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2003 March: Chandigarh, Once the Future City

[Archive] After years of struggle in Rio, Algiers, Saint Die and Bogota, Le Corbusier, at the age of 62, had the rare opportunity to apply his theories to the design of a new city. Chandigarh was to be his most momentous assignment: the only urban plan of substance he implemented

Yet, after planning the city’s outlines in a matter of weeks, he delegated the design of the fabric to others and concentrated on the group of buildings on the Capitol. He saw the Capitol as a sacred place to match the Acropolis. Separate from the rest of the city, it became almost a prohibited zone to most of the citizens whom he expected to stand back, in awe of his architecture.

Separated by vast distances, the Capitol buildings became individual oases, each with its own intricate box of tricks, of which Le Corbusier was the master. Jim Antoniou discusses the city’s present condition.

In 1947, when India gained its independence, the western part of the Punjab, with its provincial capital Lahore, was turned over to Pakistan. The eastern Punjab, in India, became a state without a capital. The immediate task was to provide shelter to those displaced from west Punjab within a new permanent capital. Yet, the idea of relocating the functions of a new capital in an existing town on a permanent basis was rejected.

A year later, Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, decided to build the capital on a site 250km north of Delhi, chosen by P.L. Verma, appointed chief engineer for the Punjab and P.N. Thapar, director of public works. This was to be a modern city, free of existing traditions, for a people with a great ancient past, expressing India’s faith in the future at a time of tumultuous transition. The new capital Chandigarh (the first new city in India since Jaipur in 1728) was conceived as a place of prestige and convenience, an administrative centre, with a clear goal and a target population.

When Chandigarh was contemplated, the focus of urban planning in India was unclear. In the 1950s and ’60s, the idea of a modern city was vital, especially to a new independent country. Therefore, it was to serve as a model in city planning for India and even the world. With just 300 architects in the country at the time of independence, this was to be achieved by using the best expertise in the West.

The first masterplan for the new capital was assigned to American engineer and planner Albert Mayer, who was a friend of Clarence Stein of Radburn fame in New Jersey. He worked on the masterplan with his closest assistant, Matthew Nowicki, until the latter died in a plane crash in 1950. Mayer’s plan consisted of a fan-shaped garden city, with a curved network of roads and varying super-block shapes. When Mayer resigned, the Indian authorities put together a new, European planning team.

The two appointed administrators, Verma and Thapar, decided on the renowned Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, whose name was suggested by the British architects Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew. At first, Le Corbusier was not keen to take the assignment, but was persuaded by Verma. Le Corbusier’s lofty visions and ideals were in harmony with Nehru’s aspirations. Equally significant, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, now part of the new team, had acquired considerable experience in designing tropical buildings in Africa.

Le Corbusier, as general consultant to the new capital, was assigned to make modifications to the Mayer plan, or prepare a new masterplan. He naturally advocated the latter, insisting on starting afresh, resulting in a radical departure from the Mayer plan. Early in 1951, he prepared a new plan in a matter of weeks, based on his own concept of sectors (although he did incorporate some of the features from the original plan).

Le Corbusier, who saw himself as the ‘spiritual director’ of the entire project, requested the assistance of his cousin Pierre Jeanneret (with whom he had argued frequently and had recently dissolved their practice). Jeanneret eventually agreed to live on the site as his representative and chief architect. Le Corbusier could then visit India twice a year for a month at a time (he came to the site 22 times). Thus, Jeanneret, together with Fry and Drew, as senior architects working in India for a period of three years and assisted by a team of 20 idealistic young Indian architects, would detail the plan and Le Corbusier could concentrate on major buildings. All four of the protagonists were members of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (ClAM). The ideology of ClAM was to play a major role in the planning of the new city.

The new capital required a secure and central location, easily accessible from all parts of the state. The site had to accommodate an initial poulation of 150,000 (ultimately 500,000, now one million and still growing). It had to be away from existing towns, with adequate supply of water, easy drainage and a suitable climate. There was also to be a minimum dislocation to existing landowners and proximity to appropriate building materials for large-scale construction.

The flat and gently sloping site is located between two seasonal rivers, Patiali-ki and Sukhna Choe, some 8km apart, with sufficient altitude to cope with the worst summer heat. To the north-east are the low hills, some 16km from the Shivalik range of the Himalayas, rising abruptly to 1500m as a backdrop to the Capitol.

The urban form of Chandigarh (tilted on a north-east/ south-west axis) is a tidy chequer-board pattern, adapted to the particular attributes of the site, resulting in a distinctive distribution of functions and a hierarchy of roads. This city was to be free of the familiar overcrowding, pavement dwellings and squatters’ shanties of many Indian towns. Le Corbusier’s basis for the plan was the ‘sector’ (subdivided into ‘urban villages’ of about 150 families, equivalent to the average traditional settlement found in the Punjab). A classified circulation pattern resulted from his theory of the even Vs (les sept voies). A regular grid of traffic routes (V3) defines the various sectors. These introverted sectors are self-sufficient living units, connected through V4 traffic routes.


