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Chandigarh’s buildings and spaces are vividly brought to life by its residents

Bärbel Högner documents daily life in Chandigarh, exploring how the buildings and spaces are colonised

While outsiders often disparage Chandigarh’s geometrical plan as unsuitable for Indian conditions, reactions among the citizens are different

In 1948, three Indian administrators flew in a small aeroplane across the plains of North India in search of a site for a new state capital. They originally came from the west of the ‘old’ Punjab, a large province under British rule, which had been divided between India and Pakistan when the subcontinent gained its independence in August 1947. The partition of British India according to religious majorities had resulted in mass exoduses from both sides: Muslims leaving for Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India.

Since Lahore, the capital of the former Punjab, had been transferred to Pakistan, the administrators were now looking for a place east of the new border in which to create their administrative centre and settle the refugees. Near the Shivalik Mountains, in the foothills of the Himalayas, they discovered an ideal location on a gentle slope between two seasonal rivers. It was dotted with small villages and groups of mango trees.

This selection from the air is a fact often emphasised in accounts of Chandigarh’s founding, invoking the precision and prestige of technology to sanctify the choice of location. And Chandigarh continues to respond exceptionally well to the bird’s-eye view, which, thanks to high-definition satellite images on the internet, can now be enjoyed from almost everywhere on earth.

A view toward the Capitol Complex from an outlying village.  The conical profile of the Assembly was inspired by cooling towers that Le Corbusier had seen and sketched near Ahmedabad

A view toward the Capitol Complex from an outlying village. The conical profile of the Assembly was inspired by cooling towers that Le Corbusier had seen and sketched near Ahmedabad

A view toward the Capitol Complex from an outlying village. The conical profile of the Assembly was inspired by cooling towers that Le Corbusier had seen and sketched near Ahmedabad

The systematic order of the city’s unusual surface is immediately striking: a network of straight roads running through the former farmland, dividing the space into more than 50 neighbourhoods of almost equal size. Huge trees hide parts of the low-rise housing areas, and extended green open spaces are carefully distributed across the planned urban landscape. The effect stands in sharp contrast to most other Indian cities, whose growth over thecenturies has been ‘organic’.

Extensions of the masterplan may be seen to the east and south, where the satellite towns of SAS Nagar and Panchkula have sprung up, replicating or slightly modifying the original urban structure. Clearly visible to the north is the city’s Capitol Complex. To this day an aura of isolation appears to hang over this space - sometimes compared to an ‘acropolis’ - where Le Corbusier positioned his three major creations: the Secretariat, the Assembly and the High Court.

Standing for the first time in the middle of the Capitol Complex, I felt lost. The buildings, juxtaposed by the architect at carefully calculated distances, seemed more separated from each other than united. That day they appeared to be shelters to protect people from the heat. The grass on the plateau was half burnt; barbed wire indicated that entering the Assembly was not possible; nobody was around. The atmosphere reminded me more of a desert than of an administrative district where thousands of government employees were busily at work.

Inside the Assembly chamber

Inside the Assembly chamber

Inside the Assembly chamber

What attracted me most was the High Court: three gigantic piers painted in red, yellow and green supporting a massive roof in the shape of a long vaulted parasol, separated the space designed as the entry, giving it a ceremonial splendour. To the left and right the outer texture of the courtrooms consists predominantly of a net of rectangular sun-breakers.

To enter the High Court through the colourful portico is a privilege of the judges alone. Lawyers and their clients, as well as visitors, have to access the building from the other side. Here I found a few days later the activity I had been searching for. A ramp inside, designed by Le Corbusier as a promenade architecturale, leads to the offices on the first and second floors and to the rooftop.

Employees busily run up and down, pushing their carts loaded with huge towers of files. Lawyers stroll in the shadows of the portico, discussing cases with defendants before entering one of the courtrooms. Their black coats and white shirts make a brilliant contrast to the deep colours of the piers. Though they must be dealing with conflicts and criminals, the building’s rough surfaces of exposed concrete nevertheless exude an atmosphere of civility and elegance.

