Living with the Future in South Asia

For decades, South Asian architecture was impelled by the promise of a new society after empire. Now, such buildings are being demolished.

I first visited New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan in order to say farewell. This sprawling exhibition complex—whose name literally translates as “Progress Grounds”—was opened in 1972 to mark 25 years of Indian independence. But by the time I visited in 2016, the landmark modernist architecture at its heart was under threat. New plans, commissioned by the India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), called for the destruction of five massive, truncated pyramids at Pragati Maidan’s center. These crouching, concrete forms, connected by elevated walkways, had for decades played host to a wide variety of international trade shows and consumer fairs—events that showcased the latest innovations of science and industry to a wider Indian public. Designed by architect Raj Rewal and engineer Mahendra Raj, the cavernous, space-frame structures looked like arrivals from another planet.

The maidan’s pyramids stood in especially stark contrast to the site’s neighboring landmark, the Purana Qila, a 16th-century Mughal fortress. This was true to the exhibition complex’s purpose: signalling a departure from the past and inaugurating the future. But what happened to that future, and why is its architecture being demolished?

I had seen photographs of Rewal and Raj’s pyramids—the centerpiece Hall of Nations and surrounding four Halls of Industry—filled with visitors who, under natural light filtered through triangular brise-soleils, ambled along the pathways between stalls and displays. I had also heard recollections from friends and teachers in Delhi of one annual event in particular, a festival for readers called the World Book Fair, when Pragati Maidan became a gateway to countless other universes.

But, in 2016, I arrived at a deserted site. The walkways had been ceded to stray dogs, the building entranceways bolted, the paintwork left to peel.

Less than a year after my visit, in April 2017, the complex at Pragati Maidan was destroyed. India’s central government, eager to implement ITPO’s plans for a revamped, state-of-the-art convention center, swatted away the flurry of national and international opposition mobilized by the architectural community in Delhi. Those images and memories of life amid one of India’s pioneering modernist landscapes are now nostalgic in the proper sense of that word: there can be no return.

Wrecking balls loom large over the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985. An image of the Hall of Nations adorns the cover of the catalogue. The threat of destruction or dereliction that shadows buildings from this early postcolonial era—not just in India, but also in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—provides a guiding rationale for the curators’ assembly of images, drawings, models, and plans. The exhibition is recuperative, in that it insists on the ingenuity and value of buildings that are often overlooked or marginalized, both in their national contexts and in the wider history of architectural modernism.

But the question of what, if anything, should happen to buildings like those at Pragati Maidan today is left for the museum visitor to contemplate. What can be done when architecture designed to represent the future is now, in the 21st century, declared out of sync with the aspirations of the present? Should it be protected, and, if so, on what grounds? If the structures celebrated here emerged, in the words of the MoMA curators, from a “collective trust in architecture’s transformative potential,” can conventional heritage practices of preservation really do justice to modernism’s legacy of disruption and renewal?

The Project of Independence spotlights buildings produced across South Asia from the time of Partition, in 1947, up until the mid-1980s, an era marked by strong state support for large-scale infrastructural and public architectural projects. Design at this time was also propelled by a certain spirit of possibility—the promise of a new society after empire—which the exhibition’s curators take great care to evoke. “The unequivocal embrace of progressive values and of newly founded institutions by this generation of architects and intellectuals has lost none of its relevance in our contemporary moment, when many achievements of the mid-twentieth century social contract are under attack,” writes MoMA director Glenn Lowry, in the exhibition catalogue.

The Project of Independence thus frames this moment in South Asian architecture as part of a history of social progress. Such an approach, it should be noted, risks eliding the histories of dispossession and displacement that enabled new states to clear the ground for modernist experiments.

Whichever way we choose to recount the early histories of postcolonial India, Pakistan, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and, after 1971, Bangladesh, it is certain that the heady hopes for a radically different, postimperial world are long behind us. The governments of Narendra Modi, in New Delhi, Shehbaz Sharif, in Islamabad, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Colombo, and Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka, may still stir support with the promise of progress and development. Yet all four countries are littered with the wreckage of those great, utopic visions that propelled anticolonial struggle in the early 20th century. In their place, one finds corporate profiteering and environmental devastation, the cynical manipulation of ethnic and religious conflict by those in authority, endemic corruption in government institutions, and, increasingly, the violent suppression of dissent.

Architecture, in this contemporary moment, is shaped by the demands of spectacle and elite desires for personal prestige. Experimental and socially conscious architecture still exists in the region, but it is typically the product of private or philanthropic funding rather than government commissions. Ascendant cultural nationalisms across South Asia find a ready target in modernist concrete, steel, and glass structures decried as “foreign.” Some buildings from this postindependence era are demonized simply due to their association with political rivals. This was certainly the case with Pragati Maidan, a project closely associated with the Congress Party and honoring India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—a figure whose legacy Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is determined to undermine.