The first phase of the plan includes 17 sectors, each 1200m x 800m in area. Shopping and bands of open space cut across each sector, fixed at some 400m. Vertical green belts, with pedestrian (V7) routes, contain schools and sport activities. The city’s V2 routes cut across and consist of three major avenues: the Peoples’ Avenue, a ceremonial approach to the Capitol; the Middle Avenue, connecting railway and industrial area to the university; and the South Avenue marking the boundary of the first phase of the city.

Le Corbusier also introduced a biological element to the layout of the city. He regarded the plan as being similar to the human body. He had come across the figure of the Parushi of the Brahmins (the figure of a man lying on his side with the arms fully outstretched), not unlike his own Modulor man. The Capitol was to be the head of the body, the commercial centre its heart, the industrial area its hand and the intellectual centre the parkland, the location of museums, university and library. He took upon himself the tasks of designing the buildings of the Capitol and exercising architectural control over the city.


Extensive visual controls covered mass, materials, fenestration and even boundary walls and gates. The other three members of the senior architectural group were made responsible for various civic buildings, government housing, the provision of social infrastructure, including schools, and shopping centres. As an element of urban design and as a means of hiding the sameness of the sectors, provision was made for tree planting and a protected green belt on the periphery of the site. Trees were used to give form and identity to the city, blossoming in a variety of colours, according to the seasons.

The Capitol was seen by Le Corbusier as a visual symbol, with the rest of the city (apart from the city centre) as a large mass, based on a uniform grid with a wide range of densities for a variety of government housing schemes (from 5,000 to 20,000 dwellings per sector). The highest paid officials, with the largest houses, were located near the Capitol. Conversely, the greater the distance of a sector from the Capitol, the higher the density. Chandigarh was seen as a low-density and low-rise city, with a regular traffic system, so reducing cost of roads and infrastructure. Indeed, the stringent budget became the most compelling influence on architecture and urban design.

Consequently, each of the three major architects of the city developed an individual style, following a common layout of regular box structures made of brick and stone, with brise-soleil and jails (perforated screens). Openings were kept small, with standard door and window sizes and precast roof elements. With little machinery available, bricks were made by hand on site. Boulders and small stones were used from the nearby riverbeds in a variety of patterns. All these cost-effective features resulted in the distinctive style of Chandigarh, built at a time when architecture and planning were closely linked.


Today planners would say the city was more designed than planned. Le Corbusier was proud of the fact that the distances between buildings and spaces (ie, 400m and 800m) were based on the sequence of monuments in the Champs Elysees in Paris as a proven ideal of best practice. Yet, in reality, his assistant’s measurements were incorrect and consequently, Le Corbusier used the wrong scale.

When Nehru visited the site in 1952, the city plan was visible, but with vast and vacant spaces. By 1966, administrative reorganization took place, resulting in Chandigarh being the seat of three types of Government: the Punjab, the new State of Haryana and also, the newly formed Union Territory. These three administrative entities required housing, leading to additional densities. So in many instances, two-storey terraced housing became compact four-storey apartments.

Now, Chandigarh is a hub of economic activity, with large numbers of vehicles and huge rush-hour congestion. Moreover, much of the housing and some public buildings from the first phase are now unsuitable (with, for instance, air conditioners blocking windows), and small units accommodating as many as three generations in a family. The city has to evolve, change and adapt to the twenty-first century.

Yet, within the famous first phase of Chandigarh, are the pioneering works of Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Fry and Drew. Here, within the housing units of the city are to be found the unusual form of the Gandhi Bhawan Memorial by Pierre Jeanneret, cinemas by Maxwell Fry and schools by lane Drew, and some houses and other buildings by Le Corbusier.


Le Corbusier saw the Capitol as a sacred place- separate and protected. The monumental scale of the Capitol attempts to be both, precise and enigmatic, worthy of sacred places such as Teotihuacan in Mexico, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and, most sacred of all to Le Corbusier, the Acropolis at Athens. Therefore, in assembling his elements of urban design, he avoided the conventional symmetry of the traditional Empire style and pursued the drama of a sacred theatre.

Having a fascination for numbers, proportions and symbols, all of which were incorporated into his design using his famous Modulor, he placed the Capitol buildings in their incredible complexity in an area of simple geometry. A diagram of two 800m squares was located on both sides of the axis of the central avenue. But, Le Corbusier abandoned the square on the right side of the axis because it coincided with the erosion of the river. Within the left square, another, smaller square, 400x400m was incorporated along the main axis, with an identical square mirrored on the right side. A series of obelisks, or masts, were used to mark out these squares to position the buildings within a setting of cosmological vastness, incorporating the backdrop of the Himalayas and the blue sky. So, within this defined area, Le Corbusier designed asymmetrical but lyrical buildings of emotional intensity and intellectual artistry, related through a series of pools, platforms and levels, expressing the sacred landscape of the Capitol.

