NEW DELHI, 23 APRIL 2017: THE IDEA OF AR­CHI­TEC­TURE DE­MOL­ISHED

Domus - - EDITORIAL - Kai­wan Me­hta

To­day we bru­tally mur­dered a sense of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional imag­i­na­tion of progress and col­lab­o­ra­tion, co­op­er­a­tion and vi­sion of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, spirit of labour and en­gi­neer­ing, that mod­ern In­dia was built on and hoped for. As I write this, the iconic struc­tures of the Hall of Na­tions and the Hall of In­dus­tries in New Delhi’s Pra­gati Maidan are de­mol­ished de­spite op­po­si­tion, only to make way for a pro­posed ‘state-of-the-art con­ven­tion cen­tre’. A cold­blooded mur­der of not just one build­ing — a his­tory of artis­tic imag­i­na­tion, en­gi­neer­ing prow­ess, and cul­tural ethos of tak­ing the world with us in our own na­tional progress was vi­o­lently shat­tered to pieces. Do we have a bolder or brighter imag­i­na­tion and ethos to re­place this? Surely not. If we as a na­tion, as a peo­ple, as a civil­i­sa­tion, as pow­ers-to-be had any sense of cul­tural imag­i­na­tion, or had a vi­sion that is pro­gres­sive and cel­e­brates what we ‘make in In­dia’ with knowl­edge from all di­rec­tions, or had any re­spect for a past that is ro­bust, or had any un­der­stand­ing of labour and cre­ativ­ity join­ing hands — we would not have let this de­mo­li­tion hap­pen. We have failed as a civil­i­sa­tion, as a peo­ple, as a pro­fes­sion — not sim­ply be­cause a build­ing got de­mol­ished, but be­cause an iconic work of ar­chi­tec­ture, en­gi­neer­ing, and tech­nol­ogy that sym­bol­ised in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s dream to be a na­tion at the fore of world af­fairs — be it trade, tech­nol­ogy, cul­ture, and cre­ativ­ity — got de­mol­ished. An ‘imag­i­na­tion for In­dia’ and an ‘idea of In­dia’ stands de­mol­ished and shat­tered to­day.

Few works of art or lit­er­a­ture so beau­ti­fully and sym­bol­i­cally stand as a tes­ti­mony to the time of their cre­ation and the years of his­tory to come — The Hall of Na­tions was one of them. It was a mon­u­ment to what In­dia imag­ined as a young and in­de­pen­dent na­tion, fight­ing all odds of colo­nial­ism, par­ti­tion, strife, and strug­gle. It was a site where na­tional imag­i­na­tion ex­tended it­self into an imag­i­na­tion of what the world could be as a place of co­op­er­a­tion and progress. If Gandhi and Tagore spoke of ‘What is Civil­i­sa­tion?’ or the idea of a world cul­ture — it was in the Hall of Na­tions that one saw that ker­nel of ideas shaped into a ma­te­rial ge­om­e­try of space and struc­ture. Mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture such as that of Raj Re­wal and Ma­hen­dra Raj es­tab­lished the es­sen­tial con­ver­sa­tion be­tween moder­nity and tra­di­tion, craft, labour, and en­gi­neer­ing, in very spe­cial ways. Imag­ine the ar­ro­gance of the author­i­ties that be­lieve such rich ideas can be de­mol­ished by one stroke of the ham­mer! The ideas of civil­i­sa­tion as well as na­tion­al­ism that Gandhi, Tagore and Ambed­kar de­bated, and Nehru’s vi­sion for a mod­ern na­tion within a mod­ern world along with his con­fi­dence in tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing, were all a part of In­dia’s unique Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture. The Hall of Na­tions was a cre­ative won­der of this Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture, a great achieve­ment by two In­di­ans — Raj Re­wal and Ma­hen­dra Raj — and thou­sands of other In­di­ans who laboured to achieve a space frame in con­crete, some­thing that is not com­monly done. To­day we have the au­dac­ity to dis­re­spect all these In­di­ans who put their heads, hearts, and hands into mak­ing this build­ing — trans­lat­ing a vi­sion and dream of mod­ern and free In­dia! Ma­hatma Gandhi asked us to clean our souls of mal­ice and ar­ro­gance, be­fore clean­ing the streets of In­dia. To­day, we as a na­tion are clean­ing away our his­tory, putting in the dust­bin of ar­ro­gance the in­ter­na­tion­ally-recog­nised achieve­ment of In­di­ans, with­out a sin­gle speck of re­gret or thought. Have we cleaned our minds of ethics? What are we hop­ing to make in In­dia by de­mol­ish­ing what In­dia has al­ready made and achieved?

Let the im­age of this ruin — the de­mol­ished and bru­tally in­sulted Hall of Na­tions — an in­sulted sym­bol of In­dia’s imag­i­na­tion of its own strength, ca­pac­i­ties, and ca­pa­bil­i­ties — be the mon­u­ment to our in­ca­pac­i­ties to­day, the cor­rup­tion in our think­ing, our lack of vi­sion. We have de­mol­ished many homes of the poor, and re­duced care­fully con­structed earn­ings to rub­ble. This de­mo­li­tion is a time to ask ques­tions of all those bru­tal de­mo­li­tions we have al­lowed. This de­mo­li­tion clearly in­di­cates that the sym­bolic power of ar­chi­tec­ture still holds, and is some­thing that needs to be un­der­stood through new struc­tures of in­ter­ro­ga­tion and dis­course. The sym­bolic pro­duc­tion of ab­sence — of wip­ing out a mo­ment of In­dia’s his­tory — in­di­cates how ar­chi­tec­ture has a pres­ence — a pres­ence to be de­mol­ished when it dis­turbs cer­tain sen­si­bil­i­ties. But we are also liv­ing in a time where new cities are will­ingly imag­ined as cin­ema sets, where plan­ners are less im­por­tant to in­vite to de­sign a new city but set de­sign­ers of fake his­toric­i­ties are wel­comed.

