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