23rd April, 2017. The iconic structures were demolished overnight.
I have had a soft corner for these structures for various reasons. As a child I was introduced to them as creations of my granduncle Mr. Mahendra Raj; as an architecture student I visited these structures while interning at the office of Ar. Raj Rewal (the architect of these structures); as a craft enthusiast I witnessed and experienced the bustling crowd flowing in and out of these flexible spaces during the yearly World Trade Fairs; one of my fondest memories is of visiting the pavilions during Gandhi Jayanti and witnessing hundreds of people spinning inside this huge spectacular space. Lastly, as a conservation architect, who strongly believed these structures to be one of the symbols of the Modern Heritage of India, I kept in touch with every news about the disheartening decision taken by ITPO to demolish these structures and prayed, prayed and prayed for the decision to be overruled. Today with a heavy heart, I have decided to write about these buildings. Nor a complaint, neither an angry letter. This blog aims at telling the world the story of these structures and why I believe that the demolition needs to be remembered because it was not only a great loss to the architectural world but also an example of an unethical decision making that was accepted unquestioned. (Okay wait, maybe a little angry.)
The Nehru Pavilion or the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industries, was a permanent exhibition complex that was built in the year 1972. It was designed and built within 22 months to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India’s independence and also as a symbol of the technological context of the day.
The enclosure was to be a column-free space meant for exhibitions. With a joint effort of the architect and the structural engineer, the decision in favour of a spaceframe was made that would function as an envelop or rather like a perforated cover enclosing a space of 6700 sq.m for the main hall and a total of 7500 sq.m for the smaller halls.
Quoting from The Structure: Works of Mahendra Raj: “The large truncated pyramids of both structures are composites of smaller unit pyramids. The Hall of Nations consists of units of a 4.9m x 4.9m base and 3.5m height which form the 73m x 73m pyramid, truncated at the height of 30m with a roof span of 39m x 39m. The Halls of Industries are four 18m-high pyramids of 40m x 40m base, with truncated roofs of 22m x 22m, made of units that are 2.6m high and 3.6m x 3.6m at the base. The configuration of both these basic pyramids is such that all members of the square base and the four triangular sides have the same length, finally allowing the same building slope and the angle of this basic unit at 54°44’8”.
The space frame that was decided upon acted as a sun-breaker because of it’s geometrical pattern and depth. “Steel or pre-cast concrete would have been obvious choices of material for such a space frame, but the constraints of the available construction technology of that time necessitated the use of in-situ concrete.” Also the construction system was developed and adopted in order to minimize the use of scaffolding and maximize the use of shuttering.
I have had many discussions till now on why these structures were iconic. There are many people including architects who question the admiration for these buildings. To understand this, the first thing to be done is to see the construction in the context of its time. In 1972, the efforts of an all Indian team of architects, structural engineers and workers created a truly modern, one of its kind space. The time when each and every drawing was done by hand and the calculations were done by the professionals without a computer, these structures are no less than a feat. Take a look at the copies of the original handmade drawings, views of structural members designed, sketches and structural calculation charts (reproduced from the book The Structure: Works of Mahendra Raj with permission of the authors). You will realize that this was no ordinary project.
The highlight of this project remains the collective work and effort on the parts of the architect Raj Rewal and the structural engineer Mahendra Raj. A must learn for today’s practitioners. The entire design process is enriched if the process of design and implementation go hand in hand. In this case, the team was able to construct a reinforced concrete space frame that had no equivalent in the world.
A losing case was being fought in the High Court and two petitions were being heard, but the architects, engineers and other agencies who believed in these buildings did not give up. The Heritage Committee set up did not consider the pleas because according to the reports neither the DUAC nor the ASI listed these structures as heritage. And what was this based on? Numbers. They say a building needs to be at least 60 years old to be called a heritage building. Also these buildings only occupy 2% of the 123 acres that are to be redeveloped. Surely a design solution could be worked out!
This is the value of ingenuity and creation in our country. A unique presence is judged by numbers. And no, for your information, this 60 years is not a written rule. Internationally many buildings have been listed by UNESCO as world heritage without considering the number. To be Modern Heritage the criteria is decided as per the Outstanding Universal Value a structure represents, not by the number of years of its existence. To completely defy their logic, I present to you the example of Sydney Opera House. This complex was inaugurated in 1973 and became a part of the World Heritage List in 2007. It was only 34 years old! Do you see where we stand as far as valuing our creations is concerned? Isn’t it disheartening!?
I am also ready to accept the viewpoint of the people who think no harm has been done, because well there is always the other side, the other opinion that cannot be ignored. But I will never cease to question the way the demolition took place. Quoting Hindustan Times dated 24th April 2017: “About half a dozen bulldozers worked overnight on Sunday at Pragati Maidan to pull down five iconic buildings. …ITPO is setting up a world class integrated exhibition cum convention centre with a project value of Rs. 2254 crore.” It should be noted that the demolition happened on 23rd night, ignoring the fact that the case was being heard in the Delhi high court and the hearings were scheduled on April 27 and May 1. How do we ignore such things?
It is not that we do not value national heritage, it is the fact that we as a nation are hell bent on degrading a rich culture in many ways.
(All the images are the property of of Mahendra Raj Consultants, unless mentioned otherwise)