Architecture

CHANDIGARH

One of many clichés about India is that it is a country defined by chaos bordering on anarchy. If that feels true in certain instances, there’s little evidence of it in the grid city of Chandigarh, which marked its 70th anniversary in 2018. Yes, trying to book an Uber or Ola taxi at the railway station to take you to your hotel can be fraught with stress, as you navigate confounding pickup points and disorderly mixed streams of traffic. But once in the commercial and entertainment district of Sector 17, you are in what was clearly meant to be one of the ultimate purpose-built provincial capitals, with perfectly landscaped gardens and fountains, and a Koyaanisqatsi night-time blur of cars and auto rickshaws moving around the grid system. It is superlative urban planning. The road signage, showing a complex maze of arrows directing you to numbered rather than named neighbourhoods, makes it feel all the more futuristic. And the numbers used have taken on several layers of meaning in the city over the decades. When locals talk about death, they frequently reference someone who has “gone to Sector 25”, where the cemetery is located.

The political history of Chandigarh warrants a book-length study – essentially it was conceived as the new state capital of Punjab after Partition in 1947 – but for architectural students the focal point of a visit is the Capitol Complex in Sector 1. In many ways this is the point of the city itself – a hub of administrative buildings based around an expansive plaza that give Chandigarh its raison d’être. This is also one of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces, a project that saw him channel and refine so many things he had experimented with in the decades before.

When Le Corbusier was approached in 1950 in Paris by Indian officials to work on the Chandigarh project, it was to step into the position made vacant by the death of Polish architect Matthew Nowicki, who had been developing plans for the city with his American colleague Albert Mayer. Mayer had withdrawn from the commission, which left Le Corbusier with what seemed to be free rein to reshape what was on the work in progress blueprints. Instead of the fan-shaped urban plan that had been suggested, he created a grid, with pedestrian and bike paths, and key areas of park space. This would still be, as previously envisioned, very much “a garden city”.

The Capitol Complex – consisting of the Assembly Hall, Secretariat, High Court, Museum of Knowledge, Open Hand monument, Rajendra Park and Sukhna Lake – was the focus of Le Corbusier’s attention while he worked both on-site and remotely from the French capital. He wanted to create a series of high-rise residential towers, similar to his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, but officials quashed the proposal. Le Corbusier would eventually turn his back on the Chandigarh masterplan, but not before the Capitol Complex was finished. As flawed masterpieces go, Chandigarh as a whole is more masterpiece than flaw. And while the Capitol Complex is primarily a concrete affair, Rajendra Park represents the start of the otherwise verdant Leisure Valley, which stretches 8kms, out to Sector 53 in the south. It’s also important to note that other architects were crucial to the development of the city, including Aditya Prakash, who worked on much of the commercial district that Le Corbusier is rumoured to have never even visited, and Le Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Jeanneret’s gem is undeniably the angular lotus-shaped Gandhi Bhavan at Panjab University, a museum and archive space devoted to the work of Mahatma Gandhi.

Today the only way to visit the Capitol Complex as a civilian is by joining one of the three daily free tours the city runs – starting out at the Visitors’ Centre, after a scan of your passport and a security check, at 10am, 12pm and 3pm. The first stop is the High Court, where corps of barristers in black gowns congregate beneath the majestic concrete pylons painted in green, yellow and red. The concrete grid façade of this Panavision wonder of a building is striking, but it is the “umbrella of shelter” that the roof design provides that makes it particularly beautiful. Here is a structure designed very much with the elements within which it resides in mind. Indeed, one of the most interesting structures in the Capitol Complex is a relatively small structure, with grids and slats of concretes, which Le Corbusier constructed to test the dynamic of light and shade, in a city that roasts in summer.

Walking across the plaza, you are taken to the Open Hand monument, a striking sculpture intended to represent both peace and reconciliation, and also the “second machine age” that would unite standardized industrial methods with a new kind of humanism. From here, you head to the Palace of Assembly, with its concrete roof, reminiscent of a nun’s cornette, reflected in the man-made lake that runs along one side of the building. Despite being weathered, the building still looks marvellous – although the furniture that used to sit inside it has long disappeared, ending up at auction houses in London and New York, and relocated to penthouses in Manhattan and mansions in L.A.

