More than sixty-five years have passed since Le Corbusier was commissioned by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to fulfil the role of architect and planner for Chandigarh. A bold experiment, Chandigarh broke from tradition to define a new vision for the future of urban living and became one of the twentieth century’s most powerful expressions of modernism. The origins of Chandigarh lie in the 1947 Partition of India, which divided the state of Punjab between India and the newly formed country of Pakistan. Lahore, the former state capital of Punjab, was now situated in Pakistan; therefore a new administrative and political centre was needed to govern the Punjabi territory that remained in India. A sparsely inhabited area of the plains within clear sight of the Himalayan foothills was chosen as the site for a planned city of half a million inhabitants, Chandigarh. The turmoil of Partition combined with the ideals of twentieth-century modernism and the optimism of the postwar era provided fertile ground for architecture and urban planning projects that intertwined political agendas and utopian visions. Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a preeminent figure in the country’s struggle for independence, saw the chance for India to define its future in its own image by formulating a distinctly Indian interpretation of modernity, untethered from the legacy of its colonial past. Paralleled only by Brasilia, the new Brazilian capital designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, Chandigarh stands today as a significant site of architecture that encapsulates the visions of the postwar and postcolonial era. The fact that such a huge scheme came to fruition may not be attributed solely to the ideologies driving Chandigarh’s existence, but also to Le Corbusier’s ability to convince those in the highest political office that his plan and vision must be executed.
The story of Le Corbusier and Chandigarh began in an unlikely location— the Egyptian desert—with a tragic event—the untimely death of Polish architect Matthew Nowicki, whose airplane crashed while en route from India to the United States. Nowicki, in conjunction with American architect and urban planner Albert Mayer, had been appointed master planner and chief architect for the Chandigarh project by the Nehru government. His death led to an immediate search for a replacement. The British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry recommended Le Corbusier for the position on the grounds that he was an architect capable of realising the iconic and symbolic works befitting a new capital. Le Corbusier was initially reluctant to accept the contract given the time commitment a project of such a scale demanded. The eventual resolution involved his cousin Pierre Jeanneret— also an architect—assuming a full-time role based in Chandigarh for the duration of the project, with Le Corbusier visiting for two months of every year.
Great masters of many disciplines were at one time held as visionaries of society’s needs, agents of progress who manifested the directives and visions of leaders. Whether any individual architect or planner is truly capable of understanding the complex dynamics of urban populations is debatable. However, there is always value in revisiting Le Corbusier’s works, particularly Chandigarh, as it remains his largest assemblage of buildings on one site and his most fully realised urban plan.
Great architectural works are born of their era and are inextricably linked to the ideologies of their time. However, visionaries such as Le Corbusier transcended such boundaries with works of singular and enduring significance. Le Corbusier was a master at creating his own original vocabulary of icons, forms, and symbols, culminating in unprecedented spatial experiences, as demonstrated by the Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, and High Court buildings of Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex.
The stories surrounding the creation of Chandigarh and regarding the role of Le Corbusier and of his associates makes a definitive architectural record difficult to ascertain. Oral histories from Le Corbusier’s few remaining Chandigarh associates will surely form part of this record, as will the contributions of scholars of Le Corbusier’s work and those who have passionately dedicated their time over the years to advocate the city’s protection and preservation. It is clear that Le Corbusier designed the Capitol Complex himself: his hand is visible in the harmony of forms, the deployment of symbolic gestures, and the mastery of composition that abounds within the structures and the spaces between them. However, much of the remainder of the city was designed by his colleagues Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew, who were supported in their work by architects M.N. Sharma, S.D. Sharma, and Aditya Prakash, and joined by an emerging generation of Indian modernists (Prime Minister Nehru also appointed the engineer P.L. Varma and the administrative manager P.N. Thapar to represent the Indian government and they were both instrumental in the successful and rapid completion of the plan). Although many great works of architecture are situated outside the Capitol Complex, the compositional poetry so clearly demonstrated within the complex is not always so evident throughout the city.
Chandigarh remains fascinating today not only for the importance of Le Corbusier’s works but also for its patina of time and the changes that have shaped the city in ways he could never have foreseen. The rich legacy of Indian culture has emerged in the adaptation and decoration of buildings, and has imposed its own visual codes. The entrepreneurial nature of Indian society, particularly of the trader and the shopkeeper, has led to the adaptation, for commercial use, of spaces that were only seen as voids by Le Corbusier and his associates. Further, the overpopulation of the city, which was planned for half a million inhabitants but now houses one million, has led to the development of residential areas beyond its original parameters. These areas do not adhere to the codes set out by Le Corbusier’s team. The jhuggi (slum) ubiquitous in many Indian cities today is also making it spresence felt on Chandigarh’s periphery.
Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex has remained somewhat veiled in secrecy since its construction. The 1995 car-bomb assassination of the Punjab chief minister outside the Secretariat increased security concerns, which ensured that the barbed wire fences that surround the Capitol Complex remain to this day. These barriers between the buildings and the people compromise the vision and function of the civic space, although they have contributed to the enigma of Chandigarh, a city that half a century later still has much to reveal, especially through photography. The masterpiece of the plan remains the Assembly, which was completed in 1962 and is both one of Le Corbusier’s most magnificent creations and a building that defines a nation. If there were only one building chosen to represent modern India, surely it would be the Assembly, a worthy addition to an architectural heritage that includes the Taj Mahal, and hopefully its equal in endurance.
