One of Delhi’s most recognised icons of modern architecture, The ‘Hall of Nations’ at Pragati Maidan is now history. The land it stood on majestically for the last 3 decades, is being cleared for a Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre (IECC). The failure of Indian Trade Promotion Organisation that runs the Pragati Maidan, to monetise on the large exhibition space on prime real estate, resulted in their plans to upgrade the Pragati Maidan Complex completely. The solution they came up with – demolish the existing structures ! A public interest litigation and two writ petitions filed by India Institute of Architects in Hon’ble High Court of Delhi to save the buildings were dismissed.
Built to commemorate the 25th year of Indian Independence, The Hall of Nations along with a group of structures consisting of other architectural marvels like Hall of Industries and Nehru Pavilion have defined post modern architecture in India.The most magnificent of the structures in Pragati Maidan, the Hall of Nations was designed by architect Raj Rewal. Being the largest-span concrete structure in the world, the Hall of Nations was one of the most innovative architectural icons of modern Indian architecture. While a steel space frame structure could be easily used, the constraint of supply of steel at the time compelled architect Raj Rewal and structural engineer Mahindra Raj to come out with a reinforced concrete structure inspired from traditional Indian architecture.
It is a shame that the structures, that occupied less than 2 % of the total area at Pragati Maidan, had to be demolished for building a new convention centre. In fact Mr. Rewal, the architect of the building, had taken part in a competition to come out with a redevelopment plan for the exhibition complex but the proposal was rejected twice by ITPO as it included the Hall of Nations as part of the new redesigned complex. While architects and experts pointed out the value these buildings hold in India’s architectural history, the reason many committees gave to facilitate the demolition was that the building was not old enough to be called heritage. The government on its part did not do much to save the structure. Petitions and pleas from intellectuals, architects, museums including the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA), New York and heritage experts from around the world fell on deaf ears.
At a time when other countries in the world are safeguarding their built heritage, India let go of one of its globally recognised icons. The design of the Hall of Nations had been showcased in leading museums and galleries around the world including the Pompidou Centre at Paris. It had defined the Delhi skyline for more than three decades and had been even commemorated on postage stamps. Now there is only hope, that the new building that comes up is as iconic as the building it replaces, but can icons really be replaced?