Sunday, July 27, 2008
Chandigarh , Punjab, India
When India won independence from the British in 1947, Pakistan and India were partitioned. The Punjab was divided and its capital, Lahore, was lost to Pakistan. Soon, East Punjab’s population was quickly doubled by the flood of refugees from Pakistan. In March 1948 the provincial government, in consultation with the Indian central government and the enthusiastic support of Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, approved a new 45-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) capital site on a sloping plain near the Shivalik foothills. Designed by an international team under the leadership of Le Corbusier—it was his only realized urban planning scheme—the new city introduced India to a modern architectural and urbanistic idiom. Named for one of the two dozen existing villages in the area, Chandigarh, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of New Delhi, has been called “one of the most significant urban planning experiments of the twentieth century” and a “symbol of planned urbanism.”
The Punjab government, on the crest of a wave of nationalism, probably would have preferred to commission Indian professionals, but none was suitably qualified. In December 1949 it approached the New York architect-planner Albert Mayer, who was then engaged on master plans for Greater Bombay and Kanpur. He accepted the Chandigarh brief: a master plan for a city of 500,000, detailed designs for selected buildings, and planning controls for adjacent areas. He assembled an expert consultancy team and involved Matthew Nowicki as codesigner. Their fan-shaped plan sat between two seasonal riverbeds that crossed the site. The seat of the state government was at its head, and the city center was located at its heart. Two linear parklands ran from the northeast head of the plan to its southwest tip, and a curving road network defined “superblock” neighborhood units like those of Brasília. The Americans also provided concept sketches for the capitol, the city center, and a typical superblock. But when Nowicki died in a plane crash in August 1950, Mayer withdrew from the project.
The Punjab government then engaged the Swiss architect and urban theorist Le Corbusier, whose ideas were quite different from the Americans’. His team comprised the European modernists Pierre Jeanneret (his cousin), Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew, as well as several Indian professionals. In four days of February 1951 Le Corbusier and his colleagues redesigned the city, covering approximately the same site but exchanging Mayer and Nowicki's garden city–influenced plan for an orthogonal grid. Nevertheless, many of their ideas, including the basic framework and such elements as the capitol, city center, university, industrial area, and a linear parkland known as Leisure Valley, were retained, in most cases in or at least close to their original locations. The “super-block” was replaced by the “sector,” but the neighborhood unit remained as important in Le Corbusier’s plan, although Mayer’s curving streets were replaced with a rectangular layout. Indeed, the whole city plan was constrained by a system of seven types of roads, establishing a traffic hierarchy that provided quiet and safe residential areas. The Periphery Control Act of 1952 created a green belt and regulated development within 10 miles (16 kilometers), ensuring that Chandigarh would be surrounded by countryside. Sadly, in the event, that did not happen.
The 250-acre (100-hectare) city center was laid out immediately southeast of the intersection of the main axes of the plan. Its northern zone is reserved for commercial and civic purposes, and the southern zone is the district administration center, with courthouses, police headquarters, fire station, and the interstate bus terminal. The State Bank of India’s branch office was designed by J. K. Chowdhury, and Pierre Jeanneret designed the Town Hall and the State Library.
Altogether, about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of planted open space dot the city area. Le Corbusier included a chain of linear parks with pedestrian paths and cycle tracks from one end of Chandigarh to the other. A number of gardens transformed the eroded bed of a seasonal stream into the charmingly named Leisure Valley, where Chandigarh’s cultural institutions—the Government Museum and Art Gallery, the Museum of Evolution of Life, the College of Fine Arts, and the College of Architecture—were built.
The capitol is Le Corbusier’s pièce de résistance, and he began designing its buildings on his first visit to India, early in 1951. They were completed by 1965. The geometric concrete masses—the Secretariat, the Assembly, and the Palace of Justice—are grouped around a piazza and dominate the city. He also proposed a Governor’s Palace, later changed in the proposals to a Museum of Knowledge, but it was never built. The Secretariat is the largest building in the complex, a huge 10-story linear slab that houses 4,000 civil servants. Its flat roofline is interrupted only by a sculptural composition containing a restaurant, ramp, and terraced garden. Inside, each floor is planned as a long central corridor with flanking offices, a layout expressed in the arrays of repetitive balconies on the long facades. An asymmetrical sculptural brise-soleil (sun-shading screen) provides visual relief to the sameness at about the middle of the building. The vast square Assembly Building is said to have been inspired by the geometrical forms of Maharaja Jai Singh’s observatory, the Jantar Mantar, which Le Corbusier saw in Delhi, and (somewhat less romantically) by the cooling towers of a power station. A huge hyperbolic drum and a connected pyramidal skylight rise from the flat roof; beneath, in the base of the drum, the upper and lower parliamentary chambers receive dramatic shafts of light. A basement-level entrance is provided for daily use, and another huge ceremonial portal leads from the piazza through a massive enameled door decorated with a Le Corbusier mural. The external facades are protected from the sun on three sides with another sculptural brise-soleil. The Palace of Justice is a linear block whose main facade looks toward the piaza, continuous with the great central hall from which the courtrooms open. Wanting to express the majesty of the law, Le Corbusier designed for the judges a tall portico resting on three immense pylons painted in primary colors. The pylons serve to visually relieve the repetitive pattern of the arcaded facade. The Palace of Justice has a gigantic folded-concrete roof that shades the whole building. Le Corbusier also designed several monuments for the main piazza of the capitol complex. The most striking is the giant sheet-metal Open Hand, Chandigarh’s official emblem; there is also a Tower of Shadows and a memorial to the martyrs of the Punjab partition.
Chandigarh is universally held to be an icon of European Modernism, and one Indian scholar has observed that it was “a pacesetter for post-independence architecture in India.” He continues, “In contrast to the undifferentiated sprawl of contemporary Indian towns, Chandigarh is endowed with a specific identity—given by its picturesque setting, the well-ordered, orthogonal matrix and, above all, a distinctive architectural vocabulary” (Joshi 1999, introduction). For all that, and despite the fact that it provides (by Indian standards) good services and utilities, it wants for the sense of enclosure, density, and coherence that characterize the traditional Indian environment. Therefore, it fails in many non-material respects to meet its inhabitants’ needs.