Every aspect of Chandigarh was designed and planned. Government complexes, commercial sectors, educational, medical, and research institutions, parks and housing were all planned down to the last detail. Housing makes up the largest body of construction, with fourteen categories of government housing, each with variants, all built according to a hierarchy based on socioeconomic status. Bricks, which were cheaper than concrete and did not require skilled labour while meeting the demands of the climate, became the material of choice for the housing. Most of the housing developments are the work of Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew, but some of the greatest modernist experiments in the design of Chandigarh’s housing developments were undertaken by Jeanneret for the private residences in Sectors 4 and 5. Le Corbusier established the control parameters for the Sector 17 commercial centre, although his associates did have some influence on the final design manifestations. Today, Sector 17 is in noticeable decline as it becomes eclipsed by the malls and cinemas appearing on the city’s periphery, where global brands proliferate in protected, air-conditioned complexes no different from their counterparts elsewhere in the world. There is still a magnificence to Sector 17 even in its marked state of decay, and despite the significant difference between what the architects envisioned and the reality that economic and cultural forces have exerted on it. In a sense the edifices are monuments to a vision of urbanism that never materialised.
Chandigarh has many excellent parks and recreation areas that were created in alignment with Le Corbusier’s belief in the necessity of supporting and enriching the mind, body, and spirit. However, the care of some of these civic spaces is a contentious issue, particularly in the local sector markets and commercial spaces. How this is possible in one of India’s wealthiest city by GDP per capita is somewhat perplexing, although some answers lie in how the city was funded and in its shifting economic tides. Historically, property taxes were not collected from residents of the city, leaving it dependent on financial resources from the Central government in distant Delhi. Today, Chandigarh is a city proud to display its private wealth through property and automobile assets, while the upkeep and preservation of the civic space remains an ongoing issue in need of short- and long- term resolution. A UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, which Chandigarh finally received in July 2016, had eluded the city for many years and for many reasons. This designation reaffirms the city’s status as one of modernism’s finest expressions and it will undoubtedly also assist in preservation efforts.
Chandigarh is also subject to the forces of private interest, which can sometimes come before the needs of the community and the city, often in contradiction with the codes set out by Le Corbusier and his team. The need for economic development and the right of the people to prosper is irrefutable, particularly in the context of an emerging economy where large sectors of society are preoccupied with survival. However, the question remains: Can the twenty-first-century needs of Chandigarh’s population be served by a mid-twentieth-century plan? Le Corbusier’s original plan certainly has it merits and its fair share of faults. This is to be expected of an entity as complex as a city. Perhaps the issue most pressing for Chandigarh and its future is how the current and future administrations can foster the guardianship necessary to effectively develop the original plan to suit the evolving needs of its inhabitants while preserving the integrity and the unique character of the city. Chandigarh also remains a success story from many points of view when considering the unplanned traffic chaos gripping many Indian cities in the throes of rapid development. To many, Chandigarh is the most orderly city in India with its well-planned road infrastructure, easy-to-navigate grid-based layout, and convenient local sector markets.
Some fifty years after Le Corbusier’s death, we live in a world that the architect and his contemporaries could hardly have anticipated. Rapid urbanisation, particularly in the developing world and specifically in Asia— the context in which Chandigarh exists—presents a model of development in which the economic forces of a new industrial revolution transpire to create ever-expanding cities. These new urban landscapes represent a future that seems to have abandoned the all-encompassing planning concepts of twentieth-century modernism and the principles of CIAM, an organisation, of which Le Corbusier was an original member, that created a series of international architecture conferences promoting modernism. Today, a journey through the metropolises of the developing world reveals a landscape shaped more by survival than by visions of the future. Planning and building schemes as coherent as Le Corbusier’s for Chandigarh—or Niemeyer’s for Brasilia—are considerably more challenging to produce in a contemporary context. Today, the political and financial endorsement of such grand schemes seems to have been consigned to the past as the dynamics of population growth meet the sometimes spontaneous and random processes of urban development.
Photography has the potential to communicate wider truths about the built world and to reveal the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that unite in today’s cities. Chandigarh tells a story in which the architectural visions of a great master meet the political visions of a postcolonial society. Much has been written of this convergence, but the most pertinent commentary is one that not only observes the intentions behind Chandigarh’s plan but also promotes a dialogue about how the plan has developed beyond these intentions. This book uses photography as a medium to inform this dialogue by providing a comprehensive yet visceral journey through a remarkable modernist landscape. A desire to promote reflection rather than to draw conclusions is at the core of this photographic narrative, and balances the book’s content between the magnificent, the iconic, and the neglected. These characteristics not only offer rich visual content but also frame the necessary debate about Chandigarh, where it stands today, and where it will stand in the future. Viewing the work of Le Corbusier through the camera celebrates and pays homage to the architect himself, while exploring the improvised and unintended elements that have shaped the city despite his plans, as well as the patina of time that has settled over it, reveals the cultural and political dynamics underlying Chandigarh’s continuum and ultimately its future.
Extracted from Chandigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn with a foreword by Maristella Casciato (Princeton Architectural Press, £45)