How a new virtual exhibit aims to celebrate nearly-forgotten Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Gujarat

19 March,2023 09:00 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Fiona Fernandez

Like the man it’s named after, an Ahmedabad stadium waits for its due as a global heritage body collaborates with local civic authorities to celebrate its architecture through a one-of-a-kind virtual exhibit

The Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium with its distinct, cantilevered framing takes its structural power from the zigzag exterior wall that provides added reinforcement. It was one of the largest cricket stadiums in the world at the time, accommodating 50,000 spectators. Pic Courtesy/WMF

Ten kms away from the pageantry at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Motera where the final Test match between India and Australia for the Border Gavaskar Trophy ended in a tame draw last week, the news of a quiet victory surfaced from the nearly-forgotten Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (SVP) Stadium.

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) announced that the Charles Correa-designed stadium that sits by the banks of the Sabarmati in Navrangpura is at the centre of their new Google & Arts Culture exhibit which is the culmination of three years of on-site assessment and research done in collaboration with the Getty Foundation Grant, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and IIT Madras.

The structure*s robust concrete geometry allows in plenty of light

Built by the late legendary Mumbai-based architect, and ably supported by his trusted structural engineer Mahendra Raj in the 1960s, the stadium is an example of modern Indian architecture that the New York-head quartered heritage conservation platform attempts to preserve in collaboration with local bodies.

The slickly-presented digital chronicle takes the viewer back in time to the stadium*s inception, offering you access to its blueprint, archival photographs and sharing future plans for the sports complex. It*s a timely reminder of Correa*s vision for this cricket-crazy nation, and more importantly, why he is hailed as the father of progressive design in post-Independent India.

Not very far from the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, the stadium has a cantilevered folded-plate roof (right), the longest concrete span of its kind in the world at the time. Pics Courtesy/World Monuments Fund

Ironically, this concrete, pillar-less 50,000-seat masterpiece which was commissioned by industrialist Sheth Chinubhai Chimanbhai, hosted only one cricket match - India*s first One-Day International in November 25, 1981 where England defeated the hosts by five wickets. By the following year, a new stadium, also named after Sardar Patel, came up in Motera, and international matches moved there. This site was recently transformed into the world*s largest cricket stadium with a seating capacity of 1,10,000, and named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While the Correa-built arena now hosts domestic matches and cultural events, it has endured neglect over time. Javier Ors Ausin, WMF*s Programmer Manager who oversaw the project, hopes it will make a stronger comeback in its second innings.

Practice pitches sit within the complex of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium. Getty*s Keeping It Modern initiative (2014 to 2020) focused on the conservation of key modern buildings from the 20th century, in which modern sports structures were a prominent feature. The grant support for SVP was $230,000

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Why was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium (SVP) included in the World Monuments Fund Watch 2020?
It was to recognise its importance as an example of the modernist experimentation that flourished in India after Independence, and its role as a green space in the urban fabric of Ahmedabad. It*s elevation to the Watch highlighted the need to preserve this important site, whose concrete exteriors had suffered weathering in recent years.

Javier Ors Ausin

What would you say are the highlights of its design that makes it an outstanding example of modernist architecture?
WMF had previously recognised Charles Correa*s innovative work in 2018 when we selected the Post-Independence Architecture of Delhi for the Watch. At the Sardar Patel Stadium, Correa collaborated with renowned structural engineer Mahendra Raj to create South Asia*s first cantilevered folded-plate roof. Its scale is particularly impressive - at 326 feet, it was the longest cantilevered concrete span in the world at the time of its construction. As architectural historian Neelkanth Chhaya discusses in the online exhibition, the use of raw concrete was also novel at the time and popularised by the work of Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad and Chandigarh.

How did the Comprehensive Conservation Plan help the project?
The development of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) gave us the unique opportunity to gather a diverse group of stakeholders and experts. This included the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and IIT Madras, but also the Charles Correa Foundation, the Mahendra Raj Archives, Ahmedabad*s community of cricketers, and the locals who use and benefit from it, and of course, a large team of consultants. We were able to assess the physical condition of the structure and examine its cultural attributes. Having the support and participation of the AMC was key since it is the public owner of the site. The outcome of the CCMP is a group of documents that encapsulate the work conducted, including the studies, analysis, and drawings of the site, and more importantly, a set of conservation recommendations for the future preservation and adaptation of the site. This docket has been handed over to the AMC.

Charles Correa Pic/Getty Images

What challenges did you face with curation?
Working on the immersive exhibition was an interesting process because the Google Arts & Culture platform gave us the opportunity to present our work in a unique way. The curation was participatory in manner. The process was fun, and a challenge, as we had to translate a highly technical process into a compelling story of the site and of the project for a broad audience.

The exhibition includes fragments of our interviews with Mahendra Raj among others; these lend a human perspective to architecture. It does not happen frequently in historic preservation that the original engineers or architects are around. Our conversations with him were very special. He passed away in May 2022, so it*s possible that the interview he gave us was his last.

Young cricketers at a warm-up session

Now that international matches in Ahmedabad are hosted at the Narendra Modi Stadium, what*s the future of SVP?
It is now used primarily for cricket matches scheduled through the stadium manager*s office. For the rest of the time, the ground is closed and tended to by the stadium*s grounds-keeping team. Through the project, we came to the conclusion that it is important to develop a revenue-generating model for the site, especially given that the Patel Stadium cannot compete with Motera as the preferred venue for international cricket matches. We have advised that the site should evolve to become a cricket training ground and a multi-sports centre. While our project finished when we handed over the CCMP to the local authorities, we remain in touch with all stakeholders and are available to support their efforts.

Explore the virtual exhibition here

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