The Chief Justices’ Court in the High Court. The tapestry was designed to absorb sound from the concrete walls

The Chief Justices’ Court in the High Court. The tapestry was designed to absorb sound from the concrete walls

The Chief Justices’ Court in the High Court. The tapestry was designed to absorb sound from the concrete walls

While adjusting my camera to capture the spectacular view from the top of the High Court toward the Assembly, I noticed a refreshing breeze: the wind was blowing through the irregularly shaped voids along the central supporting wall of the ramp. I remember being surprised at feeling so strongly the principle of cross ventilation, an essential ingredient of Chandigarh’s architecture, widely applied by Le Corbusier and his teams to cope with the region’s heat.

Out of Le Corbusier’s northern trio, the High Court is the building that connects the Capitol Complex most clearly with the city. A constant rush can be observed between its east entrance and the town centre: junior and senior lawyers, their assistants and clients, come and go in buses, auto rickshaws and cars, or on scooters and bicycles to plead their cases. Le Corbusier had envisaged the institution’s duty of implementing justice to be expressed by its massive form symbolising protection. In addition, the High Court’s majestic and archaic appearance makes it a landmark of architecture in Punjab.

‘Some Indian academics see connectivity between Le Corbusier’s masterplan and the ancient architectural tradition’

Typical shopping area in the city centre, with Western brands catering  to the affluent middle-class

Typical shopping area in the city centre, with Western brands catering to the affluent middle-class

Typical shopping area in the city centre, with Western brands catering to the affluent middle-class

Punjabis speak proudly about Lahore, describing the ancient walled city as their former political, economic and cultural centre. The legendary city had been the region’s hub for centuries. Its glamorous architecture of palaces, gardens and tombs was strongly influenced by Mughal invaders. In the course of British rule, an urbane and liberal lifestyle had developed, with educational facilities, a prominent High Court and a culture of art, music, theatre and literature. Losing their ‘Paris of the East’ was a tragedy for all those Punjabis who had to flee to India. Chandigarh, located about 250km north of New Delhi, therefore, not only had to serve as a new administrative capital, but it also had to replace Lahore emotionally.

Chandigarh offered Le Corbusier the chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of building an entire city. Now finally, on Indian soil, he was able to put into practice the Athens Charter’s functional precepts developed in 1933 under his guidance. Chandigarh was to be a city with separate areas for ‘working’, ‘living’ and ‘care for body and spirit’, connected by a dominant road system to ensure ‘circulation’.

The outcome is a rigid masterplan characterised by a strictly rectangular map, positioned on a north-east to south-west axis, according to the region’s prevailing wind directions. Parallel major roads form modules of neighbourhood units of mostly identical size. Yet while outsiders often disparage Chandigarh’s geometrical plan as unsuitable for Indian conditions, reactions among the citizens are different. Many people I spoke to told me that the map was ‘intelligent’ and ‘very easy’, and that ‘one could not get lost’ in this city.

Cricketers in the shadow of the Open Hand monument. This official emblem embodies the idea ‘open to give and open to receive’

Cricketers in the shadow of the Open Hand monument. This official emblem embodies the idea ‘open to give and open to receive’

Cricketers in the shadow of the Open Hand monument. This official emblem embodies the idea ‘open to give and open to receive’

However, it is not only its daily users who have found their ways of adjusting to the allegedly unfamiliar grid. Some Indian academics see connectivity between Le Corbusier’s masterplan and the ancient architectural tradition: the map resembles layouts according to Vaastu Shaastra, the old manuscripts that guided builders for more than 2,000 years on the subcontinent. Chandigarh corresponds with the principles of the Vaastu Purusha Mandala in ‘the correct placement of various activities in the right direction and in suitable zones’. So it not only embodies strong functional concepts, but also Le Corbusier’s philosophy of a city being comparable to a ‘living body’ - with a head, a heart, limbs, lungs and arteries - connecting modern Western ideas with the Indian roots of architecture.

Change has come though, especially as a result of the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1995 and the ‘Knowledge Revolution’ that followed soon after. In a first step, the administration created a ‘planned’ information technology park on the outskirts of the masterplan. India’s economic boom, attributed to the rising consumerism of its middle classes, has brought world-class facilities to the city, first visible in the brand-name stores in the shopping centres.

