition centre.

As soon as the redevelopment plans were announced in November 2015, museums from across the world including Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris requested the government to reconsider their decision and preserve the Halls as heritage buildings.

Letter from Museum of Modern Archives (MoMA) by The Quint on Scribd

Raj Rewal along with structural engineer Mahendra Raj and others filed a petition in the Delhi HC asking for a stay on the demolition.

However, the Heritage Conservation Committee, set up under the Ministry of Urban Development, rejected the petition to consider Hall of Nations as ‘modern heritage’ worth preservation, since it wasn’t older than 60 years.

Although the case was still being heard by the Delhi HC with hearings scheduled for 27 April and May 2017, the stay order was considered to be lifted when the HCC submitted its definition of ‘modern heritage.’ Four days before the demolition, architect Raj Rewal’s petition was dismissed.

Ruins of Hall of Nations after its demolition. (Photo: Abhilash Mallick/The Quint)

Raj Rewal ‘rubbished’ the 60-years rule, giving the example of Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex which has been recognised as a heritage site by the UNESCO.

While the case was being heard, a Change.org petition said the “buildings accommodate the persistence in the memory of the city’s form and our shared cultural heritage, a value that all cities long for.” The petition garnered 4,377 signatures, with comments comparing the heritage value of Hall of Nations to ‘Bamiyan Buddhas’.

Halls of Nations and Industries under construction. (Photo: Copyright Mahendra Raj Archive/(HELLANS Industrial & Pictorial Photographers, New Delhi) via Architexturez.net)

In a statement after the demolition, Raj Rewal, Mahendra Raj, former convenor of INTACH India AGK Menon and President of Indian Institute of Architects called it 'an outrage'.

Trade Fairs, And Yash Chopra Memories

“I am still in a state of shock,” said Kolkata-based photographer Rajiv Soni. Decrying the loss of an ‘architectural piece of history’, he recalled his memories of the Hall of Nations.

Rajiv Soni to PTI The demolition was a terrible decision. I am still in a state of shock. I was there at the international trade fair in Asia 1972, and later Tata group participated in so many expos. The demolition has jolted my memories, and I now recall greeting legendary JRD Tata at our stall. The future generation has been deprived of an architectural piece of history. It should have been preserved.

Photo capturing the springing point of a set of three nodes emerging from the ground with openings on both sides. (Photo: Copyright Mahendra Raj Archive via Architexturez.net)

Among Delhiites, the feeling of desolation is a common sentiment. As someone born and brought up in Delhi, I’ve visited the Hall of Nations innumerable times, with my happiest childhood memories being of wandering in and out of stalls stocked with fascinating curios from across the world in numerous Trade Fairs.

When news filtered in on a Tuesday morning of Hall of Nations being razed to the ground, it was an immediate feeling of loss — of an architectural marvel and of a sense of identity of a city.

After all, isn’t that what heritage is?