The first city Le Corbusier designed

It’s just over 50 but the idea of Chandigarh is as fresh as when it was first conceived by the famed architect

March 02, 2019 04:21 pm | Updated 04:21 pm IST

Le Corbusier. Photo: AFP

Le Corbusier. Photo: AFP

It is cold and bright. All traces of dawn’s fog have blown away in the wind coming from the lake. Sunlight streams in through the thinning neem and bakayan trees that line a central avenue. The Swiss-French urban planner Le Corbusier had planned Chandigarh for half a million Partition-uprooted people. The population is now 1.2 million and projected to shoot up. Satellite towns are already compressing a city that is all of 115 sq. km. If proof were needed, it’s there in the traffic choking this arterial road.

I walk down an inner lane in the fractured shade of bottlebrush and yellow-flowered tecomas to a pair of low, asbestos-roofed, barrack-like structures. A board tells me this is the Le Corbusier Centre where the architect and his talented team worked to create Chandigarh.

Now more than 60 years old, there is a makeshift quality about everything inside the building. The walls have photographs of old work sites, architectural drawings, correspondence around the city, and black-and-white portraits of Le Corbusier alone or with people like Nehru.

On movement and people

Deepika Gandhi is the director of the centre, where she came two years ago. The co-author of a book on Le Corbusier’s work on Chandigarh, she has brought a new energy to the Centre. Visitors have increased exponentially, and there are regular workshops and seminars on Corbusier’s work.

I tell her I am late for our appointment thanks to the traffic. Gandhi says traffic jams have increased only partly because of more vehicles coming in from neighbouring towns; the other reason is because Chandigarh’s citizens are using the main arterial roads even when they don’t need to. Seeing my puzzled look, she explains that after the sectors were delineated, Le Corbusier connected them all on a grid of roads so that people could move between sectors without using the main roads. The latter were meant largely for inter-city traffic. Gandhi says people must be made aware of this or the grid will remain under-utilised and arterial roads choked.

The Shadow Tower of Capitol Complex. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Shadow Tower of Capitol Complex. Photo: Wiki Commons

Le Corbusier philosophised about urban planning, but Chandigarh was the first and last city he actually designed. Inspired by classical Rome, he conceived of the city as a human body with a head, torso and limbs. The Capitol Complex in the north was the head, the middle was the city centre, the limbs the industrial area.

Beyond the Capitol are the Shivalik hills and then the snow-topped Himalayas. Le Corbusier was particular that nothing should obstruct this view. Between the mountains and the plains was a depression into which water channels carrying runoffs from the hills flowed. A three mile-long mud and brick dam was built to form an artificial lake here. And today Sukhna lake continues as Chandigarh’s favourite promenade.

Sukhna Lake and an overcast sky.

Sukhna Lake and an overcast sky. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Influenced by nature

It’s morning and I am at the Mughal gardens in Pinjore, just outside the city. It is quiet. Le Corbusier used to spend time here whenever he could, and was impressed by the symmetry of the garden, its plants, trees and fountains. Did India’s architecture influence him? The open spaces and courtyard of Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri could have been a prototype for the Capitol. Sawai Jaisingh’s Jantar Mantar certainly lent some motifs, but Lutyen’s Delhi’s imperial coldness clearly did not appeal much to him. What he did bring to Chandigarh were gardens, parks and water bodies. Rows of trees line the streets and shade the housing sectors.

The largest green belt is along the lake, extending into the city. No other Indian city has a garden this size. The Leisure Valley is 8 km long and extends through all the sectors, with a nullah running through the middle that floods during the monsoons.

Water, light and shade are recurring leitmotifs in the city. The architect considered these as the influences that have fashioned our body and spirit. He believed that “towns have snatched men from essential conditions” and therefore sought to re-establish nature in life.

Visitors throng the Zakir Hussain Rose Garden, where more than 800 varieties of roses were on display during the annual rose festival last year. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Visitors throng the Zakir Hussain Rose Garden, where more than 800 varieties of roses were on display during the annual rose festival last year. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

In a sense Chandigarh is designed on two planes. The heart and the limbs are the houses, hospitals, industries and markets where life thrives and throbs. The Capitol with its three monumental edifices is where idealised life is celebrated as in the Acropolis.

Importantly, Le Corbusier democratised the city. Everyone has access to parks, gardens, wide roads and institutions. Buildings are simple with an exposed brick or cement finish. The lower income housing was standardised as two rooms, kitchen and bathroom. This plan was unheard of at the time; today it’s the norm.

A view of Punjab and Haryana civil secretariat building, designed and built by Le Corbusier, in Chandigarh. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

A view of Punjab and Haryana civil secretariat building, designed and built by Le Corbusier, in Chandigarh. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

I stand in the middle of the Capitol and look at the enormous High Court on one end. On the other end is the Assembly, with its curvilinear, moulded finish. Its roof has Le Corbusier’s signature with a cooling tower that somehow seems superfluous. The architect placed cloud-shaped floating panels for the acoustics inside. It symbolised the new industrial India.

The High Court. Photo: Wiki Commons

The High Court. Photo: Wiki Commons

On the plaza is the famous sun dial on Geometric Hill and the wheel and swastika on a winding ramp.

The Open Hand monument. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Open Hand monument. Photo: Wiki Commons

But it’s the Open Hand that transfixes you, with the foothills in the backdrop. Its presence sublimates the Capitol from a utilitarian cluster into soaring art. Its meaning is open to interpretation; Le Corbusier merely said it symbolised both giving and receiving. Beyond the Hand is woodland and then the hills. This is perhaps the point of articulation between the present and the eternal, between man and cosmos.

As I retrace my steps it occurs to me that in its majestic sweep and spiritual scale, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh is comparable perhaps to Hampi, that magnificent capital of another era.

The photography and classical music enthusiast also likes pretending to read and write.

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