Page C1.2 . 22 August 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Chandigarh: Vision and Reality


It was amid this triumph of freedom that the Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, conceived Chandigarh to be "a new city of free India, totally fresh and wholly responsive to the aspirations of the future generations of this great country."

It may seem ironic that a country just liberated from Western colonization turned again to the West in building a model for her future growth. There was precedent for this in Edwin Lutyens's design for New Delhi and in Otto Koenigsberger's work on Bhubhaneshwar, the new state capital of Orissa.

This trend continued in Chandigarh in a tacit but unfortunate acceptance of the Western avant-garde among educated Indian elites without enough consideration for Indian context and condition.

The job of planning the new capital was first allocated to the American Albert Mayer and the design of the buildings to the young Polish architect Matthew Novicki. But following Novicki's sudden death and Mayer's subsequent hesitation, the project fell in the hands of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret who planned the city and the Capitol Complex.

The English duo of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew joined Jeanneret to design many of the other buildings including the housing. Today one can perceive two Chandigarhs in the gaping contrast between the monumental Capitol Complex and the more modest housing sectors.

The Urban Design

Fifty years ago in Simla, the former summer capital of the British Raj, remote from the site of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier quickly modified Mayer's original, more organic, master plan. He retained most of Mayer's organizational features but did away with its adaptation to the landscape, its allowances for unplanned growth, and its use of native Indian building types.

He replaced these with a rectangular grid based on the metaphor of a human body but totally divorced from ideas about complex, vibrant Indian cities. He placed the Capitol Complex at the top resembling the head, the intellectual base, reflecting his (and Nehru's) conviction that government should rule a city as the head rules the body.

The industrial and educational belts on either side of the city symbolized the limbs. The city center with commercial buildings, shopping, and offices represented the heart.

The city was further starkly separated into inward-looking sectors of 2600 by 4000 feet (800 by 1200 meters), dimensions taken from Paris, each considered to be a self-sufficient neighborhood. A hierarchy of roads separated pedestrian and vehicular traffic into seven different road types, from V1 for the fast-moving inter-city traffic to V7 for pedestrians within the sectors.

The speed with which Le Corbusier came up with the master plan is not surprising considering that he had made similar but previously unrealized suggestions starting with the planning of Athens in 1930.

These were based on his designs for the "Radiant City" — the ideal city of an omnipotent Western machine-age civilization promising a decongested city center, filled with sun, space, and greenery.

This vision was completely at odds with the conditions in India, where 70 percent of the economy was still agricultural and where people were deeply rooted in their traditions and beliefs and had little understanding of Le Corbusier's "modern man" and industrial-age aspirations.

His disregard for local Indian craft and technique was complete. "What is the relevance," he said, "of Indian style (read "culture") in the world today if you accept machines, trousers, and democracy?"

Habitation and Growth

However questionable the planning and architecture forced on the city, it did succeed in providing clean hygienic environments, ample green open space, and the basic amenities of civic life — schools, hospitals, and parks. Such amenities are lacking in many Indian cities even today.

In addition to this, the buildings of the Capitol Complex, some of whose murals Le Corbusier painted himself, are undoubtedly wonderful pieces of architecture and art.

But as a city, Chandigarh lacks the vitality, noise, and charisma of most Indian towns and cities, where the streets and bazaars are dynamic places of public gathering, filled with mystique, color, and allure.

Chandigarh by comparison is sterile and lacking in "soul." The Corbusian motifs of the Modulor and the open hand that recur throughout the city have little meaning for her local inhabitants. The symbols seem inappropriate in spite of the accommodating and tolerant nature of Indian society.

The biggest city planning faux-pas appears to be the complete lack of shelter for the economically weak and the informal sector of Indian society. The very construction workers who built the city were, as Fry himself noted, "underpaid, unhoused, and uncared for..."

Complicated and inefficient city governance compounded the problem. Today nearly a third of the city's 700,000 inhabitants live or work in inhuman conditions of slums and labor colonies.

In her epic text Urban Planning in the Third world — the Chandigarh Experience, written two decades back, architect Madhu Sarin says, "What is lacking in the preoccupations of all these "great" planners is any direct consideration of the material reality of the people for whom they were designing these splendid creations."

To the Future

The renewed interest in Chandigarh, most importantly among her own citizens, has created much hope for the city and her future.

A three-day convention held during the golden jubilee celebrations was well attended by 800 delegates from around the world. The meetings shed new light on the potential of the city to cope with her condition.

Many innovative ideas emerged: the opening up to one another of the sectors, which have always been divided by broad boulevards; the creation of mixed uses for the streets; the repopulating of the now-isolated Capitol Complex area by creating institutions to attract the public; and infrastructure development in neighboring villages to stem the unmanageable flow of migrants into the city.

Clearly, the survival of this unique city depends on her ability for transformation and alteration. She must prepare herself to meet the inevitability of change.

Sarosh Anklesaria is a thesis student at the School of Architecture, Centre For Environmental Planning & Technology, Ahmedabad, India.



ArchWeek Photo

Le Corbusier's master plan for Chandigarh, identifying "heritage zones" and "listed buildings." Le Corbusier drew the master plan soon after his arrival in India and after a glimpse of the proposed site.
Image: From "Documenting Chandigarh: The Indian Architecture of Pierre Jeanneret, E. Maxwell Fry and Jane B. Drew," by Kiran Joshi, Chandigarh College of Architecture, Mapin Pub

ArchWeek Photo

Designed by Pierre Jeanneret, the hand crafted, cast-iron manhole covers, showing the major elements of the city's master plan, have become a trademark of Chandigarh.
Photo: Kiran Joshi, Chandigarh College of Architecture, and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

ArchWeek Photo

The Capitol Complex with the Assembly Building and the Secretariat in the background. The emptiness of Chandigarh contrasts with the dynamic modern city it was intended to be.
Photo: Shama Shah

ArchWeek Photo

A typical housing sector in Chandigarh. The government housing is in the center surrounded by private residences.
Photo: Kiran Joshi, Chandigarh College of Architecture, and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

ArchWeek Photo

The central business district of Chandigarh.
Photo: Shama Shah

ArchWeek Photo

The Gandhi Bhuvan is a little known yet marvelous piece of architecture by Pierre Jeanneret.
Photo: Kiran Joshi, Chandigarh College of Architecture, and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

ArchWeek Photo

Greater Chandigarh today, showing villages and phases of the city's expansion.
Photo: Kiran Joshi, Chandigarh College of Architecture, and Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

ArchWeek Photo

Street life is the most important generator of public space in India. By comparison to this noisy, lively street of a typical Indian city, street life in Chandigarh is sterile and lacking in "soul."
Photo: Sachin_Bandukwala

ArchWeek Photo

The Rock Gardens of Chandigarh, conceived to be "free from the interference of town planners and architects," have become a favorite tourist spot.
Photo: Shama Shah


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