However, efforts to protect South Asia’s modernist heritage are emerging. A diffuse and shifting coalition of architects, artists, activists, and academics connect across borders, taking advantage of online platforms to share resources and commiserate over neglected or threatened buildings. Not yet an organized movement, they coalesce primarily in a defensive mode: protesting redevelopment projects via open letters and petitions, social media drives, and, in some cases, legal challenges.

This impassioned congregation boasts some notable successes. In January 2021, the Indian Institute of Technology in Ahmedabad withdrew plans to demolish 14 dormitory buildings, following a campaign that attracted strong international support. The buildings, designed in the 1960s by Estonian-born American architect Louis Kahn, were defended as an integral part of Kahn’s celebrated campus, famed for its monumental use of red brick and geometric forms. The decision by the board of governors to consider an alternative fate for the deteriorating buildings—and, indeed, to acknowledge the board’s own responsibilities as “custodians” of an important cultural legacy—was hailed widely in the global architectural press.

Kahn, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated architects, is a figure whose work elicits easy sympathy. Part of the task of the MoMA exhibition is to direct attention to architects whose buildings are less well known, and, particularly, to those who lived their lives and made their careers in South Asia, grappling with the particularities of locality and region. Some members of this generation of architects have received belated international recognition: Minnette de Silva, Geoffrey Bawa, and Charles Correa, to name a few. In The Project of Independence, they are joined by highly accomplished architects little known outside their contexts of work: from Kuldip Singh and Achyut Kanvinde to Valentine Gunasekara and Habib Fida Ali.

The primary effect of an exhibition like this—staged in Manhattan and accessed through paid admission—will be academic and art historical. Its curatorial efforts will be neatly harnessed to ongoing efforts to decolonize (or, more accurately, to globalize) the canon of 20th-century modernism.

The consequences for the actual buildings showcased at the MoMA are less clear. Some campaigners will see in the richly illustrated catalogue and high-profile press coverage an important opportunity for international consciousness raising. A smaller minority of property owners and speculators may hope that the profiling of certain architects will translate into higher real estate value for buildings associated with their names. But these effects are abstracted from the material realities on the ground: the crumbling facades, the creaking pressures on densely populated urban spaces, and, in a growing number of cases, the braying bulldozers of the developer.

In this sense, it is tempting to see the MoMA exhibition as providing a space for mourning—grieving for buildings unlikely to survive and lamenting secular and socialist futures lost—rather than a call to arms. MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, Martino Stierli, articulates this grim reckoning in his catalogue essay. The demolished Hall of Nations, he writes, is now a “lost temple” to Indian modernity. We can but wait to see how its afterimage will haunt architectures to come.

Traditional approaches to built heritage are organized around practices of preservation, protection, and detached aesthetic appreciation. In South Asia, the official institutions for heritage management trace their origins back to 19th-century colonial efforts to save ancient monuments from ruin or, indeed, guard them from the perceived threat of “native” misuse. The Archaeological Survey of India, founded by a British Army engineer in 1861, remains the authoritative overseer of cultural heritage and recognized sites of national importance in India today. Legal definitions of what constitutes heritage continue to privilege age, meaning resources may find their way to a Purana Qila but not to a Pragati Maidan.

Such an understanding of heritage faces several predicaments when applied to modernist architecture, and not just in South Asia. Since there can be no appeal to antiquity, campaigners often base their argument on authorship—noting, for instance, that a building demonstrates the skill or vision of a respected architect, as in the case of Louis Kahn. But the functional nature of many modernist buildings—be they housing estates, railway stations, government offices, places of worship, or university campuses—means these structures cannot be easily sectioned off for careful conservation or quiet contemplation. They are often deeply enmeshed with the flows and rhythms of everyday life. Those that remain publicly funded, at a time when investment in public institutions and services is declining worldwide, are subject to patchwork maintenance, which can exacerbate problems of decay.

It is, however, this public function that provides an opportunity to rethink the very language of heritage, and, particularly, the different ways a building acquires historic value. Is a structure worth protecting primarily because it demonstrates the technical and design sophistication of a particular architect? Or might we also take into account the ways in which a building serves or even creates a community? Should arguments for what constitutes a worthy inheritance be bound to notions of aesthetic merit and engineering prowess, or could they also mobilize histories of use and adaptation? Can “built heritage” be understood to encompass not only the architectural object but also the relationships forged with and through its forms?

Can conventional heritage practices of preservation really do justice to modernism’s legacy of disruption and renewal?

The possibility of thinking differently glimmers in the MoMA exhibition’s attention to the material and social contexts of buildings, against the hagiographic elevation of any individual architect and their portfolios. This is clearest in the catalogue essays, which consider variously the politics of concrete, the labor conditions of construction, the art and representation of modern architecture, refugee and migrant histories, debates over the idea of the home, the role of nature in South Asian built environments, and much more.

An expanded notion of buildings and the worlds they create is reflected further in the photographs by Randhir Singh that were commissioned for the exhibition and portray many landmark buildings in flux: autorickshaws clustered outside Laurie Baker’s coffee house in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram); a bustling market shadowed by Balkrishna Doshi’s Premabhai Hall in Ahmedabad; a long table full of studying (and, in at least two cases, slumbering) students in Muzharul Islam’s Dhaka University Library.