His main concept for the Capitol was to tap into the cultural traditions of India, while expressing the values of the mid-twentieth century. To achieve this, he used a variable balance of forms, with columns, terraces, ramps and screens in a range of colours. Yet, in this vast complex of space, he related each building intimately to its own approach, entry, solid and void elements and even texture.

The Palace of Justice expresses order and power and consists of a rhythm of eight law courts and a high court. The entrance is through a four-storey open hall, divided by full-height brightly painted piers. The orientation of the building was dictated by the direction of the prevailing winds and the sun.

Directly opposite is the square shape of the Assembly building, reflected in a pool of water, visually doubling its size. The design of the Assembly was to convey the cosmic forces that rule human life. As in Abu Simbel, in Upper Egypt, sun and moon were to penetrate the interior of the building at significant times. The result is an astonishing interior of a dark hypostyle hall, leading to the bright and colourful circle in plan of the principal chamber and the pyramid of the lower house.

The main doors, in 55 brightly coloured panels on either side (a gift from the French Government) make up the largest painting undertaken by Le Corbusier, depicting his own philosophy of life, in terms of the cosmos, nature, man and the discovery of numbers. The strong colours he used ensure that the doors remain dominant from as far away as the Palace of Justice.
Behind the Assembly to the north-west is the Secretariat building, with its distinctive facade and interplay of light and shade. This building houses the seven Ministries in an edifice 280m in length (the same length as the entire pier in Eastbourne) and 35m in height, accommodating 3,000 civil servants. Each floor is reached by two giant ramps, with offices arranged on either side of a central corridor. The undulating roof is designed for recreation.

To Le Corbusier, the monument of the gigantic open hand, which turns in the breeze to indicate the direction of the wind, became India’s symbol of giving and receiving. This monumental sculpture dominates the dramatic landscape and is part of a sunken court for public assembly, which he called The Pit of Consideration. In parallel with The Open Hand was to be The Governor’s Palace as the crown of the Capitol, commanding the third edge of the huge space with the vast mountains as the backdrop. It was never built because Nehru thought it was symbolically inappropriate and extravagant. Other structures were also to be added (the Museum of Knowledge, still like the Governor’s Palace, not yet started, while Geometrical Hill and the Tower of Shadows were not completed), exaggerating the vast distances between the great buildings.

The distance between the Assembly and the Palace of Justice is 450m, equivalent to the entire length of the Acropolis (or three and a half times the width of Trafalgar Square). Since the many artificial mounds and landscape features that Le Corbusier planned have not been carried out, this area remains stark and untreated, resembling an empty airport runway. Moreover, for reasons of security, each building is now separated by fencing and barbed wire. The result is a vast concrete deck with spectacular monuments, by implication, to Le Corbusier himself, since the Capitol stands in splendid isolation from the rest of the city and its people.

Walking through the desolate spaces between the buildings, with their rough and worn surfaces, the Capitol conveys an uncomfortable impression of a living ruin, frozen since its inception. However, the interests of Le Corbusier as an artist and those of the citizens of Chandigarh in the end appear to be not the same. The impression conveyed is that he would have preferred that the inhabitants were grateful to him for enlarging their emotional knowledge of architecture, which to him was a constant Source of wonder and vitality. One can speculate that if the Capitol area really expresses the State Government’s aspirations, some attempt would have been made to complete and sympathetically add to the urban design. So far, this has not happened. Moreover, 50 years on, the Capitol is still not a place for the people to show civic pride. His ideas on cosmology and mysticism were cryptic and esoteric. Yet, for him, they were to be understood and accepted by everyone, without explanations.

Today, with the complexities and heavy technical demands on modern architecture, it would be impossible for one designer to take on such a colossal task on his own. He insisted in solving all building problems without expert advice. He was also fearful of any form of dialogue to avoid others influencing or compromising his ideas. Although Le Corbusier took courageous risks at all levels of design, neither the city, nor the buildings have been a practical success. He did not master the climate in terms of hot breezes, the monsoon and un-insulated concrete. Similarly, at city scale, the isolation of the routes and avenues, together with zoning regulations, do not encourage intense urban activity to take place. The city’s own rigid character, lacking urbanity, is an image of a vast series of metropolitan hamlets.

In his book The City of Tomorrow (1937), Le Corbusier shows a vacant rectangle with the following words within it: ‘Left blank for a work expressing modern feeling’. With his great concern for area design, there was the hope that Le Corbusier himself could have fulfilled the ambitions of such an urban space admirably within the Capitol of Chandigarh. Yet, like most of his exciting concepts that have influenced generations of architects, Chandigarh is important for what it could have been, rather than what it is today.

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