Architecture activism has won a few battles like saving or postponing the annihilation of certain buildings like the Louis Kahn dormitories, through an international outcry and protest in 2021. However, increasingly we seem to be on the losing side of this battle, with the dismantling of the iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in 2022 and many others.
In such a context, we are reminded of the demolition of the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan in 2017. Pragati Maidan was reduced to rubble overnight with half a dozen bulldozers. Incidentally, when one visited the exhibition ‘The Project of Independence Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2021, one couldn't help but wonder at the paradox of the situation. An international institution of modern culture immortalizes the Hall of Nations by paying homage to its iconic timeless architecture, but the government has torn it down to make way for a new edifice with new technologies. In its place now stands the Bharat Mandapam, which played host to the G20 International Leaders Summit in New Delhi.
What is even more ironic is that elsewhere in the exhibition, stands yet another building complex - Ahmedabad's Iconic Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, designed by Charles Correa - a symbol of modernism, democracy, and free spirit, which unfortunately now is set to be demolished.
It is high time we conserve our modern heritage. Most nations preserve and celebrate extensively – each and every little icon of Modernism they have. Whether it is a light, a poster, or a building – there is an appreciation of its being and the context from which it emerged. Modernism is the most relevant and relatable historical period we have. It narrates stories of how it contributed to the evolution of the world, meaningfully – one small article at a time.
Here in India, we have with us quite a few surviving examples of indigenous modern heritage encompassing all scales from urban planning, architecture, design, furniture to textile and art. We must consider our ‘Modern Heritage’ as ‘Heritage’. We must not wait for 100 years for it to be considered worthy of preservation.
Understandingly, the growing population and changing technologies, make us outgrow these spaces. But this is not the time to desert them, demolish them or vandalize them with ad hoc “jugaad” solutions, or we will end up losing our modern cultural markers.
As India emerges as one of the largest economies in the modern world, we urge the government to focus on protecting manifestations of such human intellectual achievements as our modern culture. To treat it befittingly as yet another ‘soft power’ in the India story which is not hung up on its ancient or colonial past and does not ape the West.
When I think of the finest examples of modern heritage conservation, I am reminded of the Pritzker prize winner - Sir David Chipperfield’s project of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, originally built by the legendary modernist Mies van der rohe, and refurbished by the Berlin office of David Chipperfield Architects.
An incredible project that has found the perfect balance of modernizing the museum as well as conserving it. How preserving was key but with contemporary elements. How the star architecture firm chose to remain silent as a mark of respect rather than imposing a new interpretation.
In our efforts as the architectural fraternity, we must invest in promoting icons of indigenous modernity. Sharing and celebrating their rationales with the policymakers and the laypeople alike. Practitioners and professors must join hands to offer discourse on conserving modern heritage, as a key topic in architecture and design schools. Research and pedagogy must revolve around this pressing subject. Architecture education must take up this mandate to challenge the policymakers and the industry.