The potential for such an ethnographic sensibility—that is, an attention to the ways people make and shape architecture, and also how architecture makes and shapes people—to transform the way campaigners and activists communicate the power of built heritage is rendered explicit in Mrinalini Rajagopalan’s catalogue essay. Demands to protect modernist architecture need not be constrained by desires for the “original” or the “pristine,” which are typically expressed in the dominant languages of restoration and conservation. Rather, value can be asserted through a public history approach, which recognizes buildings as sites of labor, creativity, and community. This necessitates, for Rajagopalan, “a rethinking of architectural authorship in more capacious ways”—beyond a celebration of the lone, genius architect and their vision, and toward, instead, an appreciation of buildings as messy, lived archives of sociality, sentiment, and belonging.

This understanding is consistent with the aims of many socially conscious architects, particularly those who formed part of this postindependence generation. Dhaka-based Muzharul Islam, for instance, preferred to use the Bengali word sthapatyashilpa to describe his practice, “a term encompassing all aspects of architecture from its imagining to construction and occupation.” Karachi-based Yasmeen Lari has advocated for seeing architecture as a “process” rather than a “product.”1

The outcomes of this approach can be seen in Lari’s Anguri Bagh Housing Scheme, a neighborhood in Lahore commissioned by the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and featured in the MoMA exhibition. Today, the development’s original red-brick facades bear the marks of many lives lived: some have been clad with tiles, others affixed with decorative features, Islamic calligraphy, even Corinthian columns. The uniform elevations have been disrupted by additional stories added to rooftops by the residents of some blocks, to make room for growing families. What would it mean to see these accumulations as a vital part of the heritage of modernism in this place, rather than distractions and deviations from some distant original?

The loss of the pyramids at Pragati Maidan was felt so keenly not simply because they represented a pioneering form of space-frame construction in concrete; these buildings functioned, for so many Delhiites, as open and inviting vectors to the future. The potential for architecture to make a new world seem possible and, crucially, tangible for so many different sections of society is a defining feature of this postindependence period—and a legacy to be salvaged from these modernist structures.

The challenge, and opportunity, for heritage campaigners is to channel the clamor of memory and affection into their defense of built forms: to document buildings but also to register their significance to those who visit, work, or live in them. This is a project that museum curators, too, can engage with—especially when, as at the MoMA, the displays are so charged with a sense of responsibility. Where are the people? What might we uncover about the history of a building from those who have navigated its forms?

A visit to Pragati Maidan begins Ravi Sundaram’s 2009 book on postcolonial urbanism, Pirate Modernity. Sundaram attended the opening of the Hall of Nations as a young boy with his family, joining the crowds queueing to witness the technological spectacle promised by both the building and the ASIA-72 international fair being hosted inside. Pirate Modernity is concerned with how the top-down, technocratic visions of India’s urban planners have been received, repurposed, and undone by those who inhabit the city, particularly working-class communities. Sundaram asks what can be learned from the creative, and often illegal, engagements with space and infrastructure that mark contemporary life in a city like Delhi: gray markets, squatter settlements, the tangled wires that facilitate the piratical siphoning off of electricity or cable networks.

Sundaram’s is not a story of control met by resistance but, rather, of adaptation and appropriation. Pirate Modernity is a reminder that those who make decisions about or disperse the resources that shape the contemporary metropolis can never entirely control its rhythms. The city is animated by those who inhabit it, and, as such, is necessarily a place of chance, accident, and surprise.

What would a similar approach to the archives of modern architecture reveal? It should, in the first place, find room not just for drawings, plans, and the promotional photos solicited by architectural offices. It would also elevate the stories of builders, residents, and users, cataloguing interventions and transformations and the multitude of practices deployed to make a place familiar, a participant in the patterns of everyday life. It could also fuel a more democratic, participatory model of heritage, one that would celebrate the unintended consequences of design, rather than bemoaning departures from some “authentic” vision. This approach would allow for a building’s continued use and evolution, even as it promotes the documentation of idiosyncrasies and practices of sensitive repair.

It is unlikely, of course, that such a reformulation would dent the juggernaut of development across the states of contemporary South Asia: the relentless pursuit of “the new” and “the world class” to serve profit and power, a process in which architects are often deeply complicit. But a radically open understanding of architectural authorship offers a more robust picture of why certain structures must be defended—not just for futures lost, but for rich and diverse presents enduring. icon

  1. Yasmeen Lari, “Architecture and Politics, and the Politics of Architecture: Changing Architectural Scene in Subcontinent,” Archi Times, August 1990.
Featured image: Hall of Nations, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, India. 1970–72. Demolished 2017. Raj Rewal Associates (est. 1962). Architect: Raj Rewal (b. 1934). Engineer: Mahendra Raj (b. 1924). Perspective drawing. c. 1970. Pencil on tracing paper, 37 3/8 × 76 3/4 in. (95 × 195 cm). Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. Featured image provided by The Museum of Modern Art. Other images throughout taken by the author.