More shopping malls, movie theatres, five-star hotels and an international airport are on the agenda,according to the municipality’s press releases. Official statistics indicate the number of Chandigarh’s inhabitants today is already double that of its original planned capacity and will reach about two million in 2020 if the current growth rate continues.

Rickshaw-wallahs not only work but live in the space designated as  their stand

Rickshaw-wallahs not only work but live in the space designated as their stand

Rickshaw-wallahs not only work but live in the space designated as their stand

Chandigarh is still an ambitious city. Surveys claim that it has the highest income per capita, the highest number of motorised vehicles per capita and also one of the highest literacy rates in India. The inhabitants are aware of having the privilege of living in one of the richest towns on the subcontinent. The city has evolved as a regional hub for education and health institutions within the North of India.

I often heard that it was an ‘elite city’, and that people were better educated in Chandigarh than in the neighbouring cities. Nevertheless, an estimated one third of the population lives either in one of the still existing villages within Chandigarh’s Union Territory or in slums and labour colonies on the outskirts of the masterplan. They mainly work as ‘service people’, helping to keep the city afloat.

It is obviously difficult to balance the principles of Le Corbusier’s sacrosanct masterplan with the dynamics and demands of recent economic growth in India. Politicians and town planners from all over the world have repeatedly suggested developing a new masterplan for the entire region to form a single metropolitan area, merging the two satellite towns and the original Chandigarh into what is called the ‘Tricity’.Interestingly, the economic changes, followed by demands of some residents for changes within Chandigarh’s urban form, have coincided with a re-evaluation of the city’s modern heritage.

Most residents living in unplanned settlements were forced to move to labour colonies on the city’s outskirts. This colony is the only one left inside the masterplan

Most residents living in unplanned settlements were forced to move to labour colonies on the city’s outskirts. This colony is the only one left inside the masterplan

Most residents living in unplanned settlements were forced to move to labour colonies on the city’s outskirts. This colony is the only one left inside the masterplan

In 1999, over 100 international architects, planners and researchers gathered in Chandigarh to discuss the city’s past as well as its future. The topic of heritage has been hotly debated since then: how to preserve Le Corbusier’s monumental buildings, whether to join the application of a trans-border nomination for recognition of his work as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, how to deal with the smuggling of furniture, and - first and foremost - how to protect the character of the horizontal city in the context of continuous migration.

‘Chandigarh can be seen as the representation of a specific kind of “Indianness”’

The majority of Chandigarhians I spoke to love their ‘City Beautiful’, as they like to call it, though its urban flavour is different from that of other Indian cities. I assume that it is exactly this difference that has shaped the identity of the locals and helped them to develop a sense ofbelonging. Yet tragically, Chandigarh’s success in terms of quality of life, rooted in a configuration of spaces and amenities adopted from Western ideas, has led to the relegation of the city’s poor.

Festivals in the open spaces are a feature of Chandigarh

Festivals in the open spaces are a feature of Chandigarh

Festivals in the open spaces are a feature of Chandigarh

Notwithstanding this limitation, however, Chandigarh can be seen as the representation of a specific kind of ‘Indianness’. Whether listening to Sufi musicians, dancing and drumming in the City Centre, or watching an enactment of the Ramayan epic on a plot of community ground, you sense the city is a powerful fusion of modernity and tradition. Indian historian Ravi Kali has been very critical of these two separate cultures in Chandigarh - the one of buildings and the other of people. But I would prefer to use the words of senior advocate Harbhagwan Singh, whom I interviewed on my first visit and who commented that in his eyes Chandigarh was a ‘a hybrid city’.

What attracted me to Chandigarh was not simply its architecture, but its synthesis of Indian social life with modernist buildings. The High Court is a good example: people seem to simultaneously respect and ignore this highly specific architecture. They have adapted and appropriated the newly built environment shaped by the artistic vision of a foreigner. And they have filled it not just with life, but their own and Indian life.

This is an edited extract from Chandigarh: Living with Le Corbusier by Bärbel Högner, Jovis, £32. For more articles on Chandigarh browse our website.

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