Lotus Temple, Bahá'í House of Worship (1986)
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Modern Architecture in New Delhi: The Hall of Nations in Context

Lotus Temple, Bahá'í House of Worship (1986)

In this blog post for the #ModernCentury campaign, Annabel Lopez from INTACH Delhi Chapter provides a brief history on the development of modern architecture in the Indian capital.

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Soon after India gained independence from British Colonial rule in 1947, Indian citizens individually and collectively began a quest for a new identity. The visual arts, performing arts, architecture, and literature were all infused with new fervour and spirit. Architecture in particular received an added boost because Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was keen to project the face of a new, emerging nation to the world through building construction. Over the next forty-five years there was tremendous growth and expansion, especially in the capital city of Delhi. The government controlled almost everything and was the patron of numerous urban development and infrastructure projects.

Although financial resources were limited, the Central Public Works Department undertook some noteworthy buildings like the Supreme Court of India (1954-1958), which still emulated the Indo British style that was developed in the first half of the century. The first five-star hotel to be built in India, the Hotel Ashoka (1957) was also influenced by revivalism but tried to express the new Indian identity and remains an important example of a modern building that showcases Indian architectural elements. The Ashoka was followed by a spate of buildings designed by architects trained by masters of the Modern Movement in America which neither drew from India’s traditional architecture nor mimicked the West, such as the Rabindra Bhavan (1961), the Indraprastha Bhawan (1965), and the Vikas Minar (1976).

Adding to this developing palette was another set of simple yet expressive buildings offset by their green landscaped settings, including the Ford Foundation (1962). Often referred to as “Regional Modernism,” these buildings are characterised by details such as the use of locally available stone and decorative ceramic tiles. Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh also influenced the budding architects in the country. This is palpable in sculptural buildings like the Shri Ram Centre (1969), which are often rendered in Corbusier’s signature exposed reinforced concrete–béton brut–and frequently incorporate his sun shades, or brise-soleil.

Hosting international events gave India the perfect opportunity to express the nation’s creativity in structural engineering, with innovative buildings such as the recently demolished Hall of Nations (1970), which overcame the prevailing constraints of technology and economy at the time and was the largest cast-in-situ concrete space frame structure in the world. The Asian Games held in 1982 saw prominent stadia like the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (1983). The State Trading Corporation Building (1989) used a series of Vierendeel trusses cantilevered from the core, which were "Indianized" by substituting unavailable steel with concrete and using unskilled labour to construct the building. Another icon of this period, the Lotus Temple (1986), is a unique achievement in large-scale thin-shell concrete construction.

At the same time, there were also examples of “International Style” glassy skyscrapers like the Jeevan Bharati Building (1975-1986) and Hotel Meridien (1988). However, by the 1990s an interest in regional character resurfaced and modern architecture dis-associated with India became unfashionable. Within a span of five decades, the narrative had come full circle. Traditional and vernacular architecture were again the inspiration for both building form and materials.

The challenge today is to protect and conserve the remaining examples of mid-twentieth century design so they can be understood by future generations as milestones in the evolution of Indian architecture.