The highlight of most tours is when you are taken inside the Assembly Hall, which involves handing over all bags and phones at a front desk. Looking at the curved walkways and artfully punctured walls, it is astonishing that a building so radical inside as well as out was ever given the go-ahead for government administration. Today, this kind of architecture would only be countenanced for a landmark museum or gallery, by a city looking to create a marketing icon. But the Assembly in Chandigarh is still a fully functioning government operation. Walking into the Punjab Legislative Assembly Chamber is breathtaking – the colour scheme of acid yellows and green, with a domed ceiling banded in red and covered in strikingly 1950s modernist vast pebble-shaped panels, is like nothing you’ve seen before. The whole thing is so fabulously retro, visually exciting in a way that few architects and designers would attempt today. It is so, perhaps, so ugly that it is ravishing. This, like the buildings that surround it, is the work of a true visionary.


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The High Court is one of the most interesting structures in the Capitol Complex. A relatively small structure, with grids and slats of concretes, which Le Corbusier constructed to test the dynamic of light and shade, in a city that roasts in summer.

Tapestries abound in The Capitol Complex buildings. Le Corbusier’s signature arrangements of colours with symbols and motifs in contrasting shades are an integral part of the architecture.

Walking into the Punjab Legislative Assembly Chamber is breathtaking – the colour scheme of acid yellows and green, with a domed ceiling banded in red and covered in strikingly 1950s modernist vast pebble-shaped panels, is like nothing you’ve seen before.

The Palace of Assembly, with its concrete roof, reminiscent of a nun’s cornette, reflected in the man-made lake that runs along one side of the building.

Looking at the Assembly Hall’s curved walkways and artfully punctured walls, it is astonishing that a building so radical inside as well as out was ever given the go-ahead for government administration.

As flawed masterpieces go, Chandigarh as a whole is more masterpiece than flaw.

The Chandigarh College of Architecture, part of Corbusier’s master plan for the city.

Corbusier adorned the college throughout with his quintessential symbols.

A bird’s eye view of the Secretariat Building in Sector 1.

The Tower of Shadows was designed to study the solar movement. The building served Le Corbusier's thesis that “it is possible to control the sunlight in the 4 corners of a building, play with it even in a hot country and finally obtain low temperatures”.

The Open Hand monument, a striking sculpture intended to represent both peace and reconciliation, and also the “second machine age” that would unite standardized industrial methods with a new kind of humanism.

The Architecture Museum was designed by Architect S.D. Sharma, who trained directly under Corbusier and Jeanneret.

While the Capitol Complex is primarily a concrete affair, Rajendra Park represents the start of the otherwise verdant Leisure Valley.

The parks of Chandigarh meander 8 kms, from Sector 1 out to Sector 53 in the south.

Pierre Jeanneret’s gem is undeniably the angular lotus-shaped Gandhi Bhavan at Panjab University, Sector 14. A museum and archive space devoted to the work of Mahatma Gandhi.

The lotus-shaped structure was meant to evoke the image of a flower floating in a pool of water.

In the Bhagavad Gita scriptures, the quality of the lotus flower to remain untouched by the water and mud of the pond, where it grows, is compared with the quality of a wise and spiritually enlightened person, who performs his duty without any material or emotional desires.

Jeanneret played with pink hues throghout the Gandhi Bhavan’s interior.

Even the recessed handrails echo and play with forms from nature.

Jeanneret designed and built his home in the affluent Sector 5. The city of Chandigarh recently converted it into a mueum showcasing his architecture and furniture designs.

Verandas at the corners of the house are camouflaged with brick screens to ensure privacy as well as protection of the interiors from the scorching summer sun. Here with a Committee Armchair originally designed for the High Court.

Cousins Le Corbusier and Jeanneret on Lake Sukhna.

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Corps of barristers in black gowns congregate beneath the majestic concrete pylons of the HIgh Court painted in green, yellow and red.