[Urbanstudy] Chandigarh stands today as a warning to those who aspire to build smart cities in India.

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Mon Jan 15 07:53:40 CST 2018


Seventy years on, Chandigarh hasn’t lived up to Corbusier’s expectations or
Nehru’s boastsChandigarh stands today as a warning to those who aspire to
build smart cities in India.[image: Seventy years on, Chandigarh hasn’t
lived up to Corbusier’s expectations or Nehru’s boasts]Narinder Nanu/AFP
7 hours ago
Harshavardan Raghunandhan


In the immediate aftermath of Partition, between resettling refugees,
drafting a Constitution, and grappling with military challenges from
Hyderabad to Kashmir, India would inaugurate a new tradition of urban
planning to complement this dizzying mix. In 1948, the government of (East)
Punjab – administratively disoriented with the loss of Lahore to Pakistan –
announced its intention to build a new provincial capital. With Jawaharlal
Nehru’s blessing, by 1964, this proclamation amounted to the construction
of Chandigarh, a full-fledged city the size of Paris designed by leading
architects of the day, and inaugurated to widespread acclaim.

In Norma Evenson
<https://www.amazon.in/Chandigarh-Norma-Evenson/dp/0520003950> and Ravi
Chandigarh by chance fell into the hands of the Swiss-French architect
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. An initial search
by PN Thapar and PL Varma, the two bureaucrats deputed to lead the project,
turned up few Indians, compelling them to look to Europe. Centuries of
colonial urban planning, the bureaucrats reasoned, had hollowed out Indian
traditions. Le Corbusier, then perhaps the most famous architect in the
world and widely acknowledged as a founding father of modernist
architecture, only came into the picture when his name was suggested by the
British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, his colleagues at CIAM, the
European modernist architecture collective. The addition of Le Corbusier to
the Chandigarh project would only add “honour and glory”, Fry promised, and
elevate its status from a provincial capital to one of the great cities of
the world.

To Thapar and Varma’s surprise, Le Corbusier, spurred by the promise of
constructing a grand capital city of his own, signed on to the project,
accepting an annual retainer fee of £3,000, ten times below his usual
price. That Le Corbusier and his team would do much of the planning for
Chandigarh in Simla, where Sir Cyril Radcliffe had three years before
partitioned Punjab into two, could only have come as sweet solace for
Thapar and Varma. The two bureaucrats were among the thousands uprooted
from Lahore in 1947. Their conception of a capital city demanded more than
a mere administrative centre. Chandigarh would amount to panacea and
recompense for the loss of Lahore.
[image: The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul
Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]]
Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia
Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]

To Nehru, it would testify to his constitutional and cultural vision: “Free
from the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions”, the prime
minister remarked, and in concert with the movement of world history, “let
this new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the
traditions of the past… [be] an expression of the nation’s faith in the
A model city

Chandigarh – perhaps India’s first ever “smart city” – would be organised
according to a grid plan, divided roughly into 60 square-shaped sectors,
each 960,000 square-metres in size, with the farthest points of a sector a
10-minute walk away from the other. The city’s functions – administrative,
commercial, educational, and residential – would operate independent of one
another in specifically designated sectors. Roadways were classified into
seven categories, from V1 (principal avenues and thoroughfares for
vehicles) to V7 (pedestrian-only parkland paths).

With Nehru’s backing, Le Corbusier saw through legislation that froze land
use in the city according to the vision outlined in the original grid plan,
with most of the city reserved for the bureaucracy. There would be no room
for industrial or military activity in Chandigarh, both of which Le
Corbusier saw as noisy aberrations taking away from the serene
administrative aesthetic being developed.
[image: An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of
Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP]An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing
before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP

The city’s centerpiece was its administrative nucleus – the Capitol
Complex, consisting of the state assembly, secretariat and high court
buildings. Set before a picturesque backdrop of the Himalayan foothills,
all were built with raw concrete to monumental scale, rivalling only the
herculean dimensions that Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had conceived for
New Delhi four decades earlier. The buildings, grid plan and “Open Hand”
symbol meant to symbolise the new city, came out of decades of
experimentation in Le Corbusier’s native Europe. To Thapar and Varma’s
delight, one could spot the hallmarks of Le Corbusier’s work in Marseilles,
Paris and Ronchamp in the buildings of the Capitol Complex. The grid plan
and the “Open Hand” contained ideas originally developed for urban plans in
Moscow and Amsterdam.

Part of Le Corbusier’s immediate acceptance of the commission to design
Chandigarh lay in his frustration at not being able to do the same in
Europe. Fascists and Communists alike had rejected his plans for monumental
cities between the two World Wars. By supreme irony, Le Corbusier’s most
enthusiastic client would come in the form of a prison-tested postcolonial
democrat, Nehru. “It is the biggest example in India of experimental
architecture,” Nehru would say of the Capitol Complex. “It hits you on the
head and makes you think. I like the creative approach, not being tied down
by what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms… In the
ultimate analysis, a thing which fits in with the social functions is
The future by design

Seven decades after Chandigarh was first mooted, this ambition appears to
have been optimistic at best. Beyond a handful of Corbusier-inspired Indian
architects, Chandigarh does not hold the popular imagination of India the
way a pop-culture metropolis like Mumbai, or a pilgrimage centre like
Tirupati, does. The city mostly serves bureaucrats and ministries for whom
Le Corbusier had deliberately cordoned off most of the grid plan. The grid
plan’s strict emphasis on separating city functions meant that, outside
career bureaucrats with no particular attachment to Le Corbusier’s ideas,
few would be allowed into the city to live, work, and imagine a place for
themselves within it.

To complicate matters further, in 1966, the city was enveloped by
long-simmering Hindu-Sikh antagonisms that created Haryana out of Punjab.
Forced to host two state governments with competing priorities
 and competing claims
<http://www.dailypioneer.com/nation/punjab-haryana-fight-over-capital.html> to
its territory, Chandigarh’s prospects periodically came under strain
rendered the city administratively impotent. To most outsiders, Chandigarh
appears a modern-day monumental fossil around which squatter settlements
and the satellite towns of Mohali and Panchkula have arisen. In these
places, people have built as they please and loudly disregarded Le
Corbusier’s land use restrictions. Only urban planners planning similarly
rigid, regimented grid plans for capital cities in Gandhinagar and
Islamabad have cited Chandigarh’s example, and organised their cities in
similar fashion. Neighbourhoods here are known not by historical or
cultural markers but by numbers and letters.
[image: The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot
Singh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]]
Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot Singh/Wikimedia
Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In a contemporary Indian landscape awash with ambitious smart city schemes
the Amaravati
city project in Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh’s example is particularly useful
when assessing just how far a well-planned and well-intended urban project
by renowned architects, can go in breaking with the past, anticipating how
design strictures will affect a city’s future growth, and developing an
urban consciousness. In Chandigarh’s case, plan and monument alone could
not guarantee a city in full.
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