A design & a designer

A design & a designer

Picturesquely located at the foothills of the Shivalik range, Chandigarh is hailed as one of the best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture in 20th century India. This purpose-built capital stands testimony to the architectural genius of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who designed the people-oriented city. Brinda Suri outlines the architect’s vision.

It’s been 61 years since Chandigarh came into existence. Though that number denotes a senior age and spells concessions, in the case of young Chandigarh, it tells the milestones in the journey of a city that commenced with its inauguration by the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, in October 1953.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first prime minister, laid down the founding principles of the new city when he said, “Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past... an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” Chandigarh thus became a part of purpose-built capitals in developing countries, a trend seen across the world in the 1950s in examples such as Islamabad and Brasilia.

These were cities meant to be modern and futuristic in concept. Today, though, a debate rages whether breaking away from conventional town planning was prudent.

Separation & birth
The birth of the city was conceived immediately after India’s Independence in 1947. Following Partition, Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab, went to Pakistan leaving the Punjab on this side of the border bereft of a capital city. It was then decided a new city would be built. Geographically, an ideal spot was chosen: on a slightly sloping terrain in the foothills of the Himalayas’ Shivalik range with two seasonal rivulets meandering in between its space.

A state committee, appointed in 1948 under the chairmanship of Punjab chief engineer P L Verma, was initially told to pick a capital from the existing towns of Punjab. However, none were found suitable, failing in categories as defence vulnerability, deficiency of drinking water, isolation, and the inability to cope with the arrival of a large number of refugees who had been uprooted from West Punjab.

The present site of Chandigarh, a part of erstwhile Ambala district, was selected taking into account various positives such as its central location, proximity to the country’s capital, and among other reasons, something that appeals a lot to most outsiders now, a beautiful panoramic backdrop of rolling hills and a moderate climate.

Masters & the Plan
The Master Plan of the city, including a detailed design of its lush tree-lined avenues, was prepared by an American architecture firm (Albert) Mayer, Whittlesey & Glass which included planner (Mathew) Nowicki. However, the sudden demise of Nowicki in an air-crash put the project on hold with other members of the team not willing to pursue it.

Subsequently, the Swiss-French architect Charles Eduard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, who had made noteworthy theoretical contribution to urban design in the early 20th century, was given the chance to transform his thoughts into brick and mortar by designing a new city on a blank canvas.

Le Corbusier began work in 1951 and was assisted by three senior architects, cousin Pierre Jeanneret, British Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane B Drew. They were supported by a team of young Indian architects and planners. Mayer’s Master Plan was developed further by Corbusier who designed a number of structures, including the Capitol Complex.

A year later, in 1952, the foundation stone of the city was laid. Chandigarh derived its name from the temple of Chandi, the goddess of power, located in the vicinity of the selected site, and a fort or ‘garh’ situated beyond the temple.

Sector by sector
“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” — Le Corbusier . Corbusier’s emphasis was on cubical form and surfaces “removed of any kind of ornamentation” for which the “truthfulness of materials of constructions, concrete, bricks and stone” was to be maintained.

Corbusier had made a detailed plan for city structures, including houses, and among his typical features is his patent ‘brise-soleil’ or ‘sun breaker’, a sun-shade façade that prevents the harsh sun glare from overheating a space even as it allows daylight to stream in.

The precision with which proportion-scale-detail was executed by him has lent the impression of the city being an artwork in itself, a contemporary benchmark of architecture. He decided to build the city meant for a population of 5 lakh in an economical 14,000 acres. For this, he opted for a grid layout heavily influenced by Western town-planning, and divided the whole city into 46 sectors, each measuring 800m x 1200m.

The city was built in two phases. In the first stage, 29 sectors were carved out over 9,000 acres, while the remaining came up gradually.

Almost all sectors were meant to be self-contained units with their own daily provisions market, park and school. There were earmarked commercial and entertainment spaces, and unlike in other towns, building bylaws were sacrosanct, leading to a uniform look.

Today, what a visitor sees is a well-planned city with broad roads, lovely shaded avenues, dedicated cycle paths, generous sprinkling of landscaped gardens and a mixed bag of recreation. The efficient road network, pleasing surroundings and a general discipline among the population for observing rules also awes outsiders.

Capital conundrum
Picturesquely located at the foothills of the Shivaliks, Chandigarh is known as one of the best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture in 20th century in India. But it’s a fact that is being debated today, as it’s felt the ‘exclusive’, rather than ‘inclusive’ town plan, was an alien concept thrust upon India.

Though Corbusier planned the city like a human body, with the head (government, judiciary) at the top end of the city, stomach (shops) in the middle, lungs (park) near the shops etc, it’s often felt the regimented layout is devoid of a soul. The grid system contrasts sharply with the all-encompassing, order-in-disorder feel of India’s traditional urban plan.

By alienating the local population according to economic status, it has been observed that the quality of life and environment differs significantly between sectors, and inside the same sector, leading to uneven social developments.

Corbusier’s other town planning concepts have also been flayed by experts and visitors alike. Not only is the dominant brute concrete considered a culturally-alienating feature, the cookie-cutter layout and a well-numbered sector system, rather than being convenient and easy to navigate, makes it confusing for outsiders.

“Everything is so similar” or “lack of landmarks” is thus an oft-heard grouse.
Chandigarh ushered in an age of planned growth, realistic development and efficient management. Though constant effort is made to maintain that concept, cracks are beginning to show, and one of the main reasons is population growth, to accommodate which high-rises have mushroomed, altering the visual landscape of the city.

Traffic roundabouts, a significant part of the city layout, have had to give way to traffic signals on busy intersections. Moreover, uncontrolled growth of commercial activity on designated green and open spaces is effectively reducing its appearance to other unplanned towns.

Slowly but surely, as a new generation with more money power moves into the city, the Corbusier model of a city clad in natural material, especially stone or then concrete, a substance he called modern “molten rock”, is being thrown to the winds. Whimsical bureaucratic decisions have also disturbed the city heritage.  

As Asians, we like to be surrounded by people and enjoy a certain degree of disorder and freedom. The rejection of the Corbusier systematic approach can be witnessed in the emergence of day markets that have now transformed into semi-permanent kiosks selling the world at bargain prices.

Today, they are the most bustling shopping zones, this despite each sector market being almost-complete in itself.

The history of urban living in the Indian sub-continent goes back a few centuries, a period during which it has been influenced by diverse people, culture and traditions. It has absorbed it all, but not allowed itself to get overpowered. With purpose-built capitals like Chandigarh, a dissimilar model was followed.

This too is in the process of being localised; and the way to move forward in future projects of urban planning is to blend elements of past and modern more judiciously.
» See also ‘An architect by choice’ on Pg 5

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