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‘Arguing about Chandigarh’s legacy is now part of the city’s consciousness’

Chandigargh 03

It may be the happiest city in India, but with Chandigarh’s rampant growth, there are issues that need urgent attention, not least Le Corbusier’s legacy

Of late, there has been a palpable, ‘unresolvable tension’ regarding Chandigarh, as architect Rahul Mehrotra elucidates. The city was recently adjudged the happiest in India. Admittedly, there is a certain quality and peace to Le Corbusier’s design, which springs from its brick, concrete and green. For any other city in India to even remotely touch this level of quality is a far-sighted wish.

However constant dialogues, deliberations and arguments about Chandigarh’s legacy have become part of the city’s conscience today.  With the city’s growth, there are issues that need urgent attention. What solid, holistic direction needs to be followed? Who will lead the solution? Who will conceptualise the path?

The 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death is being celebrated this year and Chandigarh, the city that defined the architect in many ways, kickstarted its own series of events on Corbusier’s birth anniversary in August. This culminated into a four-day international symposium in mid October, coinciding with both the date of Corbusier’s birth and the formal inauguration of the city.

The symposium, organised under the aegis of the Chandigarh Administration, Departments of Tourism and Planning and Chandigarh College of Architecture was an integral step in drafting a visible direction. While recognising Le Corbusier’s contribution globally, the symposium seeked to ‘explore Chandigarh 50 years after the Master’. With the inaugural function held in Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex, the venue was a far cry from its recently disconnected, barricaded, inaccessible appearance and unkempt landscaping, having been restored to its former glory and stunningly lit up for the symposium. The lighting is supposedly a permanent feature, with the city administration having kept aside a whopping  budget of Rs 8 crore to keep it running.  

‘Fascinating anecdotes came to light – how a ‘small mock-up Modulor Man’ fell out of Le Corbusier’s pocket once’

Amid this exquisite set-up, which included a mock-up of the Governor’s Palace (Corbusier’s unbuilt project), and the geometric hill (with its completion of the solar hours depiction), the inaugural function was held in this ‘newly discovered’ arena, that seemed to be in direct line with Corbusier’s vision of the ‘citizens owning the Capitol Complex as well as the city’. (Key-note speaker William JR Curtis’s question to the authorities remains unanswered: ‘Were any changes done to the callous interventions inside these monuments?’)

Fascinating anecdotes came to light – how a ‘small mock-up Modulor Man’ fell out of Le Corbusier’s pocket once, embedding itself somewhere in the Chandigarh soil (architectural historian William JR Curtis); Corbusier’s constant engagement with behaviour and human psychology, and how deep inside, he had his own theory which no one spoke about (BV Doshi), his reverence for the sun and his belief in sacredness that led to the Tower of Shadows (architect Shiv Datt Sharma) and his desire of having a ‘vertical’ Secretariat that was opposed (Rajnish Wattas, Academic Convenor of the Conference). The irony that the legalities of Corbusier’s Foundation in Paris were completed just a few months before his death (architect Rahul Mehrotra), and how he came to the Chandigarh site in a plane from where he looked down and proudly said, ‘This is where I will plant my city’ (Jagan Shah, Director of National Institute of Urban Affairs, India) were interesting notes too.

There were dialogues on the city’s history, formation, people involved in its realisation, challenges and future, heritage, the Capitol Complex (architect Raj Rewal suggested there should be a Museum of Contemporary Architecture there), its preservation and the ‘risky’ construction of the Governor’s Palace. Le Corbusier’s visions, thoughts, ideas, his ‘Foundation’ works in Paris, his work philosophy, his works and his ‘Brutalist’ style (discussed by architect Jacques Sbriglio which Rewal preferred to call playful, sublime and spirited) were deliberated on. His influences were discussed and also, how he led generations that seemed almost obsessed by his works and his physical looks too (architect Alfredo Brillembourg). The discussions also touched lightly upon the architect’s role and in turn architecture’s role in society.

‘Heritage walks, competitions, quizzes, lectures, cultural programmes and media coverage encapsulated everyone in the flavour of Chandigarh and Corbusier’

Announcing that UNESCO World Heritage status would be declared on 16 July, Le Corbusier Foundation Director Michel Richard underlined the need for preservation when he said, ‘The Le Corbusier Foundation doesn’t plan to treat Corbusier’s buildings as Museums, at best we can guarantee their permanence.’

In the build-up to this event, monthly talks with citizens were held, thus including them in the city’s decision and urging them to safeguard the heritage. Heritage walks, competitions, quizzes, lectures, cultural programmes, media coverage, treasure hunts like those for the ‘precious’ manhole cover, encapsulated everyone in the flavour of Chandigarh and Corbusier. Thus, the organisers ensured that the need to find and implement answers rang loud and clear in everyone’s ears. In fact, a record number of 1,500 visitors actually visited the illuminated Capitol Complex during the four days of the symposium. The final session was held with the city’s citizens, which was well-thought of, but a little messy. The citizens’ woes regarding lack of solutions for traffic, parking, housing seemed to subdue the genuine offer made by the panellists and organisers to find solutions. An interpreter for this session that was conducted in Hindi, the ‘official language of the nation’, was missed!

Unexpectedly, the 2031 Chandigarh Master Plan (Sumit Kaur & Kapil Setia) that was discussed, seemed ‘more on history than solutions’, as Rewal observed. A number of supplementary events were held with the symposium – a photo exhibition on the Capitol Complex, a travelling photo exhibition on Corbusier’s ‘Inner Private World’, put together by the Embassy of Switzerland, film screenings, guided tours, cultural events and  the presence of French and Swiss Ambassadors to India, that further authenticated the symposium’s attempt to ‘make the difference’. Dainik Bhaskar, a national daily, brought out an exclusive four-page supplement, connecting the citizens to its city and Master.

Curtis stated well when he said that ‘Nehru treated Chandigarh as a national assignment, and not a provincial one’. Sometimes, one wonders if everyone is getting over-obsessed with Chandigarh and Le Corbusier. ‘Leave Chandigarh alone; why should Corbusier only take the ownership of the city, when many other architects also worked on it,’ Curtis asked emphatically. 

Numerous deliberations on the city have happened over the years with much less anticipated outcomes. The question remains: will this coming together translate into concrete solutions and implementations, not on paper only, but on the ground too?

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