In the year 1969, a competition was announced by the Indian government to develop an exhibition complex that would host Asia’s third International Trade Fair and the first major international trade fair of India, Asia 72. During this time, architect Raj Rewal worked several sixteen-hour days at Pragati Maidan. Architect Rewal’s designs were an amalgamation of modernization and history; he blended elements of the past into modern architecture. The name Pragati Maidan translates to ‘progress grounds. Rewal’s work drew inspiration from the Mughal architecture of the medieval period; Jalis—perforated stone was a common sight at The Hall of Nations. Usage of Jalis is a traditional Indian method to combat the scorching heat and increase ventilation; these were often employed in Mughal architecture between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (including the construction of Taj Mahal). Yet another specialty of the Jali work is that it does not compromise on privacy while allowing the inflow of natural light and cool breeze. Rewal also derived from the design of Humayun’s Tomb, a marvel of Mughal architecture. Lack of resources, was, however, a major concern while constructing in India. In developed countries, the construction of such a structure would have required fabrication of steel frames and hiring of heavy construction equipment, however, in India, this was not feasible; one would have had to build an innovative methodology to erect the structure using cement. Thousands of people worked through long hours, bending steel with hands, casting the concrete frame using low-key technology.
Architect Raj Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj, along with their team, made India proud by constructing the first and largest concrete spatial structure of that time, the Pragati Maidan, which was inaugurated in 1972. The year 1972 also marked India’s twenty-fifth year as an independent country, and both Pragati Maidan and the fair it opened showcased India’s self-reliance and progress. The Pragati Maidan complex houses four pavilions, namely, the Nehru Pavilion, the Defense Pavilion, the Indira Pavilion, and the Son of India Pavilion.
The complex is flanked by Mathura Road on its West and Bhairon Road to its South. The main railway line to Central and Southern India runs on the eastern side of the complex. The trinity of buildings — Hall of Nations, Hall of Industries, and the Nehru Pavilion — soon became a part of academics in architecture institutions across the world.
International organizations included them in expos portraying the greatest structures of contemporary architecture and design. These architectural marvels and their designers continue to receive international recognition even today; The Museum of Modern Arts had requested architect Raj Rewal to permit them to display a model of the Hall of Nations in the Museum’s permanent collection of the iconic structures of the contemporary world.
In 2012, the Indian Trade Promotion Organization claimed the Pragati Maidan was not sufficient for organizing fairs, and exhibitions of international standards and that the old and dilapidated buildings needed to be razed and replaced by more “state-of-the-art” constructions. Despite fierce opposition and pleading from the architecture fraternity and requests from all over the world, The Heritage Conservation Committee, however, said that since the buildings were not more than sixty years old, they were not eligible to be included in the list of heritage sites. The fall of the Halls was finalized in April 2017, when the Delhi High Court rejected the petition filed by architect Raj Rewal as well as INTACH ( Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) to prevent the proposed demolitions. On the morning of April 24th, 2017, the news that central Delhi’s Hall of Nations and the four Halls of Industries had been demolished left the city’s architecture community alarmed and angry. Bulldozers had worked through the night at the Pragati Maidan to make way for the state-of-the-art modern complex at Pragati Maidan exhibition grounds in central Delhi, The pulling down of an important icon of Delhi’s heritage and the secretive manner in which the demolition was executed was met with widespread criticism.
The demolition was part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan—the adjacent Nehru Pavilion (which was inspired by ancient stupas; structures that are home to Buddhist relics and are used for meditation) was demolished sometime in the ensuing week to make way for yet another state-of-the-art building. Is the heritage of India in safe hands? Why weren’t these buildings repaired and modified to meet the required standards? Was this demolition truly unavoidable? Architect Rewal had requested to help in the retrofitting and redesign of these buildings but the authorities had not cooperated. Is it worth creating architectural marvels in a country that could not even protect the buildings that were renowned globally? Is it not high-time we think beyond just modernization and make wiser decisions so that no other masterpiece fails to survive the wrath of economic progress?