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26 Apr 2017

Demolition of 'memories' - Architects smell wider plot in razing of Hall of Nations

Anita Joshua, TT, New Delhi, April 25: When the Narendra Modi government sent in the bulldozers in the dead of night on Sunday, the stated objective was to build a "world class" convention centre.
The claws of the machine then tore into the Hall of Nations, the truncated pyramid structure with a latticed façade that was built in Delhi's Pragati Maidan in 1972 when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister to commemorate and celebrate the 25th year of Independence.
The Hall of Nations before and after the demolition. (PTI and file pictures) 
The Hall of Nations was said to be the "largest span concrete space frame structure in the world" and was one of the two buildings selected from India for an international exhibition of the world's most important buildings of the 20th century.
The three buildings of the project had also become a familiar presence in Pragati Maidan, the capital's main exhibition ground on the outskirts of Lutyens Delhi. The architectural form was seen as a reflection of "India's pyramidal growth and the latticed facade was the reflection of the intrinsic social fabric".
The muscular foray after midnight has now drawn parallels with an infamous nocturnal cleansing operation during the Emergency, the Taliban's and the Islamic State's marauding drive against monuments and the preoccupations of a dispensation "hell-bent on erasing collective memories". It is also being seen as an "attack on (Jawaharlal) Nehru's idea of India".
Comparisons may be odious but stealth has served to feed the outrage.
Several architects and conservationists have referred to the manner in which the India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which reports to the Union commerce ministry, went ahead with the demolition. The ITPO apparently used a narrow window between the dismissal of a petition to preserve the Hall of Nations and another hearing in a related petition.
Delhi-based architect Arun Rewal - who is also the nephew of the architect of the Hall of Nations, Raj Rewal -said in a Facebook post: "The demolition of the Hall of Nations complex will not be the last of all this. The government is hell bent on erasing collective memories, destroying the collective civic space and carving real estate for the parallel powers that control it. Even at the expense of subverting law, legal recourse, and development processes.
"This dark Sunday night was much like those in the Emergency times. The government's agents have shown how it can bend to large monopolies ready to exploit. In this new India, mid-level technocrats are the new henchmen ready to please a class of peripheral spineless bureaucrats and philistine politicians. The manipulators include the industrialists who want the 3.6 acres for a hotel, the legal eagles who want more chamber space, management consultants who are recycling spins, real estate sharks...."
Arun Rewal did not specify but he appeared to be referring to the Turkman Gate eviction in 1976 - an instance of one of the worst Emergency-era excesses blamed on Sanjay Gandhi. Police had swept in after dark and demolished a Muslim-dominated slum and several people were said to have been killed in the firing that followed.
Today, calling the demolition an "act of outrage", Raj Rewal told The Telegraph that despite the setback, the legal battle would continue. "The case due for hearing on Thursday seeks the intervention of the court to declare the Hall of Nations a work of art that should be preserved. Now that it has been brought down, there will be a demand for its restoration in the very place it stood for 25 years. We think this is a cultural carnage."
Raj Rewal, along with the Hall's structural engineer Mahendra Raj, former convener of heritage trust Intach A.K.G. Menon and Indian Institute of Architects' president Divya Kush, issued a statement reminding the ITPO that the commerce ministry had asked it to find an amicable solution after leading architects of India and the world had petitioned the Prime Minister against the demolition of the structure.
The ITPO said in a statement that the Hall of Nations, Nehru Pavilion and the Hall of Industries were among the various structures that needed to be removed to set up the "world class" Integrated Exhibition and Convention Centre (IECC) in Pragati Maidan. The three buildings were part of the project to commemorate the 25th year of Independence.
Ironically, the plan for the "world class" centre is a UPA hand-me-down that the Modi government has adopted with enthusiasm.
According to Raj Rewal and curator Ram Rehman, they had approached the UPA also against the demolition of the Hall of Nations. "The UPA put the plan on hold at the highest level after we protested but this government took it up," Raj Rewal recalled.
Rehman said that while there were individuals in the UPA who had a sense of history and could be approached, there was no such avenue or hope with the current dispensation.
Since the Hall of Nations occupies only two per cent of the 125 acres that form the exhibition ground, the architect community had also suggested that it be turned into a museum for architecture design and integrated with the IECC. But this offer also did not cut any ice.
"Contractor lobby coupled with anti-history, anti-aesthetic government carry out Talibanesque act of destruction," tweeted sociologist Nandini Sundar.
For architect Sadiq Zafar - who during the battle to preserve the Hall of Nations had likened the plans to demolish it to the IS attacks on remnants of history - the fraternity (of architects and activists) had failed in saving an icon of modernity in the capital of the welfare state.
"Its architectural form reflected India's pyramidal growth and the latticed facade was the reflection of the intrinsic social fabric. The demolition of the Hall of Nations is an attack on Nehru's idea of India, as history is evident that the destruction of structures of declining power is an act to make a statement in power."

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