“India added another Architectural feat to its growing list, this time a Convention Center in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Termed Bharat Mandapam, the new structure boasts the usage of advanced materials and technology, claiming to be the new modern symbol of Indian Architecture. While its debatable exterior is in no competition for its long-forgotten predecessor, Hall of Nations, one wonders if this too will meet a similar fate in 40 years.”
In a resounding testament to India’s evolving architectural landscape, the renowned Pragati Maidan Exhibition Complex in New Delhi has recently welcomed a fresh addition – a state-of-the-art convention center named ‘Bharat Mandapam.’ This iconic venue has emerged as the torchbearer of modernity, seamlessly intertwining the threads of the past with the aspirations of the present. The inauguration of Bharat Mandapam on July 26th, graced by none other than the Prime Minister, marked a significant milestone in the realm of architectural Achievement and the history of Pragati Maidan itself.
As we collectively bask in its realization; we are left to wonder about its history and significance.
What significance does Pragati Maidan hold?
Pragati Maidan is hailed as the biggest exhibition ground in the city of Delhi (123 acres). The huge complex, with its many pavilions and lush lawns, was initiated by the Indian government back in the year 1972 to mark 25 years of Independence. The initiation was then hailed as a symbol of progress and self-reliance in Post-Independent India where Architects around the country were invited to build various Pavillions. Among the luminaries, the names of Ar. Laurie Baker, Ar. Charles Correa, Er. Mahendra Raj (a celebrated Indian Structural Engineer), and Ar. Raj Rewal stands tall.
Rewal, in particular, engraved his name in history with the ‘Hall of Nations’, a resplendent creation that defied convention and etched itself into the hearts of many. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and showcased the remarkable talents of burgeoning Indian Architects. This symbolic inauguration marked not only the birth of an innovative structure but also a testament to the nation’s evolving architectural identity and escalated the significance of Pragati Maidan.
Hall of Nations: A Brief History
The ‘Hall of Nations’, an embodiment of architectural innovation, held a distinctive aura. Designed by Ar. Raj Rewal and Er. Mahendra Raj, its groundbreaking design, characterized by a daring concrete space frame, encapsulated the spirit of a new era for Indian architecture. The structure was one of the first large-span cast-in-situ-concrete space frames to be constructed in the world and was the venue for the 1972 International Trade Fair.
The main pavilion, boasting a remarkable clear span of 78 meters, stood as a symbol of audacity and vision. Aiming to accommodate a large capacity, its height varied from 3m-21m. The plan is square with chamfered corners, providing 8 anchoring points that were inspired by the Tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun. Breaking conventional practices, the structure uses concrete space frames over steel space frames as steel was not widely sourced back then in India. Inside, a free-standing coffered mezzanine floor is cantilevered out of a cylindrical shaft, offering more space for the exhibition. The structural ingenuity of the pile foundation, interwoven with post-tensioned beams, underscored a harmonious fusion of form and function.
However, the iconic ‘Hall of Nations’ met its demise in 2017 in the name of progress, spearheaded by the ITPO.
A summary of ITPO:
ITPO (India Trade Promotion Organisation) is charged with promoting global trade and is backed by India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Pragati Maidan became their new venue for the “Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre” (IECC), for which the entire blueprint map was approved by the statutory authorities, like the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, and the National Monuments Authority.
The approved plan of Pragati Maidan demanded the removal of Rewal’s structure to pave the way for the envisioned IECC. Despite fervent appeals, the Delhi High Court dismissed the filed petition to preserve the structure since it was not categorized as heritage by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). To be considered as heritage, structures had to hold intrinsic value to the community and had to be minimum of 60 years old. The Hall of Nations was only 45 years old.
Entering the New Age: Bharat Mandapam
Six years later, ‘Bharat Mandapam,’ now graces the very spot and will soon host this year’s G-20 summit. Designed by ARCOP, the new age convention center adopted a theme that would reflect the diverse cultural heritage of the country. The design stands as a seamless bridge connecting the past with the present. With an awe-inspiring capacity of 13,500, including plenary and multifunction halls that can accommodate thousands, ‘Bharat Mandapam’ boasts a design that echoes the scale and significance of the Sydney Opera House itself.
In contrast to its mundane, non-characteristic spherical façade, the interiors tell a different tale. The narrative of ‘Bharat Mandapam’ unfurls across four floors, a testament to meticulous planning and design finesse. The structure, crafted with a budget of 2700 Cr., stands as an embodiment of architectural ambition and engineering precision. Inside, the firm ‘NARSI’ has woven a tapestry of Indian ethos, with red stone, rural artwork, traditional carpets, and teak wooden furnishings. This symphony of elements pays homage to the rich cultural tapestry of India, celebrating diversity in all its splendor.
In the heart of Bharat Mandapam, symbolic nuances abound. The grand ‘Yoga mudra’ wall panel, a tribute to the Sanskrit text ‘Gheranda Samhita’, and the sculptural ‘Ashwamedh’, evoking the noble steeds guided by the Sun God Surya himself, weave a narrative of Indian heritage. The pinnacle of the structure, aptly christened the ‘Window to Delhi,’ provides a panoramic vista that frames the bustling urbanscape, offering a visual link to iconic landmarks like the Supreme Court, India Gate, and the timeless Purana Qila.
As the architectural fraternity and the public at large contemplate this architectural triumph, the contours of discourse unfold. While the Bharat Mandapam stands as a modern marvel in Pragati Maidan, poised to etch its chapter, the shadow of Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations looms large.Though the space structure marked a post-independent India, its lack of maintenance and significance had worn it down over the years.
This brings a new wave of debate, one that claims the idea of aesthetics over functionality. Could the new development plans of Pragati Maidan have revolved around the existing ones? And at what cost? While the new Convention Center boasts advanced construction materials, techniques and technology, one cannot overlook its atypical, mundane façade. The verdict rests in the hands of time, which shall determine whether Bharat Mandapam encapsulates the spirit of India’s architectural voyage, or continues to echo the remains of its historical competitor.
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