Stories of the Symbol – discussing the Hall of Nations with Raj Rewal

Much has been said about ITPO’s decision to raze the iconic Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan, before as well as after the fateful 23rd of April; there has been shock, disbelief, disapproval, outrage, and grief, but there has also been acceptance and even apathy.  We met with eminent Indian architect Raj Rewal to talk about the erstwhile landmark – often regarded his magnum opus – in an attempt to learn more about this structure, and the significance and symbolism associated with it.

Amid multiple iterations of the court proceedings and the various appeals made – and the critical, urgent, socio-cultural commentary surrounding these events – it has become imperative that we see the Hall of Nations through a different lens than one that has been employed so far, and recount stories that form the basis of its emotional connect to a budding nation’s imagination and how these connect to our contemporary conditions.

What, hence, was designing the Hall of Nations like? “I knew space-frame structures very well. Once it was clear to me that concrete was the way to go, I started envisioning the whole thing in concrete and how that could be configured.” tells Ar. Rewal, “In other countries, where there is dearth of labour – or skilled labour – steel structures are commonly built instead. In India, concrete is our strength, we’re very good at using the material; additionally, space frames are very strong.”

The Hall of Nations took 2 to 3 months to design, with the focus being the provision of the maximum free span possible from the limited resources available

“Getting approvals from the authorities had been a challenge – this approach had raised many eyebrows; I was a young architect then, only 36, and there were many apprehensions about achieving the planned span of 256 ft. However, I was very lucky in this regard – Mahendra Raj had a lot of experience and he took on the challenge [of building the large span], and started working on it the moment the architectural design was finished. The two of us, along with the on-site project engineer Durai Raj, worked together to bring this design to fruition.”

“It was remarked that it was the three Rajs who built the Hall of Nations”, he adds with a smile, “It was Mr Ram Sharma who said that; he was responsible for the wonderful landscape design at Pragati Maidan – the Hamsadhwani Theatre and the lot – and it complemented the urban design of the complex so well. It brought life to the place.”

“The designing process took about two to three months. I had to do it in a great hurry. At the time I had three very young architects working for me, and we working practically round the clock for this project,” he recounts fondly, an anecdotal addendum to the account of building one of the world’s largest-spanned concrete structures at the time that resonates the most with us, with its profound sense of enthusiasm and industry, “We would spend 16 to 18 hours on the site, and I’d only come home to brush my teeth, take a bath and get some breakfast. The work was progressing at a high speed, and there was a tremendous amount of effort involved.”

The demolition of the Hall of Nations was regarded by many as a failure of the authorities to protect a modern monument

“I was told that the security guard at Pragati Maidan – who was on duty at the time of the incident – was visibly upset by the incident, ‘Iski kya zaroorat thi? Raato raat gira diya, kya zaroorat thi yeh karne ki?’” he relates, as the discussion veers towards the slew of articles – several of them notably nostalgic in their tone – that were released in the wake of the demolition, “Another journalist told me about how her father had proposed to her mother there… Innumerable people have come up to me in the past few days and told me about how saddened they are by the demolition, recounted personal anecdotes and fond memories of time spent at the complex.”

Can this sense of loss be channelled towards constructive ends? “I certainly hope so. It’s easy to see that the idea has already germinated, and it’s important that we take it forward.”

“It’s very important for the architectural community and the general public alike to rise to the occasion and raise their voices. A building does not only belong to the architectural community – it belongs to the city, and to the citizens. The establishment only takes note if there’s a mass movement, so I hope that they can fight for it – not only for this building, but for any other building.”

The sentiment harkens back to the demolition of New York’s old Penn Station – a Beaux Arts masterpiece studded with soaring Doric columns and vaults of glass and steel – that was razed to the ground some 53 years ago to make way for a sports arena, to the chagrin of city’s inhabitants. Determined to save this urban landmark, the people and professionals alike came together and protested the decision; although their demonstrations proved unsuccessful in saving the station, the sentiment became the driving force behind a large scale movement to save the architectural marvels of the city – culminating in the historic Landmarks Preservation Act.

The demolition of the overground structure of New York’s Penn Station resulted in civil outrage which spurred the local government to pass the Landmarks Preservation Act aimed at preserving the city’s architectural character 

Ar. Rewal draws a necessary parallel between the two situations, pointing out how New Delhi’s modernist icons are in need of equally diligent attention. “We have higher FARs allowed now, so there’s money to be made from building on the sites of old structures – but if we’re not careful, the whole modern movement can be wiped out” he says, “That’s not to say that nothing should be demolished to make way for the new – that has to be done, and it should be done – but there are significant parts of the modern movement that should be protected. Take Chanakya Theatre, for example – its demolition was a great pity, and it was a loss to the coming generations; what has come in its place is mediocre.”

There is little doubt that the razing of the Hall of Nations has immense potential to be New Delhi’s Penn Station moment – but how can we go about doing it? “The media has a large part to play in it,” opines Ar. Rewal, “they can channel these voices and these concerns. It’s amazing to see how certain issues are picked up by the media so strongly, and on some there is very little emphasis.”

“Architects should take the lead, and we can create a lobby which collects and collates these ideas and grievances, and we should involve the general public as well; these collective feelings should be made heard, maybe given the form of a demonstration or a peaceful protest.”

Stories of the Symbol - discussing the Hall of Nations with Raj Rewal 1A distinguished doyen of architecture from India, Raj Rewal is recognized internationally for buildings that respond with sensitivity to the complex demands of rapid urbanization, climate and culture.Some of his creations include the Hall of Nations in Delhi, the Nehru Pavilion, Delhi, the Asian Games Village, Delhi, the Library for the Indian Parliament, the Lisbon Ismaili Centre, Portugal, the Indian Embassy in Beijing and the Visual Art University, Rohtak.
Rewal has received many honours, including the gold medal for the Indian Institute of Architects, the Robert Mathew award from the Commonwealth Association of Architects and Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French Government.
His works have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi and the Pompidou Museum, Paris.

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