Chandigarh: Where Modernism Met India

Chandigarh Revealed / Princeton Architectural Press

Chandigarh, the capital city of the Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, was planned and designed in the 1950s and 60s by French-Swiss master architect Le Corbusier, along with architects Jane Drew, Pierre Jeanneret, and Maxwell Fry, and a host of Indian modernists. Envisioned by India’s founding prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, the planned city represented a break with India’s colonial past and embodied a distinctly-Indian form of modernism, rooted in post-independence values of democracy, socialism, secularism, and non-alignment. The city, and other planned modernist cities of the era, told the world India was on its way.

First planned and designed to accommodate some 500,000 people, today, more than a million people live in Chandigarh, as the city has expanded, and slums have taken over areas where the plan was never fully realized. Some 50 years later, Le Corbusier and Nehru’s city appears both glorious and derelict, visionary and an anachronism in Chandigarh Revealed, a fascinating new book by photographer and designer Shaun Flynn.

Chandigarh has been likened to Brasilia, the modernist capital city of Brazil planned and designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. But whereas Brasilia hosts workers during the day and expels them at night, Chandigarh was designed to be a more livable city full-time, with a primary Capitol complex, and its Legislative Assembly as the focus; commercial districts; parks and plazas; educational, medical, and research institutions; and housing for tens of thousands of government workers.

Chandigarh legislative assembly / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)
Chandigarh legislative assembly interior / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Chandigarh’s plan is divided into 47 sectors, each 800 by 1,200 meters. Sectors 1-30 were created from 1951-1976, and sectors 31-57 were created from the 1960-1985. Until his death in 1965, Le Corbusier was still designing elements of the site. Flynn’s well-designed infographics really help explain his vision.

Flynn describes in his introduction how government housing is further broken into fourteen categories, each with variations, and “all built according to a hierarchy based on socioeconomic status.”

“The most desirable and lowest-density area are sectors 2-9, which are adjacent to the Capitol complex, while population density increases as the sectors recede from the mountains, the Capitol complex, and Sukhna Lake.” Even in the planned city, it’s all about location — in this case, the proximity to power.

But all buildings were made to a consistent level of quality and with the same attention to detail. Constructed out of concrete and brick, the most cost-effective and freely available local material, the buildings were designed to nest together into a broader plan. And even the smallest apartments — the minimum being 100 square meters — were designed by an architect with care, writes M.N. Sharma, an associate of Le Corbusier and chief architect of Chandigarh from 1965-1979.

According to numerous reports and surveys, the city today has one of the happiest and wealthiest populations in all of India, and the city itself is one of the cleanest. These achievements may be seen as a testament to the legacy of Nehru, Le Corbusier, and his colleagues.

But the state of ruin of many of the buildings can also be seen as a commentary on the lack of progress towards Nehru’s vision of a fully-modern India, with strong, centralized, and efficient government.

Architect Vikramaditya Prakash, who grew up in Chandigarh, writes in his essay about the complexities found in Chandigarh. By the 1970s, the vision of efficient government as embodied in the Capitol complex had died amid “the daily disintegration of the failing Nehruvian nation-state,” and “as endemic corruption, unemployment, and the bloated lethargy of the public sector slowly drained the lifeblood of the nation.”

Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

However, in the midst of this national deterioration, “Chandigarh paradoxically prospered.” He writes: “As the rest of the cities of northern India descended into urban miasma, Chandigarh became a haven for the Punjabi elite because the city, particularly as its tree cover matured, offered an unparalleled quality of life.”

Flynn argues there is another narrative on Chandigarh worth exploring: planning, architecture, and nature. Le Corbusier focused on the “care of the mind and body,” which is reflected in not only the buildings, which are rich with Le Corbusier’s symbols and native religious forms, but also in the landscape.

Le Corbusier’s hand symbol on a building / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In his edict, Le Corbusier writes: “The city of Chandigarh is planned to human scale. It puts us in touch with the infinite cosmos and nature. It provides us with places and buildings for all human activities by which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life. Here the radiance of nature and heart are within our reach.”

Nature and architecture intermingle at Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In a transcript of an interview, Sharma concurs, arguing that “to take care of your mind and body, you need recreation so this is a city with open spaces. Old people can walk, children can run around, and then there are paths that are very peaceful. There are also large-scale gardens that many people thought were for the rich, and I told them, no, the Rose Garden is meant for poor people.”

Modernist planning and architecture comes together with parks and tree-lined streets to create a livable Modernism, a garden city for Indians.

From the book, however, it’s unclear how much of Chandigarh’s interesting landscape came from the original designers and how much accrued as new layers later.

Also, while Flynn shoots the buildings designed by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Drew, and Fry in a compelling way — giving us a real sense of what it’s like to be in these buildings, walk around them, or even be on top of them — he only gives us glimpses of civic and green spaces, and offers no photographs of people out enjoying the community’s tree-covered streets, parks, the celebrated Zakir Hussein Rose Garden, or the Rock Garden, which is estimated to have received some 12 million visitors.

Chandigarh rose garden / Wikipedia

Examining Flynn’s photographs, one must often look around the corners of buildings and imagine what these landscapes are like in totality.

View of Le Corbusier’s museum / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Le Corbusier was very focused on how buildings and nature must relate. In this book, one hopes for a clearer view of that central relationship.

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