“Chandigarh is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head and makes you think and the one thing that India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think.”
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – 17 March 1959
Earlier this year, I travelled to the city of Chandigarh in Northern India. The following post provides a brief insight into the story behind this fascinating city and how it gave Le Corbusier the chance to realise his modernist vision on a truly grand scale.
Amidst the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947, the city of Lahore was taken into the newly formed Dominion of Pakistan. This meant that a new capital city for the Punjab & Haryana States needed to be established and Prime Minister Nehru, wanting to create a new metropolis “unfettered by past traditions”, took a rather bold and visionary step by sourcing an architect from the west to take on this mammoth task.
Nehru had met the American architect and town planner, Albert Mayer, in 1945 whilst Mayer was stationed in India during WWII working as an engineer for the U.S. Army. They discussed Mayer’s proposed schemes for model villages, aimed at improving the quality of life for rural Indians, and went on to develop a pilot project in the city of Etawah. It proved to be a success and the project was repeated throughout rural India which led to Mayer being appointed Planning Advisor to the Uttar Pradesh Government in 1947 and, subsequently, the commission to design this new capital city – Chandigarh.
The name is a portmanteau derived from the temple Chandi Mandir, located in the vicinity of the proposed site for the city, and the local word for a fort or fortress – ‘garh’. It is often annexed with the term The City Beautiful which originates from the architectural movement that flourished in North America in the late 1800s with the intent of “introducing beautification and grandeur in cities to promote harmonious social order within urban populations that would increase the quality of life”. In 1949, Mayer set to work on his masterplan.
His initial blueprint for the city showed an organically curving street grid reminiscent of a Clarence Stein Garden City layout with inlaid, tripartite superblocks. But this was as far as Mayer’s involvement in the realisation of Chandigarh went when, tragically, Mayer’s chief architect and partner on the project, Matthew Nowicki, was killed in a plane crash returning from India in 1950. Mayer walked and Nehru turned to the British duo, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, to take up the mantle owing to their experience of designing architecture in tropical climates. They were heavily involved in the Festival of Britain at the time so felt unable to take on such a huge project but they knew someone who might have the chutzpah to take it on: the Swiss-French colossus, Le Corbusier.
Within a few days of taking the reins, Corbusier had formulated a new scheme from Mayer’s initial outline and introduced neighbourhood sectors, each measuring 1200m x 800m, and straightened the curving lines into a right-angled street grid. He then superimposed a more free-form network over the traffic system including footpaths and public parks with Leisure Valley cutting a huge green swathe through the heart of city. Much like his Modulor system of scale, his plan for the city was analogous to the human body: the capital buildings are the head, the central business district is the heart, the industrial area to the east and education area to the west as two arms with the sprawling road system circulating throughout.
Le Corbusier retained the role of chief architect and took sole responsibility for the design of the Capitol Complex in the north. The city’s government buildings are all found here in the form of three, breathtakingly vast pieces of his brutalist architecture: Palace of Assembly, Palace of Justice and Secretariat. His recurring Open Hand motif (a sign of “peace and reconciliation… open to give, open to receive”) is also honoured here with a 26m high sculpture, the largest of its kind, named the Open Hand Monument.
He assembled a team of associates consisting of Fry and Drew along with his cousin and former office partner, Pierre Jeanneret. Collectively, they designed the main infrastructure and residential buildings throughout the city, eventually spending three continuous years in Chandigarh. Jeanneret produced a range of furniture for the city and his iconic, wooden V Chairs can still be seen in use within various institutions. However, owing to their age, a number of these chairs have been junked over the years which were then picked up by keen-eyed collectors and began to appear on the auction circuit in the west attracting vast sums of money owing to their Jeanneret provenance. And it isn’t just his chairs that have become a commodity from Chandigarh after one of the city’s defunct, municipal manhole covers (which have a map of the city inscribed in to them… “it’s impossible to get lost in Chandigarh”, so the joke goes), also designed by Jeanneret, sold at auction in the US for $21,000 only a few years ago! Authorities in Chandigarh are now intervening in such activity in an attempt to preserve these items of heritage and at the time of writing, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has also now accepted 17 projects designed by Le Corbusier, with the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh among them, into their list of internationally significant architecture sites.
Jeanneret stayed on in Chandigarh after its completion and was eventually appointed Chief Architect. In 1965, his health began to deteriorate and he returned to his native Geneva for treatment. He passed away in 1967 and in accordance with his will, his ashes were returned to Chandigarh and scattered on Sukhna Lake in the north of the city.
Chandigarh is most definitely an Indian city but with a European sensibility and a must-visit for any architecture buffs. But best of all, underneath all that gracefully fading concrete, you can sense that its citizens are very proud and happy to live in their City Beautiful.
Images 1, 3, 6-11: copyright Myles Brown 2016. Image 4: Landlab Files. Image 5: Pinterest.