Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design Martino Stierli recounts his visit to New Delhi’s Hall of Nations and Industries on a C-MAP trip to India and Bangladesh in January 2016. At the time, the building faced an uncertain future, threatened by government attempts to demolish it in order to clear the site for redevelopment. Despite protests and petitions from leading architects and architectural historians across the world, the Hall of Nations was surreptitiously demolished overnight on April 23-24, 2017. In this essay, Stierli bids farewell to architect Raj Rewal’s iconic building—a hallmark of modernist architecture in post-independence India.
On a sunny morning in January 2016, as part of a C-MAP trip to India, I had the opportunity to visit architect Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations and Industries in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. I was accompanied by Rattanamol Singh Johal, our C-MAP Asia fellow, as well as Arun Rewal, the nephew of the architect, who facilitated our clandestine visit. Getting to the imposing exhibition complex within New Delhi’s fairground was an adventure in itself: it meant passing through several rows of ubiquitous, lingering security guards in order to arrive at the complex, which had quite obviously been in a state disrepair for some time and was facing an uncertain future. Nevertheless, I will never forget the impression that the building’s vast interior made on me upon entering. The space was memorable not only for its sheer size—at 144 feet in length and up to 90 feet in height, it was, at the time of its construction in 1972, the largest concrete space-frame structure in the world—but also for the structural elegance of its space frame, which was based on the modular repetition of a tetrahedron. By then, rumor had it that the current Indian government had little appreciation for this outstanding architectural and engineering achievement that epitomized post-independence India, and that it was planning to tear it down in order to make space for a new exhibition and convention center. Letters of protest from me and colleagues from other leading museums and cultural institutions around the world, along with a number of legal battles launched by the architect himself and professional organizations in India, were unable to prevent the seemingly inevitable fate of the Hall of Nations. India’s Heritage Conservation Committee took the irresponsible and fatal position that the building could not be protected because it was less than sixty years old, and so the Hall of Nations was reduced to rubble in an overnight cloak-and-dagger operation in April 2017. Its destruction was perhaps the most powerful evidence that the modernist legacy of post-independence India is increasingly under distress. The Nehru Pavilion honoring one of the founding fathers of the modern nation, situated in the vicinity of the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan and also designed by Raj Rewal, has since also been demolished.
The Hall of Nations, considered Rewal’s magnum opus, was in fact a collaboration with the eminent structural engineer Mahendra Raj, whose ingenious structural solutions have contributed significantly to the aesthetic of modern Indian architecture. Rewal, likewise, is widely considered one of the leading figures of his generation. He was invited to participate in the design of a permanent exhibition complex for Asia 72, India’s 1972 international trade fair. This event was planned as a highlight of the activities commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of India’s independence in 1947, and the building housing it was designed to represent India’s self-perception as a modern nation based on the advancement of science and technology. Rewal’s winning scheme of four halls of varying size and interconnected by a system of ramps was ideally suited to convey this optimistic and enlightened vision of a rapidly developing nation. Aesthetically highly evocative, the structure was also an outstanding engineering achievement, one that combined bold ambition with down-to-earth pragmatism—a space-frame structure of such enormous scale would have been built in steel elsewhere. That Rewal and Raj chose concrete was due to economic limitations and the unavailability of steel in the necessary quantity. The practical decision to use the more readily available and inexpensive concrete undoubtedly contributed to the structure’s enduring significance. As the largest building of its kind, it represented both the forward-looking optimism of post-independence India and the economic conditions of a developing economy. Referencing the traditional perforated stone patterns (jaalis) of historical regional architecture, the geometric tetrahedral structure at the same time established an architectural language truly worthy of an independent nation, one that combined the rationalism of international modernism with the reinterpretation of a traditional formal vocabulary.
With the Hall of Nations now gone, Rewal and Raj’s powerful vision continues to live through their evocative representations in the forms of models, perspectives, technical drawings, and photographs, some of which have entered public collections including the Centre Pompidou.