This is the fi­nal mo­ment to ask our­selves what we are do­ing as ar­chi­tects. There will not be an­other one, be­cause we would have lost any sense of self that is ca­pa­ble of con­tribut­ing to the ideas of civil­i­sa­tion and so­ci­ety. The ar­chi­tec­ture of ideas will have to merge with the ar­chi­tec­ture of tech­nol­ogy, and we must ve­he­mently be the cre­ators of so­cial space, in­volved in po­lit­i­cal de­bates of place, his­tory, and eco­nomics. If there’s one thing we can do now — that is to make the ab­sence of the Hall of Na­tions a larger mon­u­ment — as a me­mo­rial to that mo­ment, when we failed as a peo­ple, and as a pro­fes­sion.

With this we bring into this edi­to­rial, at a crit­i­cal junc­ture — com­ments from the cocu­ra­tors of the re­cently con­cluded na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion on ar­chi­tec­ture in In­dia since in­de­pen­dence, pro­duced un­der the aegis of the Ur­ban De­sign Re­search In­sti­tute and the Na­tional Gallery of Mod­ern Art, Mum­bai — The State of Ar­chi­tec­ture: Prac­tices and Pro­cesses in In­dia — Rahul Mehro­tra and

Ran­jit Hoskote:

--'I am ap­palled and aghast at the de­mo­li­tion of the Hall of Na­tions. While the ill-con­sid­ered re­de­vel­op­ment of Pra­gati Maidan was an­nounced in the name of progress, un­der the sign of a tech­no­cratic con­tem­po­rary, it is in­formed by a pro­found con­tempt and ha­tred for post­colo­nial In­dia's achieve­ments in ar­chi­tec­ture and en­gi­neer­ing — in­deed, for all that has truly been "made in In­dia", rather than im­ported con­cep­tu­ally or lit­er­ally from Shang­hai, Sin­ga­pore, or some other La-la Land from which our rulers de­rive their fan­tasies of metropoli­tan ad­vance­ment. The Hall of Na­tions is — alas, was — a mon­u­ment to the ar­chi­tect Raj Re­wal's vi­sion­ary gift for strad­dling grandeur and ephemer­al­ity.

The Hall of Na­tions is — alas, was — a mon­u­ment to the struc­tural en­gi­neer Ma­hen­dra Raj's in­ge­nu­ity, in im­pro­vis­ing a poured-in-place re­in­forced ce­ment frame struc­ture at a time when steel was dif­fi­cult to ob­tain on that scale.

The Nehru Pav­il­ion is a trib­ute to ar­chi­tect Raj Re­wal's vi­sion, propos­ing an el­e­gant suc­ces­sor form to the early Bud­dhist stupa to house the his­toric Eame­sian photo-me­mo­rial to Nehru.

To de­mol­ish these build­ings is to will­fully en­act a cul­tural am­ne­sia. We must re­mem­ber that 'her­itage' does not re­side only in build­ings and ob­jects that are over a cen­tury old — this is only a guide­line. The aura of her­itage can evolve around build­ings and ob­jects of more re­cent vin­tage too, if they ar­tic­u­late our shared strug­gles and ac­com­plish­ments as a so­ci­ety and a na­tion. What the Hall of Na­tions and the Nehru Pav­il­ion needed was re­spect­ful restora­tion, not bar­baric de­mo­li­tion.

Raj Re­wal is 83 years old. Ma­hen­dra Raj is 93 years old. This is how we hon­our our cher­ished el­ders in the new Bharatiya San­skriti: by de­stroy­ing their work. Shame on those who mas­ter­minded this out­ra­geous at­tempt to oblit­er­ate mod­ern In­dia's ar­chi­tec­tural and cul­tural ac­com­plish­ments.' Ran­jit Hoskote

--'It is ap­palling to see this de­mo­li­tion and era­sure of a key mo­ment in the ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory of con­tem­po­rary In­dia. The im­me­di­ate past is our most crit­i­cal bridge to the well­spring of our his­tory, and the Hall of Na­tions by Raj Re­wal and Ma­hen­dra Raj was an im­por­tant link in this con­text. The com­bi­na­tion of the gov­ern­ment pan­der­ing to global cap­i­tal and its as­pi­ra­tion to build in­fra­struc­ture for this il­lu­sion­ary pur­pose has re­sulted in a truly rash de­ci­sion. This de­mo­li­tion epit­o­mises two cru­cial things: The first is the gov­ern­ment's brash dis­re­gard of the opin­ion and voice of the pro­fes­sion of ar­chi­tects rep­re­sented not only by thou­sands of sig­na­to­ries from across the world but also the lead­ers and el­ders within the pro­fes­sion in In­dia.

The sec­ond is the in­tent of the de­mo­li­tion (as against the pos­si­bil­ity of restor­ing and up­grad­ing the ex­ist­ing iconic as well as tech­ni­cally sig­nif­i­cant build­ing) to make way for, most likely, a generic build­ing driven by im­ages that are most of­ten not even Made in In­dia — while the Hall of Na­tions was truly some­thing that was in­dige­nous. Amaz­ing.

Now, I sup­pose we hold our breaths for an­other glass zom­bie to ap­pear to rep­re­sent a new In­dia!' Rahul Mehro­tra

We close this edi­to­rial in protest. km

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